In the hours before coming back to consciousness, I was aware of one thing only: the warm and bright glow of love that belonged to a world in that moment removed from me. It came in the image of plump, small-child arms around my neck, those of my babies, all three of them in this moment babies again, their smooth and perfect faces burrowed in my neck. My husband was present too, his beautiful warm hands in mine. It was the most vivid and powerful sweetness—love, love that called me back to consciousness.
It was an anesthesia and morphine-induced trip, and exactly two years later, during the deepest of winters, it has come back to help me.
Winter this year brought with it a psychic winter for me, a slowing far beyond my normal northern-climate hibernation tendencies. I was fully aware that I was mourning the losses that accompanied my cancer treatment, but I slowly became aware that it was more than that. There was of course the abrupt withdrawal of estrogen and all hormones once gloriously energizing. There was the aching and wasting of muscles that once carried me easily, the passing of my youth, the passing of an acceptable quality of hair on my head, an empty nest, and underemployment. It was a feeling of having been tossed into a scrap-yard of sorts, one filled with elderly people lacking the vitality admired by society, the stamina required by employers.
But it was more than that, as my restless insomniac nights and the therapist I’d found slowly taught me. At her suggestion, I added to my toolkit the practice of meditation. What came to me as I stopped for a short time each day to focus on bringing warmth to the sore pocket within was a variation of the vision that had come to me in my post-surgical morphine-induced high two years earlier.
Now, my babies were on my shoulders again, their arms around my neck, but, as is possible only in these deeply relaxed altered states, I was at the same time present on my own mother’s shoulder, my arms around her neck, as was she on the shoulders of her mother, and she in turn on the shoulder of hers, as far back as the eye could see.
We inherit our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers, always, I’ve now learned, and much strength and healing lies in that long, long line of mothers that has gone before us.
My mother’s pain originated in large part with the tanks that rolled through her long-ago home in Germany. These tanks mercilessly scattered the family, leaving a bright-eyed, beautiful, playful young child without the safety and warmth of her mother and her large and safe family, and instead, on the run with one older sibling.
For months they slept in barns and begged a little food, and watched as soldiers poked their rifles into the hay, looking for beautiful young women. In the end, there was simply nothing for them to do with their trauma—they were mere children. So they stored it deep within, in order to survive. And much later, when they’d finally been reunited with their parents and siblings, they left it packed away, and boarded a ship to a far-away country, where they knew nobody and no way to communicate, and for a long time, only years of hard, hard work.
This is what my mother and I, without understanding it, were for so long afraid to see when we looked at each other, this was the substance of a veil that has at times obscured clear sight. What she survived had left a potent biochemical imprint, and the veil through which we looked at each other was a protective one, born of love.
Hope is, as we all know, resilient. My mother married, and her traumatized self gave birth to me, and then to four more children. She and my father made a new life for themselves in sunny and windy southern Alberta. They loved and cared for us and for each other with every ounce of energy human beings can possibly have. They worked endlessly to make ends meet. They built a home with their own hands, quite literally, and grew everything that could possibly be grown in the backyard, and then canned or froze enough to feed us all through the winter months.
We picnicked and went to church and sang and camped and spent long-weekends hiking in Waterton National Park. My mother baked and cooked and hosted guests and learned the language and ways of the new country. She let us make play-tents in the living room, and nursed us through chicken pox and measles and other nameless fevers. And after years and years of babies and growing bodies and hungry mouths, happy times and frightening times and sad times, and finally faced with an empty nest, my parents rallied once again and threw themselves into making blankets for those with none, sending food to the hungry, visiting those in prison. They volunteered at the second hand store, and took care of the babies in the church nursery.
The cold heartless machines that stole childhood from my mother took from my grandmother almost everything too. She came to the new country, but was too tired to learn the new language, and too tired to know where to begin with her vastly altered psyche, and so it, to a large extent, remained raw and sore.
A number of years ago I heard the term epigenetics, and learned that our genes reflect the pain our parents and grandparents lived. And then, in this dark winter that ironically followed a full eighteen months after going into remission from my cancer, I became ever more conscious of how desperately I loved my mother and my own children, how much the protective veil between us has at times blurred our vision, how much I missed looking into their eyes.
What these images were about—the one of the veil, and the one of my babies and my mother and all those many, many mothers and daughters and sons before us—was hope. Hope that on the shoulders of those who came before us, breathing in the divine essence of creation we become able to bear anything and heal those sore spots within.
My mother’s blue eyes have always held nothing but pure love.