The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Caging a Nightingale

Today is my mother’s birthday, or would be if she wasn’t dead.  In honor of her memory, I’m re-posting what I wrote about her last mother’s day.

It being mother’s day, and the entire world conspiring to tell me about it, over and over again, I’ve been thinking a bit about my mum. She died 3 years ago of cancer. I spent her last two weeks by her bed, and she died the night I told her that everyone had come and that it was ok for her to die. By that point she couldn’t speak, and while she didn’t seem to be in much pain, she certainly wasn’t enjoying what was left of her life.

She had lived her life for other people–for me, and for her husband. I don’t know any of her close friends who didn’t think she should have gotten a divorce when I was a young kid, but she didn’t. At that time I’m pretty sure it was because she was threatened with losing me.

But really, the woman she was when I was young died when I was 13. I remember it well. My father had gotten a job with the UN, in Bangladesh. My mother didn’t want to go. As far as my father was concerned, where the husband went the wife went.

In Canada she had a job, as the secretary to the woman who ran the Coquitlam library system. It was the most senior secretarial position in the organization and quite responsible. In her early forties, she looked ten years younger, fit and slim, with dark black hair. She walked everywhere, regularly walking 30 or 40 blocks a day, and while I think it’s safe to say she wasn’t happy, she had a life with some happiness in it.

She went with my father to Bangladesh. I went to boarding school in Vancouver. 4 months later I visited my parents, for Christmas, in Bangladesh. She had no job, no life outside the house. She had loved children, and they loved her, but now she had no child to look after, neither me nor our cousins. Her life was completely her husband’s. My mother had put on 40 pounds, her hair was half gray and her eyes were dull.

She had been broken.

The woman she was had died. Like a man who cages a nightingale in his fist, by not letting it have any freedom, my father had killed what he loved. I don’t know if he ever even realized it, or if he did, if he cared, or if the pleasure of imposing his will made up for it.

The women in my family usually make it to their late 80s and my father was 10 years older than my mother and not in good health. So I always assumed she’d have a good 20 years free. She didn’t.

But she died free.

About 3 weeks before she died, when she knew she had cancer but assumed she had 8 months to a year left, we talked. She told me that she had decided to move out, and that she would never live with him again. I was never so happy for her.

A few days later she collapsed, and never walked again. Then she died.

But she died free.

My wish to you and for myself, then, is this.

Don’t die free.

Live free.


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  1. Marsha

    Oh, my. I don’t really know what to say, but that was a beautiful, loving post.

    Happy Birthday Ian’s Mom! Your son has done you proud.

  2. S Brennan

    Good post Ian

  3. bystander

    Hence the origins of your unflinching view of what is. That ability to stare hard at something and not turn your head, or channel what you see into some kind of “alternative” narrative, rarely springs fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. May your mother rest in peace.

  4. BDBlue

    Lovely post. Really lovely.

  5. Ian, you’ll know the route I took to get here. I’m glad I took it.

    Eliot: “… to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

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