Note: I wrote this essay on my birthday, five months ago, when I turned the same age that my mother, Robin, was when she died. After this month, I will be older than she got to be.
“As I move past you to middle age”
– Kenneth Rexroth
When he was teaching poetry to the novices at Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, in the 1960s, Thomas Merton read aloud to his students a poem published by the same house, New Directions, as published some of his own writing (including the poetry, which I’m told isn’t great, but seems pretty good to me). That’s how I first heard “Delia Rexroth,” by Kenneth Rexroth, the poem that becomes my story (or one of my stories) starting today — I heard it on a warm and relatively clear recording of Merton’s classroom sessions, now sold as audiobooks. I read recently in a quite mean-spirited, or at least very cynical, hit piece on Merton’s reputation in Harper’s magazine that the monk was full of contempt for the dullards by whom he felt surrounded before his hermitage, but throughout the sessions I’ve heard, Merton is good-humoured and patient, if slightly astounded by the anemic quality of the educations his novices had received before arriving at Gethsemani; in any case he is suffused with passion for the material and the chance to share it. “Under your illkempt yellow roses, Delia, today you are younger than your son.”
Donald Grayston, my mother’s priest at All Saints church in Burnaby in the late 1970s and early 1980s — the man who performed my parents’ marriage (1979), mine and my brother’s baptisms (1980 and 1983), Mom’s memorial service (1991), mine and my wife’s (secular) marriage (2007), and my grandmother’s memorial (2009) — was a Merton scholar, but I wasted every chance to swim in that pool until Don, too, was dead; only after losing my relatively intimate connection to one of the people in the world who I’m guessing knew the most about Merton, and certainly understood the animating spirit of Merton’s work better than just about anybody, did I start to think that maybe there was something to think about, something worth contemplating, about the monk.
Mom, who was very excited to be marrying a Québecois man and raising genuinely French-Canadian kids on the West Coast of what was back then a still very British Columbia had been prepared to convert to my father’s church, Thomas Merton’s church, Roman Catholicism. Admittedly, the journey from Anglican to Catholic isn’t as significant as, say, a conversion from Baha’ism to Chassidism — it doesn’t even really cover the whole distance between Protestant to Catholic, to be honest, although as we know, Tony “Somehow-Not-At-the-Hague” Blair felt the need to make it official, as did G.K. Chesterton, whose politics, in the main, also sucked, but who left a far richer legacy than Tony, who instead subtracted an incalculable portion of that left by Mesopotamian civilization in its entirety.
But Mom’s Chestertonian accession to Popery wasn’t to be; when she and my Dad went to see the priest — the same priest, I’m told, who magicked Margaret Trudeau into the Mother Church so that she could marry Pierre — he barely addressed my mother at all, coldly stacking the books she would have to read before swimming up from spiritual Beavers to religious Cubs (having now studied some theology myself, I feel I can say without too much exaggeration that the differences between the two churches that an Anglican would need to master in order to carry off a conversion could probably be effectively summarized in a tweet). Thoroughly turned off — which in fairness is the mode in which a great portion of the Catholic clergy prefer women to operate — my Mom got no sympathy from my father, a man who’d grown up as a gay boy in Quiet Revolution-era Québec, and so had no love for Catholicism: “I told you that this is what my church is like.” The couple stayed at All Saints, and that’s why I’m an Anglican instead of a Catholic.
There are no yellow roses, illkempt or otherwise, over the spot where Mom’s ashes were laid in the memorial garden beside All Saints, on Royal Oak avenue, site of rising property values and lowering aesthetic standards; there is a bush. I leave the knowledge of what kinds of plants are which to my brother, the horticulturalist by training; I just know that the bush is green, with shiny, waxy leaves, and that in my pseudo-scientific understanding of the transmigration of, let’s say, particles (?), it has grown in part from my mother’s energy. When I go to visit, or to pay respects, to speckle the insides of my glasses with salty stains and spots, I will take a leaf from the bush between my fingers just to try to get closer.
One quick digression: death is inescapable. What’s more, so is the fear of death. From a combination of parental instinct and parenting instruction, I decided that I would never tell my daughter Joséphine anything at all that I didn’t believe about death. Before I went back to church, I had no sense that there could or would be a Heaven where we saw our loved ones again, and even now, more than a year back into regular religious observance and relatively deep Christian study, nothing has changed my mind about that. Regardless, when Joséphine — who was introduced to the concept of death earlier than many kids in her social or geographical strata are — asked me what happens when we die, I did my best to offer her something that I considered to be the hopeful truth: that the memory and the love of us live on in the people who cared for us, and that our bodies return to the earth, to come back as part of the grass and plants and flowers that grow from where we are. We both seemed pretty satisfied with the answer. The next day, I got a phone call from my wife:
“Did you tell Joséphine that when she died she would come back as a flower?”
“Sort of, yes.”
“Because I put a vase in the middle of the table and she started screaming, ‘I don’t want to be a flower!’”
I, Joséphine’s father, am today the same age as her grandmother. Over the coming year, I am passing her, to middle age. That’s the best case scenario.
Today is my 39th birthday; her 39th birthday was the last one my Mother celebrated. (In the years after she died, my Dad never wanted us to fetishize the anniversary of her death too much, and so to avoid morbidity, we could always look to her birthday: September 11th.) By my calculations, as the countdown finishes on New Year’s Eve, I will become older than my mother.
The apprehension of this birthday has been the background radiation of my life since I was ten years old. The two most terrifying prospects of today were:
- I wouldn’t make it
- I would
July 1, 2019