A Bitterness

Mom’s back in town and I took her to see NEM on Monday. She was in really poor shape. She talked about her disappointment at not feeling better and the expectations she’d held close that the Chinese herbs and acupuncture would be more significantly healing. There is also the resentment she feels toward her husband and the motor home trip they took recently that should have been restful and connecting, but wasn’t. She talks sadly about not having the energy to be a better mother to me and says she means in the present. A not insignificant part of me believes she’s wishing she could affect the past by suddenly improving now.

I shared with her what my Zen teachers offer – that clinging to those expectations, even having them in the first place, leads to suffering. My Mom and her expectations, and the suffering of not having them met underlies so many of the selfish decisions she made in my childhood. She wasn’t overtly hostile to this information, just unable to really hold onto the idea of trying to not have expectations.

When I see Mom like this, in terrible physical and emotional pain and so clearly suffering, it is difficult. I feel deep sympathy and compassion for her, I try not to let it slip into pity. I feel anger at her all in the same moment as the love and concern. I hear her regrets, her bitterness, her disappointment and know it is the same thing I’ve been hearing my whole life. It is painful and I struggle to accept, without guilt and shame, that when she is gone I will feel tremendous relief.

I’ve been mulling one of Mary Oliver’s powerful poems. So many of them capture practice, nature and life so well that I just sink into the words. A handful of her poems cut right to the core of suffering and seem to haunt me. One of her poems, A Bitterness, has been resonating with me a lot recently around what I feel about my Mom and the way I see her many cancers as some kind of physical manifestation of all the anger, resentment and bitterness she’s held close to her heart during my life.

A Bitterness
by Mary Oliver

I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery,
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as
your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser
and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful
flowers of the hillsides.

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