February 24, 2019

Essay/Memoir by Kit Carlson: "Sometimes the Dead Do Talk"

I am an Episcopal priest and author of the recent "Speaking Our Faith:Equipping the Next Generations to Tell the Old, Old Story" (Church Publishing 2018). I have been published recently in Anglican Theological Review and Section 8 Magazine. I recently attended the Kenyon Writers' Workshop, studying under Afaa M. Weaver.

Sometimes the Dead Do Speak

My mother spoke to me the other night.  Not really my mother – she’s been dead for four years.  And it wasn’t really speaking – I didn’t hear voices, or even feel a sense of her presence.

But my mother spoke to me the other night.

I was wandering around our cottage late at night. It is the closest place we have to a family home.  My parents spent the last years of their lives downsizing into smaller and smaller dwellings. House to a condo. Condo to a senior living apartment.  And eventually, my mother spent her last days in the back bedroom of my sister’s house. There was no family home to sell or clean out or cry over when they died.

But there is this cottage in Michigan, in the Copper Country of the Upper Peninsula.  My mother built it after she inherited some money, and she filled it with artifacts and antiques from auctions and attics, many of them with little notes she taped to the backs so that later, we would know who gave them to her, or what they meant. The cottage is her final masterwork, and we’ve never changed a thing. We’re still likely to open a drawer and find a shopping list in my dad’s handwriting, or a post-it note with directions on how to change the water filter.  

Since my parents died, I have never “felt” them watching over me or being spiritually available. But when I go to the cottage, I feel very close to them.  It’s like going home.

On this particular night, my husband had gone to bed early. I was wandering around the living room turning out lights, when I began complaining to my mother. She was a good person to complain to, because she was anxious and obsessively worried about everybody else in the world and their lives and their happiness and their troubles.  I used to say she would never be able to die unless there was one split-second instant in her life when all three of her daughters were trauma-free. Then at last she could crawl into her coffin and close the lid.

It almost worked out like that, too--our lives were fairly stable when she died.

But that hadn’t lasted long, and now the family was all an uproar. One sister was getting divorced and her children were imploding.  My own daughter had eloped—eloped, for heaven’s sake--at the end of her freshman year of college.  I had no idea why one relationship was crumbling, while another had to be solidified right now.  So, I decided to take it to the Queen Worrier.

I looked at an old black-and-white picture of my mother, aged about twenty-two, that sits on my father’s oaken roll-top desk. “Listen, Mom. Wherever you are, you need to help this family,” I said to her photo. “Can’t you sort these people out? What is happening? Can’t you offer some advice or something here? You--of all people--should want to fix this insanity. If you’re out there in the afterlife, then do something.”

And that’s when my mother spoke. Not out loud. Not like she was even in the room. I didn’t hear her voice.  But a statement appeared in my head, and I knew it was Mom:

“I lived my life and it’s over. Parts of it were hard, and parts were good, but it was my life to live, and now I’m done.  Your sister has her own life to live. Your daughter has her own life to live. You have to live your own life, too. I’m done.”

And for a moment, I caught a glimpse of what heaven must be like for my mother.  For a woman who was so wracked with worry and anxiety about everything–-well then, heaven, for Mom, must include this great healing of all her fears and fusions. To be free from trying to fix everyone, no longer needing to micromanage everybody’s relationships.  To love, but not be responsible. “To care and not to care,” as T.S. Eliot said.

She was right, of course.  I can’t live my sister’s life, or my daughter’s life, or anybody’s life but my own, and that is work enough for an entire lifetime. But I still had to get the last word in.

“Well it’s a good thing you’re already dead, Mom,” I said. “Because all this nonsense would kill you.”

~Kit Carlson

Total Pageviews