“To love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart and to sing it to them when they have forgotten.” ~ Arne Garborg
There it was. The dreaded call from the doctor. “Your mother’s not going to make it this time. Come quick.”
I reached out to my sister, threw a suitcase in the car, and with my heart racing a mile a minute, I went on my way. A familiar con artist sat in the passenger seat next to me.
She tried to convince me that it was a false alarm.
Don’t worry, Melody. Calm yourself down. Breathe. I’m willing to bet that it will be just like all the other times. You’ll keep asking the doctor detailed questions about her diagnosis, double check the need for all the medicine he’s giving her, and most of all, protect her from hearing psychologically damaging verdicts. Once she’s home again, you’ll entertain her with all your well-meaning pep talks, nurse her back to health, tape positive affirmations to her kitchen cupboards, and renew her spirit by encouraging her to sing again. You’ve been through the same drill many times. Why would it be any different this time?
Ms. Denial’s persuasive charm was only momentary. The noise in my head from two other familiar friends, “Unbridled Anxiety and Deep-Seated Fear,” dug themselves into my every breath. The jittery silence of solitude, combined with the torment of uncertainty, overpowered my ability to stay grounded and calm. I was out of control.
During my crazy-making drive, I had six hours to think about our relationship and how much we had grown in our understanding of each other. I also revisited a list of unhealed wounds that still stirred inside my vulnerable inner child.
Like many other mother and daughter relationships, ours was complicated, too. The one gift we had going for us was our mutual desire to forgive.
The major breakthrough occurred in my 40s. I was looking through a catalogue of personal growth workshops and spotted just the one I needed.
A mother and daughter forgiveness workshop.
Psychological processes were foreign to my mother. Would she even consider diving into them? After all, she was up there in years and talking about feelings wasn’t exactly her favorite pastime. Despite my empathic assessment of her preferences and personality, the ache within my soul to heal was too deep to ignore. I decided to take a leap of faith. I asked her to join me.
She said yes.
I was right. The workshop was hard, intense, and emotional. It is never easy to hear the pain someone caused you underneath a now-out-in-the-open truth. That said, all the work we put into the forgiveness process was worth every tear that led to every “I’m sorry” and every hug of understanding. Our willingness to invite new beginnings served as a catalyst for knocking down the walls that had previously blocked our ability to forgive and love.
I kept thinking about all the courage and love it must have taken for her to be okay about doing a deep, emotional, “look within” workshop. I felt proud of my own growth, too. Desperate to build new bridges of understanding, I was willing to do anything to heal our relationship before it was too late.
The workshop was deep and powerful, and in the middle of an emotional exercise, I made a life-changing and conscious decision to open my heart and release resentments, anger, and hurt. No, I didn’t completely forget. No, I didn’t completely forgive. What I did was this. I made a mindful choice to love her and to understand that she was a product of her upbringing, just as I was a product of mine. I also made a choice to give to her, to sing with her, to appreciate her, to be in the present moment with her, to release judgment of her, and to honor her, no matter what had happened in the past.
The past was the past. I would not allow it to define us or to define the quality of our love together.
Over the years, she became my greatest fan, and I was hers. Yes, we lived with a mixed-up bunch of feelings about each other, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I still loved and admired her. I still needed her. I still wanted her to stay here forever.
As I drove to Vermont through a fog of thoughts and feelings that entered the past and wove themselves into the present and future, I found myself at the hospital before I even knew how I got there.
I bent down to give her a loving kiss, a long hug, and then implemented a successful acting performance of light talk and humor. In reality, I agreed with the doctor. She wasn’t well and it didn’t seem hopeful.
I leaned my guitar against the chair and settled into one of the most intense weeks of my life. It was also one of the most beautiful, sacred, and healing.
As soon as I came in the room to cajole her into a state of wellness, she lit up, and when she saw my sister, she lit up even more. It lifted her mood to have her daughters give her the most important medicine of all.
At first, she was fully present, ate well, sang along with Pavarotti and Bocelli, and held her own in conversations about politics, racial injustice, current events, and world peace.
During those discussions, she couldn’t resist educating us about the importance of accurate grammar, pronunciation, sentence structure, and punctuation. You see, she was living out her unfulfilled dream of becoming an English teacher. Determined to transcend her “not as smart as a college graduate” complex, she always made time to study the dictionary when we were young, and when she was ready to use a new word, she flaunted it loud and proud.
Nothing gave her more satisfaction than stumping someone with a doctorate degree after their name.
Despite lovely moments like these, there were other times when the torturous anguish of her pain jolted us into realizing that the end was fast approaching. It seemed more important than ever to create one-on-one gatherings with our “English teacher, opera singer, writer, poet, actress” mother, and because we recognized that need, we gave each other the space to make that happen.
During my one-on-one time with her, I remember the moment when she looked directly into my eyes and said, “I love you.” When I was growing up, I hadn’t heard those three special words often and it meant the world to hear them now.
We had other bonding moments, too. They centered around the healing power of music. No matter what, music was always our common ground. She knew the lyrics to every song I had ever composed and recorded, recalled all the words and melodies to songs she had performed on stage, and she especially loved singing a Hebrew song called, “Hinei Ma Tov.”
We sang this beautiful melody when I was young, and here we were again, singing it at the end of her life. Loosely translated from Hebrew to English, the lyrics challenge us to walk a higher path toward personal and global understanding.
“How good and how pleasing it would be if our brothers and sisters could sit together in unity. How good it is to be together looking into each other’s eyes.”
And that’s what we were doing in her room now. We were looking into each other’s eyes with unity and with love.
I’ll be honest. In the beginning, there were times when my mother seemed too well to die. It was during those times that Ms. Denial would sit next to me again, agreeing that this was all a big mistake.
Then, it started to happen. Her eyes closed and her body began its process of shutting down. She seemed unreachable, as if she were traveling to a secret place of peace deep within her soul.
Heartbroken, depleted, and shaky, my sister and I surrendered to the inevitable. As sisters with one aching heart of love, we alternated taking short breaks to go outside to ground, cry, breathe, walk, close our eyes for a minute, meditate, pray, and refuel. This time, it was my sister’s turn to regroup.
As I sat alone with my mother in the silence of my tears, my wise inner guru whispered to me, “It’s time to pick up your guitar again, Melody. Sing “Hinei Ma Tov” to her. She needs to hear it, and you need this, too.”
I argued with my wise inner guru. “What’s the use? I don’t think she can even hear me anymore.” My wise inner guru argued back. “But what if she can?”
Exhausted and in the depth of sorrow, I pushed myself to pick up the guitar once again. As I did, harsh reality cemented itself deep into my soul.
I will never have another opportunity to sing with my mom again. My biggest fan is leaving.
And then, just when everything seemed hopeless, a miracle of love and light entered the room.
My mother opened her eyes, looked directly at me, and without any hesitation, burst into song. Our special song. “Hinei Ma Tov.” Not only that, but we also sang it in two-part harmony!
It was a profound honor to witness my mother’s musical goodbye of love and to be part of a sacred experience forever imprinted in my body, mind, and spirit.
Her voice was free. Powerful. Resonant. Operatic. In tune. The vibrations were so strong that they wafted all the way down the hall to the nurses’ station. When the nurses heard the sound of a magnificent mezzo soprano voice, they knew it could only be hers. In awe, they ran to the room to witness an otherworldly, spiritual, mystical, and surreal miracle.
Ten minutes later she closed her eyes again; this time for several days. The room was quiet as my sister and I held her hands and whispered, “I love you. Thank you for everything. Rest in peace, mom.”
Then, it was over. At the age of 96, our brilliant, courageous, talented, and loving mother surrendered her final breath. I looked up at the clock. It was after midnight. July 29.
July 29th is my birthday.
It was a perfect circle of birth and of death and it was a perfect circle of unconditional love, deep healing, and singing my mother home with love.
You can see a video of “Hinei Ma Tov” here: