Mary Oliver’s work often finds inspiration in nature but this short piece eloquently describes a uniquely human moment where anger and regret dissolve into peace and acceptance.
I received my own personal box of darkness via a transatlantic phone call.
21 years of age and living in Los Angeles, I was woken on a sunny Monday morning by my Dad’s voice, normally strong and jovial but now sounding uncertain and shaking. I could not understand what he was saying. He passed the phone to my Aunt June. She told me, quietly, that my mother had died that morning.
The moment did not feel like a gift.
My father, a rock of a man, crumbled. It was inconceivable to him that the love of his life was gone. I flew back to London and my Aunt and I organised the funeral. It was me that informed family and friends about the circumstances of my mother’s death. I tearfully gave Mum’s eulogy at the cremation.
I was happy to do these things. Honoured by them. Proud to to pick up the pieces that my father could not. The process brought Dad and I close. He knew I had his back and I knew he had mine. Our relationship was fortified for the rest of his days by this knowledge, but what I did not give myself was a space to grieve the death of my mother.
I had no idea that the paperwork, the organisation, the business connected to death shielded me from the immediate fact of such a profound bereavement. It took another twenty years for me to get past that and for real grieving to occur.
When the grieving came it was a traumatic and cathartic experience . When it cleared it left a new space to appreciate life. A visceral knowledge of something I had previously known only in the abstract - That my days are numbered and all I have is this moment - became real.
I cannot know exactly what led my Mum to make the choice she made. In 1981 the treatment and cultural conversations around depression were much less sophisticated than they are now. If the same circumstances were to happen today I am sure she would not have killed herself. I wish she had not but she did and there is no changing that.
Acceptance can seem such a passive and cold word but for me it is active and rich. When I finally accepted my mother’s death and the circumstances of that death - a new world opened to me.
This is the “Gift” that Mary Oliver writes about in her poem.
Our version, read by Irish singer/songwriter Suzanne Rhatigan, brings that process of realisation to life.
Listen to how she reads the word “Gift”.