By Hilary Thomas:
In November we lost our beautiful, courageous, sharp-witted, fiercely loving, passionate mother. For over a week, she was surrounded by her daughters night and day. We should all be so lucky to leave this earth enveloped by such intense love. More than ever, I feel deeply connected with my sisters who all epitomize her strength, depth, and beauty. Now we face the overwhelming task of figuring out just how to exist in this world without her.
You’ve been gone for nearly a month now. I have been writing you letters in my head constantly. I have been writing about you constantly. But I haven’t yet written a letter directly to you. Finally my thoughts seem to be landing in an appropriate and settling space here as I write.
This has been the most surreal time of my life. Filled with deep sadness beyond belief, deep beauty and connection, deep groundedness and complete presence. The key element in all of this is the depth. You thrived on going deep and connecting with others. I most definitely got that from you.
I’ve been reading so much of your writing. Your regular musings on everything from relationships to aging to gratitude. Your letters to me over the years. Your scribbles on lined yellow paper marking your every thought, whim, analysis as it popped into your mind. So many of the themes that you landed on were of truth and gratitude. Yesterday I found a letter that you had written to me in college. You said, “Our conversation last night was so meaningful to me — it’s as though in moments like that, our ideas sort of synergize and we can extend and deepen thoughts . . . it doesn’t get any better than that!”
Needless to say, I don’t remember the context of the conversation, but it sounded like a typical conversation with you. We were deeply connected. You went on to write, “I believe that when I feel thankful, the gratitude firmly cements inside . . . the more grateful you are, the less envy you carry around to sour your inner world. It’s like gratitude is the antidote to the unconscious envy that cripples.“ I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure most college girls don’t receive letters like that from their mothers. You gave me such an unusual set of tools to process feelings and to understand myself and others.
As my sisters and I navigate this grief and try to reconcile our new existence without you, I can’t help but find irony in the fact that you would normally be the one guiding your daughters through this. You’d be the one we’d call. You’d listen and encourage us to sit with our feelings. You’d offer perspective and love. You’d make us cups of tea. Or gin and tonics. When things got really intense, you’d come at us with Valium or Xanax in hand. You’d check in on us each morning and answer our calls without fail. Every single moment of every single day. It has been remarkable how many times over this past month that I’ve reached for my phone to call or text you before the impossibility of that sets in. It shows me that at the very least, my unconscious can’t digest that you are gone. That sounds so much like something you’d say.
I feel you living on in me in a way that is both marvelous and shocking. You are present in every thought, inspiring me to write prolifically as you did, to drink tea obsessively, to organize my things in one of your millions of containers. I wear your clothes, your earrings, your robe at night, taking every opportunity to deeply inhale your perfume. When I look down, I admire your rings on my fingers, picturing those beautifully dainty hands of yours.
Though these constant reminders of you directly connect to a deep dark internal sadness, at the root of it is this tremendous love and strength that is pretty magnificent. It is you. I feel bolstered by your love. I feel grounded. I feel beauty all around me. My gratitude for you is firmly cemented inside.
I had my first dream about you the other day. You were on a giant slide, hundreds of feet in the air, following people as they slid down and then gingerly stepped off the edge to float to the ground. At first I was going to run over and help you, but then I decided that you should do it on your own and that you’d be okay. And you floated down beautifully and landed lightly on your feet. It was so great to be with you again—even if just in dream form.
Needless to say, you’d be the first to hear the dream, ready with an analysis and a cup of tea. Lucky for me, this one seems pretty straightforward.
I know it is sometimes frowned upon to define a person’s life by their death, but I think in your case, it is totally appropriate. You were quite afraid to die. Yet you desperately wanted to talk about it. In many of your writings, you refer to death as “the big D.” Just over a week before you died, we spent the weekend of your 85th birthday celebration talking, laughing, and writing about death. There was no reason to think you were going anywhere, so this was all a huge hypothetical for the future. You hammered in the details of your memorial service, including very specific songs that you played for us over and over. You specifically asked for a performance and a party rather than a maudlin, stuffy, depressing ceremony. You made us promise that we sisters would be there for each other always. Something tells me you knew how much that bond of ours—which was already pretty strong—would intensify surrounding your death.
In the hospital, you were fiercely enveloped by the love of your daughters, who quite literally stayed by your side for eight days. We shared our admiration, gratitude, and devotion with you in so many deep ways. The bond that formed between the sisters during that time is a force to be reckoned with. You would be so proud of how brave, how present, how loving, how real everyone was in those moments with you. You died with such dignity, grace, and beauty. Just the way you lived.
I hope to continue to feel bolstered by you as I navigate my new existence. I’m currently reading your book by Claire Bidwell Smith. You only underlined one section in the entire book. It feels like just what I need to say at your service. It’s beautiful and perfectly you. So here goes:
We understand that even when someone dies, the relationship continues. It’s just that the person is no longer located outside of us. We are developing what we could call an internal relationship with this person, and that allows us to reinvest in our life. If we follow the path through grief to wholeness, we may discover an undying love.
That’s what the afterlife is, I think. At least for those of us who are still living. The afterlife is the relationship we continue to cultivate with our loved ones after they are gone.
So as you continue to live in me and our new relationship develops, I want you to know, deeply and intensely, that I will forever be exploding with love for you. I will forever be bolstered by my gratitude for you. I will reinvest in my life with you holding me up every step of the way.
With all my love,
Hilary Thomas is the artistic directory of the Lineage Dance, a contemporary dance company dedicated to raising awareness for nonprofit organizations and to making the arts accessible to all. In 2010, the company opened the Lineage Performing Arts Center (LPAC) in Old Pasadena as a community hub designed to encourage community awareness through the arts. LPAC created the DANCE FOR JOY free classes for those affected by Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimers, Stroke Recovery, Cancer, and Autism. Hilary has also been on faculty at Flintridge Preparatory School, teaching science and dance since 2001.