by Mila Phelps-Friedl
If only everyone could die as gracefully as trees do. They grip to life — tucking away green foliage for burly reds and golds, fading into speckled oranges before they fall and drop.
My mother always spoke to me about the trees when I was younger, holding my little hand in hers as we trudged along the crinkled path, beaten down by the wind and by a million and one other footsteps. She admired the way that they whispered and rolled in the gusts of wind, sang in the springtime and gracefully accepted change in the fall. For my mother, these walks were special. As we’d go along, we’d stop more than we would walk, stooping down to snag the edges of leaves splashed in trickles of color. The shape or size didn’t matter; we’d find a way to carry them all in our mittened hands. When we got home, we’d pull large dictionaries off of the shelf, and using glossy waxed sheets of brown paper, we’d press the leaves inside their pages.
“I just want to be in the air. I just want to be a part of the wind.”
This is something my mother exclaimed the most recent time we took a walk together. My mother makes funny statements like this a lot. They’re metaphorical as fuck, but if you’ve ever met my mother, you’d understand that she genuinely means the things she says. If she could somehow shapeshift and suddenly become a part of something larger than herself, she would. While her human form confines her to a somewhat grounded existence, my mother still finds a way to live a life very free of the worldly weight that many people seem to accrue as they grow older.
The last walk we took it was a breezy October day, and while I walked with the weight of the world stretched across my shoulder blades, she seemed to float above the sidewalk. The wind blustered around our necks, whipping her silver-streaked hair across her face in swirling, ursuline structures, strands tracing against her sun-worn skin like fine lines of graphite across the cusp of her ear. When I was younger, I could more easily accept my mother’s flighty existence, perhaps because I didn’t know that any other way. I too could see the breathlessness in the pink abalone of the clam shells we’d collect at the beach, the perfect hum of birdsong and the silky smell of lilacs drifting on a crisp spring breeze. These are the things that my mother taught me how to notice. She figured that if I knew how to identify the good things, no matter how small, it would make all the difference in this big, bad world. But somehow, I grew up and forgot to do this. That’s when everything became so much heavier, when I stopped listening to my mother and forgot to look for the silver lining.
I came home on a whim that October day, and my mother greeted me with her soft touch and a smile. The next morning, we walked, as she always does and I rarely do. Maybe it was the day, or her contagious joy to have me home, or just to be alive, but for the first time in a while, I was able to see the vibrancy that she sees in the world. Even our neighborhood, crowded with baby strollers and tiny townie restaurants, seemed to be filtered through the warm sunlight at our backs. Above all, I basked in the overwhelming gratitude I felt for having breath in my lungs and the time and space in which to breath deeply. Even my mother looked different that day. The shadows that usually lurk just under the sharp blade of her lashes were gone. Amidst the blustering autumn wind, her smile exposed the fine lines of laughter edged into the protrusions of her cheekbones against her smooth and rosy complexion.
My mother lives, to the best of her ability, a life without regrets. She brushes off the bad and monumentalizes the good, no matter how small. Above all, she is truly the bravest person I know when it comes to showing her capacity to love. I have always wished I could be brave regarding love, but it was — and is always — a little more complicated for me. In her 60 years, my mother has fallen in love, married young, moved on, grieved, and married again. She has broken and built herself up from scratch, out of each marriage produced children who she loved — loves, just as much as she loved that first time around. There are four of us now: three boys and then me. We are different in biology, but undeniably strung together by the constancy of our mother and the love that put us on this earth in the first place.
I can’t promise that I will always be able to see the world as wonderfully and fully as my mothers does. In the end, her incredible power seems to lie not only in accepting the good with the bad, but in choosing to mostly find the good. This is what gives her that airy quality; my mother is so full of light, it actually seems to lift her up. That day and that walk reminded me of pressing colored leaves into pearly white pages. Now, each and every day, my mother reminds me to collect the joyful moments so that one day, when the world seems too heavy to face, I’ll be able to pull a dictionary off of a shelf and open it to find something beautiful preserved inside.