“And you refuse to cry. Smart move, you hear a voice say quite distinctly. You might need those tears someday. And you have been telling yourself the same thing all your life.” ~ Franz Wright, from “The Lesson”
Saturday afternoon. Cloudy and cold, 41 degrees.
Two weeks. Two weeks since I’ve done more than played spider solitaire and shopped my way through grief via online shopping for makeup, nail polish, and books. I won’t apologize. It has worked for me before, and until yesterday, I had managed to hold in all but the smallest of tears.
But yesterday was the killer. Alexis and I were doing more cleaning out at my mom’s house. I was going through mountains of paperwork, some from as far back as 2000, when I came across an advanced directive form that my mother had filled out at some point. It was undated, but it was a shock.
You see, I had told the doctors that my mom wanted a no code, a DNR, that she did not want to be kept alive on machines. Well on this form she had checked that she did want CPR. I have no idea when she filled out this form, and it didn’t quite jibe with what she had said to me, but still. Had I made the wrong decision? Did I do the wrong thing?
It was all too much, and I finally broke down, irrevocably, loudly, lost it, in front of my daughter and granddaughter, and I couldn’t stop it, as much as I tried. The ugly, snotty, loud keening.
What if I did the wrong thing? I will never know, and once again, I have been placed in the position of making THE decision for someone I love, and once again, I have no idea if I did the wrong thing at the wrong time.
It is quite literally tearing my heart into small pieces.
“I gave you sorrow to hang on your wall
Like a calendar in one color.” ~ W. S. Merwin, from “The Nails”
Last night I had a dream that I have during periods of great sadness and stress. My former high school/college Catholic boyfriend has come back, and I have to tell him that I do not love him any more, that I love Corey. And the pain that I see on his face just kills me because I know that I have caused it. Many more things happened, like a ship takeover, and people removing their skin, but his face is what haunts me. I haven’t seen this person since Caitlin’s funeral, but he represents a different period in my life, when I was a different person.
So I forced myself to stay in bed for hours, tried to sleep more, tried to sleep away the memory of the dream. It did not work.
So here I am finally, on the day that I had decided that I would try to come back to this forum, this place of confession and reflection, that I would try to resume my relationship with words and images in attempt to creep back into some kind of normalcy. Perhaps I chose the wrong day.
What I am about to tell you might better be left unsaid, or kept to myself. Who knows. I only know that these words must come out else I go back into that place of complete lost control, back into the moment of sheer terror at feeling too much.
For those of you who chose to subscribe in the past few weeks, if you do not really know what I do here, I apologize in advance.
“I live with regrets—the bittersweet loss of innocence—the red track of the moon upon the lake—the inability to return and do it again” ~ John Geddes, from A Familiar Rain
No one prepares you for how it will feel when you lose your second parent. Most people live with a kind of trepidation as their parents age or become ill, live with a sense of dread at how it will play out in those final days. But how many people tell you how to prepare for that second loss, for the moment you enter the classification of orphan?
Okay, I know. Not really an orphan in the true sense of it, but orphan, no parents, nevertheless.
Let me back up a few paces. I had the same two parents my entire life. Today that is a rarity of sorts. No divorce, no steps. None of that. And even though my parents’ marriage was troubled in so very many ways, they were my parents, my touchstone to family, and when I lost my father, I was cast adrift in a way that I cannot even begin to explain.
I’m an only child. Sorry. I was an only child. The loss of my father wounded me, tore at me, left me feeling not only sad, but scared. Now I had to take care of my mother, and I knew that I would never be able to do it in the way that she needed, and honestly, I failed her in so many ways. But back to the original point: When you lose that second parent, and you are an only child, there is no one else left to tell embarrassing stories about you at family dinners. There is no one else to remind you of things that happened in your childhood. There is no one else left to brag about you, about the things that you did, about how you participated in the Dances of Asia as a young child before the Queen Mother (found the original program in her closet), about how you wrote for the Norfolk Compass (found an old copy also in her closet) or did that thing or whatever.
There is no one else.
“Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.
It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier.
Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now
with the gift of your left life?” ~ Carol Ann Duffy, from “Snow”
What I found out after my mother died is that she talked about me all of the time, said wonderful things about me to neighbors, friends, whoever would listen. I had done this and this and that.
And I know that I have complained, lamented that she did not share this sense of pride with me, that I had it come to me second hand, but does that diminish it? I cannot tell you as I honestly do not know.
I can only tell you that after my father died, my mother become my albatross, which is a terrible thing to say, but I am trying to be honest here. Listen, this is the woman who said to me on the phone one time that she wouldn’t help me any more if I was dying. I am not making that up. She really said that to me. This is the woman who would get mad at me or one of us and would stop calling for months. The longest time was four months. I waited to see how long it would be.
When I was in a bind and I went to my cousin for help, I begged him not to tell my mother. He couldn’t understand why I was so afraid. I realize now that he never saw the woman that I knew, the one who could be absolutely unforgiving. He knew the funny woman, the one who was sweet and caring, and I’m not saying that she wasn’t, just not so much with me. I’m only saying that if she knew I had borrowed money from someone because I was in a complete bind, she never would have forgiven me, one for doing it in the first place, and two, for embarrassing her.
“The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.” ~ Charles Dickens on grief and how to heal a mourning heart in a letter to his younger sister
My mother reminded me frequently that my credit was shot, that I had run up a bunch of debt after Caitlin died and shopped my way through my loss for three years. She never forgot, and she never forgave. She said to me more than once that she just knew that the bank had closed my account (they hadn’t), that the city was coming after me (they weren’t). She really believed these things of me.
But this is also the same woman who would drive up in my driveway, honk the horn three times, and give me bags of Russell Stover candy eggs for Easter, or bags of Riesen because she had bought too many, or pork chops. Whatever . . . The same woman who used to take me to lunch when the boys were young and I worked at ODU and had a schedule that allowed me to go to lunch with my family. The same woman who bought me a purple Coach purse.
My mother loved through her gifts. It is a trait that she passed on to me, but I told myself early that I would always say I love you to my children, to my spouse, frequently, and without hesitation. That a gift was good, but a hug was better.
I don’t know if my mother’s inability to hug and to say “I love” you stemmed from her childhood, from days of not having a mother, from the times when her father drank away the family money. I don’t know. She never told me, and I never asked. It’s not the kind of thing that we could talk about.
“But to write is to dignify memory
[…] revives the unremembered” ~ Allan Peterson, from “Footnotes”
Let me pause here. People in general loved my mother. The guy at the Honda dealer who sold her her car told me that she used to call just to talk to him, and the woman in the finance office said that my mother was “so sweet.” Relative strangers loved her.
I suppose I reached a point at sometime in my life at which I no longer expected hugs or declarations of love, but that does not mean that there was not a hole there. She was better with my kids. Sometimes when they said, “I love you Oma,” she would say it back. Sometimes.
As I’ve been working on her house several neighbors have stopped by to tell me how sad they are at her death, to tell me how wonderful she was, how she would do anything for them. I know that they are not just saying this to make me feel better.
Do I sound heartless or just petty? I don’t know. Perhaps I am both. Perhaps I am neither.
In the last few years I knew that my mother’s mind was declining, that she couldn’t remember names of things, that she was becoming more confused, and Corey and I had had the discussion more than once about what we were going to do. My mother would have hated being in any kind of assisted living. About five years ago, maybe a few more, I had an ongoing conversation with her in which I mentioned that I thought it would be a good idea for us to sell both of our houses and to buy one with room enough for all of us.
I was willing, but I don’t think that she trusted me enough to try, so it never came to naught.
“What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like, it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids, and rain. And, going further, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theater, one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing.” ~ Ray Bradbury, from The Martian Chronicles
As I was going through the papers, I would come across things on which she had written notes to me, things like “Call them as soon as I die to let them know so that they don’t send a check.” That stops you short, I have to say. I came across a note in which she wrote just her name and her telephone number. Was it to remind her? I came across a card she had written to someone saying something along the lines of “I don’t know you. Don’t send me anything like this again.”
In the last couple of years my mother, who had been in an ongoing feud with her last living sister, would say that Hilda was hateful, that she was mean. And then my mom would declare that she (my mother) was nothing like that.
I don’t know if my mom remembered that she had told me she wouldn’t help me if I was dying or if she conveniently forgot it. I know that for a while I conveniently forgot it because it was just easier. I was her only child, and like it or not, I had to be the one to take care of things.
So now I’m doing that in the best way I know how, and I have to tell you that at the end of each day for the past four weeks, I have closed my eyes with a sense of failure looming large. I should have . . . I didn’t . . . I wasn’t . . .
“but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply;
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain.” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay, from “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”
I know what I’m doing. I am aware of the pain I am causing myself. It’s how I operate. I run full steam on a full load of guilt. It began with Caitlin, continued with my father, and now it is here with my mother.
Honestly, I spend so much time these days trying not to let myself think, which is how I come to be spending hours playing spider solitaire and looking for the perfect dark circle concealer. At least I don’t have to leave the house except to feed the cat.
But in those moments in which I allow my heart free reign, I feel more than a bit lost, as in what do I do now? It still hasn’t quite hit me, that my mother is really and truly gone. The other day I was in Wal Mart and I came upon the Rusell Stover Easter candy display, and I stopped short. You have to understand that this was a ritual with my mother, the bags of Easter candy, the coconut chocolate birds’ nests. And there was no one to do that this year, so I grabbed every nest they had and put them in my cart.
And then I turned around and saw the displays for St. Patrick’s Day cards, and for a minute I was brought up short again: My other mother-in-law’s birthday was St. Patrick’s Day, and my mother’s was March 15, and for just a fleeting second I thought about buying birthday cards, and then I had to try not to break down in the card aisle in the middle of Wal Mart.
“I tore a sheet of paper out of a notebook, found a pencil, and decided that this, too, would be a day not to remember.” ~ Laurie Halse Anderson, from The Impossible Knife of Memory
For me, my mother was bags of chocolate Riesen, leftover Chinese food, pancit that she used to make better than anyone I knew, reruns of “Bonanza” on the television, enough of an addiction to QVC that she had a line of credit with them, continual complaints about a water bill that was less than half of my normal one, forgotten birthdays (the calendar in her hall has my birthday circled and the word “Oops” written on it; I haven’t taken that down yet), her firm belief that her cat would only eat certain kinds of food, her love of her yard . . .
And yet she was also this short woman who seemed to get smaller each time I saw her. She was visibly fading, and there was not a damn thing that I could do about it.
I have to say, for the record, this really, really sucks.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, thanks. The words came so fast, and truthfully, I could probably write another thousand without pausing, but it’s getting late in the afternoon, and I have to drive to my mother’s house to take care of her cat, yet another thing that is breaking my heart each day that I close the door and hear his pitiful meows.
All images are by Finnish artist H. Ahtela (also known as Einar Reuter) 1881-1968.
Music by Joe Cocker, “Heart Full of Rain”
The ugliest thing in the world
is the truth.
Who doesn’t want to die
like May rain over the lilacs,
like wild carrots in a ditch?
Only fanatics don’t know
that they know this.
I fly through the January night,
low over a snow-covered Europe,
cathedral after cathedral
casting its light out onto the snow:
Never have I seen
never so clearly.
~ Henrik Nordbrandt, trans. Patrick Phillips