For some, Mother’s Day means a Sunday filled with celebrations. For others, it’s more of a day for reflection, but for all of us it’s a day of love. In my life, Mother’s Day has been many things. There were the classic days of doing whatever Mom wanted for a whole day, typically gardening or maybe some baking. When I was 9 my Mom passed away and then it became a somber holiday, and still is, but in a different manner now. Once I became a teenager, the day morphed into a fine excuse to abuse alcohol because I had decided well in advance it was going to be a rough day. I knew that evening I could get blackout drunk and who could really blame me? Now with 2 years free from alcohol coupled with other forms of physical, emotional and spiritual detoxification and growth, I approach the day with pure unfiltered love.
This day is no longer a low point on my calendar, instead it resets me. It reminds me of the man I strive to be because I was able to see so much of that person in my Mom. When we’re in a city environment for too long, getting away from it all, into nature, can be a much needed reprieve, that’s what Mother’s Day is for me emotionally. My Mom was exceptionally kind to others, not to make herself feel good, but to spread positivity to those around her. While we can easily become the center of our own universes, this life is for sharing and connecting with others. I’m not writing this to unload my sadness, or in hopes of receiving sympathy, it’s quite the opposite. This piece is about love and I’m sharing it to offer my deepest empathy for those who may not be having joyous celebrations today. For those who have experienced loss, or even just a mounting distance within a family. While the bulk of the content I share is food related, the primary goal of what I do here is to help others. Changing what I consume has been a powerful catalyst for healing in my life, but it’s just one spoke on the wheel of health. Death is an undeniable part of life. The death of my Mom, and the path it has set me on emotionally, are so intricately weaved into everything I do today that I felt this was important to share as part of the broader narrative I’m looking to tell. This is not intended to be a sad story. This is just one persons experience with grief, we all go through it with different variables. Think of this article as a funeral when the attendees are asked to wear bright colors instead of black. Sure, there is an underlying heaviness, but this is a celebration, not only of Gynell Zich, but Mother’s everywhere, past and present.
It all started with a pain in her leg. We didn’t really know what was going on, but day after day the pain persisted until we took her to the doctor to get it checked out. I remember telling the doctor that she had mentioned falling in the shower recently, thinking I’d just figured out the mystery, but it was more than a bruised leg. Shortly after that appointment we learned she had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Hodgkins Lymphoma is a very treatable form of this cancer, sadly my Mom had the other kind. Then 10 months later my dad went with her to Mayo Clinic as we were trying anything doctors could offer us. A few days later I woke to him in my room and before he could get the words out, I knew.
I was only 9 when this happened, so sometimes I wonder about the scope of my memory, but it felt like after she passed, every person I’d ever met in my short life converged around us to show support and offer sympathy. Our house would be jam packed with people pouring out love, but even being surrounded by all of this, I still felt like I was standing alone on Earth. There is absolutely nothing in life like losing a parent. Regardless of how independent one may feel, they are still a column of monumental support. A parent is a source of unconditional, primal love and when that leaves us, the resulting void is staggering. Whether we’re 9 and our parents are basically our entire world, or we’re 59 and now taking care of our parents as they age, when they go, everything changes.
I went to Catholic schools through high school and after my Mom passed I started to question pretty much everything I was being taught. In the months she was sick, whole classes of kids would make cards with phrases like “get well soon” and “you’re in our prayers”, the hallways of the school were coated in them from floor to ceiling. We’d have weekly masses and some would even be dedicated to her. A massive church, filled mostly with children, asking God to have mercy on this one Mother, and none of it worked. When I was 9, I didn’t have much of a faith in religious matters, I just followed what was put around me the same way most sons become fans of the sports teams their dad roots for. As years passed, and I established my own outlook on religion, I knew I couldn’t support the institution that had failed so terribly. I’d see collection baskets go around at mass and want to scream “It doesn’t work!”, “This is a total sham!”. So as my anger grew I would often let my thoughts be heard about the church or God because I saw them as one in the same. If you believe in God, I thought you had to believe in the church too, and vice versa. In that time, I said terrible things about both. Words so awful I wince at the thought of them. This wasn’t done to get a rise out of anyone, it was simply because I had nowhere else to direct my hostility.
Over the next years, depression became a major part of my life and I chalked it up to a side effect of what had happened. I just assumed I would be a depressed person for the rest of my life. I drank excessively, alone more often than not, grappling with these feelings, finding short term reprieve in whatever substance I could. Thankfully that train ran out of steam by the time I was about 20. I stopped drinking liquor at 21 which helped me see what my habit had become a bit more clearly. I always knew that I drank differently than those around me. I loved parties because everyone was drinking so heavily, but they were more of a convenience to me than anything because I was going to be doing that anyways, but this way, I could mingle while I did it. Sort of hiding in plain sight. Instead of being something to casually enjoy in social settings or when I felt like relaxing a bit, it was a crutch. It was my go to when challenges arose. I just couldn’t seem to handle being alone with myself without it.
I knew I had some inner tribulations to work through emotionally and spiritually. It’s one thing to have some unprocessed grief, but to have a hate for God buried inside me was tearing me apart more than I knew. I realized the more clear headed I became, the better I’d be able to process what I needed to in order to free myself of these depressing and often angry thoughts. I had become so accustom to them, and almost possessive of them, that combating them felt counterintuitive. They were a part of me. It was “my” depression, “my” anxiety. I realized there was a part of me that was actively holding onto them, but I knew I had to fight that, to get out of my comfort zone and begin to mold my own mindset. Pills didn’t work. I tried therapy but the dynamic just wasn’t something I connected well within. I felt that I had to get to the source of the feelings on my own to truly alleviate the struggle.
At 24 I had my last beer and I haven’t looked back since. That alone has removed a substantial headwind for me emotionally and spiritually. In the winter of 2016, I spent a few weeks in Ecuador where I felt I could make some major progress spiritually. I went down there to attend a raw food culinary retreat and explore the country but the primary reason was for a spiritual excursion. Some parts are more private than I’m ready to share here, but I will say, during a few experiences I was able to connect with the higher power I’d recently begun seeking. I made a repentance for the heinous thoughts and words I’d carried for so long and I came out of it a new, absolved man. When I left Ecuador, it felt as if I’d left behind 20 pounds of dark, negative, crippling energy that I knew I would never be allowing it to grow within me again. My relationship with God was strong and my path forward became much more clear.
Grief is natural. Without fully experiencing it, we’re merely suppressing the challenging feelings when it’s the whole spectrum of emotions that define the human experience. My grief isn’t over with. It’s not something to be conquered. Though now, when I see a Mother’s Day ad or some type of reminder, it doesn’t put my day onto a path of sadness. It’s a reminder of something beautiful. I feel like through experiencing a depth of sorrow and anger to the degree that I did enables new levels of joy, love and gratitude beyond what I thought possible at other times. My favorite song by Sharron Von Etton has a line that’s repeated many times, “She made me love more” and when I listen to it, often times singing along with a big smile on my face, it’s because it makes me think of my Mom.
Our time together in this world may have been cut short, but I still feel her all around me. When my sister lets loose with a belly laugh, I’m able to hear her. When I smell banana bread, I sense her. Recently Annette Boucher on of my Mom’s best friends in life, told me that my Mom was the reason she got into gardening, now Annette’s backyard is one of the most lush I’ve ever seen. All those beautiful plants growing carry with them a trace of her spirit. While I may not be able to spend time with with my Mom directly anymore, through maintaining a clear mind and open eyes, I find more and more of her around me all the time. Her physical self my have been laid to rest but as a wise man once said, “death is but removing a tight fitting shoe”, and I focus more on her spirit than her physical self. So in a way I feel we’ll be together again. Not as Joe and Gynell, but in the esoteric sense. I do believe we are all of one. This physical world displays us in a fragmented manor but when this stage of life passes, my belief is that we all go back to one cosmic soup until we’re ladled back out again anew.
For a long time, I tried not to think about this part of my past. It was difficult. I knew I would probably start crying. I just wasn’t ready to be in that headspace. As I became better able to handle these difficult emotions without shying away from them or distorting them, it allowed a reframed perspective to build. I’m certainly an emotional guy but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The preconceived notions of what constitutes manliness mean nothing to me. I see my expansive emotions as a part of my being that I’ve garnered a respectful appreciation for. I’m grateful that I feel emotions so deeply, both good and challenging.
I had several years of dreading Mother’s Day. I knew strangers would say things without knowing my situation like “What’s your Mom got planned for the day?” or “Will you be spending time with your Mom?”. Now I can brush that stuff off much better than I could before. Uninformed inquires or comments about my mom aren’t reason enough to let my mood slide down hill. Any reminders of her are a chance to experience my Mom’s energy because I perceive them as her sort of poking her head out and saying hello.
Do I wish things played out differently? Of course. But after years of dwelling on it, I know those thoughts lead to nowhere. So on Mother’s Day, I live in the way she’d be proud of. I feel gratitude for all the blessings I do have. I acknowledge the difficulties with reverence without succumbing to their weight. I focus on love above all else. I live how I’d like to live everyday. I think if anyone who dies could convey a message to their bereaved it would be to not spend their time here in sadness. I respect her life and death through joy rather than depression but it wasn’t an easy road to this. I don’t mean to say we can simply abdicate our own grief or the feeling that a part of our life, a part our ourselves, has been lost, though we do have a hand on the steering wheel of our emotions. I’m sure at some point on Mother’s Day this year I will cry. Though instead of being fueled purely by despair it’s more likely to be from a mounting tidal wave of many different emotions. Crying is a release I welcome. On my way back from Costa Rica 3 few months ago, I cried a couple times. These were tears of pure joy stemming from 5 of the most heart opening days I couple have ever imagined at Envision festival. So even in a public space, like the airplane, I felt no shame in letting some tears flow while I smiled ear to ear. Sometimes we have more emotion than we know what to do with and rather than struggle to keep our cool, it’s best just to let it flow.
So this year on Mother’s Day, I ask you to approach the day with more love than ever before by holding nothing back. If you will be spending time with your Mom, be present. Express everything that’s in your heart. Let her know how much you love her. Hug her with all of the love, care and gratitude she deserves. If your Mom is not with us anymore, spend the day how she would want you to. Whatever emotions come, feel them all, but if you feel like you’re spiraling too deep in a negative way, give yourself time and space to realign with feelings of love. Lately, when difficult times arise, I’ve been using the word Love as my mantra. As silly as it may sound, I say it over and over. After a short while, a smile begins to form and I come back to center.
I miss my Mom every single day, more than I can express in words. I wish so badly I could have another conversation with her. These thoughts used to be crippling, now they serve as a reminder of how important love is in this life. I have a dad who amazes me on a daily basis. A sister who I can connect with in ways unlike anyone else on the planet and a collection of friends and family that inspire, support and care for me so much that it seems absurd to ever think of loneliness. Through the highs and the lows, this is a beautiful life I’ve been gifted. If it all ended tomorrow I would go out a genuinely happy and appreciative man. The hardships have allowed for newfound depths of joy and gratitude in all aspects of life. This piece is meant to be expression of love. Love for life. Love for those around me. And Love for my Mom. Even years after her passing, my love for her continues to grow and Mother’s day is an exuberant reminder of that.