February is never an easy time of year for me. Both of my parents died in this month. They died two years apart, but as the years have passed their deaths have merged together into what feels like a single event and February is when I must face it.
Nine years ago today my mother died. Her name was Sylvia, a name which comes from the Latin for “of the forest.” With her soft brown eyes and brown hair, I always thought the name was well suited to her. It is name that has become synonymous with grace in my mind.
In three weeks on the 22nd it will have been 11 years since the death of my father. His name was Michael. A former United States Marine he is the epitome of courage and right and honor in my eyes.
I miss them so much.
After my father died my co-workers in Arizona gave me a beautiful wooden box. The top is designed to hold a photograph and of course, there is a photo of my parents there now. I call it my memory box. In it I keep my treasures, the tangibles of their lives that mean so much to me.
There is my father’s rosary, black beads and worn thin crucifix, in the small case he kept them in when he served in Vietnam. Three of his pocketknives, and a silver ink pen my mother gave him. Once he got that gift from her, he carried it always. I remember it distinctly peeking out of his shirt pocket. There is the face of a watch he gave me when I was girl, a silver dollar from one of my birthdays, and a small white stone I never learned the meaning of. But it was his, and so I hold on to it. There is a Petoskey stone from a family trip to Michigan. And a belt buckle with my father’s signature beautifully embossed, a gift from his coworkers when we left Saudi.
I keep my mother’s pearls in this box. They are far too formal for me, but I do wear them on occasion. Most often I wear them to weddings of people I love. I watch as the friends tie their lives together and I pray they will be blessed the way my mother and father were blessed. There is an engraved crystal kitten — given to me on Christmas in place of the real kitten I desperately wanted. Oh the things that rule our hearts when we are children. There is a small white ivory elephant intricately carved with two babies at her side. My mother collected elephants; this is the one I kept. And there is a small brass camel, from our days in Saudi Arabia. Once you love the desert it never lets go of your heart. Saudi was my whole childhood. It was magical, and we were all there together. It captivates me still, even though I know I am not likely to ever return. There is a small sliver of gold with a rose engraved on it. Yellow roses were my mother’s signature. To me they are always a visual reminder of the greatest love story I ever personally saw.
The last two items in this box are my most cherished — two rings — and all the memories that go with them.
The larger of the two is a silver Marine Corps ring. The original stone my father lost somewhere. He replaced it with a simple green jade. The silver and jade is striking. My favorite thing about this ring is the way it is so worn down. When my brother became a Marine he got one of these rings. It was incredible to me how deeply engraved the new ring was, especially in contrast to my father’s ring. But I soon realized this actually made perfect sense because after all, my father was a Marine every day of his life. He wore that ring every day. What makes it beautiful is the way it is worn to practically nothing.
After his death I put that ring on a dog-tag like chain and wore it as a necklace, but that lasted less than a year. It wasn’t mine, you see. It never did belong to me. I never became a Marine. That ring was his. And eventually it got to where the weight of it, worn so close to my heart, actually started to hurt. I still take the ring from the box from time to time. I love to look at. The jade always strikes me as calm, and the worn-thin silver speaks to my heart of a commitment to a higher ideal, which is a lifelong responsibility.
A year and a day after he died I suddenly wanted some physically present way to keep his memory with me. I went to a jewelry store in Flagstaff, Arizona a purchased a simple gold ring. That ring became my reminder of all that he taught me, and gave me. A reminder of who he raised me to be and who I wanted to be, the life I wanted to live and the standard I wanted to live up to. A memento of the person I loved and lost, and a keepsake reminding me of how much I had been loved. The ring was a comfort to me. It helped.
And then my mother died. Too soon. Too close. Too much the same. The same phone call. The same flight to Kentucky. The same funeral home. The same coffin. The same cemetery. Even the same grave. My father, as a Vietnam veteran is buried in Camp Nelson National Cemetery outside of Lexington, Kentucky. Spouses of veterans can be buried with their husbands or wives. But they are buried on top of one another, in the same plot. I never knew that before.
I didn’t want a new ring, and I didn’t want two of them. So the ring I already had became my “good intentions” ring. To remind me of both of them. Mother. Father. Lessons taught. Love given. And an example worth following. I wore that ring for nearly nine years.
Eventually, I had to let that ring go too. It is possible to hold on too tightly. It is possible to refuse to let go the extent that you can’t let go, and then you can’t move on, so you stop. I have forgotten who said, “If you aren’t growing, then you’re dying” but there is a lot of truth in that. I had stopped growing, stopped trying to get past their deaths, and in doing so I had retreated from life. Alive, but not really living. And once I knew that was true, once I knew with certainty that all of my attempts to hold on to them were now holding me back, I knew I had let go. It is a choice no one escapes. You either choose life. Choose to heal. Or choose death. This choice can play out as either by an act of suicide or the slow drawn out death by degrees that comes to those who have let their fire and their passion burn to nothing.
I haven’t done so well with jewelry and memories, but a few weeks ago I decided to give it one last try. I bought a copper bracelet that I’ve had engraved with one of my mother’s favorite Bible verses and their names. I’m trying to change my perceptions of this. Not a memento of what I’ve lost, but of the love that is still and always with me. I don’t know how long I’ll wear this, but at least for the next three weeks if you see me you’ll see a copper band around my left wrist.
The Bible verse is Genesis 31:49. Eric found this on a scrap of paper on which my mother had written out a list of Bible verses. I wonder if she knew this verse before Dad died, or if it became meaningful to her after. I’ll never know. But, it is powerful to me. It is my prayer. For Mom. For Dad. For my brother. For my family. For many friends scattered over too many miles. For all the ones I love… May the Lord watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from another.