My mother was a formidable woman. This story is her legacy, and a lesson about the spiritual art of forgiveness. Whenever I tell it, deep gratitude for the gift of her life takes me by surprise, as if I’m experiencing her soul face-to-face for the very first time. Part of the magic of the forgiveness we shared together is that it’s always new for me, no matter how many times I tell her story. In that newness, a bit of grace often gets transmitted to those who hear or read it.
The morning of her death, in the late 1980s, my mother was transported to the basement of the hospital where I worked. She was bleeding internally, and they’d sent her down to radiology to get a fix on the source. She was gone for hours. My worried family, who had gathered in her room to say good-bye, finally sent me to search for her. I found her alone, lying on a gurney, in the hospital corridor. She’d been waiting her turn for an x-ray there, with nothing but the bare walls as a companion for several hours.
I found the doctor in charge and asked if I could take her back to her room. He shook his head from side to side, frowning. “I’m sorry, but she’s bleeding,” he said. “We need a diagnosis.”
My mother, as pale as the sheet she was lying on, colored up a little and raised an eyebrow. “A diagnosis? Is that all you need? You mean to tell me that I’ve been lying here all day just because you needed a diagnosis? Why didn’t you ask me?”
The doctor, who looked as if he’d just seen a ghost, was speechless for a bit. He finally stammered out a weak, “Wh-wh-what do you mean?”
“I’m dying, that’s your diagnosis,” my mother replied with her usual humor. To his credit, the doctor saw her point, and I was able to talk him into letting me take her back to her room. We were supposed to wait for an orderly to do the transport, but she begged me to go AWOL and speed her back to the family before anyone else could grab her. We were finally alone together in the elevator, riding back up to her floor. She looked up at me from the gurney, transparent in the way that small children and elderly people often are. There was no artifice—she was who she was. She reached for my hand, looked into my eyes, and said very simply that she’d made a lot of mistakes as a mother, and could I forgive her? The pain of a lifetime evaporated in that brief journey between floors.
I kissed her hand and then her clammy cheek. “Of course I forgive you,” I whispered through a throat swollen with tears. “Can you forgive me for all the times I’ve judged you, for all the times I wasn’t there for you? I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a daughter, too.” She smiled and nodded at me as tears welled up in her rheumy eyes, once a striking cobalt blue more beautiful than the sky. Love built a bridge across a lifetime of guilt, hurt, and shame.
When we returned to her room, each family member had a few minutes alone with her to say good-bye. Then, as day disappeared into long shadows, and the early spring night fell like a curtain around us, everyone left except my brother, Alan; my son, Justin; and me. We three were the vigil keepers.
Justin was a young man of 20, and fiercely devoted to the grandmother who’d always been his champion. He seemed to know intuitively what a dying person needs to hear—that her life had had meaning, and that she had left the world a little bit better off by her presence. He told her stories of their good times together, of how her love had sustained him. Justin held his dying grandmother in his arms, sang to her, prayed for her, and read to her for much of her last night with us. I was so proud of him.
Unusual things can happen at births and deaths. The veil between this world and the next is thin at these gateways, as souls enter and leave. Around midnight, Mom fell into a final morphine-assisted sleep. Justin and I were alone with her while my brother took a break. We were meditating on either side of her bed. But I was awake, not asleep; perfectly lucid, not dreaming. The world seemed to shift on its axis, and I had a vision, which if you’ve ever had one, you know seems realer than real. This life appears to be the dream, and the vision a glimpse of a deeper reality.
In the vision, I was a pregnant mother, laboring to give birth. I was also the baby being born. It was an odd, and yet a deeply familiar, experience to be one consciousness present in two bodies. With a sense of penetrating insight and certainty, I realized that there’s only one consciousness in the entire universe. Despite the illusion of separateness, there’s only one of us here, and that One is the Divine.
As the baby moved down the birth canal, my consciousness switched entirely into its tiny body. I felt myself moving down the dark tunnel. It was frightening, a death of sorts, as I left the watery darkness of the womb to travel through this unknown territory. I emerged quite suddenly into a place of perfect peace, complete comfort, and ineffable Light of the sort that people tell about in near-death experiences.
The Light is beyond any kind of description. No words can express the total love, absolute forgiveness, tender mercy, Divine bliss, complete reverence, awesome holiness, and eternal peace that the Light is. That Light of Divine love seemed to penetrate my soul. I felt as though it had seen and known my every thought, motive, action, and emotion in this life. In spite of my obvious shortcomings and terrible errors, it held me in absolute gentleness, complete forgiveness, and unconditional love as you would a small child. I knew beyond question, cradled in the Light, that love is who we are and what we are becoming.
Scenes of my mother and me together flashed by. Many of these scenes were of difficult times when our hearts were closed to one another and we were not in our best selves. Yet, from the vantage point of the Light, every interaction seemed perfect, calculated to teach us something about loving better. As the scenes went on, life’s mysterious circularity came clear. Mom had birthed me into this world, and I had birthed her soul back out. We were one. I was reborn at the moment of her death—bathed in love, forgiveness, and gratitude. I thought of the words of St. Paul, that we see through a glass, darkly. For a moment I was granted the gift of seeing face-to-face.
When I opened my eyes, the entire room was bathed in light. Peace was like a palpable presence, a velvety stillness, the essence of Being. All things appeared to be interconnected, without boundaries. I remembered how my high-school chemistry teacher had explained that everything was made of energy, of light. That night I could see it. Everything was part of a whole, pulsing with the Light of Creation. I looked across my mother’s dead body and saw my son sitting opposite me. Justin’s face was luminous. It looked as though he had a halo. He was weeping softly, tears like diamonds glinting with light. I got up and walked around the bed, pulling a chair up close to him. He looked deep into my eyes and asked softly whether I could see that the room was filled with light. I nodded, and we held hands in the silence. After a few beats, he whispered reverently that the light was his grandma’s last gift. “She’s holding open the door to eternity so that we can have a glimpse,” he told me.
Continuing to look deeply into my eyes, Justin spoke from a well of wisdom deeper than his 20 years. “You must be so grateful to your mother,” he said. I knew exactly what he meant. I’d been an ungrateful daughter, holding on to years of grudges against my difficult mom. Now my heart was overflowing with gratitude, which was a completely new emotion with respect to her.
It turned out that Justin had also had a vision, which to this day he has kept to himself. But he told me these things there in the hospital room where the shell of his beloved grandmother’s 81-year-old body lay. My mother, he said, was a great soul, a wise being who had far more wisdom than her role in this lifetime had allowed her to express. She had taken a role much smaller than who she was, he assured me, so that I would have someone to resist. In resisting her, I would have to become myself. My purpose in life, he explained—a purpose in which she had played a vital part—was to share the gift of what I’d learned about healing, compassion, God, and self-discovery.
I looked down at the floor to gather myself, and then back into my son’s gentle green eyes. “Can you forgive me, Justin? I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a mother. Do you know how much I love you?”
He took my hand. “Mistakes are made in love’s service,” he whispered.
And then the energy in the room shifted, the Light faded, and we hugged for a long time. Finally breaking away, he smiled and laughed, “Hey, Mom, you wounded me in just the right ways.”
We got up and did a silly little dance together that we saw Ren and Stimpy, the cartoon characters, do one day on television. “Happy Happy Joy Joy!” we chanted as we danced around incongruously in the room of a dead mother, a dead grandmother, whose love we had shared and experienced in very different ways.
“Please remember that you forgive me, sweetheart, ” I reminded Justin a little while later. “I’m sure that I’m not done making mistakes yet.”
In the 20-plus years since we shared my mother’s death, Justin and I have both made mistakes, and we’ve both taken responsibility for them and made amends as best we could. But the grace of mother-child forgiveness, and the sense that we’re here together because we’re learning to love, has made the process much easier. For that alone, I’m so very grateful.