Briseida Mema is a Staff Physician in the Department of Critical Care Medicine at Sick Kids and Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto.
My mother’s name in my language means “Good Luck.”
Our earliest memories are hard to pin down; I think mine are of my mom. I am around four or five. The images – blurred by time – are of clear, sunny Mediterranean landscapes. Walks from my small city, up the hill on a windy road to her small village, her family home. I can smell the rosemary as I stop to collect little wildflowers and chase butterflies. She waits for me, wearing black, strikingly distinct in this landscape. I remember the ritual. We arrive at a small, almost rundown house, she opens the windows allowing the sun to break in, takes the flowers I have collected in a little vase and tells me: I love you. Go outside and play. Obediently I go. Other kids from nearby houses join me. One of the moms gives us sweets. In the background I hear my mom crying. I see other women, her cousins, joining her inside. After a few hours, I have lost track of her; I am fully occupied in childhood games. She calls me; it is time to go home. Her eyes are red, her face is weary, the road downhill is fast. I look at the river below with its turbulent flow. We arrive home … and my memory ends there. This ritual lasted for years. Later I realized, she was a young mom who had just lost her mom and, in the Mediterranean tradition, she wore black while grieving.
This was my first encounter with grief.
Memories of my mom are flooding in. I pause and examine a few.
The day I move to another country. There is photo of us, at the airport, our eyes red and our faces weary. In the background there is a joyous blue Mediterranean sky.
The day I have to go back to our Mediterranean country and put her in a nursing home. She is sitting in a couch as I go through the paperwork. An indescribable heaviness and sadness encases that moment when I contemplate leaving my most precious person on earth amongst strangers. Deep in her own world mom just says: Don’t worry. I get teary as I discuss with the director the conditions, more to reassure myself than make any difference to mom’s care. The director stops me. He says illnesses are made for humans and so is strength! My heart sinks, but I go ahead with the process. It is the only nursing home that has a vacant place. I try not to think that this might be the last time I see my mom. I reassure myself I will be able to go back soon. I get on a plane. My grief has started!
I am walking in the park, watching the sun set and I get the call: your mom has changed life. The sun is changing which part of the globe to illuminate. The most common expression used in my language for death: changing life, from this one to another. Indicating one has a choice and one has made their choice. The sun will be back in our life tomorrow. I look up flights and restrictions for travel during the pandemic and I realize I will not be able to go. I wait for the sun to shine on that part of the globe, for people to wake up and make the arrangements. My mom died amongst strangers, she will be buried by the two people allowed in a funeral, people who care about her. But I won’t be there.
I work in intensive care, have been part of death countless times, have tried to console countless times, have held the hands of dying people countless times. We all fear dying alone and we all fear our loved ones dying alone. There is a necessary ritual between the dying and the living: that immense need to be held and to hold, to be surrounded by people and be present for the departure from this life. The current context and restrictions are not allowing us to hold or be present, and they’re creating no shortage of sad stories.
A friend consoles me and says, “Her body is gone, some would say her soul now has come to visit you, but her memories are definitely with you.” So I cast my mind back to that hill in the Mediterranean, where I am sitting with my mom. We are both wearing black. She is younger than I am, in her late twenties, beautiful — I have a clear vision of her from pictures at the time. I am in my late forties. We hold each other’s hand grieving our moms, watching the river of life running smoothly, gently taking the dead away. As she walks towards that river, she tells me: I love you. Go play with life. Don’t worry. Good luck.
In memory of my mother Fatmira Mema.