While my mom was sick, we were operating in crisis mode. Day to day, worry to worry. It’s hard work, dying. And not just for the sick person. It’s hard work. Lots of hours. Hours on the road, hours in the hospital. In hospital rooms, in hospital halls, waiting rooms, elevators and parking ramps. Hours at her house instead of mine. Much of it is just stupid. But we had a mission, and we were on it.
The stupidest thing I think we had to do was plug the parking meter while we were visiting my mom. Visiting isn’t even a good word. We were being with her. Hours and hours every day. But the meter doesn’t care how important my presence is. I suppose it was a good break, a reason to go outside. But sometimes looking for a goddamned quarter is the last straw on a very heavy and precarious load.

But I digress. The caring time was drudgery. It was work and it kept us all busy. But after my mom died. After all the trying, and thinking and working was over; there was something else waiting. And it wasn’t something better than work and exhaustion and sadness. It was fear. I can’t remember exactly when it was in the saga of this part of my life that I started to be afraid.

But I remember what it felt like. I remember waking up gasping and terrified. Abject horror and doom prickled my skin and made me sweat. I just woke up scared. The kind of scared I haven’t been since I was a kid. But when I was a kid, there was usually a bad dream preceding the scary feeling. And if I yelled loud enough, my mom came down and I felt safe.

This scared was new. There was nothing solid to hang it on, no dream to talk myself out of. Not to mention no mom to holler for. Sometimes when I was in bed and feeling really scared, I’d just reach out a hand or a foot and touch Andy. Just touch him. And it made me a little less terrified. Until I fell asleep and woke up scared again.

Maybe a month after my mom died, I got sick. I had had a nagging sort of pain in my side for months. My doctor said it was not a big deal. But it worried me. I do lean towards hypochondria. But all of a sudden I was really sick, projectile vomiting so hard I wet myself. I couldn’t keep a couple sips of water down without being sick. I think I went a night and half the next day without eating or drinking.

I was dehydrated and miserable. Dehydration is one of the worst feelings in the world. Everything feels bad and wrong. My head hurt, my joints hurt, I couldn’t stand up without feeling nauseated and dizzy.

I was terrified. Looking back, I had the flu. But I was certain I was dying. I was sure that what I had was related to the pain in my side. And the fact that my mom was dead. Funny leap there, isn’t it? But I made it. In my defense, all my mom’s sickness started with a pain in her side that woke her up in the night. She went into the hospital and 7 monthes later she died.

I insisted that Andy call my doctor’s office and get me in. They told him I probably had the flu and to keep trying fluids. I laid on the floor and cried. I told him to keep calling, call another clinic. We found somewhere that would see me. I imagine I looked like a sad, sad puppy. I couldn’t keep my head up. I shuffled and I carried a barf bag.

When the nurse brought us into a room, she was very nice to me. She asked if I wanted the lights off. I did. I wanted them so off. And she turned them off and wrote by a little nursey-light. But when she asked meif I’d like the lights off, I almost wept. And as she asked me about my symptoms, I answered her questions, but the thing I wanted to tell her was, “My mom just died. She seemed fine. But something inside her was killing her and we didn’t know. She didn’t know. It’s killing me now. Please understand me, I’m not crazy. I’m not whining. I’m scared and sick and I need you to help me.”

The thought had ricocheted around in my head that what I was afraid of for the last weeks was death. But everyone (except Kwai Chang Caine) is afraid of death. I wasn’t prepared for how toothy, ugly, lurking and real death becomes when it takes a real person from you. I imagine it’s different when someone dies young like my mom. When they seem OK, and then they just aren’t. It made me scared for myself.

If someone dies after a lingering illness or a few close calls, I imagine you get fear, maybe even abject terror in the night. But I also imagine it takes a different iteration; less sneaky and toothy and more deteriorating and haunting. But I don’t know. I only know how it was for me.

Like I said, I had the flu. I (with the blessing of my doctor) took one of the leftover cancer anti-nausea pills and started to be able to hold liquids down. I recovered.

But I had the side pain checked out again and found out I had a cyst on one of my ovaries. It’s funny, but although it worried me (only a couple months after my my mom died from “metastatic adenocarcinoma of the ovary”), it wasn’t as scary as when I just had the flu.

I should say, I still have some lingering fear that I’ll die young. But that “doom feeling” has faded. The night terror has abated. I’m getting to a new normal and it’s OK. It didn’t last forever.



I think I wrote something very similar before ( Maybe you can tell me what the best parts of each one are and I can combine them.

What kind of person was my mom? My mom was the kind of person who people relied on. Anyone falling on hard times ended up at our house. If hard times came to you, Susie might show up, watch the kids, clean the house from stem to stern and bring dinner made from scratch.

My gramma used to say, “Susie can clean a room in the time it takes other people to think about cleaning it.” Don’t get me wrong; she was no Susie Homemaker at home, but she knew how to help in a crisis.

She was the kind of person who inspired loyalty. A peculiar and fierce kind of loyalty that, as far as I can tell, comes from having an unpredictable depth of or breadth of emotional responses. People loved her best not because she was so good, but because they knew she could be so good. If only she weren’t hounded by so many demons.

If only she weren’t so emotionally volatile. The kind of love and loyalty that always comes with a fear both of a person and for them. I guess for a while the way to describe the kind of relationships people had with my mom was to say they were co-dependent. I found that to be too limiting, too simplistic and judgmental to describe anything so real and complex.

Most of the time she was the kind of person who scared little kids for the first ten minutes and then won them over with her sheer uninhibited goofiness. She was like an alternative, anti-Mary Poppins. Sure she read your kids a story, but she’d also cut up her own clothes without hesitation to make a Zorro costume. Then she’d drill them on the different parts of a sword, or types of knives. My preschool kids came home and sprinkled daily conversation with words like scimitar and scabbard.

She’d take them on treasure hunts and send them home with a wicked grin and a bag of the most bizarre and worthless crap. The kind of stuff kids loved, but most adults would have thrown away. Broken watches, animal teeth and bones, ribbons, buttons, plastic swords and drink umbrellas.

My mom could usually out-gross any kid. She was the kind of gramma who would chide a kid for picking his nose by telling him, “Don’t wipe that on your pants. If you’re not going to eat it, give it to me!” This won over both my boys, but she couldn’t always turn the crass off, and sometimes it got embarrassing.

On a good day my mom would call up and without any introduction say, “The hairy patch on the rear leg of a horse!” to which the proper response was, “fetlock!” She’d say, “Thanks, Bye” And you might not hear from her again that day. Calling your kids was not cheating on the crossword.

On a bad day she might call and say, again without niceties, “I sure don’t know why you’re punishing me, but I think we’d better talk about it.” Sometimes I knew what she was talking about, sometimes I didn’t. It didn’t matter. The only way to avoid a long angry spell would be first, admit that you were punishing her. Pleading ignorance would only get you in deeper.

Secondly, you needed to tell her why you were doing it. That admission, to be fully valid, needed to entail why either a deep character flaw in you, or deep relationship problem (husbands preferred) caused you to mistakenly take it out on her. If you cried, which wouldn’t be hard, because she had a gift for making people cry- If you cried and followed all the above guidelines, you might get a call the next day like nothing happened. If you didn’t, her anger could last for months.

And that’s the thing. Life with my mom was messy. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was icky, but it was intense and imperfect. When she got sick, it didn’t fit in with the rest of her life. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with her at all except that while she was sitting at a green light waiting to make some weird or wonderful left turn; while she was daydreaming about the crossword or how mad she was at somebody; while she was being herself, cancer blew through a red and none of that stuff mattered.

What Is This?

Look, you might as well know this, because it’s true and I’m sick of carrying it alone. Me, Ramon, my sisters, my brother, my whole family in a way, even people who you’d think wouldn’t have any business in this deal. We’re all still hampered. Does that go away? After a traumatic passage through sickness and death?

When will I stop wanting to explain to people that my mom died young and in front of us. When will my whole family stop feeling battered? When will the raw spot toughen up? It’s fading. That, I can tell. But I still feel like I walk with a limp, or I favor one arm and people can tell. I’ve still got the running monologue in my head, trying to make it all make sense, and coming up empty handed. Because it doesn’t make sense.

I had to have the conversation with my kids about euthanizing Yikes, the geriatric cat in the house. And in my defense, it’s time. She keeps us up all night scratching at the wall near our heads, yowling randomly and walking circles around our heads. Sometimes she stops to rest, draping herself across my neck or my head. I can sleep with her on my head, on my shoulder, even on my neck. But when she starts to lick me, which she always does at some point, I have to shove her away. Then she starts scratching at the wall near my head.

After a couple nights of sleep deprivation, I stopped loving her. If we lock her out, she’ll yowl and wake up the whole house. She’s just gone dotty. She sits staring at her feet. Misses her jumps, loses her footing… She isn’t the same cat. Lately she has seemed very unhappy, like she knows she’s not right, or she doesn’t feel good. The last two vet visits have found her healthy (for an 18 year old cat). They’ve also cost about a hundred fifty bucks each.

It shouldn’t be about the money, but it is. I don’t feel good spending hundreds of dollars on a very old unhappy animal, when I could send a whole flock of ducks to a family in Tibet for less than that. So I decide it ‘s time to prepare the children. Zach is understanding, Jasper’s not. The first time I bring it up he loses his mind and storms upstairs in tears.

When I go to his room to talk him down from the ledge, he is sobbing, face down on the bed. I sit down, rub his back and tell him I think she’s not feeling good because she’s crying a lot, and that she’s acting like she sees things, and she seems scared. I tell him that she’s very old for a cat and everything has to die. Our job, I explain, is to try do the best we can to make sure she doesn’t suffer.

After he cries for what seems like an hour, but is probably more like a mere fifty minutes, I try to talk to him again. This time he tells me, “It’s too soon mom. It’s too soon after Gramma died” He dissolves again. Yeah, it’s too soon.

It isn’t about my mom, it isn’t about the cat, and it is. Everywhere I go, when things get hard, or when they get good, or just at random times, I want to yell, “My mom is dead! We tried to take care of her, we did research, we bought vitamins, we lost sleep, lost weight, lost the battle, lost Susie. We tried really, really hard to be smarter and better than other families, listened to the doctors, questioned the doctors, followed our orders, tried harder than we’d ever tried before and SHE STILL DIED. And I still dream I’m trying to figure out how to make her better, and I feel the relief and sinking sadness that it doesn’t matter anymore as I start to wake up. And we’re still trying to figure out how to be a real family without her. We’ll probably never be whole again. Do you hear me?”

At the doctor’s office, at a basketball game, in meetings, at home… I feel like I need to tell everyone so they understand. Like it matters. Like they’re not carrying around their own traumas that they want to shout at me.

When is it no longer going to be an asterisk alongside everything I do, every interaction I have? Millions of normal people live to see their parents die. How do they get on with their lives? I haven’t been through war, torture, rape or a whole host of the unnatural horrors available on the menu of life. My mom got sick and died. And the whole world changed, and the whole world stayed the same. When do I get to move on?

I Love Anyway

Maybe you already know this. And maybe you can’t know it because it’s only true for me.

The things that I hated about my mom are the worst things about her sickness and death. The ways she wasn’t done getting to be perfect, or even happy. The things that oppressed me in her life are even sadder now that she’s gone.   I don’t miss her faults, but I think about them as much as I think about missing her.

That’s something I wasn’t prepared for. There’s no “If only she were here to give me the silent treatment one more time, I’d appreciate it more…” Not like that at all. Those irritating, dysfunctional things? I’m relieved I don’t have to deal with them again. I just wish we hadn’t wasted our time, I guess. Wish we’d laughed more.

So don’t think you’ll miss your mom hollering at you, “Jimmeeeee!” at 5am. You won’t. You won’t miss her forgetting your birthday every year, won’t miss her inappropriate humor, or her giggling with your sister and excluding you, or giving you the silent treatment, or throwing food, or feigning illness, or ignoring your spouse… those things don’t get sweet after someone dies, as far as I can tell. They just make you sadder.
I wonder if it’s particularly sad in my case, or her case, or whomever’s case we’re talking about. I wonder if she was really as dysfunctional as I felt she was. Or is every body dysfunctional and you just don’t know most people all that well. What do you think?

But let me tell you some things about my mom. You can’t love her as much as I did without knowing these things. Because (and this is theme in my life that gets me in trouble) somehow they made me love her more. Hope for her more, defend her more, take care of her more. I knew her, warts and all. And I loved her anyway. And writing it down isn’t worth a damn unless I can get that across.

If I can’t make someone who didn’t know her, read about her, pull for her, get frustrated with her, fight with her, puzzle over her, cry with her, talk about her, thank her, marvel at her, laugh at her, laugh with her, fear her and love her anyway; if I can’t do that, what’s the point?

So if you knew her, let me know if I’m being too hard on my mom. That’s my stupid tendency, to be too hard on the people I love the most. Just so the world knows I ‘m not blinded by love. In my family, if we’re not mean to you, we’ve either given up on you or we’re worried about your mental health. In those cases we’ll be mean to you when you walk out of the room.

Which , let me tell you, can contribute to troubles in the mental health area. I’m not saying the whole arrangement was or is healthy. But it is what it is.

But back to my mom. I think my dad said it best when he said, “With your mom, the thing is, you’d wonder which Susie would be waiting for you when you came home.” Oh so true. To say she had mood swings is to be gentle and generous. I think of them, and you know what? I think, “But I loved her so much”. How dumb. Anyway, he had it right.

Really I think she went through periods where she was insane. Does everyone do that? I’m still trying to figure that out. I can’t decide which would be worse: Having her be just about as crazy as the average Joe, or having her be deeply troubled.

She could carry a grudge like few women I’ve known. Go for months living in the same house with someone, but not talking to them unless she had to. I think my senior year she had been in a silent phase with my step-dad for about 9 months. It got so stressful I went to stay with my dad for a while so I could study. Unless you’ve lived with people who are fighting (if that’s the word for it), you can’t imagine how icky it is.

I found out later, if she had to walk by him, she’d whisper, “I hate you.” under her breath. He slept in a chair in the TV room. For months.

In the middle of a normal conversation, her voice could shift, turn icy, and you knew you were in deep shit. The only way out was to admit you had been either thoughtless, careless, mean or stupid. If you wanted true and lasting forgiveness, the only way out was to confess to being depressed, crabby, jealous or secretly angry. The surest way out was to confess that you were being mean because you were jealous. You were jealous because you were unhappy in your relationship with your husband, kid… someone else. And if you told her enough details about this other troubled relationship, she might chastise you for your mean stupidity, but she wouldn’t stay mad.

We learned early on that “sorry isn’t enough.” But “I did it on purpose because I’m jealous that she’s prettier than me, and she always will be and I wanted to hurt her” was good enough.

And she drank. As a child, I can’t remember her drinking to excess. But adults aren’t people to kids. They’re landmarks. I don’t think I would have known if it was a problem. But once I got to be an adult, and she started to fall down the stairs, and hide liquor around the house… I noticed. She stopped inviting us kids to events with her family, we decided finally, it was because she didn’t feel comfortable drinking around us.

Trouble with the drink runs in her (my) family. But it didn’t kill her, like I thought it might.  When she lied to the doctor about whether she had ever been a heavy drinker, I had this terrible dilemma.  Do I pull the doctor aside and say, “She’s lying to you.  Does it matter?” or do I let her drive her own life?  I decided it probably didn’t matter.  It probably didn’t. But I feel bad for her shame.  She knew I noticed the lie.  I didn’t correct her, didn’t call her on it.
And she lied. Oh my god, my mom lied a lot. Lied about big things, lied about little things. Lied about whether there were onions in dinner (there always were). Lied about drinking, lied about smoking (I still don’t know how much), lied about sex,  about money.

she was deeply troubled, she was also deeply gifted. It was worth the trouble.

Payback’s a Bitch

That my whole life is lesson in empathy hasn’t escaped me. Your mean-ness will come back to haunt you. It was the same for my mom. It’s only a matter of time. You also need to think about whether or not the fun you have making fun of other people is worth the inevitable payback. Because it is, as they say, a bitch.

Bitches are everywhere, by the way. As the doctors were trying to figure out how to tell us, tell my mom and her cadre of witnesses, that she was dying; that what was happening was part of a process that mother nature was in charge of; my mom perked up for a moment of crystal clarity. She had been getting confused. And she knew she was confused. It frustrated and alarmed her.

It happened so fast that her lucent, perky self was still loitering just outside the room. We thought she was still there under the haze of drugs and disease, but Suzers had actually started to leave the building, peeking in from time to time when the conversation seemed interesting… Ah but in my digression, I digress.

Anyway the balding, bespectacled, avuncular, strawberry blond doctor who was about my mom’s age, had started to explain that it looked like some things were starting to shut down (important things like kidneys), and that “Mother nature…” At which point my mom interrupted with, “That bitch!”

God I loved her. For just that irreverence and impropriety. The doctor flinched and laughed so hard he had to take his glasses off and wipe his eyes.

Payback is a bitch. No doubt.

What we get paid back for is our own judgementalism. My mom had so much fun picking out the women with wigs (“Third table from the door. Wig.”), that when the time came for her to need a wig, she absolutely could not wear one. Because she knew there would be women like here out there, trying to peg her.

One of our favorite games at home was a game where (there were lots, and they were all equally sick or weird) my mom would, maybe in the middle of a conversation, just start talking as if she had a cleft palate. So that every word came only out of her nose. Speech was incomprehensible. But it made us laugh.

If you really want to know about what it sounded like, you need to know that we once had a neighbor with a cleft palate. When he spoke, you had to sort of just guess what he should be saying right about then. So when he should have been telling me his name, I guessed that it was either Marty or Leonard. When you can make those two names indistinguishable, you’ve made the kind of speech I’m talking about.

By the way, I liked Marty Leonard. But I hid from him more than once rather than embarrass us both by trying to understand what the hell he was saying.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Payback. So here’s us, the Mean family. Laughing at people who talk through their noses. Laughing and saying “Hhnopph Ithh. Ithhhs nnnothh fhyunneeh.” And drawing our knees up to our chests and laughing our asses off. Mean, wrong, immature, and so damned funny.

When my mom’s various cancer demons made it necessary for her to have a nasogastric tube inserted (down through the nose and down your throat and into your stomach), it was payback time. Hers was to remove excess acid and give her guts a break, take care of the heartburn. But when she spoke, by god, it bordered on classic cleft palate speech. And it wasn’t funny.

It was so not funny that she took her glasses off and wouldn’t put them on again until the tube was out. She went days. It was so not funny we all cried every day and she stopped speaking except to the doctor. When she needed to get something across, she wrote it down. And mostly what she wrote was, “I want you to leave. I do not want my children to see me suffer like this. Go home.” So not funny she never made fun of it again, and said she’d easily rather die than have it done again.

I have to say though, she outsmarted the system in the end. Because the other game that used to make us laugh until we were sick was where we pretended to be corpses. She always started it. Make your lips really dry, so they stick to your teeth, and roll the upper lip under so it sticks to your gums. Now you look like a skeleton. Talk to your family. They’ll laugh.

But in the end, my mom insisted on being cremated, which I think was a good call, all things considered.

Cicatrízes part 2

The realization that death comes… The pervasive seeping in of darkness through the shattered windows of my soul? That’s the kind of scar that I don’t think there is a fair trade for. I’ve heard that some people are able to get close to God, or are able to live every day like they were dying, or tell people around them that they love them or find a new peace… Resolved longstanding problems. I don’t know. I can’t imagine such a thing. It feels like all I’ve got are scars.

As an aside, there’s a song about someone diagnosed with some terminal condition that they eventually overcame, how they changed by being terminal,“ I went sky diving. I went Rocky-Mountain Climbing. I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu. Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying”. Personally, I like any song that can work the word Fu Manchu into the lyrics. But it was playing one day while I was driving my mom back from somewhere (and if I was driving, ‘somewhere’ was usually a medical somewhere). But that song was playing and my mom said, “They don’t know. It isn’t like that. Of course you’d do that stuff, but when you’re really dying, you just can’t. You don’t feel good.” Oh my mom, that’s the thing, it wasn’t meaningful. It wasn’t a profound last shot to live with joy and grace. She just died. But I digress.

Anyway, here are my scars, in case anyone cares. Or in case you’ve been there and you want to compare scars, or maybe you haven’t, but you might someday. It’s not altogether bad to have some idea of what you’re in for. On second thought, if you haven’t watched someone die, live without knowing about it. Stop here. It doesn’t add anything good to your life as far as I can see.

I have a scar, a hole shaped like my mom. In my days and all my dreams from now on. Like a cookie cutter shaped like my own mom went beserk through all the calendar days and years, and moments.

Here’s one, In shape of knowing my turn will come, and I won’t be ready. There is no terror like it. A hulking, sweaty suffocating sense of doom.

Then there’s the scar of fearing something is wrong inside me, something killing me. Something I won’t know about until it’s too late.

I have a scar of realizing many people I love will die, and I will be powerless to help them. That, or I’ll die first. No other options.

My soul has been stretched out of shape by watching my mom suffer. It hangs damaged around me. I can gather it up and stuff it into the clothing of my daily life. But naked, it was more beautiful before and I forgot to appreciate it.

Some day that’ll be a poem. What an inadequate consolation prize.

I suppose I will know I am back to my new normal when I can go a day, or a quiet moment without thinking, “My mom died, I lost my mother, Mom’s gone, Susie, She’s gone, that thing happened.” My psyche is working every day, every hour, defining the new normal. Retelling my story. Because I have to keep marching through my days, writing my story. Knowing more and more about what I can survive.

But I tell you what. I sure miss my 17 year old body and my 35 year old soul.

Cicatrízes part 1

Having my first child left scars on my body. I would never be the same. For God’s sake, for the first couple days, I thought I’d never feel human again. I felt like walking, talking, lactating, bee-stung, meat. Like one big ouch. Then I’d look around me and see women who were walking normally, wearing jeans, and sitting in chairs without cushions. There were masses of women on the street and I’d think, “She had a child, and she’s fine. No scars or anything I can see. She’s even beautiful.”

It gave me hope. It let me know I would be human again. By the second child, I could tell myself, “remember, you felt like swollen hamburger last time, but you recovered. You Will Recover.” I still had trouble believing it days afterwards, as I lowered myself, shaky and weak, breasts swollen to the size of my head and hard as rocks, genitals split and re-stitched, tummy stretched out and now empty, into the tub. I had survived it the first time, so the odds were good that I would be back to normal eventually.

My ‘normal’ changed. With both boys I got new scars and stretches that will never go away. But I got these great little consolation prizes. I’d like to be able to go comfortably without a bra or run a sprint without wetting myself, but would I trade these things for my kids? Most days, no.

My mom’s sickness and death has left me with different scars, they’ll never go away either. They’re scars on my psyche, on my soul. Realizations that I will never be able to un-realize. I guess I’ll get used to them and make them part of the new me. I’ll start to feel normal again. I don’t have that terrible stinging pain, like when I had my kids. It’s more of a general achiness, a void.

I did have a bit of a breakdown a couple months after she died, where it all came crashing down on me. The enormity of someone I felt such a connection to being no more. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t right and it didn’t even make sense for a person who was so completely human, three dimensional and alive, to simply not be. It cracks open your mind, destroys it for a while. Then you start to rebuild, but it’ll never be the same.