Death is never easy; the ache of missing a loved one is a constant void. There is a loneliness that no one can fill. And it has nothing to do with the strength of one's religious beliefs, which (for me) has been a constant support system...especially in the painful days when my mind was trying to adjust to the reality of death.
It is the physical absence of that person -- their smile, the sound of their voice and laughter, or the simple gesture of a loving hand reaching out to squeeze yours. The certain faith you had that one day you would be reunited in the hereafter can often seem like a dream shrouded in mist.
More often than not, you find yourself wishing you could call them on the phone, or have just one more moment with them...right now.
At the very least, you wish for some spectral sign or physical evidence that they have not abandoned you in death.
Today is one of those days for me, because it is my mother's birthday. So, naturally, the date does give me pause. Memories rush forward, the void deepens in my heart, and I am forced to deal with the reality that I still find difficult to face. She isn't here anymore. And, today, I find myself stunned to realize it has been seven years since her death. In fact, when I stop to think of the days, months, and years that have passed, I almost feel as if I have been in a state of suspended animation. Seven years?! Why does it still hurt so?
I spent the morning surrounded by memories and not knowing what to do. Driving to Dallas and visiting her grave was usually my ritual, but today the thought of standing there, weeping for the wonderful parent I had lost, seemed too painful. So, I thought it would be better to remember her in a different way, perhaps prepare one of her recipes for my family for dinner, then share our memories of her.
I went to one of her recipe boxes--crammed packed with 3x5 recipe cards, all neatly and painstakingly handwritten. Most were familiar, delicious recipes she had made for us over the years; some I had not seen before. And then, wedged between Boston Brown Bread and Date Nut Bread, I found it...something she'd clipped out of a newspaper...something that stirred a distant memory...something she loved. It wasn't a recipe, but a poem.
As I read it, it seemed as if it could be a sign from Mom--something important she wanted to tell me. The words touched my heart like a warm embrace, prompting me to find out more about the poem and its author, Mary E. Frye.
Born 13 November 1905 in Dayton, Ohio, by the time Mary Elizabeth Clark was three years old, she was an orphan. Years later, when she was 12 years old, she moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Her life is somewhat shrouded in obscurity. We know in 1927 she married Claud Frye, a clothing retailer. In addition to being a housewife, Mary was a mother and florist, In fact, she grew the flowers she sold. Although not formally educated, she had a lifelong love of reading and writing. But it was not until 1932 when something compelled her to write this poem.
Back in 1932, America was still struggling with the economic crisis of The Great Depression, whilst far away in Germany an inflamed ideology had begun its terrifying, monstrous course. Despite the fact Adolph Hitler had failed to win the election as President, the first volume of his radical, anti-semetic manifesto, Mein Kamp (published 1925) and his unrelenting efforts to resurrect the Nazi Party of 1919 had taken root. More than that, the Nazi Party was rapidly growing and so was Hitler's power.
Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, Mary and Claud Frye happened to have a young woman named Margaret Schwarzkopf boarding with them. Born in Germany and Jewish, Margaret was not only frantic about the hostility and violence being directed at Jews in Germany, but heartsick that she had not been able to return to her homeland to be with her dying mother. According to Mary E. Frye, an inconsolable Margaret stated that she "never even had the chance to stand by her mother's grave and shed a tear." A sympathetic Mary E. Frye--no doubt also reminded of having grown up without her parents--felt compelled to write down her thoughts.
Using a piece of brown wrapping paper, Frye said the words "just came to her". She made copies of the poem about life and death, then privately shared it with others in pain, mourning the loss of a loved one. Soon, the verse became popular across the country and around the world. It has since been read at public and private funerals, and printed on bereavement cards and in newspapers. Its comforting message transcended boundaries of race, religion or nationality.
In 1995, the poem was read on a BBC television program called BOOKWORM, whereupon more than 30,000 British viewers requested a copy. A year later, BOOKWORM held a poll in Britain, and the poem was voted, "The Nation's Favourite Poem". When one takes into account that Britain is the homeland of legendary poets, such as Lord Byron, Chaucer, Keats, among others, to have Mary Frye's poem selected as the favorite clearly conveys the significance of its impact within the hearts and minds of people.
The poem has also been featured at national memorial services, such as the memorial for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, and for the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City. [Pictured below: 20th Anniversary Memorial Service for Victims and Families of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 - Lockerbie, Scotland - Photo by: Jeff J. Mitchell]
Ironically, until the 1990s, no one knew the identity of the person who wrote this poem. It was when others started claiming authorship of the uncopyrighted piece, and even that it originated as a Native American work, that Mary Frye finally stepped forward publicly. Her claim was carefully researched and verified by none other than Abigail Van Buren (syndicated newspaper columnist 'Dear Abby') in 1998.
Like Margaret Mitchell (author of Gone With The Wind who never had anything else published), Mary continued to write poetry, but her greatest achievement would remain her poem, "Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep". Mary was 98 years old when she took her last breath on September 15, 2004, and is survived by her daughter. And yet, I'm sure you will agree, she also lives on each time her poem is read or spoken, continuing to touch the lives of others.
Over time, others have made revisions to her words, a small change here and there, and even an additional verse in 2007 for a movie based on the poem. You may have even seen one of those versions before. However, I want to share with you the original 16-line poem that Mary Elizabeth Frye wrote in 1932.
What I love about it is the fact that it reminds us to celebrate the life of those we loved who have passed on. And remember when I said how much I often wish for a sign from my mother she is still near? I realize the sign I have been waiting for these past seven years has surrounded me every moment of every day, no matter where I am or where I go. The simple truth is: Those we love never truly die. They are still with us; you just have to look for the signs.
Happy Birthday, Mom! ~ AKB
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamonds glint on snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room,
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die."
~ Mary F. Frye (1932)