Ring the Bell
Updated: Feb 11, 2020
Ring the bell that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
After my mother had her brain surgery seven years ago, she was never the same. And she knew it. You all, you knew her, so you know that she couldn’t always find the right words, and couldn’t muster the attention span to make it through a whole television program or a magazine article. As far as anyone could tell, she was still the same person internally, at least at first. She was still clever, still followed conversations with her facial expressions, and still had her straightforward if not tactless analysis of the issue at hand. “Well fuck those people” she would tell me, if I mentioned someone disagreeing with me or her or whoever.
Over time, her tact and attention span were not the only things that went. Her patience waned, and she would want what she wanted when she wanted it in a childish way that could be funny or off-putting depending on the moment. She might change the television channel 10 times in as many minutes before announcing that television was stupid—or walk away from a conversation mid-sentence and be thoroughly mid-nap by the time I followed to check on her.
She just always seemed trapped inside herself, monitoring her health, watching the moment for each fully formed thought that she couldn’t articulate come and go as her words failed her. Over time, I saw her recognize that her previous sharp-wit and wry delivery was out of reach for her new brain. I watched her turn inward and lose confidence to speak, to interact, to connect.
We spoke about it. Or, I spoke about it to her, and she squeezed my hand and nodded in agreement. And I shared a quote with her, from a Leonard Cohen song: “Ring the bell that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” She understood. Her life, her brain, really, was cracked, but this was the new normal. This is what it was going to be and we might as well make the best of it. When she visited Minneapolis last year, the last time I saw her alive, we had a blast. I cooked for her every night, and she overate with gusto. We went to the playground with Adexa, and my momma got on the swings and let her hair and her scarf sway out from under the beanie I had lent her. Together, we were letting the light in through the cracks, and it was such an honest and genuine time.
My mother never had a perfect offering. That Leonard Cohen quote, it is based on a quote from the Persian poet Rumi. But his version goes “The Wound is the Place where the Light Enters You.”
As many of you know, her upbringing was rough, to put it mildly. She spent years abused, and then addicted, and anti-social and depressed after that. But I never once saw her feel sorry for herself or even dwell on the past whatsoever. There was never any “Oh no” or “why me” to my mother. Only “hey baby,” and “what’s next?” She had flaws like anyone else, tears and arguments, mean moments—perfectionism doesn’t make much sense to someone who has been so thoroughly knocked on her ass by life. She still worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever met—you should have seen her study for her college courses. I’ve taught over 1000 kids in the last 10 years and never had one even close to her level of focus and effort. But she knew what good enough looked and felt like. A big part of her always felt wounded, but she never held a pity party. Those wounds had allowed perspective to shine through, and I am lucky to have witnessed and internalized just the smallest bits of that light.
I heard my mother say that the goodness in her came directly from her grandmother, and it’s clear to me that so much of the goodness in me came from my mom. I stand here, in the spirit of my mother, not to complain about my lot in life or our recent loss—I stand here grateful that I had her to begin with. You knew her, but she was my mother. You just cannot know how wonderful she was.
I have written about her before. In college, and again when I lived in Baltimore. I have spent days working on essays about her that I now have and can look back on. I get to live those moments over and over again in intimate detail through my writing. And now I have spent a week thinking about this and writing it in my head before having the courage to sit down and let the words out. I am up here reading this to you at my mother’s services, trying to help us all say goodbye. But in my heart, the funeral was last night in front of my computer. These words are how I have chosen to say goodbye.
My mother is dead, and there is a crack in everything. I have no mother. My daughter has no grandma. Our perfect offering is gone. And as much as I want to bargain and complain, I cannot. Because Linda’s light persists, and it’s simply radiant. Let it in.