I lost my mother to cancer when I was twelve years old. My search for meaning and spirituality has gone all over the map, but if I’m being honest, I think I’ve always been searching for a way back to her. This Mother’s Day, I’m offering this excerpt from my memoir, Falling Into Grace, to stress two things: 1) Anyone we love is never really gone—in fact, they’re always with us. 2) Your mother loves you—whether she’s here or passed on, whether she can show it or not, whether you doubt it or not—she loves you. She truly does.
Of all the ceremonies and methods the shaman could have used for me, she decided on something called a Soul Retrieval. The concept is ancient and fascinating. Every time you experience emotional pain or deep trauma, a piece of your larger being—your soul—gets torn out and left in the time and place where the wounding occurred. Over time, this results in missing patches, like gullies or holes in your energetic body—what the shaman would call the etheric or the spirit body—what the Vedics would call the subtle body. This leads to both a leaking of healthy energy from these gaps and a way for disease and unwanted spiritual forces to get inside. I liken this to a healed scar after a knee or rotator cuff surgery. If the weather is changing or you start getting a cold, you’ll feel it at the site of the old surgery first.
The goal of the soul retrieval is to reclaim all those missing pieces and demand they return to you. Not only does this plug the leaks, but it returns your soul to its original integrity and can make even the most fragmented among us whole again. This is not a cure, it is a method. But it is powerful and sacred.
Surrounded by candles and incense, this woman went to work. I stood before her with my palms out, ready to receive her. She drummed and chanted and shook feathers around my body, invoking the spirits of her ancestors and my own spiritual guides and messengers to come forward and assist. In the middle of a bright fall day in Somerville, the room actually grew darker and strange shadows darted at the corners of the room. I know this wasn’t just my imagination because the two dogs saw them also and were following their movement with their eyes, letting out soft woofs as the ceremony gathered steam and her voice grew in pitch and intensity. I could feel the presence of something otherworldly in the room with us.
We were not alone.
She had me call my name out three times into the ether and demand—not ask or request, but full on demand as my birthright—that my missing pieces be returned to unity. She swallowed a draught of liquor, held a flame to her mouth, and spit fire across the room and I felt a sensation like ants crawling over my skin in a wave. She repeated my name and then clapped her hands together in a final crescendo. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked at me and I swear I saw more than just her eyes staring at me—it was like two or three other ghostly eyes were superimposed on hers. In any other situation, it would have been terrifying.
“You will be whole,” she said and her voice had the echoes of two or three others, like many voices trying to speak at once.
She picked up a rattle and shook it around me, chanting softer and softer as she went. The presence started to recede and the lightin the room changed—the bright afternoon was returning. When she looked at me again, her eyes were normal and the ceremony was over.
We sat at the corner of her small desk, littered with rocks, gemstones, and totems. On either side of me, a dog lay resting with its head on my foot. We were staring into a large white candle on her desk. She wanted to see what messages the spirit realm and my guides had for me after the ceremony. It was then, the shaman had one last surprise in store for me.
“She’s here,” she said. “Can you feel her?”
We both started to cry then, uncontrollably and with genuine emotion, because it was mother. I could feel her. I could feel her. She was there with us. I know how this sounds. I know the mind can concoct all manner of delusions and our imaginations can create whole vistas of exactly what we want to see and hear. I know memory is fallible and oftentimes unreliable and that grief can make us see and feel things that aren’t really there. But the feel of her, her unique signature—like a fingerprint that makes us identifiable and distinct, was unmistakable. Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen or touched or heard her in 26 years, I’d know her presence anywhere. I knew it in my soul, my mom was with us.
I remember being so angry at her as a boy after she died. You hear all these Hallmark stories of people seeing a cardinal after someone passes and a cardinal was their lost loved one’s favorite bird. Or a special sunset or a rainbow or a mystic change in the weather that lets them know the person they lost is okay. Songs on the radio, strange synchronicities, people appearing with messages. Even dreams the night before or the night of where the dying appear to say goodbye.
I experienced none of these things. If I’m being honest and able to see past my own selfishness and grief at the time, I’ve probably received hundreds of messages, but I ignored them while looking for something grander. I’m not lost to the irony of this. Even on the other side when I had my candyflip experience, I believe I felt her then too, but I could never really be sure because I was under the influence of mind altering drugs.
But this was real, this was profound. I was stone cold sober for many months at this point, it was broad daylight, and I knew this woman wouldn’t take advantage of me that way. She was the wife of a respected professor in grad school and I trusted and admired him through and through. She had seen a few of my closest friends and was a solid and dependable referral.
One look at her and I knew that whatever she was going to do, she wasn’t going to bullshit me. After docs and cops and hospitals and a lifetime of playing pretend, I can spot bullshit with the best of them. She never pinged my radar—not once.And she couldn’t fake those tears, neither one of us could. The emotion in the room was palpable, the love in the room was clarion clear.
Something wonderful was happening.