- Death & Loss of Life
The Ashes of a Lion's Heart: A Story about Momma
This is not the sort of story I usually share. But in it, there is an epiphany, a realization I feel might help others who are grieving. Writing this page also helped me to remember that epiphany when the same old grief came welling back. I think maybe sharing it and remembering my mother in that sharing is part of my healing process.
Finding a Beginning to the End
My mother had a huge influence over my life. If I were to start right now with the first marvelous thing I remember about my momma and write it down now followed by every bit of joy and beauty she has given me, I wouldn't live long enough to put them all down, not even if I never ate or slept or used the john and lived a hundred years. She was such a giant person concentrated into a single human being. She was such a special being so vast with love and wonders it is almost impossible to choose what to write about her. I know I could probably never do justice to any tale about my momma's life in the short page or two for which I will hold your attention. So I chose to write about a single aspect of her death, molecules made insignificant by the mere fact they were no longer part of Nancy Marie Shay. I chose to write about momma's ashes because, even after she was gone, her life was so big and so strong I can give you an idea of what kind of woman she was just by telling the story of her ashes.
I could start the story of the ashes of Nancy Shay with her death near the dawn of a cool March morning, days or hours after she had already left, but that would fill too many pages. Instead, I'll start with the day the funeral home called to say her ashes could be taken home.
My father and I were inside the house they had shared together for many years, sitting on the love seat and blue recliner they'd sat next to each other in for so many days after her heart surgery when she could not comfortably sleep in a bed. Quite likely we were discussing philosophy or science, just as we always had when I was a child. We had already discussed what we would do when we got my momma's ashes. When we'd done that, he'd held a photograph of my mother and he, taken back in 1959. They were both dressed for a night out and my momma was looking a little chubby in her purple-blue dress, pregnant with my eldest brother. They both glowed with life even though the photo was faded and old. My young daddy's eyes were filled with wonder and joy. My young momma's smile was full of gladly-made promises and so full of life it made the Madonna's look old and tired. In the photo, they were so clearly in love and just mad about their lives. It was the photo he'd chosen to go on the container of ashes when it came.
I told him it was the perfect picture because that's exactly how I saw momma, too. Not young and dewy-faced, but glowing with love. Always. Even in that last precious, washed-out blue-eyed smile, momma gave everyone it was ever directed at the full measure of everything she was, no bit of her heart held back. It is brave to love so thoroughly and without reserve. Momma had the heart of a lion. I knew it from the moment I knew anything at all. Lying on the breast of that lion I was safe and loved in a way that defined the very meaning of love. She radiated primal love, the sort that was born millions of years ago and grew not in years or decades or even in millennia but in eons and ages until it dispensed from her heart in a depthless gentle flood.
The phone rang on the wall next to me but my father answered it. He drove by himself to the funeral home to have a few minutes alone. He brought home a box so small I could barely believe it was all that was left of my momma.
We both went out to spread momma's ashes around the flower garden my father had lovingly planted and surrounded with paintings, sculptures, and other artworks he'd made for her with his own hands. We called it her garden but we both knew it was his heart laid on the ground at her feet and filled with the most beautiful gifts he could find or make to give her. I took the second small and tentative handful of grey gritty ashes, sprinkling it beneath a strong young rosebush. I felt like clasping its sturdy, thorny branches until the blood flowed, mingling with the ashes in my palm but I did not for the same reason I held back my tears and stripped the pain from my voice before speaking; I wanted to do absolutely nothing that might upset my grieving father. I later realized I just wanted to physically recognize that we were spreading a part of me in the garden that day, leaving tiny bits and pieces of me behind irises, between daffodils, and even under honeysuckle and rosebushes. There was no need to add mere blood to what I had already lost; the thorns growing inside my chest were sharp enough that day for the pain to clear my head.
Soon the plastic-lined box was half full and I felt completely empty. We both stopped taking ashes. Half of her ashes were to be saved; to sit on my dad's television set in a container with that lovely photo from 1959 on it waiting for the day his ashes could be mixed with hers. It won't matter to dad where we sprinkle them or even if we don't, he just wants them mingled together, to be one again in death as they were in life.
I stood there in front of their house, grit that was once my momma on my hand, watching as my dad sealed up the container of ashes, closing the plastic inner bag absurdly with a twist tie. The whole world narrowed to the light dusting of ash on my right hand. I almost brushed the tiny particles on my sweater, unconsciously trained by many years of wearing a work apron. But I stopped and thought for a moment. I just couldn't wipe momma's ashes on my sweater like dust or wash them down the drain of her kitchen sink like regular old dirt. I knew logically that absolutely nothing of my mother existed in those bits of dust but still I licked the ashes carefully from my fingers and the creases in my palm, yearning to keep the tiniest part of her as close to me as possible.
For a time, the whole world tasted like ashes, but eventually I came to see all the wonders my mother had given me, that I still have inside me, made the pain of losing her, like the pain of childbirth, a worthwhile pain to go through. It took me a long time to recognize that the pain of grief was just a weak, tiny thing compared to the love she had poured into me. The strongest parts of me were created by my momma with powerful, beautiful memories laid carefully in place like the bricks of the sturdiest house. The bricklayer is gone but the bricks are still there and only she could have laid them down in such a way.
She was Nancy Marie Shay and not much of her is left, only the very best of me and the very best of everyone she else she loved with her lion's heart.