Irish abbey ruins in Howth, Ireland
Shortly before 5 AM, I awoke with a gasp and uncontrollable sob. I was sweaty and my limbs felt swollen. Once again, as in the earliest hours, my heart felt not so much that it had broken as much as shifted in place, into an awkward position.
Yesterday was oh-so-different. I had found a deep, hearty laugh again, felt a sense of release.
And then in the wee hours of today, BOOM!
My mother has been gone now, what, 6 weeks and a couple of days? Hers was not a graceful exit via hospice. It was not a “good death” of popular folklore. It was labored and hard and long, the at-times shocking departure of an elder with multiple organs dying off. She’d had her full faculties (and then some) until the last week, and so after years of one type of eldercare I suddenly had another in the end. One of the hardest things for her that week was when she realized that she had forgotten me. She was horrified. Worse, it was caught on tape, accidentally. The last sound I ever captured electronically contains noises of my mother in a panic attack as I try to comfort her and reassure her that “dying is okay.”
I still can’t even talk about all of what happened yet. I can tell you about the love and grace we were given by extraordinary friends, healthcare providers and, on occasion, strangers. I can whisper of one magical night early in the “active dying phase” that was all witchy, earthy wise-women, the ancient scent of cloves, and flickering electrical lights over our heads. I can speak of rain clouds gathering and dripping down big, wet raindrop-tears. I can tell you that in the end although I was not there she was not alone and she was peaceful if inattentive.
I can’t quite speak of some things, some things that I saw and heard and felt that I collectively call “The Big Ugly” because they shocked me, even though I’d done everything to “prepare” for years. Watching your highly intelligent mother’s brain stem die (and the attending “agonal respiration”) after you’re pretty sure her spirit has crossed “the veil” is something akin to gruesome, and the morphine couldn’t make it better.
People speak of “better places” and I nod in a culturally appropriate manner, but I know my mother’s spirit hasn’t departed full-time just yet. She was confined and tortured by her body during her last years. Therefore, I am not surprised to find her frequently hiding in my garden, following me on a September trip abroad, giggling with me over a rather wild telephone conversation with a rural cemetery groundskeeper. Due to the extent of her disability, she never saw our house here after she moved and, being a curious sort, I feel sometimes when I sleep that she slips through things, perhaps passing a little judgment or considering memories that my inherited items stir. I think she rides in the front passenger’s seat of my car. Unbound now by a diseased and broken body, her spirit longs to know about the real ebb and flow of our days.
This morning I felt none of those charms of grief, though. I felt only the ugly, gaping wound. Loss. No, L-O-S-S written out big, marquee style. I’m well-read enough to know that grief is non-linear and that these sudden retreats back into the center of pain are normal. If we processed it all at once, it might be too much to bear. So we swing within a range that reflects our relationship to the deceased and emotions about them.
“The deceased.” Those words. Those words now mean my mother, in all of her lovely and annoying human complexity.
You should know that I am okay. You should also know that I still have my father and a truly darling stepmother, although they live hours away and stay rather busy. Closer to home, I have my beloved husband and child, too, as well as an abundance of shockingly good friends. I’m not an orphan, either. This month contains my birthday, and I have made it almost-but-not-quite to the half century mark with both parents alive and alert. I’m grateful.
But things aren’t the same anymore. Fate and natural processes have marked me. And this morning, sometime before dawn, I finally felt the full weight of the words in that old spiritual, “Motherless Child.”
I hate it. I really, really hate this feeling.
Yet the day marches on.