January 9, 2005 – the date is engraved in my bones. It’s the day my mom, Lorraine Castagnini, left this world at age fifty-six. I remember dropping the phone and crushing my ears with my hands trying to squeeze the news of her death out of my head.
My mom was a lot more than just my mom. My mom was my rock. She really knew how to walk the line between being my mom and my best friend. When I moved away to California, I called her pretty much every day simply because I loved to. I mean, I drove her nuts, I was an insane teenager, but there was nothing, absolutely nothing I would not talk to her about, and I shared it all.
My mom loved being a mom, more than she loved anything else. Many of my friends during my childhood didn’t have close relationships with their own mothers, so my mom became the neighborhood mom. This petite Italian woman from Brooklyn really enjoyed chasing little boys around the kitchen table with a wooden pasta spoon as much as she loved her coffee and cigarettes.
Mom truly knew me in many ways better than I knew myself. She would often quote the serenity prayer to me: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
After her death, a tortuous new mantra took over my mind: “I tried so hard, but obviously not hard enough, to help you discover your road back to health.”
For the final five months that my mom was on this earth, we were at extreme odds. I had recently left my childhood sweetheart, in essence, my mom’s only daughter.
The evening before Mom died, I didn’t even see her as my mom anymore. “That’s not her,” I told myself, “she looks like a crack addict.” She looked like someone who was going to die. Five hours later, she had a heart attack and was gone.
For years, I’d fought with my father over what the doctors were prescribing for her. Having trained as a chiropractor, I knew that their diagnoses and pills were all wrong. They kept diagnosing her “disease” after “disease” while prescribing whatever would put her into a stupor, anything to numb the pain, never addressing the cause. My father refused to listen to me, and I was stuck with questioning what to do. This went on for years.
Had I tuned out her cries for help? She’d been silently screaming, begging for something I failed to give her. In my work, I’d been fighting furiously to hear people’s internal challenges. Yet, I’d neglected to hear the most valuable person in my universe.
“Please someone cut off my head,” I couldn’t stop obsessing. I staggered under the grief as if I had control of the death card. Consumed, confused, and alone, the little boy inside me wanted his mommy.
For the thirteen years before my mom passed, I’d devoted my professional life to helping people overcome traumas and tragedies. Death of a loved one, rape, divorce, molestation—my clients had been through it all—and I helped them find their silver linings. As impossible as it seemed, I knew that it was my time to work on myself.
I pretty much isolated myself and looked inward. With pen and paper, I started listing each challenge that I felt with my mom’s passing—and there were a ton of them. As difficult as it was, I began putting into writing how each of these painful challenges might serve me in my life.
I also listed each quality my mom had represented to me— her nurturing and friendship, her humor and empathy, her unconditional love for me. According to the first law of thermodynamics—the law of conservation of energy— energy and matter is neither created nor destroyed, but only change forms. All of us are this energy transforming. Logically, it made complete sense that I could find my mom’s qualities in other forms in the people around me—but how?
Each time I looked for the transformation, my mind and my heart would go into a panic. I so wanted to hold on to the identity of a little boy grieving over the loss of his mom. The worst part of it was I missed my mom’s support. Where was this unconditional love now? Who would mother me now? What were the advantages of being separated from my mom’s unconditional love? Now, I would have to find and trust the inner voice inside of me.
The tug of war raging inside me threatened to pull me into a bottomless pit. The universe had thrown me onto my ultimate crossroad. Either I’d find the perfect balance in my mom’s passing, or I’d have to realize that what I’d been teaching my clients was bullshit.
Then one day while working it through with pen and paper, I found myself feeling lighter, as if something had let go, something had shifted inside. I really didn’t know what happened. I just felt inside that something was ok. Basking in this new inner peace, I put down my pen to go to a restaurant for dinner. My girlfriend came with me.
While we were in the parking lot, a woman walked by and caught my attention. Our eyes locked and she said “hello” with her smile. I introduced myself and asked her name.
“Lorraine,” she responded.
Lorraine! Same name as my mom, and not exactly the most common name. I asked Lorraine where she was from.
“Brooklyn,” she replied, which was where my mom was from. I was highly suspicious at the coincidence, so I asked Lorraine her age.
This Lorraine was fifty-six years old— my mom’s age when she died. This Lorraine was holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other — my mom loved those damn cigarettes!
It felt like there was no separation between me and the new Lorraine — or anyone or anything else for that matter. It felt like I was floating along with everyone and everything else like there was a light beam connecting us all. I felt a calm inner knowing inside.
I whispered to my girlfriend, “I guarantee this Lorraine’s birthday is January ninth”– the same day my mom had passed.
The woman stared through my eyes with laser focus when I asked when her birthday was.
“January ninth,” she shouted, “Why?”
Then she got into a waiting car and was driven away. It seemed like she’d disappeared, like a ghost.
Was this a living breathing confirmation that mom was still around somewhere?
What are the chances of meeting another 56-year-old Lorraine from Brooklyn whose birthday would be on my mom’s death day? And what made me know and voice her birthday in advance?
Had I transcended the space-time illusion and experienced the eternal present?
Ever since I was a teenager, my mind was obsessed with understanding life and death. The greatest tragedy of my life, the death of my mother, gave to me the greatest gift possible — I transcended the illusion that there is any separation between life and death. In that moment, life and death became one. We are all both dead and alive in the eternal present. My mother’s death helped me overcome any fear of death. Talk about transformation – Wow!
In thanking my mom for opening my eyes to a greater understanding of the Grand Organized Design, I constructed a beautiful scrapbook of our life together. It began with a few simple pictures and became a year of daily meditation in scrapbook building. I honored our precious moments and all she ever was to me.
I stopped beating myself up and acknowledged that during her last illness I visited her almost daily–I’d even chosen to live four blocks away from her. After her passing, I found I had a more profound relationship with her. I listened in ways I couldn’t before. I heard my mom, and we both discovered a new “one another,” closer and deeper in our communication. Before, there was my mom; now, there is my mom and her free soul guiding my spirit. I understood this beautiful woman came to this planet to be a mother. She wanted to die a mother. Her boys were turning into men, and dying was how she let go. She couldn’t let go and stay here with us. She had to leave for us to really let go and think for ourselves.
This woman who birthed me gave me a second life in her dying. Since her death, I try to listen more closely and open my heart wider to others, and myself, just the way she lived.
“Mom, I understand it was your time to leave. I understand and honor your freedom to change. I realize that no matter how hard I would have tried to shift our roles a bit, and tell you what I think you should do, you wanted to live and die ‘The Mother.’ ”
“Thank you for the gift of serenity for that which I cannot change. God knows, no one was going to change you! By my facing this great challenge of your leaving so young and so suddenly, you instilled in me the courage to discover and change the only thing I can change: my own mind. Thank you for the courage to share our story.
I will cherish this courage with every breath until my very last. Yes, Mom, when you left I was lost, but thanks to you, I now am found I was blind, but now I see. Mom, you were one powerful little woman in your life – and even more powerful now.”
By John Castagnini – In loving memory of his mom, Lorraine Castagnini