Category Archives: Motherhood

Leave A Little Light On

My mother was fond of indirect lighting. Small, attractive lamps nestled in various corners of her home. She also kept an electric candle shining all night, every night, in her front window. This is a tradition of welcome she loved, so that anyone who passed by in the dark would feel less lonely and lost.

This song resonated with me because it’s about transition, specifically dying and being born. We are tethered to life by an invisible string that eventually breaks. And miraculously, mysteriously, life takes shape and emerges as well. It’s been a little over four months since Mom died. I miss her.

If the video doesn’t work, here is the link.

Pandemic Prayer

In memory of Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro
10/6/1933 – 3/16/2020

mom garden 1966

Pandemic Prayer

We are not all left standing when the war has ended.
It feels like the end times.
For many, it is.
Inhalation is our first act of embodiment.
Exhalation, our last.
One lifetime, millions of breaths
a conversation with all existence.
Where does the spirit go when we die?
Hail Mary, my gentle Momma,
You left; you gave up your breath
before the virus could steal it.
You waged a long campaign to stave off
cancer, old age, and death.
Emancipating your breath
you added the gift of your spirit to all.
Holy Mary, you released your body,
returned to Earth, our suffocating Mother,
in respiratory distress for decades.
Humanity is a virus choking
and drowning our source of life.
When the host dies,
the virus dies too.
Momma, you returned to our Mother
so you could garden with Her,
to try to heal us all.

–Kathryn Harper

Release

My Mom was buried today. I couldn’t be there. This song came to me. She loved this type of music. I think it’s what she would probably say…

Release

Don’t Think You Can’t See Me
Don’t Argue Amongst Yourselves
Because Of The Loss Of Me
I’m Sitting Amongst Yourselves
Don’t Think You Can’t See Me
Don’t Argue Amongst Yourselves
Because Of The Loss Of Me
I Haven’t Gone Anywhere
But Out Of My Body
Reach Out And You’ll Touch Me
Make Effort To Speak To Me
Call Out And You’ll Hear Me
Be Happy For Me
Ag Trasna An Linn/Going Across The Pool
Ag Feachaint Síos Tríd/Looking Down Through
Níl Aon Iarann I Mo Chroí Inniu/There’s No Iron In My Heart Today
Ag Oscail An Síol/Opening The Seed
Ag Feitheamh An Scéal/Waiting For The Story
Níl Aon Airgead I Mo Phóca Innui/There Is No Money In My Pocket Today
I Mo Phóca Innui/In My Pocket Today
I Mo Phóca Innui/In My Pocket Today
Innui/Today
Don’t Argue Amongst Yourselves
Because Of The Loss Of Me
I Haven’t Gone Anywhere
But Out Of My Body
Reach Out And You’ll Touch Me
Make Effort To Speak To Me
Call Out And You’ll Hear Me
Be Happy For Me
I Mo Phóca Innui/In My Pocket Today
I Mo Phóca Innui/In My Pocket Today
Innui/Today

The Family

Dear Mom,

You shared with me the two poems you would like read at your services. I have always hoped that I would also be able to read this poem for you. With you, there was always forgiveness. Nourishment of the body and soul. Acknowledgement of despair and pain, balanced with appreciation for small treasures and moments of beauty. All of this was connected, part of the family of things. This poem is for you.

Love,
Wesa

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver

PSX_20191011_184233

Sweet Connections

one serving every day

My mother had a sister who was two years younger than she. My Aunt Reta. The evening of February 27, 2019, eleven days after her 83rd birthday, Reta decided she wanted a bit of ice cream. She got out of her chair to go to the kitchen, and she collapsed. She died of a heart attack.

Last Monday, March 16, my mother was feeling very unwell and in pain (she was terminally ill). She did not want any supper. My father asked her if she wanted some ice cream. She replied that yes, that sounded good. My father helped her to the dining room chair. Before he could get the ice cream, she began to fall over. He caught her, helped her to the floor, called 911 and a neighbor. She died shortly after.

I like to think they are enjoying ice cream together in a parallel universe.

Mourning My Mother

bleeding heart

Bleeding hearts from my parents’ garden

During this school-at-home time, Claire and I decided that our science will be to re-watch Cosmos, presented by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. She last saw it about six years ago. We watched the first episode, about the origin of the universe, and how we are star stuff.

Mom loved knowledge. She loved learning things. She was curious. She loved the natural world and science. We often talked about the mystery of what we were before we were born, and what happens after we die. What were we? How do we become conscious? As I listened to Neil describe the marvelous scale of time, I cried. Just steady tears, not big crying.

My teacher advised me to make a ritual, to follow the mourning practice of Zen Buddhist tradition (which is my practice). She recommended that I chant a sutra (doesn’t matter which one) every day for 7 days, and dedicate it each time to my mother, announcing her full name. Then to do this practice on the 14th, 21st, and 49th day of her death. I chose two: the Daihishin Darani, which is a Japanese chant to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the Heart Sutra (below).

I don’t typically light candles in the house, nor do I burn incense; the scent overwhelms other family members. But then I realized I have the perfect ritual. My daily cup of coffee. Mom loved black coffee, as do I. So I make my pour-over coffee, paying attention to each detail. I talk to Mom as it brews. Once it’s ready, I sit down with coffee and my chant book. I take a sip. Then I say, “I dedicate this sutra to Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro” and begin. I choke on the words as my throat thickens. But I do it, and I don’t think overly much about it. It’s not necessary to think. It’s perhaps even detrimental. The process brings a wisp of peace.

I love you, Momma. I miss you.

MAHA PRAJNA PARAMITA HEART SUTRA

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain,
O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness is no other than form;
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form;
Sensation, conception, discrimination,
awareness are likewise like this.
O Shariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness,
not born, not destroyed;
Not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain;
So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation,
conception, discrimination, awareness;
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena;
No realm of sight . . . no realm of consciousness;
No ignorance and no end to ignorance . . .
No old age and death, and no end to old age and death;
No suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path;
No wisdom and no gain. No gain and thus
The bodhisattva lives prajna paramita
With no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance, therefore no fear,
Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana.
All past, present, and future Buddhas live prajna paramita,
And therefore attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
Therefore know, prajna paramita is
The great mantra, the vivid mantra,
The best mantra, the unsurpassable mantra;
It completely clears all pain — this is the truth, not a lie.
So set forth the Prajna Paramita Mantra,
Set forth this mantra and say:

Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate!
Bodhi svaha. Prajna Heart Sutra.

Hope For Spring

I grew up going camping all over the U.S. My parents loved camping and instilled it in me. My mother loved growing things. She was a master gardener. She had hoped to make it to see one more spring. This poem is another one she would like read at her service.

Spring

I said in my heart, “I am sick of four walls and a
ceiling.
I have need of the sky.
I have business with the grass.
I will up and get me away where the hawk
is wheeling,
Lone and high,
And the slow clouds go by.
I will get me away to the waters that glass
The clouds as they pass,
To the waters that lie
Like the heart of a maiden aware of a
doom drawing
nigh
And dumb for sorcery of impending joy.
I will get me away to the woods.
Spring, like a huntsman’s boy,
Halloos along the hillsides and unhoods
The falcon in my will.
The dogwood calls me, and the sudden thrill
That breaks in apple blooms down country
roads
Plucks me by the sleeve and nudges me away.
The sap is in the boles to-day,
And in my veins a pulse that yearns and goads.”
When I got to the woods, I found out
What the Spring was about.

–Richard Hovey

two medicine

Two Medicine, Glacier National Park

Why You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral

There’s a short essay on the Internet about why one would want to have a physicist speak at one’s funeral, by Aaron Freeman. I find it comforting to a degree. Yet today I also found Anonymous’ response to it that resonated. We only have what is present in front of us, yet somehow the unboundedness and connection suggested here brings me comfort.

“If I had a physicist speak at my funeral, I would hope that he would talk about a lot more than the conservation of energy. I don’t particularly care about what happens to my energy.

If I am lucky, he will speak about relativity. My family will probably have the mistaken intuition that only things in the present are truly real. Teach them about spacetime. They need to know that time and space are connected – that me being in the past is just like me being far away. The difference is that we will only have one way communication. Even if they will no longer be able talk to me, I will still talk to them through memories.

If I am not so lucky, he will speak about quantum mechanics. If I die young, my family will be grieving over the potential future I have lost. Teach them about many worlds. They need to know that our world is constantly splitting – that just before I died, the world split off a different future in which I am still alive. There is another world, just as real as our own, in which I survive. This world will even interact with our own in very tiny ways.

I want a physicist to speak at my funeral. I want everyone to understand that my continued existence is way more verifiable than a religious afterlife and way more substantial than a simple conservation of energy.”

Anonymous

A Message From My Mother

In recent conversations, Mom shared with me several poems she would love to be read at her service. Since we don’t know when that will be, due to travel restrictions and pandemic, I thought I’d share here. This is the first one.

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

–Mary Elizabeth Frye

MacKerricher State Park 2019

mackerricher state park

Transition

My mother, Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro, died today. She was 86 and had two types of cancer. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma — her third experience with melanoma. She began Opdivo, an immunotherapy. It was her good fortune that she fell into the 30% for whom the treatment worked. It shrank her tumors to almost nothing. About a year ago, her breast cancer returned. She had a lot of arthritis, mobility issues, and pain. Yet she kept going as long as she could with the Opdivo, because she wanted to contribute to the research on the treatment for the sake of others. The breast cancer returned, though, and she knew she didn’t want aggressive treatment for it. Her body was struggling enough with side effects and ailments.

Mom was getting close to entering hospice. We had imagined more time, a gradual decline, a process where we could see her again and say good-bye. Something happened inside her yesterday that led to a swift end. She is no longer suffering. I had talked to her three days ago, and I am so glad I did. We lived 3,000 miles apart, and for now I must stay put. I live in an epicenter of Covid-19, am sheltering-in-place, and am in a vulnerable group. I don’t want to get it, and I don’t want to carry it to my siblings or my 89-year-old father. I spent a lot of time saying good-bye to my mother over the years, connecting with her, resolving things between us. I grieved some. Yet nothing prepared me for how this is, how it feels. The finality. May we all be peace; may we all be free from suffering.

Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro / October 6, 1933-March 16, 2020

Syracuse 2016

Photo taken April 2016 with my daughter

Aglow

A long time ago I stopped trick-or-treating. I remember taking my brother when I was about 16, but I stopped dressing up and getting treats at age 12. My daughter is 12 this year, and her desire to roam door to door hasn’t waned, in part because I’ve been an enthusiastic participant celebrating vicariously through her! And also because she has friends who want to go. However, this year I’ve been ambivalent toward Halloween. Didn’t really want to decorate; my daughter helped. Didn’t want to carve a pumpkin. However, Claire said she would be sad if there wasn’t a jack-o-lantern this year. She asked me to carve an Owo face. Being an uncool parent I had no idea what this meant, so she drew it for me. As it turned out, once I got started with the cutting and scooping, I felt calm enjoyment in the project. So here is the Owo pumpkin with its hat and without. Happy Halloween!

Owo pumpkin
Owo pumpkin aglow

Middle School

Listening to my daughter talk about her feelings and the dynamics of kid interaction at school, I realize the following:

  1. Middle school is “Lord of the Flies” harsh even when it’s a good school;
  2. People can be really judgmental, including my kid;
  3. A middle schooler wants more than anything to be accepted; the hardest thing to do is to befriend someone who is an “outcast,” because you risk your own social safety;
  4. I suck at listening, despite being a psychotherapist (psycho therapist?);
  5. All my childhood wounds are activated;
  6. I have to WORK REALLY HARD to keep my mouth shut, my heart open, and to accept I do not have control over this.

BEING PRESENT with someone else’s suffering, especially when that someone is the most precious treasure of my life, is the hardest soul task I’ve encountered.

Bleeding Heart

bleeding heart

Bleeding Heart

My heart is bleeding. It bleeds upward and fills
my mouth up with salt. It bleeds because of a city in ruins,
the chair still warm from sister’s body,
because it will all be irreproducible. My heart
bleeds because of baby bear not finding mama bear and it bleeds
to the tips of my fingers like I painted my nails Crimson.
Sometimes my heart bleeds so much I am a raisin.
It bleeds until I am a quivering ragged clot, bleeds at the ending
with the heroine and her sunken cancer eyes, at the ending
with the plaintive flute over smoke-choked killing fields. I’m bleeding
a river of blood right now and it’s wearing a culvert in me for the blood. My heart
rises up in me, becomes the cork of me and I choke on it. I am bleeding
for you and for me and for the tiny babies and the IED-blown
leg. It bleeds because I’m made that way, all filled up with blood,
my sloppy heart a sponge filled with blood to squeeze onto
any circumstance. Because it is mine, it will always bleed.
My heart bled today. It bled onto the streets
and the steps of city hall. It bled in the pizza parlor with the useless jukebox.
I’ve got so much blood to give inside and outside of any milieu.
Even for a bad zoning decision, I’ll bleed so much you’ll be bleeding,
all of us bleeding in and out like it’s breathing,
or kissing, and because it is righteous and terrible and red.

Carmen Giménez Smith

The Job of Parents

“The job of parents is to model. Modeling includes how to be a man or woman; how to relate intimately to another person; how to acknowledge and express emotions; how to fight fairly; how to have physical, emotional and intellectual boundaries; how to communicate; how to cope and survive life’s unending problems; how to be self-disciplined; and how to love oneself and another. Shame-based parents cannot do any of these. They simply don’t know how.”

–John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You