Sunday, May 13, 2012

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” 
-Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

This post will be a bit of a deviation from my regular posts.

This post is for my mother.

Mother's Day has, for the last 13 years, been a day that feels like Valentine's Day does to single people- but only, much worse. If you're single, that's not necessarily a permanent state. There's hope that one day that will change. When you've lost your mother- there is no hope of return or that the situation will change. You know in your heart the rest of your life will always contain an empty void that can simply not be filled by anyone or anything else.

There aren't many in my life who remember my mother. I've told the story of the morning she died in full to very few, but for whatever reason, I feel compelled to tell the story now.

Five something AM on October 2, 1998, I wake up, not sure why, and glance up at my window. The blinds are flashing. "Oh... lightning" I thought to myself and started to drift back to sleep. But, within a split second I realized, "lightning doesn't do that." I bolted out of bed into the hallway to find paramedics racing upstairs to my mother's room. Oh my god.

I ran down to the basement where my sister was sitting up in her bed, the covers pulled over her knees. "What's happening?" she asked with a tone in her voice that said she already knew. I don't know what I said at that point, I just remember we were somehow both standing at the entrance of the hallway listening... waiting... I was about to say "it must not be too bad... they're taking a long time" as my sister said, "something must be really wrong, they're taking a really long time."

Not too long ago, my sister and I were talking about what we remember from that morning... her flashbacks include the heart-wrenching piercing sound of my screams as my feet flew down the stairs to tell her what was happening. I don't recall a single sound.

I have no idea how much longer it was after she made her comment because time was suddenly moving at an agonizingly slow pace, and yet somehow, at a breath-stealingly fast speed. I feel like I remember them taking the door to the upstairs off the hinges, moving some furniture, and then at some point they ran down the stairs with the stretcher...

I caught a glimpse of my mother, limp and lifeless as they raced to the ambulance. I knew in that instant it was over. I knew that was the last time she would ever be at home with me.

My dad stayed behind with his 3 children- I stood beside him at the door as he clutched his chest struggling to breathe. The last paramedic to leave asked him "Are you ok?" I wanted to scream at him "No, we're not fucking ok!" while a momentary terror entered my mind "Is my father going to have a heart attack?" Thankfully, dad settled, the ambulance roared off, and I went to get ready for school.


To this day, I can't explain what possessed me to get on the bus that morning. Maybe initial denial that everything I had just seen wasn't real. Maybe if I kept going about my day as usual, it would mean I didn't know my mother just died.

Third period I raised my hand in history class, "Can I leave?" My teacher knew what happened- I wandered down to the office, called my sister, and she and my now brother in law picked me up and took me to the hospital with them.

I don't remember anything until the moment I walked into my mom's room. She was lying in the hospital bed with tubes everywhere- the respirator making that eerie "beep....beep..." One nurse explained the machine would count every breath she took on her own. So, every time one walked in, I asked "Has she taken a breath yet?" And every time, "No, honey, not yet." I knew the answer would never change.

Rewinding to the day before, mom had picked me up from school. Driving home she was swerving and I impatiently said, "Mom, just let me steer." Resisting she said, "No, I don't want the cops to see."  I started to get angry "They're more likely to see you swerving than me steering! You should have your license taken away." We fought the entire way home. We went to our rooms and slammed our doors. I didn't speak to her the rest of the night, even when she had come down to apologize, say goodnight, and she loved me.

Mom's health issues had peaked again at that point in time- she was actually due to go in for a sleep study around the time she died. Years later as I looked back on that moment, I realized that, on some level, mom must have known what was about to happen. Our night time ritual for years involved the kids going to her bedroom to say goodnight because after she took her medications, she needed to stay in bed. She had not come down to us since I can't remember when. Also, after a fight like that, she wouldn't have talked to me until the next day. She came down to say goodnight and I love you. I blew her off. If I regret anything in my life, that's it.

You can tell me she forgives me, and I know that in my head, but I'll tell you this: Logic and a broken heart want nothing to do with each other.

Throughout the day, tons of people came to visit. I barely remember any of them. I do remember some benevolent Christians decided it was their duty to inform me that my "fire for God had been dying lately- and maybe God was taking my mother to make me more dependent on Him." I told them if that's the kind of God he is, he could burn in hell with me.

That night, with mom still hooked to the machines giving her the appearance of life, my dad and I stayed while everyone else went home to rest. I peeked in on her a few times, then went to lie down on the bench in the waiting room where my father was sleeping. As he snored, I buried my head as far into a pillow as I could to muffle the sounds of my hysterical desperate tears. The tears that were, reluctantly, beginning to accept that this person who was my world was leaving, and there would be no coming back. I wanted to scream my own existence away into the universe.

Sometime the next morning, my sister, her fiancé, and my brother returned. Again, people swarmed in and out. Three of my sister's friends showed up, and for whatever reason, they were the most comforting to me. Maybe because they weren't my obnoxious 13 year old peers who had no idea how to handle the situation and were annoying at best, isolating at worst.

There came a point when the doctors had to tell us that they had run all of their tests. Mom was completely non-responsive; she was brain dead. Dad made the impossible decision it was time to take her off the machines. And here again, I did some inexplicable thing. Everyone was in the waiting room completely drained from the last 36 hours, and I decided to say goodbye to mom by myself. I think dad may have hung by the door while I stood by her bed crying saying, "I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I miss you...I love you."

I walked back to the waiting room to announce I was going outside while everyone else said their goodbyes. One of my sister's friends came out with me. I wasn't crying now. I felt numb. We walked out to a crystal clear star-filled night and I said, "I don't know what I'm going to do." I don't remember exactly what he said... something about being strong, and I would be ok. I had never felt so lost. We walked back in to find the rest of my family, gather our things, and made our escape from what was the beginning of our new reality.

I had no idea what lay in store for me after that night. I had no idea how hard life would continue to be for a long time. People always say "it will get better," but who can predict that? My next several years were some of the most tumultuous to date. It's no small feat I made it through them alive. What does a 13 year old girl do when the sun above her goes out? She either withers and dies herself, or she starts over and learns everything she's ever known has to be different now- she has to make her own light.

Here I am, 13 years later, finally able to acknowledge and embrace that, while I miss my mother horribly- I've learned more about love and living through her death than I ever may have if she was still here. I still have no idea what's in store for me and my life. I do know that whether you've lost a parent, child, lover, or best friend, at some point, you have to make a decision. You can either let your own life waste away until you die, or you teach yourself to make a beauty and joy all your own. You can let the love that's still in your life fade out, or you can pour every bit of yourself into it with a heightened awareness and reverence for how sacred our relationships are with each other. I hope it's the latter.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I hope I make you proud.

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