For Mother’s Day, a healing meditation on mortality

By Maya Phillips

A few weeks ago, I had a nightmare that my mother died, suddenly, at a restaurant in front of me and other members of my family. I spent the rest of the dream grieving, wandering the city lost and alone, until, as if my subconscious had tapped Christopher Nolan to direct this nightmare, I woke up once, then again, within the dream. Each time, I called a friend in a panic to tell her about my horrible nightmare only to hear her response: That was no dream.

When I finally woke up for real, I was devastated. I called my mother — who was befuddled at my panic — just to hear her voice. An awful, though obvious, revelation occurred to me in that moment: With my father dead, whenever my mother dies, I will be an orphan. The depths of that terror seized me, shattering me from the inside out.

It was around this time that I first watched the finale of the animated series “The Midnight Gospel,” which unexpectedly addressed my fear. I had never encountered such a loving, acute examination of living and death on TV — particularly the death of a parent. The episode might serve as a comfort for anyone who is grieving this Mother’s Day.

“The Midnight Gospel,” which debuted on Netflix last year, is a show that I dipped into slowly, like a pint of oddly flavored artisanal ice cream: It was tasty yet confounding, more idiosyncratic than my usual preferred flavors, suitable for consumption only when I was in a very specific mood. So despite its having only eight episodes, I stretched them out for months.

The series, which was created by Pendleton Ward and Duncan Trussell, is about a man named Clancy who uses a multiverse simulator to find and interview interesting characters in those simulated worlds for his “vidcast.” These trippy worlds, illustrated in the hallucinatory style of Ward’s other series “Adventure Time,” have bizarre features, like clown babies, fish-men, pirate cats and ice cream unicorns. But combined with these psychedelic visuals is audio from real interviews Trussell conducted with media personalities, authors and spiritual coaches on his podcast “Duncan Trussell Family Hour” — weighty dialogues about philosophy and human existence.

The incongruence between the conversations and the nutty visual narratives makes the series challenging to take in. I found some scenes, often those that included graphic physical transformations, too outré for my taste. So when I got to the tear-jerking final episode, I was caught unawares.

Clancy emerges from the simulator as a baby and finds his mother; they’re in a world inhabited by cute teddy bear scientists, who seem to be conducting experiments on the influence of different forms of affection and positive reinforcement. As Clancy and his mother observe the teddy bear experiments, the conversation between Trussell and his mother, a psychologist named Deneen Fendig, begins with her humorous account of his birth, then a more existential discussion about the ego, identity and being present, before the episode’s major turn: the revelation that Fendig has metastatic breast cancer and is living on borrowed time. (Fendig died in 2013.)

The animated story, too, takes a turn: As the dialogue wears on, Clancy gradually gets older, from a newborn to a grown man, as his mother matures into an elderly woman. Then she passes away, and Clancy immediately becomes pregnant, giving birth to his mother, and then the cycle happens again in reverse, with Clancy aging alongside his newborn, then fully grown mother. They both transcend their bodies, changing form until they’re ultimately transformed into planets talking in space, hovering near a black hole. Then his mother is drawn in.

This episode is the emotional anchor of the series, which otherwise feels like an impersonal thought experiment, or a drug-induced daydream. But here the universal meets the personal. Trussell’s mother first takes on the role of teacher, speaking about life and death in the abstract, as a means toward guiding and comforting her son through the process of her own dying.

“If you look at the world, what you see is things appearing and disappearing, and humans are a part of the whole of that,” Fendig says. “That just happens. You know, our egos personalize it, and we consider ourselves special cases. But we’re really not.”

“You’re a special case,” Trussell replies feebly.

I understood that moment, thinking of my mother, who has taken to more morbid discussions in the last year or so, for understandable reasons. For one, we’ve endured a pandemic that has killed millions. She is also fostering an incipient grief for her own mother, who has late-stage Alzheimer’s, and her father, who is not expected to survive the aggressive prostate cancer that returned this year. Her husband, my father, died seven years ago, at the young age of 51. And this last Christmas, after the holiday movies and gifts, she shared that she was suffering from a mysterious spreading numbness in her body that, months later, aside from a vague yet unnerving diagnosis, remains unresolved.

My mother and I are something like soul mates. Yin and yang, fire and earth, night and day — we are two interlinked circles, the central parts of each other’s worlds. It’s the two of us, always us two, until the day when it will just be one.

How do you prepare for an inevitable heartbreak? It’s the question Trussell, through Clancy, asks his mother. “It’s really hard,” he says. His mother tells him to surrender, to cry when he needs to, because grief feels like having your heart broken open — of course that feeling hurts, but that’s also proof of love.

When Clancy’s mother dies in one scene, a giant iridescent mushroom sprouts from the place where her body had been, and it recalls the symbol of the tree of life from various mythologies, linking all of creation. When she dies in planet form, sucked into the chasm of space, an ouroboros circles the abyss that is grabbing her as she tells Clancy that love will still remain, even after loss.

I spend a lot of time thinking about grief, especially now, after the year we’ve had. I’m sure many others have, too, particularly those who have lost a parent, or both parents, or anyone beloved. For many, this Mother’s Day will bring different kinds of bouquets, and cards not of celebration but of condolence and commemoration. I’m still looking out for the next time grief will find me, as it did on a weeknight in Brooklyn several years ago, when I got the call about my father. Or a few weeks ago when I got the call about my grandfather’s approaching death. Both times it was my mother on the other end of the phone.

The extraordinary feat that “The Midnight Gospel” pulls off is rendering those moments — those frightening phone calls, those announcements of loss — with sorrow but also with a recognition of joy and humor and all the love that sits in the heart of grief. That’s where so many stories about grief fail, and where this one brilliantly succeeds: conveying the fact that even in our loneliest, most tragic moments, none of us are alone.

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