I canceled today’s visit with my shrink because I didn’t want to pay him. He kindly offered to meet with me now and bill me later, but that would have defeated my intent to not spend money at all. I rescheduled our appointment for next month. In the meantime, our new insurance will kick in, and I’ll go and find a psychiatrist who can prescribe my meds at a fraction of the price. He’s a great guy, my psychiatrist—old-school shrink and counselor all rolled into one. Four years ago, the old man put me on the right path. Now, I’ve outgrown him.
I outgrew many things this autumn. Amidst the grief and the sadness, opportunities have presented themselves. It just took me some time to read the signs.
My husband and I take “signs” quite seriously. The week after I met him, I sent him a goodbye email on a Saturday morning, only to run into him later downtown on his way to a free concert. Ten or eleven blissful hours after that, I warned him not to read his email. We’ve been together ever since, thankful that, at that time, he didn’t have an internet connection at his place, and I didn’t go out of town that day like I had planned. What would our lives be like now if he had read that email, if I had left town? I shudder at the thought. These are the signs we reflect upon when life doesn’t work out as planned.
Over the years, more signs came our way, inspiring bold decisions. Big changes in our lives came in clusters. 2011 was a pivotal year. During that year, we moved to a new city, thus solidifying fifty-percent custody of his young children who had moved there with their mother three years prior. I became certified to teach ESL, opening up a new path of career possibilities for me in this new city. And I got my Master’s degree in Nonfiction Writing, something I didn’t necessarily need in my field (most teachers went for the subsidized M.Ed.s), but something that I wanted, and something that allowed me to teach at the college level. It was a big year, marking a complete shift in my lifestyle and my thinking—I became a parent, for real, not just on Wednesdays and every other weekend; I set myself up to leave public school teaching for good (big sigh); and I made peace with the suburbs and a quieter life.
Just as everything changed after 2011, this year looks like it’s gonna be another big one.
In the fall, four things happened: my mother was diagnosed with and quickly died from pancreatic cancer; my husband started a new job; we bought another house; and I was offered a full-time position at my college.
My husband’s last job was going south quickly. He was unhappy, and he took a risk with another company doing work outside of his comfort zone. Because he knew that the first six months of this job, at least, would require tons of travel and training and meetings, he told me he was thankful that I had a light and flexible schedule at the community college where I teach ESL. He would need me to be around more often to help him get the kids to one of their many lessons, practices, games, or activities. I was secretly happy to put off looking for a full-time teaching job to help out at home.
When I taught full-time, I did it because I needed to. I didn’t want to arrive at work at before the sun rose and stay until it went down again. Even when I could get out of there on the earlier side, I paid the price by taking the work with me. While a full-time community college position would not demand as many physical hours of my time as a public high school, I’d been part-time too long to appreciate the difference. Some people, when they’re underemployed, don’t feel busy enough or whole enough, or (I don’t know, I’ve never felt that way)… something… when they’re not immersed in their career. I’m not one of those people.
Then there’s the house. We didn’t buy it to move into it. We bought it to be an investment property. For nine years, I have been stalking real estate as a hobby, watching prices rise, noting flips and changing values. I tried to get my husband on board with the real estate thing after we moved, when the prices in our expensive suburb were comparatively low, but he thought real estate was a fool’s game. Suddenly, over the summer, he became obsessed with real estate investment (Note on his personality: He has two extremes—all in or all out and nothing in between.). I won’t go into detail on how that happened, I’ll just say that now, he relies on my time and my interest to legitimately pursue this risky venture.
These days, when I’m not teaching or cleaning, working out or cooking, or writing, I’m learning about licenses and inspections, tweaking leases, new software for landlords, value-estimating spreadsheet calculations, gleaning private money. And I like it. My work with this house, with establishing new social networks of real estate investors, and with researching the business has felt like earning another degree, except this one is hands-on, complete with the debt and the with the potential for financial growth that come with conventional degrees.
Finally, that opportunity I had thought I always wanted came my way—a full-time teaching position at my college. Full-time positions at the college-level, even non-tenure-track positions like this one, are rare these days. And even more rare is one invited into the position. I’ve spent four years at this college demonstrating my worth. My students respect me. My colleagues respect me, and for at least the past two of those four years, they have encouraged me to try for full-time. That is why I got the TESOL degree—it was the one last step to a full-time position in this field. I was finally getting what I had said I wanted for six years. Except I didn’t want it anymore.
For twelve years, I worked long hours and lived for a paycheck. Then I moved here, and I began to explore life outside of constant work. The new path that I have chosen by reading the signs this fall is a riskier one. I’ll be doing all kinds of work from now on—teaching, raising the kids, writing, researching investments. I won’t have a single career to point to when people ask me “what I do,” which I think is a stupid question to begin with. So much more defines us than our careers—the opportunity, for instance, to watch our oldest disappear through neighbors’ yards on his way to the bus stop as the sun rises; or to drop our youngest off at school in the morning because his cello is bigger than he is, and he can’t manage it on the bus. That’s what I signed up for years ago when we moved away from my urban life as I knew it, to this quieter, slower suburban life. No more excitement, no more regular happy hours and foody hotspots with tattooed waitstaff and disturbing art on the walls. And no more road rage, no more anger and prejudice, no more living only for the weekend, and resenting the kids for ruining it. These days, I look forward to our weekends with the kids as much as I look forward to those weekends without them. I just look forward to being here, period.
When I received that full-time job offer and realized that I had the opportunity to turn it down, to pursue anything that made me tick, I felt very, very fortunate. Since then, I’ve gone to bed sober every night and awakened every morning without a headache, feeling optimistic instead of rundown. Because I can be happy.
Yes, I still burst into tears at random when I, say, look at the Christmas gift list that I had started for my mother, or even when people ask me about her. I still can’t keep it together if I really think about her. But grief can’t define life, just affect it. And while it affects my life every day, I believe I can live with that. I wouldn’t want to forget mom, and I wouldn’t want to stop feeling that sense of loss. It’s a tattoo. And while my father would think I was crazy for turning down a full-time job, security, benefits, to be a part-time housewife, part-time teacher, part-time writer, and part-time investor, my mom would toast me with one of her special alcoholic drinks that she only drank on cruises or on New Year’s Eve, a “Dark and Stormy” or something else that’s more sugar than booze. She never had to articulate it. She was always in my corner.
My husband bought me a load of cooking gadgets for my birthday. Basically, he bought me every cooking gadget that I have asked for over the past two years, which is odd. Ordinarily, we don’t do gifts on birthdays, except for small stuff. We usually treat ourselves to a weekend away or sometimes to nothing at all. We’re not big on ceremony. This birthday was quite different, but it wasn’t a milestone. I guess I’m still drawing a pity card.
For my birthday, I got a programmable pressure cooker/crockpot/steamer device. I got a convertible indoor grill/griddle/Panini maker. And I got a raclette, which is just SO seventies. Only problem is I’ll have to socialize with people in order to use it. I’m putting that baby on the shelf in the basement where I put all my party stuff that I stopped using—my fancy stainless steel chafer and my big glass water dispenser. God, I’m sad.
I’ve always been kind of sad. Self-deprecation can be amusing, and psychoanalyzing myself can be fun. But these days, I’m not even the funny-hah-hah kind of sad. I’m the too-fat-to-fit-into-any-of-my-clothes kind of sad. I’m the “thus, I wear my mother’s clothes, which are not my style and consequently creep out my husband because, really, who wants to look at his wife and be reminded of his mother-in-law?” kind of sad. To further this unsexy scenario, I cut off all my hair off last month, and it looked good for a couple of weeks. Now, it looks like a lackluster wing hovering awkwardly over my puffy face. Yup, I’ve got it going ON!
I believe I might be having my midlife crisis now. I’ll bet ya that’s what it is—the drinking, the death, the complete lack of interest in social activity, the looking like my mother, the drinking. Yesterday, I accidently friended about twenty random people on Facebook because I thought the “People You May Know” scroll was the “Friend Request” scroll. I felt really popular for those several minutes until I didn’t. In order to see what some of my new friends would see upon accessing my profile (new friends like friends of my mother’s and people from high school whom I may or may not have EVER spoken to) I took a journey through my uploaded pics. Wow. Facebook is the Land of Delusion for people who are too health-conscious to develop an opioid addiction. Let me explain…
In EVERY picture that I have uploaded since 2008, I am either smiling, or traveling, or socializing, or looking hot, or all of the above! According to my Facebook uploads, my life is an endless party. I spend all my time globetrotting and being adored by my husband and stepchildren. I look sexy in all those pics because why would I ever share a picture of a bad day? Even now, I can still eek out a pic of two in which I look good. I have a keen sense of style when I want to, and I can hide the mid-life-crisis fat pretty well. My life, in pictures uploaded to Facebook, is an absolute dream.
I’m not saying my life isn’t a dream. I have no complaints at all with the existence and lifestyles of others around me. Nobody bugs me. Nobody will. I just have to face this whole “being my own worst enemy” thing that’s going on here. If this is a mid-life crisis, then it can surely end. Soon, perhaps, I’ll have enough energy to get on that slow train to the fifties and beyond, where everybody’s happy because they’re still alive.
I interrupt my grief mantra to resume this blog’s original flavor—the 40s are the new 40s. This blog is about the forties, for better or for worse. Last week introduced my 46th birthday. I am finally the age that I have been calling myself for the last year. For some reason, I never even acknowledged forty-five, that middle of middle-age that you’d think I’d want to cling to for as long I possibly could. Instead, I immediately thought ahead, to the years beyond forty-five. I don’t know why, but I have a hunch—I spent my forty-fifth year preparing for THIS.
What is THIS? This is the forties, the real forties. I woke up on my forty-sixth birthday in the same clothes I’d worn the previous day, and the same jewelry, some of which was my mom’s. Like many black-out nights before that one, I hadn’t brushed my teeth because I hadn’t been in control of when I went to bed. On my forty-sixth birthday morning, I completely missed the kids before they caught the bus for school, and my husband both spoiled me with every cooking gadget I’d ever asked for while also reminding me of how much I am slipping.
“Happy birthday,” he said, and he hugged me. Then he said, “Maybe not today, or this weekend, but maybe we can talk about your drinking.” Happy birthday to me—I am a concern to my family.
I guess I am a concern to myself as well. My experiences and memories are sort of pixilated. Sober days are high-definition days. If I take off a ring to put on some hand lotion, I remember to put the ring back on. On a low-tech day, that ring is anybody’s fortune. I never wore rings until my mother died, so if I lose a ring on a low-definition kind of day, that ring is just gone, as is another piece of my mother’s history.
But I didn’t start this blog to talk about my mother exclusively. However, I have a lot of friends my age who know this kind of grief. It is, in many ways, a product of the forties. I am certain that my focus on the themes of the “new forties” will eventually stray from loss and grief and return to all the other experiences that make this decade so meaningful. For now, I am a skipping record. And if you know what that is, then you know why the forties are NOT the new thirties!
I left my students with a sub, once again, in order to attend my uncle’s memorial service last week. My uncle was my mother’s high school classmate, my father’s younger brother. My unreliable memory tells me that she had dated him before she met my father. Small towns in the fifties, you know? I guess I’ll never get the whole story now because there’s no longer any first party to ask. Within a month of each other, two more members of the class of ’59 vanished, leaving the living plagued with distorted memories and random mementos. I say “plagued” because I have very little control over what will trigger my emotions–maybe a sock, maybe a billboard. I cry when I cry, and that could be in the car or before class or when an old friend of my uncle’s or my mother’s cries in front of me. No matter where I am or who I am with, I am reminded that I no longer have my mother or my uncle. I can’t even begin to imagine how my dad feels about this. Yesterday was their 57th anniversary. Today is my uncle’s birthday.
While Mom was dying, I cried over all of her stuff, like pairs of shoes she’d kicked off in the landing a couple of weeks earlier when she could walk. I cried over those shoes because it was just dawning on me at that time that she would never put those shoes on her feet again. I cried over shoes, bathrobes hanging on the bathroom door, half-empty tubes of cleanser, and Walmart receipts.
The week after she died, I hardly cried at all. I had my husband to keep me company and my family all around, and I was busy writing obits and making preparations for her viewing. I felt some kind of temporary high of relief that lasted until I walked through my own front door, after. When there was no one to nurse, no memorial preparations to make, no family to joke around with, all I had was this feeling of “after.”
I’m in the “after” now. I guess it’s where I’ll always be. There was life when Mom was here, and now there is life after she’s gone—two distinct lives. I’m not really enjoying life “after,” if I may be frank. Something big is missing. I feel it everywhere—that absence. I know Mom anticipated this absence and wanted me to fill it up, and I’m certain she didn’t want me to fill it up with Jim Beam or become the crazy dog lady who has one-sided conversations with her dogs all day (too late). She was too vain for that. She was proud of me and my brothers because we gave her something to feel pride in. None of us are slackers, despite my self-deprecation.
At my fingertips, I hold all the anticipated clichés in response to her last wishes—things I must do to honor her daily, things that ultimately end up honoring me by cleaning up my own bad habits. Honestly, I don’t know what she’d want. When Mom was here, she’d want to take a trip or go shopping for solar-powered lawn decorations or drink some salted-caramel and vanilla something-or-other from Starbucks. She’d want to tell me all the latest news about the family that she’d gleaned from Facebook posts. She’d want recognition and a travel/shopping/gossip buddy. Now, after she’s gone, and all I can do is be sad. I don’t know how to live for her, or me. I’m just lost.
Today, I visited my family home and my father for the first time since my mother died. I was about to explain this experience by introducing it with the phrase, “There is nothing weirder than,” but then I checked myself by remembering that nearly every experience I’ve had in the last two months could be introduced by the phrase “there’s nothing weirder than…”
There is nothing weirder than showing up at your dad’s house when it used to be your parents’ house. There is nothing weirder than the look and sound of THAT house, the dad’s house with the mom’s stuff still everywhere in it because Mom’s stuff made it the place that it is… was. Dad’s disorganization and absence of an eye for detail is starting to swallow up the neat, pastel-colored, over-scented house of my mom. There are random objects lying around that were here when I left two weeks ago. For instance, there’s a box lid that Mom had used for a tray before someone with more wherewithal bought her a portable tray. On that box lid is a plastic serving plate, an extension cord, a hanger, and one of those “grabber-nabbers” like my neighbors use to pick up trash without having to touch it. Why is that assortment of objects in the dining room?
Two weeks ago, I thought Dad just needed to get the shock out of his system, and then he would find a home for that cardboard box lid that Mom had used for a tray. He didn’t. The house is filled with things, objects with no home, like the complete Harry Potter series that my aunt bought her for her convalescence. I found the fucking thing on the buffet, still in the box and the bubble wrap, exactly where it had been sitting two weeks ago. Its presence bothered me then, and it bothers me now. There is nothing weirder than arriving “home” and finding your father in a time warp. There are things he can’t part with, and I have to decide what to pitch. Even my dogs are depressed.
But you know what else is weird? My father’s raw adoration for my mother. It’s something that he doesn’t wave around like a Facebook post, but that’s because he isn’t from the generation (ahem, mine and ours and the millennials) that can do that with candor. He’s a vintage man’s man. This shit is hard to express. I see him struggling with every sentence. He’s a walking eulogy.
I came here this week to sort out my mother’s crammed-yet-organized walk-in closet because my dad wants to move back into the master bedroom. It’s a harder task than I had imagined. For one, her travel buddy and friend-for-decades purportedly cleaned it out last week. Before I had a chance to try on those boots I saw on the top shelf, Dad had invited her to come and clean house, and she left with three, thirty-gallon trash bags full of stuff. I arrived here today expecting a closet with one or two things left, dangling sadly among the empty hangers. Instead, I got a whole closet of clothes that I didn’t know what to do with. Mom liked her clothes.
There’s nothing weirder than listening to your dad try to express his admiration for your mom by talking about the fabrics she wore. He sat down on the edge her bed and said, “You know, the clothes she wore, all of them were soft. All her clothes were so soft.” And then he wandered off again. Dad’s in a funky place. I’m in a funky place. Her clothes, her skin products, her trinkets around the room perplex him. I have to sort it all out, separate the spring and summer clothes for the Salvation Army from the winter clothes for the upcoming church bazaar. I set aside things I don’t really need because they remind me of moments and events, like our trip to Michigan or my nephew’s wedding. I’m taking home her commemorative t-shirts that I’ll probably never wear. I’m parting with outfits that she had discussed with me in detail over the phone. There they are, no longer relevant.
There’s nothing weirder than this: new grief.
There’s nothing weirder than watching your mother die.
There’s nothing weirder than changing your vocabulary from “them” to “he.”
There’s nothing weirder than walking into that second life, the “after” phase, and realizing that that’s all there is.
There’s nothing weirder than this.
It’s November 5, 2017. My mother died on October 24, 2017, almost two weeks ago. I had the privilege of seeing her last breath. I used to count them—thirteen per minute, twelve per minute, nine per minute, one… That was the one. I stayed up most nights, as my two most recent entries reveal. I doubted myself. I went limp with fear when she woke up one morning at 2:00 a.m. and vomited her green, cancer-corrupted bile all over herself. I’m not a nurse, but I did my best.
The day she went, I went off on my family for acting casual as her corpse rested in the living room in front of the picture window. I stared at her hands before the funeral home director came to get her and put her in the back of a black, Chrysler minivan. I stared at her hands. My dad thought I wanted her to be there forever, so he waited to call the funeral home director; but I was, in truth, ready for her body to leave that house as soon as it could, as soon as we all had had our time, and BEFORE we started looking at pictures, writing obituaries, and getting tanked.
In short, her death marked a new kind of beginning—a week of family and friends and throwing myself into printing posters and making picture collages of her life. I seemed ok. My ex-boyfriend came the viewing and told me how together I seemed to be. I guess that’s how it works. Grief. It’s a tricky emotion. I’ll write an entry some time about those triggers. But first, I want to do something I never do and share the pieces of blog entries that I had started and couldn’t finish throughout this process. My computer notes the date and time of every one. I’m going to post them here, as is, without any editing and only the working title and time that I had written them. Those times were traumatic, but worth sharing:
“Stuff around the house that Mom left unfinished last week,” October 21, 7:16 p.m.
A copy of Mary Alice Monroe’s Swimming Lessons, bookmarked at page 176.
A box of Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds.
A thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of a cat on a windowsill.
Three recorded episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful.
A bag of jellybeans.
Half a bottle of Ensure.
“I’m learning a few things on this journey,” October 21, 9:14 p.m.
Everything does and will remind me of Mom.
How to turn a patient in bed. I’m shitty at it.
How to check a patient to make sure he/she is cleanly and has no bed sores. I’m shitty at it.
Nurses and nurses aides are people I live for.
“CouldaShouldaWouldas,” October 21, 11:10 p.m.
Coulda, shoulda, wouldas seem to be common themes that travel around with death like barnacles on a rotting ship. They have tried to creep into my already infected consciousness this week, especially after I checked my mother’s Facebook status and noticed that she had reposted quite a few memes on October 17, the day before I decided I needed to tell her what she needed to know via Facebook Messenger. My final thoughts will be forever unopened, as my father and I plan to shut down the account.
That’s sad, sure, but that’s not nearly as sad as, well, everything else—loss, grief, a sense of tragedy, unfinished jigsaw puzzles and a her jacket still hanging off of the back of a chair. I imperfectly folded my parents’ laundry recently and haphazardly shoved it into drawers like I always do when someone puts me in charge of laundry, and I thought, “Man, Mom is gonna have a fit when she opens up these drawers and sees this.” Then I realized that Mom’s would never have the chance to scold me for not intuiting correctly which drawers certain fabrics belonged in and such. She spent a good deal of time during her comparatively lucid state on Wednesday fretting about how well my niece had cleaned the tile floors, “Had she steamed them or just swiffered them?” I told her the floors glistened. She’s never gonna see those floors again, so what’s a little lie?
“Every profession has its heroes,” October 23, 12:17 a.m.
Every profession has its heroes, people who were born to do the job. In fields of wellness and education, these heroes can make a significant difference. If I could gauge my performance by student feedback, I might determine that I have hero potential in my branch of education. Where there’s potential, there’s fulfillment. I will stick with teaching. Had I chosen to become a home health aide or a nurse, however, I would not have had hero potential. Nope.
All the love in the world can’t seem to guide me in my awkward attempts to turn my mother from her side to her back, and again to her side. The nurses and the aides tell me this is crucial. My pained mother who will spend her last moments in a hospital bed also indicates to me that this is crucial. Bedsores are the enemy. Discomfort and itchiness are major enemies as well. But I can’t do it. I’m a health care flunky when it comes to rolling that pad thing and shimmying it under the body and crossing the legs and then rolling it out and again, and I don’t what else. I feel like a failure. Tonight, I smoked a butt from the ashtray (ran out of smokes), woke my mom to give her some morphine oil, which she hates, and cried up a storm while I waited for the morphine to kick in. All so I could get up the courage to turn her on her side.
I wasn’t successful. I lowered the bed like her aide had showed me. I flattened her out and crossed her arms and rolled that stupid pad thing. Then I wondered if I was rolling it from the correct side. Then I determined I wouldn’t roll, but I would just shift her body sideways with the pad thing. I don’t need to go any further. I caused my mom unnecessary discomfort in the last hours of her life on earth.
Despite my well-intended delusions of gallantry, staying awake for two nights in a row just made me a useless, hot mess. And taking a nip or two from the bottle of bourbon in the kitchen during these sleepless marathons made me even more useless. So tonight I eschewed the alcohol, bought a pack of cigarettes, and let Dad propose taking half-night shifts. For four hours, I slept well, even with strange dreams of hiding myself and a bunch of children in secret compartments under furniture in order to escape some kind of unearthly menace in female form with an army of fugitive-sniffing cats. That’s a new one. I should be keeping a dream log as well as a death log.
When I left the warm bed to take my 2:00 a.m. shift, I found Dad sleeping on the couch. Just dozing, he said. Just dozing under a comfy quilt. Let’s face it, we’re not RNs or home health aides. We’re tired family members who crave our beds, with or without apocalyptic nightmares.
Mom asked my sister-in-law what happened to the local hospice facility where my grandmother had died twenty years ago. I think she had envisioned herself staying there when the time came and not in the middle of her living room being cared for, largely, by tired family members. Apparently, our local hospice facility had been shut down because it wasn’t “feasible,” its staff of PAs, RNs, and aides turned into traveling pill peddlers instead. It’s a sinisterly brilliant way to cut corners. The professional caregivers get to keep their jobs, and the operating costs disappear. Now we have a solution that’s “feasible” because the dying can still receive their care twenty-four-seven, but in the comfort of their own homes. Oh joy.
Here’s where the plan gets more brilliant: our loved-ones definitely can receive care twenty-four-seven. Whenever we make the phone call to the emergency number on the whiteboard magnetted to our refrigerators, our questions and concerns are relayed to a nurse on call, who will call us back and answer our questions. Sometimes, if we sound sad enough, she’ll even offer to come out to the house for an hour or two—even more if we want. If we don’t call, however, we get a daily visit from a nurse (on weekdays), and a daily visit from an aide who will do the yucky stuff like bathe and change catheter bags. In a rural area like this one, where people spend their wholes lives NOT asking questions, removing the whole hospice facility from the equation is most certainly a feasible plan.
I decided that I prefer the 2:00 a.m. to whenever-Dad-wakes-up-again shift because it’s a perfect time to call that hotline and ask questions without Dad knowing I’m calling the hotline and asking questions. The very first hospice nurse I met this week stayed at our house for six hours so Dad and I could go out to dinner for his birthday. We were only gone for three, but she stuck around long after and helped Mom and counseled me. Dad, being Dad, just wanted her to leave. Me, being me, wanted the help and guidance. Why not? If a hospice is going to close down its facility and leave all the dirty work to us, we should accept as much of that help as it will provide. We should not accept the death-on-a-budget excuse.
The nurses know this. The whiteboard on the fridge says “for emergencies call,” leaving it up the caller to determine the scope of an emergency. Luckily, I was counseled by a hospice nurse before I had even seen this semantic deterrent. Call any time, she said. No question is a stupid question, she said. That’s what we’re here for, she said. So I do, and I will, just not when Dad knows I’m doing it.
It isn’t that Dad doesn’t care. He cares a whole lot. His love is infinite. This morning, the RN assigned to our case watched him interact with her and said, “They clearly love each other. It’s adorable.” It was adorable, five weeks ago, now it’s very heartbreaking. The man needs two shoulder operations. He has a bad back. He carries around his own, permanent, catheter bag. And he just lost his brother. This is too much for him. He isn’t healthy enough, physically, mentally, or emotionally to be caring for a wife of fifty-five years round-the-clock. He needs a place where he can go that’s away from his grief, like his home. Oh wait, his home is now a makeshift hospice.
If I can do anything around here besides be in the way, and I often feel like I’m in the way, I can call in the professionals to help Mom instead of leaving Dad to do all the guesswork. I’m confused, and I’m younger, healthier, and more alert. I can’t imagine how he manages to do anything, let alone almost everything. I’m gonna keep calling that number because it helps and because I refuse the let “feasibility” and bottom-line win here.
I’m on Mom watch tonight. My dad thinks I’m going to wake him up at 3:00 a.m. so we can split the shift, but I’m not. I’ve determined that he is more handy during the day, while I sleep in my mother’s king-sized bed with all the windows open, sunlight and the sounds and smells of a rural fall day streaming in. I’m a good day sleeper. Dad, I have determined since I arrived home yesterday, needs a full night’s sleep more than I do.
He’s brilliant with her. I don’t know how he does it. Love, I suppose. My poor brother showed up this evening around six o’clock to catch her waking up from a four-hour doze, and she told him to stay away from her blinds. There had been talk of my brother’s changing out the blinds for more functional ones. Since her hospital bed sits in front of the big bay window in my parents’ living room, my father, at one point in the many stages of helplessness family members experience in the face of terminal illness, thought new blinds would do the trick, and he recruited my brother to do the job. After learning of this plan, the blinds became my mother’s point of reference any time she saw my brother’s face. Then Mom thought we were all sitting around her bedside in the morning, rather than at dinnertime, so she asked my brother why he had showed up in the early morning. It came out like this:
“Why are you here so early in the morning? Are you here to watch me croak or something?”
She never minced words in reality; she doesn’t mince them in terminal illness, either. Dad eventually convinced her it was evening, but she continued to press my brother about his presence in the room until Dad quipped, “We’re all here to give you a bath, all three of us.” Until she realized he was busting her ass, just like he always does, Mom didn’t give my poor brother a break.
My brother doesn’t know what to do any more than any of us. Dad has the most experience caring for Mom, but her symptoms change rapidly, hourly, in hospice. Nurses who know the most about what is happening come around once in a while and take charge and sometimes provide useful advice, but then one hour lapses into the other, and Dad and I begin to bicker about how we’ve interpreted that advice. Dad often won’t accept my interpretation.
I feel like I’m in the way. Mom wakes up from time-to-time, and I try to give her medicine (ahem, morphine), and she tells me to go back to bed, that I’m making her nervous. She’s not used to 24-hour vigilance. She just wants to die.
My friend who recently lost her mother in at-home hospice told me to tell Mom what I wanted to tell her and do it as soon as possible. Turns out that the best time was any day prior to yesterday, when I arrived here. I wasn’t expecting to see what I saw. Dad had never said the word “hospice” when I’d called him. Two weeks ago, she’d been a different woman, reading and checking out Facebook and fretting about the state of the sheets in the spare bedroom or the laundry, basically being a sicker version of her usual self. She still hadn’t tried chemo, and we all still had a little hope. My father hadn’t been forthright about how rapidly she was declining, I think because he was too busy caring for her in ways that his own frail body couldn’t sustain.
She was still tinkering around a little with her tablet early yesterday, before I arrived, which means she was tinkering around on Facebook. Last night, when I cried to the hospice nurse about how difficult it would be to tell her what I wanted to tell her because of her hearing loss, she said, “Write it. Make the font really big and say it on her tablet.” So, as I sat around on Mom duty in the wee early morning hours of yesterday, and I opened up Facebook messenger, and I said what I wanted to say. Too bad she hasn’t picked up her tablet since yesterday, and she probably never will again. That tiny window of time, while I was dragging my feet to get out the door because I didn’t want to face what I had to face, had closed quietly.
I upset my husband last night with a little dose of dark humor. I asked him what cancer he thought would be the cancer that did each of us in, and he knocked on the wall. Apparently, he doesn’t want to joke about dying. I guess that’s alright, but personally, I would rather think about it now than be surprised by its sudden appearance. What is death, anyway, but just a phase of life, that seventh age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”? We should be so lucky.
Most of us aren’t going to make it to that seventh age that Shakespeare described in his seven ages of man speech. We’re not going to die in our nineties, drifting peacefully into oblivion while our family sits around the bedside, our spouses spooning soft food into our birdlike mouths. We can’t expect our deaths anymore, can’t plan for them. They’ll just announce themselves. Perhaps our family will be sitting around us when we go, but that probably isn’t going to be in our nineties.
Cheery, no? Maybe it’s the Fluoxetine, or maybe it’s just all the preparation I’ve had, but I don’t find death depressing. For me, it is not a debilitating thought. Do I want to lose my mother? Absolutely not. Do I feel that she and I still have a bucket list the size of Texas full of items that never will be checked off? Absolutely. Is she or I or anyone in our world ready for this? No. But it’s gonna happen, and it might happen far sooner than any of us thought it would. My mother has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a nasty cancer that has metastasized into her liver. She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She can’t even sit up comfortably. Two months ago, we were on a vacation together in Maine. She and I walked down to the main drag in Bar Harbor, and she nagged me about how much money I spent. Now, she’s homebound, using a wheelchair, wearing great big t-shirts twenty-four-seven, and not eating a single thing. She wants to go, man. Who am I to stop her? I can’t do anything except be there for her. And that’s what I intend to do.
I remember when my dad first got prostate cancer back in 2005. I was strung out back then, and so I bawled and bawled and made my dad’s tragedy all about me and my business, and my personal regrets. I didn’t really do much to help him or mom. That was a long time ago. I’ve since done a lot of helping. Like my recently departed uncle, I’ve showed up at hospitals with my sleeves rolled up, ready for action. What else the fuck can one do?
For three days, I’ve been wearing a tatty old dress that I bought on a road trip that I took with my mother. We spent seven days driving around Michigan together, sightseeing and driving each other nuts, and listening to the Grateful Dead channel, and bonding. It was the best vacation I’ve ever taken. In a little shop on Mackinaw Island, I bought a Woolrich dress that I wore almost every day for the rest of the trip. Somewhere, there’s a picture of me in that dress at the edge of the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Western Michigan, white sands that dropped so steeply into the shores of Lake Michigan that the park service posted warnings: you attempt to go down there, you will pay heavily for your rescue. And still, hundreds of tourists slid down those slopes and snaked their way back up the dunes. They looked like ant trails from our perspective at the top. What an awe-inspiring American vista. And I shared it alone with her. And now I’m still wearing that dress, even though the ass is worn out, and you can see the color of my underwear through the holes. I will never throw away that dress. I said I was accepting of death, I didn’t say I wasn’t sentimental.
There’s a lot of kids out there who treat their parents like shit. And there’s a lot of kids out there who are perennially lost. They need to look death in the face, stop knocking on walls. Cancer is the new black.
This afternoon, I was horrified to “discover” an unedited, terrible blog post that drifted into incoherence by the fourth paragraph—my very own post. I remember writing it, and I remember checking the Word .doc this morning and taking notes on it—“add transition” here and “delete this entire paragraph?” there. I DON’T, however, remember posting it. I have a void where a memory should be. Comes with the territory.
So I deleted it, just like my addled brain deleted those moments when I opened up WordPress and put some poorly-written piece of garbage out for the whole world to read (I wish). If you are one of the four people who read it and “liked” it, I thank you, and I apologize. Figures that the one post I was forced to delete got the most traffic in one day of anything I’ve posted thus far. I’m not the most effective blogger, but I sure like doing it! When I’m conscious enough to edit, that is.
I’m actually seeing an addiction therapist, and we’re making a little progress together. Today we talked about my friends. Who is a good influence, who is bad. I really don’t have any friends whom I would consider a bad influence anymore. They all kind of drifted out of my life with my ex-husband. He was the ultimate bad influence. He was cheap, narcissistic, alcoholic (my doing, he claimed), and selfish. And he brought out all those qualities in me. With him gone, all the lousy people that he attracted like flypaper are gone, too. My only remaining friends from that union went straight-edge and vegan, and their former debauched selves are unrecognizable. When we crazies put our minds to something, we really go all in, eh?
I’m still waiting for that “aha” moment when I finally go all in on sobriety. It won’t be today. I can hear the grocery store calling already. My favorite checker is waiting there to crack a joke about my odd assortment of items that inevitably contains alcohol. I’m fond of waltzing in there around 11:00 and buying things like beer and oatmeal (“Breakfast of champions!” she said), or red wine and beef jerky.
This post is also unedited, but far more coherent than last night’s. After I hit “publish” this time, the laptop is going off for the evening. There’s a way around every problem.