My mom was alive a month ago today. She was in a hospital bed with enough tubes to play Double Dutch with, but she was most definitely alive. Her absence doesn’t feel real yet, but I know that it is. And I know that at some point in time her non- presence is gonna hit me like a Mack truck. The beauty of living 6,000 miles away from family is that distance can at times at least, make the heart grow fonder. I’m not sure how many miles away her soul is now, but I am certain this greater distance between us is having a powerful effect.
Grief is a funny thing. I am technically “grieving” but I am, in full disclosure truth, sitting at my computer with my chirping cell phone and hot cappuccino nearby. Odds and ends of my life, my husband’s, and our kids’, are on the table at which I’m typing. I’m surrounded by pale yellow walls, our son’s bright artwork, a blue bowl, my own multi colored nails, and a bright red Krav Maga T-shirt. Nothing around me screams GRIEF. Everything inside me does.
The last almost 6 months were so amazingly “mom- centric,” which is funny since so much of my life was, too. Crisis after crisis turned my thoughts inside and out in a way I can only compare to that scene in The Exorcist. You know the one where Linda Blair’s head spins around and you wonder how her head hasn't actually fallen off? Yeah, that one. It seemed like every time I turned around, despite the brief periods of calm, a doctor was calling, I was authorizing a procedure, or something life threatening was happening- or was about to. My mom’s blood pressure would frequently drop so low that doctors and nurses alike wondered how anyone with those numbers could be talking. There was respiratory distress, necrotizing fasciitis, a strangulated hernia, a couple of rounds on a ventilator, a heart attack, infections with minds of their own, and a feeding tube that simply refused to stay put. As always, mom kept me on my toes, making me wonder when the next “thing” would occur and when I’d be able to find a modicum of sanity. I know now that no more “things” will happen but I’m still searching, more desperately now than before, for my sanity.
I am left with tears and a sadness that runs deeper than my soul. My parents weren’t supposed to die and my parents were just going to get sick, and then better, like they’d always done. Well, someone rewrote the script because my parents are now gone. For a time I was fixated on the term “orphan” seeing as how it’s what I’ve become. Yes, yes, I’m much more than that and I’ve accomplished things and have a beautiful family, but the brass tacks of it is that I’m parent-less and that stinks the big one. In fact, it stinks the biggest one there is and I’m not too grown up to admit it.
So many times during the year people said, “Wow, it must be so much harder for you with you being here while she’s in New York.” I tried to poo-poo that a lot and I think that there were indeed times when it was harder. But in no one’s and everyone's defense I have to say, losing a parent isn’t easy no matter where you live, how close you live, or how many miles and oceans separate you. The pain knows no boundaries, and my complicated grief seems to know how to find me. What makes it really hard? The fact that my mom and I didn’t share a warm and fuzzy kind of relationship. We enjoyed that when I was younger, but as life happened, and it does tend to do that, our differences became more evident and our sensitivities, ironically enough, worlds apart. As I got older I learned to do a lot of “uh huh- ing” instead of asking her why she didn’t listen for my answer after she’d asked me something. I learned to avoid as much confrontation as I could, listening to her tell me about what she had for dinner, the movies she’d seen, the work she did with a disabled boy she’d worked with for what seemed like forever, and all the things that existed in her universe. I learned not to tell her about my ailments, all thankfully minor in the grand scheme of life, because I knew that hers were worse. I stopped telling her when the kids got sick because she’d call day after day, sometimes more than once a day, as if what they really had was The Plague. We often spoke around each other, though we occasionally enjoyed talking about family lore and silly stuff. Her tone would change when we discussed easier times and I liked that. I miss that.
My mother was not an ogre, but she was a frightened woman who let life break so much of her spirit. I understand more of what happened and how she reacted to it, and I hurt differently than I used to; now I hurt for both of us. And I’m not talking about some drippy, self-indulgent, woe- is- me kinda’ pain, but a pain that lets me know that I see both of us as more human, more real, and more fragile than I did before. My mother hid her torment in food, a habit that became a condition that became an illness that ultimately led to her demise. She hid her fear in anger and her love in apathy and self- loathing. She was abandoned by her dad when she was 10, verbally and emotionally abused by others, and her first husband beat the bejeebers out of her. A survivor? No doubt about it. A confused little girl who wanted and deserved to be taken care of? No doubt about that either.
My grandmother had a signature chuckle that I recognized as such only after I started to hear it from my mom. I remember noticing it one day and telling her, “You have the laugh! You do the laugh!” She laughed again and said, “What laugh, Rachel??” I tried to describe it, explain it even, but couldn’t until she did it again and heard it too. I started to hear that chuckle within the past year, except it wasn’t from my grandmother or my mom- it was from me. It’s a strange heirloom to describe, but I do like sharing it. I feel like I’m the Keeper of The Laugh, and I like that. When I hear it, I feel like the best parts of my mom and grandma are within me. It’s one of the more comforting lessons I've been afforded.
I’ve made an officially unofficial decision to let my grief take me wherever I need to go. I’ve felt anger over missed opportunities, pain, jealousy, and fear. That fear by the way, is a heartbreaking kind of thing. When it strikes I feel like a lost little girl whose mommy and daddy are nowhere to be found. As a parent, I feel terribly for that little girl and want her to understand that she’s not lost at all- but I can’t get to her to tell her that. My grief is so different from what I experienced with my dad for many reasons. Some of those reasons are obvious, and some are becoming more so as time moves on. When I lost my dad 16 years ago, we had two kids and their biggest issues in life were being fed, clothed, and having clean diapers. This time, there are four of ‘em and I have to remain cognizant of their grief, too. I hate seeing them in pain and I hate that they’ve seen me in so much of mine. It’s hard for them to understand, despite the fact that they’re not babies, that I’m still grieving. Yes, grandma’s gone, Shiva is over, Shloshim is over, but I’m still grieving. And while they won't generally find me huddled in a corner crying my eyes out, I feel like I’m moving slower, listening slower, doing everything slower. I find that grief hits at weird and unexpected moments; some days the fog’s there and some days it's not. It’s a nagging, soul- sucking, draining feeling that has planted itself in every cell of my body. Some days it physically hurts and others, it just hangs out and stays quiet. I don’t know how else to explain the feeling especially since I'm certain my “Look, today’s she’s happy… Uh oh- now she’s not” shifts must be maddening. For whatever its worth, I’m not a fan of them either.
Life will go on and I know that time and love really do help. I know that I’ll think about my mother every day, just as I’ve thought of my dad every day for the last 16 years, and that I’ll carry them within me always. I'm grateful that the ability to forgive my mom has started so early on in this process and that I’m doing what I can to be kind to myself. We are on the cusp of Sukkot and like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah before it, the holiday feels like it’s happening around me, at me. The emotions are still too raw, the energy too lacking. I have a year and a lifetime beyond it to process my grief. And when I’m ready, the residual aching will free itself so it too, can be healed.