[WARNING: This blog post might elicit sadness. Proceed with caution.]
Two years ago, shortly after my mom died, I realized that the mention of her death could sometimes make social interactions awkward. I might get weird looks or, worse, hear the Wrong Thing To Say. (“Oh, well, you knew it was going to happen…” etc). Oh, really? Then let’s all talk about how WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. *rage shame*
I am not judging. (Ok, maybe a little). But I understand the knee-jerk resistance to any mention of the D-word and it’s power to unleash all kinds of unprocessed fear or grief. Especially if you have a job and kids to raise, it’s not like you can check out of work to go to the Primal Scream Room (we don’t even have a nap room…hello Japan), and, at $75, my out-of-network therapy sessions are considered a steal in LA. Sickness, death, dying…that’s like A.P. Life. I am not even sure you can “process” death. It’s a topic in line with God and taxes; it’s just too freaking real.
Trying To Talk About Death
I wanted to be open and frank about her passing, if only to my immediate friends. I felt that We As A Society are too skittish about it. You know, bring Death back…hey, if acid wash can do it, then why not the D-word? But, as it turns out, I couldn’t do it. I stopped telling my Mom Jokes. I had one about how if I wanted to feel close to her I went to Chico’s and browsed the sales rack. (Sometimes jokes are just too true.) Or a work-in-progress about how she once asked me if I wanted to see that show about dragons, “Crown of Thorns?” Dad jokes prevailed, but I thought I’d wait till I felt more comfortable with her absence. I posted dozens of pictures of her on Facebook for her birthday, Dia De Los Muertos, Mother’s Day. But didn’t dwell in the grief too long. I’d rush off to yoga. I wanted to stay engaged in life, I told myself.
Two years later I still don’t mention her passing to anyone outside of family. But the absence of her is always there…like, I imagine, a severed leg. Everything that seemed central to my life, yoga, comedy, salsa, blogging, dating even that sociopath in the White House, now feels more like distraction. The weirdness and unreality of it all, my relationship with her, (before and after) my ability get out of bed and be in the world, seem like mysteries nobody prepared me to for. And it never really goes away.
It Gets Real Now
The irony of silence around a topic is that you can’t even talk about the good parts. It’s still odd to me that my mom’s death was both horrible and transformative. As I gradually took on more responsibility for her care, I felt more connected to her, and more self-esteem than I ever got from a Yale Degree or a paycheck. I read a book, “Final Gifts,” written by hospice workers, that painted the moments leading up to death as a magical time, an opening between earth and the after-life. I expected nothing less than an apparition of my Grandmother and maybe some flashes of light. In reality, the experience proved more grizzly. Weeks later I watched “Being Mortal,” a Frontline documentary about a surgeon who explores the relationship between doctors and dying patients. At one point he says, “there is no good death.” Depressing I know, but there’s always brain aneurysms.
In the moments leading up to it, I felt very close to my family. We huddled around my mom in a room that had once been my sisters. For some reason, on one of my many errands, I bought two bouquets of flowers. When we moved her to my sister’s room, we brought the flowers in along with other she had received and sat around and waited. Good scotch appeared, conversations in the kitchen abounded, the dog came in, my aunt made dinner. It felt tribal and comforting; the most natural thing in the world.
Now It Gets Sad (Still Here?)
Not everyone needs or wants to be there at the very end of a loved one’s life. And that’s ok. Still, the guilt over not having done more for my mother still plagues me. My step-father brought her through three hard years with 24 hour care, while I picked up the last day and a half. But I still feel pride in being there with her through her final moments. I got instructions from the hospice workers about the amount of morphine to give her because, as it turned out, she had been, by her choice, severely under-medicated. She, in fact, remained lucid up until the last twelve or so hours. A few nights before, she even told a gossipy story, complete with animated facial expressions and laughter. In some ways, in the last few days, her personality came back. One that had been drowned out by months of chemo and depression and her own grief. She had always loved to laugh and I felt that person in her. Her weight loss also caused her to resemble more the mother I knew as a child. In many ways, she was more there the last week than she had been in years.
But in the last twelve hours she was already gone. The hospice worker told us it would be soon so we got ready to stay up all night. We talked, told stories, I took a nap at one point. We even encouraged her. “It’s okay,” we said. It’s important to let loved ones know that they can go. Nobody wants to be pressured to stay at the party too long because your friend wants to hook up. (Bad analogy?)
The next day we went to brunch; the relief was palpable Nobody talks about the relief because it sounds like you’re happy that said person is gone. But watching her suffer was also unbearable at times. And then came the planning and the paperwork and the business and the used-car-salesman funeral director. Maybe nobody dies all at once. So many pieces of them remain around for a long time.
It hurt, it still does. Some days it feels unbearable not to have her, how can I possibly make it through the rest of my life? And sometimes I feel confident that she’s here, in the other room. Maybe death is nothing at all. I have no idea.