Monday, January 10, 2011

A Thousand Little Quiet Devastations

NOTE: I'm continuing to release these old posts, the ones that I wrote right after my mother's death. I'd thought about refining them, editing them, but I won't. It'd be false. I'd be gilding them with a perspective gained in these last three months, and that wouldn't be true to the feeling behind them. Don't misunderstand: the feelings that motivated the writing are still here, a little reduced by time, like a sauce that's been simmering. But those feelings still overflow this inadequate vessel unexpectedly and often. Anyway I leave the old posts incomplete, because that's how I feel these days: incomplete.

Life is a series of befores and afters. Watershed moments, some call them. In the before, you reside in ignorance or anticipation, and in the afters, oh those afters.... The afters run the gamut between joyous and devastating, and right now, my feet are firmly planted in devastated terrain.

My mother passed away on New Year's Eve, 2010, the before-iest day of the year. The after will last the rest of my life. And in this after, I'm finding that the little devastations pierce my heart most thoroughly. Maybe it's because the big ones are too much right now, and I can wrap my head around the little ones more easily. Who knows? And maybe it's because the little ones seem like they will be unending, some daily, innocent reminder of my loss. I'm compelled to document them, though, because I don't want to forget, these things that blindside me with sadness.

Chancing on a photo of a smiling her that rests on my digital camera from my daughter's birthday in November...

Finding her voter registration card from 30 years ago in her wallet, a token of our former residence, the home that served as a backdrop to all of our childhoods...

Putting together the digital slide show of her life for the funeral services, her life flashing before my eyes. And in those photos, seeing unending delight in her eyes... How had I not seen that before? What a happy woman she was? What a contented woman she was? And beautiful. How did I not realize how beautiful she was?

Realizing that my last real conversation with her, when I knew that she knew she wasn't confusing me with someone else, was about gifts she wanted to get my children for Christmas.

Watching my older sister give her permission to die, telling her that we'd be okay, and that we'd miss her, but that she didn't need to put herself through this anymore.

Shopping in the infant aisle at the pharmacy, desperate to find any tools that might help us feed her better, and settling on baby spoons and eyedroppers.

Spoon feeding her water when she could no longer sip from straws. Then moving to sponging water into her mouth when she could no longer sip from a spoon.

Hearing my father tell the hospice chaplain that she'd already received Extreme Unction.

Holding her hand when she died.

Realizing that none of the dresses from the weddings of her children would really fit properly because she'd lost so much weight in the past couple of weeks.

Seeing the blanket that I'd purchased for her for Christmas, that covered her all during her stay in hospice, draped over her recliner at my parents' home.

Going through her jewelry and not knowing if the detritus mingled among the gold -- a Lite Brite peg, a barrette, a Lego -- were casual reminders of our childhoods, or evidence that she never cleaned out that jewelry box.

My daughter, hugging the photo album of her Baptism to her chest as she slept, the night before my mother died. There were several pictures of the two of them together in that little album.

Seeing that my father has started using Mom's side of the bed as a way station for paperwork, which I interpret as his needing to fill that space with something, anything.

My daughter, hearing me sniffle, say that I shouldn't be sad because Grandmom wasn't in pain anymore and is in Heaven, something I certainly hadn't said to her (but her daycare provider had, showing me that my daughter required some comfort that I hadn't provided).

My brother's voice quavering as he read
Ecclesiastes 3:2 during her funeral service.

Seeing the mausoleum space, the "filing cabinet," as Mom called it, swallow up her casket as the three burly graveyard workers pushed it to the back.

Finding the dress that Mom had requested she be buried in, after the fact, tucked away in a drawer far away from the hanging rack, where she'd told me it rested back in the Fall.

There's more. There will always be more. I pan my day-to-day life for the sad elements, surprising myself when I don't uncover them, annoyed with myself that I can't just eat Butterscotch Krimpets without analyzing if they make me upset because Mom liked them too.

This year, her absence will render all sorts of firsts and milestones bittersweet. I'm okay, all things considered. It all happened in a year. ONE YEAR. Her first brush with a health problem, one that required being seen by a doctor, was last April. She had a chest cold, was exhausted beyond anything else she experienced, and was diagnosed with pneumonia. She couldn't go to my nephew's first birthday party the first weekend in May because of it, but was recovered enough by mid-month to go to my son's Baptism. Then July, the diagnosis came, the ensuing flurry of treatments and tests and meetings, the supposed all-clear in November, and then her rapid decline and death in December.

I'm still reeling. I think I'm okay, then something stupid will punch me in the gut, like last night when I made chicken parmigiana, one of the meals in her rotation of Sunday dinner menus.

I think I'm where I'm supposed to be. My mother died. It's awful. I'm allowed to be sad, and I don't paint on a smile to fake it 'til I make it or anything like that. But the sadness hasn't trumped all else. It's not who I am. Who I am is my mother's daughter, with an outrageous work ethic, and a ferocious need to make sure things are stable for the family. Doing those things makes me feel better. I feel the grief when it surfaces, I push off feeling it 'til it's more convenient. I function. I find joy in life,I laugh with my kids, I delight in my husband and family, I cook dinner, help with homework, fold laundry, scrub bathrooms, take walks, go on dates, laugh at movies, take bubble baths, lose myself in a good novel, put photo albums together, help my sister look for houses when she moves back, go to work. I don't ask what the point of everything is, I haven't suddenly gone all churchy or gotten angry with higher powers.

But this... This has been awful. There's no way around that. One of my friends, someone who's been through this, which is really the only way I think you can understand it, wrote me the best note. She said, "Your mother deserved more time. You deserved more time with her."

So very, very true.

Pandora's Box

So, here's the thing: my mother passed away on December 31, 2010 after an awful, terrible pummeling from brain cancer, spinal cancer, and small cell lung cancer. Since then I have been stopped up like a three-year-old who eats nothing but steak. I did write a few posts in the couple of weeks after her passing, which I'll share here when I feel OK about it. These are not shiny samples sunshine and optimism. Sorry. Here's one of 'em.

When I was eight years old, I became enamored of my older sister's English text book. She was a sophomore in high school, and they were studying Greek myths. (Tangent: Hellz yeah, I was reading high school literature when I was in third grade.)

Back then, I thought it was kinda friendly of the gods to bundle Hope in with the demons, disease, and pestilence showered upon humankind when Pandora opened that box. A little ray of sunshine mixed in with the thundersnow. It was nice to think that no matter what happened, no matter how bad things got, people could always find some comfort in their hope for something better to come along.


Now I realize that Hope is kind of a tricky little bitch. Because while you are hopeful, you can indulge in denial. Once you settle up with reality, though, you can raze the earth, rebuild, move forward.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


I wish I were a poet, because the words that I have to memorialize my mother seem lumpy, awkward, and ham-handed. Insufficient, really.

My lack of articulation is ironic, because during Mom’s illness, I learned to swim in a new vocabulary. Most of those words were unappealing, though a few of them were hopeful. All of the words, good and bad, were sprinkled throughout the updates that went out to most of you, the collection of family and friends who worried for her. So it only seemed right to offer this final missive, or “Mom Update,” to all of you.

We’ve always known Mom to have a lot of spirit, a mischievous glint in her eye, and to season her stories with more than a few embellishments. You know, just to make it more interesting. Oh, and she was loud. Let’s not forget loud. I think anyone who was able to call all of her children home at night without the aid of cell phones or bullhorns can be called loud.

All of that is to say that she was full of vitality. Or as she might have said, “Vim and vigor.” The snapshots that decorate every inch of every wall in my parents’ home are infused with evidence of this. And if pictures are worth a thousand words, then Dad has provided at least a million words about Mom. Nearly every one of those photos show her holding at least one child, laughing, making food, hugging someone, comforting someone, or picking crabs. In short, she enjoyed life.

Contrasting that woman – the one who could pull together a dinner for twenty-five in an hour without having to go shopping or asking for help – with the woman suffering the effects of cancer and the related treatments… Well, it’s night and day.

I think that we can all agree that watching Mom’s decline over the past six months has been heartbreaking. But Mom never stopped being, well, Mom. During her initial hospitalization in July, Mom made it clear that she didn’t want to be in the hospital. She didn’t want to be in a bed, being fussed over, or considered sick. She tried to make a break for it nearly every day. I think there may have been bribes.

While she was still in the hospital, though, she was worried about the rest of us. For example, even though her brain was swollen and peppered with tumors, she wanted to make sure we were eating. So she gave me a detailed order for what to pick up for everyone. Another time, she handed over her grandmother’s ring to Dad to have the stones set for her two most recent grandbabies. She’d realized she hadn’t included them yet and didn’t want them to be left out.

This continued to be true after she returned home and regained her clearheadedness. The last real conversation I had with Mom was at the tail end of a Sunday visit. It was December 12th, just before she went to the hospital this last time. My husband had packed up the car and the kids, and I was on my way out the door. Mom stopped me and said, “I need to know what to get all the kids for Christmas.” We spoke about it briefly, and I offered to do the shopping for her. We now know that the cancer had bloomed again, and despite that, she was focused on her grand kids.

This past half-year shouldn’t eclipse Mom’s previous sixty-seven years. She wouldn’t want us to remember her with a walker, or breathing heavily, or without hair. She’d prefer us to think of her singing the ‘Foot Foot Song’ or playing catch in the backyard. But I share the stories from her illness with you because, ultimately, I think who we are when the chips are down is probably who we are at our core. And with Mom, despite the pain, the bone-crushing fatigue, and the body not working the way she wanted it to, she stayed true to the caring, gracious, devoted, funny woman that she was.

I am grateful for the woman that she was, and am honored and privileged to have been her daughter. My brothers and sisters and I have been commended on how dutiful we’ve been during all of this. But none of what we’ve done was performed out of a sense of duty. It was out of love for both of our parents. Returning the love and the help that they have given us. Back in May of this year, before all of this began, I’d asked Mom to make a ham for my youngest son’s Baptism. Who does that? A side dish or a dessert, sure, but who asks someone to bring the main course? But Mom agreed without skipping a beat. I thanked her, perhaps too effusively. She laid her hand on my arm and said, with a smile, “It’s my pleasure.”

So, I wanted to say in return, it was our pleasure, Mom. Our pleasure.