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Transmuting Pain

Today is our 13th wedding anniversary and four months since my mother died. Like most important days since her passing, it's a day filled with joyful memories laced with sorrow. Appropriate that the thirteenth-anniversary gift is lace. My mother's memory now runs through the fabric of our lives like delicate lace. The memory of her sweetly and sadly intersecting with our present.

Her memory doesn't always feel beautiful and delicate; sometimes, it feels like hot coals: painful, searing, dangerous. On the one-month anniversary of her death, I had a hot coals day. I thought the pain would engulf me, that it would somehow possess me, and I wouldn't survive it. My body felt ragged, edgy, and dangerous. My mind, if possible, felt even worse. I decided that I couldn't live like this, that every anniversary, every important calendar date could not unhinge me. The fact that my mother was only alive in my memory could not stop me from living.

So, I did what my teachers told me to do when the pain came. I welcomed it.

Full disclosure, until very recently, I thought this was total bullshit. How is sitting with your pain and welcoming your pain going to do anything? Isn't it just going to make it worse?

Well, yes.

And it somehow makes it better.

I could hear my teacher saying welcome it, feel it, turn it up. So, I sat there feeling utterly miserable; jaw clenched, solar plexes flexed, quivering with anxiety, and I realized I knew this feeling. I had become deeply acquainted with this feeling over the past three years.

Ironically, I most often felt it while sitting with my mother. This was the feeling I had sitting in an oncology waiting room, Tense, nervous, heartbroken, uncertain, praying for a different outcome. I hated this feeling. I hated those waiting rooms.

I hated watching my mother stoic, scared, and hopeful that her brain was not growing more tumors. We would sit side by side, hands intertwined, praying she would not have to undergo a round of radiation that could take away her precious memories.

She worried every time she faced radiation that they would kill off the part of her brain that stored her books, that she couldn't make literary references, and that she would forget her stories. She worried that they would take away her life by keeping her alive. We all feared that the tapestry of her life she had so carefully woven was being unstitched one cyberknife treatment at a time.

My mother kept her books and her memories, and for the last month of her life, she was more herself than she had been in years. Her tapestry was intact and had not become unstitched.

The scariest part about losing someone is the fear of losing their essence. My mother is alive in my memory, and she spoke to me through my suffering. As I sat there feeling uncomfortable, waiting for the pain to pass, I realized my job was not to deny the pain. It was to alchemize it.

I wanted to transform that cancer waiting room feeling; I wanted to bring joy to the space that housed so much fear, pain, and uncertainty.

I e-mailed my mom's oncologist and asked her if I could bring a note of encouragement and an orchid to a cancer patient. Mom's oncologist picked the patient; I would not meet them. I would gift an orchid and write them a letter.

I started writing love letters to my mom when she first started treatment; to tell her I loved her but also to help me process my pain. Now, I am writing love letters to strangers undergoing treatment to honor their path, honor my mother, and help me transmute my pain.

This morning I delivered four orchids, one for my mother and three for friends whose mother's have passed away recently: Barbara Shafranski, Elizabeth Allen Austin, and Wilhelmina Backlund. We started calling the anniversary orchids Sugar Blooms. I have heard back from two Sugar Bloom recipients; we exchange e-mails and pictures, and our families pray for each other.

I look forward to the 23rd of each month now; it no longer feels like hot coals. It feels like communion with my mother. It's still hard, I still miss her, but we are teamed up now, able to transform the pain of cancer into something joyous and bittersweet, even if it's just for a moment.

I never fully appreciated my mother's fear of losing her memories. I am starting to understand.

I worry my memory of her will fade. I fear I'll allow my grief to eclipse the beauty of the tapestry my husband and I are stitching together that holds our family's collective memories and stories.

Then I remember God made us all alchemists. We can turn pain into beauty, loss into love, and bring joy into rooms full of despair.

I have my memories, and the last 13 years hold so much joy, pain, growth, tears, and laughter. On this day, 13 years ago, my mother cried tears of joy as she watched her daughter marry the boy in the blue socks with the great big hyena laugh. Thirteen years later, I am so grateful to and for the man in blue socks whose great big hyena laugh is imprinted on my heart.

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