In her dream, my mother uses a steel crochet hook to extract a shadowy being from between her legs. She relates the dream with typical matter-of-factness and dismisses my tentative interpretation of the womb as a sacred bowl. “Yes, well, be that as it may,” she mutters, banishing what she calls ‘narcissistic navel-gazing.’
She is ninety-one, bedridden at home, and dying of congestive heart failure. My sister and I have wedged a hospital bed into the middle of the living room. A dusty rolltop desk beside the bed holds a china bowl produced to commemorate the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II. It is decorated with black etchings of a lion rampant and a rearing unicorn. The lion faces the unicorn, but the unicorn stares outward as if pleading to escape. The coronation bowl is bone white and heavy. I loathe it.
My young parents received the bowl as a gift when they left Britain in 1953 and moved into the basement of a brick duplex in midtown Toronto. The main floor entrance smelled of boiled cabbage and cigarette smoke. In our apartment, the bowl held pride of place atop my parents’ orange-crate coffee table until the morning that I, an active toddler, grasped the crate and hoisted myself into a standing position. The coronation bowl toppled to the linoleum floor.
Over the years, one parent or the other would evoke the damaged bowl as a reminder of my disruptive ways. I can still finger the sutures where my angry father glued the fragments together. They abrade the skin.
Bowls embody our conflicted relationship with light. I once knew a dairy farmer, Joseph, who discovered a gnarled burl of maple in his woodpile and, on a whim, hauled it across the yard to his lathe. Over time, he perfected the turning of burls into intricately shaped vessels with the delicacy of eggshell. “I rotate each one for weeks,” he said, “sanding it until the wood becomes so thin that the sun shines through.”
My friend Sophia hurled a clay pot filled with dried rice at her wayward husband in a surge of anger. Next morning, she reassembled the pot with epoxy, chagrined to find that a missing piece left a jagged hole. After their marriage ended and he moved in with the other woman, Sophia cast the pot away. “I cannot use it,” she said. “The rice keeps falling out.”
And so it goes. Rumi’s cozy adage – the wound is where the light enters – misses an essential corollary. Wounds are also where the light departs. Once a heart fractures, light can drain away. If we lose a fragment in the process, the hemorrhaging continues. Or, as with the coronation bowl, we can weld the segments into scars so rigid that the heart stops working. Either way, the fault lines remain visible and unforgiven.
What does it take to achieve the kind of fragility that allows light to ebb and flow in balance? The question haunts me. Joseph destroyed scores of burls for every one he transformed. Was each failure a tiny betrayal of hope or a declaration of love?
I was ten when my mother mentioned in passing that she’d become pregnant with me only months into her marriage. The news was “unfortunate,” she said, so she jumped off toppled logs, trying to dislodge the fetus. She halted after a week, because “you were determined to hang on, so I decided to let you stay.”
She divulged this as if sharing a mild joke and showed surprise when I left the room, climbed onto my bed and began to cry. Trembling under blankets, I kept seeing my mother ejecting an amorphous blob that resembled the slab of liver we endured every Thursday supper. My already tenuous sense of family belonging withered.
My own womb has never known the presence of a baby. In dark moments I mourn for the phantom, cherished souls who did not materialize in human form. They might have helped me – or others whom I’ll never meet – to feel less lonely. Perhaps the opposite of love is not hate but loss. Our most bone-wracking grief festers from the loss of a love – be it from child or adult – that could have been, but never was.
My sister and I can do little for our mother beyond keeping her as comfortable as circumstances will allow. We’ve angled her bed to face the garden and decaying white pine. She can view lilies and peonies amidst the weeds we’ve had neither time nor energy to remove.
Residual stamina from years as a dancer has caused her to greatly surpass the doctor’s prediction of ‘time left.’ But this biological persistence comes at a price.
Had she died four seasons ago, she would have done so with brain and temperament intact. Last April she manually calculated her income tax and filed it online to double-check her figures. “Ha,” she announced, “that internet thing got the same answer I did!” She finished reading Winston Churchill’s memoirs in August and heaved Volume VI to the floor with a satisfied thump, saying “there, that’s that over with.”
This summer she cannot add seven plus eight. The cribbage cards lie disheveled and forgotten in her lap. She refuses to acknowledge the phoebe singing outside her window. With difficulty, she marshals the grace to momentarily engage with others, but her threads of social interaction have frayed. She shuts her eyes for hours on end, wandering through a country we cannot enter. When asked how she’s feeling, she replies, “You know I don’t do feelings.”
Most afternoons I read aloud to her from an anthology of parables. Safe, innocuous tales. Today, I choose “The Spirit Bowl.”
Long ago, at the Beginning of Time, the Great Mother in the Sky cradled a gigantic crystalline bowl – the Spirit Bowl – that carried all the life that ever was and ever will be. The bowl glowed with the brilliant light of a thousand suns. Great Mother held the bowl aloft for eons, but one day she grew weary and dropped it. The Spirit Bowl broke into a million, million pieces that scattered across the world. From that day until this, every one of us is born with an embedded shard of light from the original bowl. The shard part of us yearns to connect with the light in others so we can heal the Spirit Bowl. But another part of us struggles with the shadows of anger and pain, sorrow and fear. Unless we choose to dissolve the shadows and embrace the light in ourselves and others, the Spirit Bowl will remain broken forever.
My voice falters. Suddenly the parable feels dangerous. I stop reading and move behind my mother’s bed to stroke her head. Her skull beneath my thumbs feels like a porcelain bowl I could crush in an instant. I know that, given the option, she would choose to end this twilight life. The bathroom cupboard holds a bottle of morphine pills to ease her final days of tortuous breathing. My imagination lurches into calculating how many pills it would take to ….
She opens her eyes. “Massage,” she says in a tremulous voice, “is the only thing that makes sense anymore.” Then: “If I were to bequeath to you one thing from the house, what would it be?”
The query catches me off-guard. My sister and I have reassured her that we are affectionate siblings and will sort things out when the time comes. I glance sideways at the rolltop desk, and there’s my answer. “How about the coronation bowl?”
It is midnight now, and I’ve just driven home from the 48-hour stint of eldercare. I’m huddled by the fire, exhausted, and am writing the end of this story. The wine bottle is empty, and my mind envisions the future. Here is what I see.
Once our mother dies, my sister and I will have her cremated. Per instructions, we’ll mix the ashes with those of our father that wait in the metal box he used for his drafting tools. We will host a wake in her home with music elegant enough to reflect her fondness for Chopin but not so elegiac as to swamp us with misery. We will set up a Scrabble board in a corner so visitors can play her favourite game.
After the wake is over, my sister and I will bury the ashes beside a peaceful stream near my forest home. We will distribute her possessions. We will sell the house. Regain our lives. All the while, I will hide the coronation bowl on a shelf, wrapped in a shawl.
Only when I’m ready will I retrieve the bowl and place it in a basket with my hammer. I will carry the basket deep in the woods to a massive hemlock I have long honoured. I will clear a space on the ground and uncover the bowl. Prop it upright.
I will touch its decades-old fracture scars one final time. I will lift the hammer. And I will lovingly shatter the bowl into a million, million pieces so that nothing remains but a galaxy of iridescent shards I can scatter across the forest floor until it shimmers with the light of a thousand forgiving stars.
There in the forest I will summon, at last, the strength to retrieve the slip of paper I discovered months ago. My mother had tucked it beneath her mattress, and it fell out during a bedding change. And I will reread her words, penciled in a faint, shaky scrawl.
Should I shuffle off this mortal coil while you are away, grieve not. I feel much gratitude for the lives your father and I were able to create by a stardust the heavens provided. I loved you too much, putting burdens on your souls where a lightened spirit should be. These are mistakes we make as we drift our way across this path of being. Do not grieve, my lovelies – remember our joys in the white-throated sparrow, the daisy in the field, the lily in the valley. Remember them, for we loved them together always.