Henry James on Losing a Mother
“These are hours of exquisite pain; thank Heaven this particular pang comes to us but once.”
By Maria Popova
“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the visionary psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote as he considered the mother as a pillar of society. Having a mother is a lifelong complexity. Losing a mother, no matter the nature or duration of the relationship, is the cataclysm of a lifetime.
That is what Henry James (April 13, 1843–February 28, 1916) reckoned with in his thirty-ninth year, recording the loss in a breathtaking diary entry found in The Complete Notebooks of Henry James (public library).
I came back from Washington on the 30th of last month (reached Cambridge the next day), to find that I should never again see my dear mother. On Sunday, Jan. 29th, as Aunt Kate sat with her in the closing dusk (she had been ill with an attack of bronchial asthma, but was apparently recovering happily), she passed away. It makes a great difference to me! I knew that I loved her — but I didn’t know how tenderly till I saw her lying in her shroud in that cold North Room, with a dreary snowstorm outside, and looking as sweet and tranquil and noble as in life. These are hours of exquisite pain; thank Heaven this particular pang comes to us but once.
After making funeral arrangements with his father and his sister Alice — herself a writer of genius and consummate wisdom on the art of dying — he reflects on the kaleidoscopic nature of the loss:
It is impossible for me to say — to begin to say — all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us all together, and without her we are scattered reeds. She was patience, she was wisdom, she was exquisite maternity. Her sweetness, her mildness, her great natural beneficence were unspeakable, and it is infinitely touching to me to write about her here as one that was.
One of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts — the last time you sat across from a person you now know you will never see again, the last touch of a hand that is no more, the last kiss of lips that shall never part again — lasts the finality of which we can never comprehend in the moment, lasts we experience with sundering shock in hindsight. James shudders with this recognition, then finds in it an exhale of relief, of reconciliation with reality that borders on sanctity:
When I think of all that she had been, for years when I think of her hourly devotion to each and all of us — and that when I went to Washington the last of December I gave her my last kiss. I heard her voice for the last time — there seems not to be enough tenderness in my being to register the extinction of such a life. But I can reflect, with perfect gladness, that her work was done — her long patience had done its utmost. She had had heavy cares and sorrows, which she had borne without a murmur, and the weariness of age had come upon her.
I would rather have lost her forever than see her begin to suffer as she would probably have been condemned to suffer, and I can think with a kind of holy joy of her being lifted now above all our pains and anxieties. Her death has given me a passionate belief in certain transcendent things — the immanence of being as nobly created as hers — the immortality of such a virtue as that… She is no more of an angel today than she had always been; but I can’t believe that by the accident of her death all her unspeakable tenderness is lost to the things she so dearly loved. She is with us, she is of us — the eternal stillness is but a form of her love. One can hear her voice in it — one can feel, forever, the inextinguishable vibration of her devotion.
In a bittersweet reminder that we must never hold back our tenderness, for we never know how many chances to share it are left us, he adds:
I can’t help feeling that in those last weeks I was not tender enough with her — that I was blind to her sweetness and beneficence. One can’t help wishing one had only known what was coming, so that one might have enveloped her with the softest affection.
Complement with My Mother’s Eyes — a soulful animated short film about loss and the unbreakable bonds of love — and Mary Gaitskill on how to move through life when your parents are dying — some of the simplest, most redemptive advice for those who have the chance-granted luxury of choosing it — then revisit James on how to stop waiting and start living.
Published April 26, 2023