My dear mother, Sybil Irene Bailey, passed away January 30th, just shy of her 94th birthday. I wrote her this letter six years ago, telling her all the things I didn’t want to wait until her funeral to say. I stand by all these words to this day, and though there is much more to say, I feel this is a stab at a fitting tribute to this great being.
18 years old, in 1942 or 1943.
Happy 88th Birthday!
I’ve been reflecting recently on how we humans strive at funerals to properly honor the dearly departed, to articulate what we found unique and deserving of love and respect. And, it always seems to me the person who most deserves to hear these tributes is the very one who isn’t there to receive them. We all fantasize at one time or another about how we’d be missed if we were to die, how people would cry and sing our praises at our memorials. And yet these little daydreams always omit the essential detail that we would not be there to bask in this post-mortem love and remembrance.
Having thought about this, I decided I want to tell you now, while you are vibrantly alive with years ahead of you, exactly what I think of you. I want to share this now, when you, the most important person to hear my words have ears, eyes, and mind to receive them.
Several times I have heard you complain that your parents cursed you with the name “Sybil” because, you said, it means “witch.” Forgive me, but I’m sure it will come as no shock that most people who know you well would say, at one time or another in their experience of you that, so defined, this would not be an altogether unfitting moniker. No offense, but you do have your caustic side.
But, seriously, I think you underestimate your parents’ prescience in naming you that and you cheat yourself out of the true profundity of its significance.
As I’m sure you well know when you are in less cynical moods, though I’ve never heard you say it, the Sybil in Greek mythology was an entity deeply revered: she was an oracle, a fearless and penetrating speaker of the unvarnished truth, a supernatural seer who foretold the consequences of people’s folly if they did not correct their courses.
I can think of no more fitting name for you. God knows no one could ever accuse you of withholding honest self-expression! I know you struggle deeply with feelings of powerlessness and voicelessness in a heartless, unjust, and violent world. But, to those of us who live outside the confines of your body, you are an inexorable force of nature, a volcano, fearlessly and relentlessly decrying the barbaric profligacy, futility and desecration of war; the obscenity of greed; and the criminal injustice of poverty.
Just by speaking the truth of your heart and what you see, you taught me the most important values I hold. And I am not the only one. Far from it.
I think the sweet, loving little girl in you often fears no one cares what she thinks so you shout it in anger rather than risk the disappointment of having your tender offerings spurned or ignored. What I wish I could show you is that you grossly underestimate your impact in this world. Just by refusing to be silenced in your diagnosis of our sociopolitical ills and your warnings about our insane collective trajectory, you have profoundly affected everyone close to you and, through them, have influenced more lives than you can possibly imagine. The portents you speak emanate out from you in great waves and reverberate in the human mind-field surrounding you far beyond your recognition. I could drag a parade of people before you who would testify to the truth of what I am saying, but I don’t think that would convince you any more than my writing it here. And, though it seems an unfair paradox, perhaps your humility in this regard is part of what keeps your vision clear. I don’t know.
You are the strongest person I know. Despite a lifetime of disappointments, excruciating physical pain, soul-rending losses, a heart and mind resolutely open to the world’s horrors, and the unabating demands of advancing age, you still burn fiercely with commitment to and passion for life. Through your anger and tears I see the deeper truth of you: an irrepressible faith in the fundamental human potential for goodness and an undying respect for the sanctity of life in all its forms.
This is nowhere more evident than in the way you cherish babies and children, in the loving joy that pours out of you when you hold a kitten. It shines through your indomitable spirit, racing around with a cane or walker still raising hell like the day you were born, indignant that some fool might mistake you for a little old lady (which I can assure you, only a fool would!) It glows through your insatiable intellectual curiosity; your love of philosophy; your encyclopedic understanding of history and politics, borne from a lifetime of courage, independence, study, hunger for knowledge, commitment to decency, and native belief that power can and should be wielded justly; in your witty, exceptionally informed, incisive and acerbic political critiques; in your fascinating stories from the Depression, WWII, and the anti-Vietnam War movement; in your saucy and uncompromising use of the F word; in your gifts as a cook; in the way you work calculus problems for fun in your eighties. I mean, seriously, calculus problems for fun? Who does that? I bow to you. That’s just amazing.
It also radiates through the beauty you create in your environment, particularly in the artistry of your gardens, works of majesty painted on a soil canvas with a living palette; dynamic tributes to growth, harmony, balance and grace; living paintings wrought of your own beauty, calling it back to you and to all of us through their joyful unfoldment; living, transient, glorious celebrations of the life in you and of life itself.
It emanates through your perennial spiritual quest, your journey to the motherland of India and into the heart of life’s baffling confusion, your implacable determination to pierce through the veil of illusion and see the deeper truth; in the way you never give up, no matter how many blind alleys you find, because you know the answer is right here for us to see if we could just open our eyes.
This is you, Sybil. You see clearly; you honor the miracle of life; and you speak the truth. I know you think no one is listening, but we are. People may not approach you in a temple and formally request your prognostications, but that does not mean we don’t navigate in significant part by reference to your light.
I’m sorry for the times I have been selfish and cruel. It has not always been easy to be your son. You are a ferocious woman, a collossa. It took time for me to grow strong enough to hold my ground in the face of your enormity and intensity! As a child, I felt eclipsed by the sheer scale of your personality and the turbulence of your powerful moods. At times I felt you needed to believe I was stronger than I was, and it left me feeling alone, invisible, and drowning in expectations I thought I couldn’t fulfill. At times I felt you couldn’t see my struggles and I believed it wasn’t really me you loved but an idealized veneer you had pasted onto a much more conflicted soul.
And while there may have been some truth to those perceptions when I was younger, maturity has revealed to me that they were as much a product of my failure to understand you as they were of any failure on your part to understand me.
Because from where I stand now, middle aged and both of us sober for a good long stretch, I can see quite clearly that you genuinely and unconditionally love each of your children, and that you are committed to us no matter what, without any exception. Each of us. No matter what.
And I have lived long enough to recognize that being mother to such an afflicted and at times ungrateful and resentful bunch of souls has been no picnic either. But, you never turned your back on any of us. I bow in honor and gratitude to your steadfast, gritty, very real, and unwavering love.
I’m more grateful than I can say that we both have lived long enough to enjoy the time we now share in sobriety. Even though circumstances separate us physically, I feel that our relationship is clearer, closer, and calmer than it has ever been. This is one of the greatest treasures of my life. I hope you know that.
If I could go back to before I was born and choose again who would be my mother, I would choose you. That’s the honest to God’s truth. I suffered my share of wounds from your imperfections. But, what child hasn’t? That’s part of the price we pay to be alive. Knowing you and being privileged to relate to you as your child and close friend are gifts beyond measure.
I know you struggle, like we all do, with the great gulf between how we think things are supposed to be and how they are. You struggle, like we all do, sometimes more painfully than many of us, with viewing this suffering human existence as being not an impediment to a spiritual path, but itself the spiritual path. This? This hell is the path? For better or worse, it appears to be, from what I can tell.
But the part I think it’s hard for you to see is how much inspiration we all draw from your endurance in spite of those struggles. In truth, there have been several dark chapters in this painful life when I held on only because of your courageous example and because I could not imagine failing to reciprocate the gift you give by persisting through the challenges of your sometimes overwhelming suffering.
My honest wish for you, beloved mother, is that you burn through your suffering in this lifetime and attain unsurpassed, perfect enlightenment.
Should that not occur just yet, my wish for you is that you find peace and joy during your remaining stretch in this body. I don’t mean pleasure, though I hope you have some of that, too. I mean joy. Acceptance of life on its own terms and the liberation that comes from surrender to its truth.
My whole life I have grieved that I cannot take away your pain. If I could relieve you of it by taking it on, I would gladly do so. But, I haven’t found a way to do that.
So, I pray and mediate for your relief from suffering on the material plane. And, more deeply, I pray that the work you are doing in this difficult life peels away enough layers of resistance to liberation and the direct experience of ultimate reality that, if you don’t attain enlightenment now, only a diaphanous veil separates you from it in whatever comes next, so you can see right through it and transcend the painful illusion of separation from the boundless love that is the ultimate truth of who we are.
I love you Sybil, oracle, speaker of the not always pleasant truth, fountain of beauty and rage against injustice. Thank you for refusing to be silenced, for shining and, yes, shouting and screaming your vision into our lives and troubled world. The best parts of those you have touched would not exist without you. Your very being extends beyond your skin into those fortunate enough to know you, and on and on. The current you add to the river of life enriches its vitality, whether you realize it or not. And, as the Buddha said, a person’s body may die, but her influence remains. And you, my dear, are one hell of a powerful influence, for good, for truth, for justice, for human dignity and for the sanctity of life.
Thank you for your wisdom, friendship, forgiveness, commitment, love, support, and compassion.
I love you!
And many more…
p.s. This letter does not begin to do justice to your intelligence and spirit, but I hope it conveys a sense of what you mean to me. xo
© 2019 Eric Borgerson