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some reflections on the passing of my mother

July 10, 2015

On June 24th, I got the call that I’d been dreading for years—the call that my mom was dying. She’d had a lot of health problems, and there’d been a number of close calls over the last couple of years ranging from illnesses to open heart surgery. Each time I thought, “This might be it. This might be the time I lose her.” Looking back, I suppose one of the few graces of having a family member with a history of serious health problems is that it can help prepare you for the inevitable. At least it doesn’t hit you out of the blue; you have the time and impetus to imagine the possibility, to emotionally prepare, to build up the reserve of strength needed to face one of the most painful experiences of your life, that of losing someone you love, without being completely overwhelmed.

Even still, I wasn’t really prepared; I wasn’t really ready for the fear, anger, and sadness that was looming over me, and my family, like a gigantic tidal wave about the crash down and all but obliterate my fragile being, sweeping away everything in its path—all of my hope, joy, and faith in the future. As I sat there in the airport Wednesday night, in the midst of struggling to deal with the reality of my mom’s situation, I remember being struck by the nonchalantness and even callousness with which we often treat death and dying in our culture. It’s as if, in our fear of death, we do everything in our power to deny it, hide it, romanticize it, or joke about it, anything to take away the power of its sting. But while these things may help us cope with its existence and inevitability, they rarely do much to prepare us for the reality and actual experience of watching a loved one die, of holding their hand as they spend the last few hours of their life gasping for breath.

I suppose that death can be beautiful or heroic depending on the circumstances; but in my experience, death is painful, torturous, heart-wrenching, full of monitors, needles, moans, tears, and parades of names and faces who do their best to be compassionate and supportive when they’re not too stressed from being overworked, under paid, and/or trying to push your loved one out as quickly as possible in order to free up a bed for the next customer/patient. For anyone who’s spent enough time in them to notice, hospitals are revolving doors of the sick and dying, although they could (and should) be more. Money should have nothing to do with caring for the sick, the elderly, and the dying. Money shouldn’t dictate the level and quality of care, or the concern with which they’re administered. And yet it does. Reflecting on everything my mom had been through and endured, not the mention the mountains of red tape, bills, and collection notices, I was saddened by how we’ve cheapened life, how we’ve made life more about making money (mostly for someone else), or else worrying about not having enough, than actually living. All those wasted years…

Suffice it to say that I was lost, heartbroken. My faith in something greater than myself was tested and destroyed before being raised up again like Lazarus. I had nothing to hold onto. All my prayers had seemingly gone unanswered. Any purpose to life I once believed in seemed all but imaginary. Only the pain and sadness I felt were real. I watched Aliens on the flight; and with every bump of turbulence, I thought that at least my pain would end if I were to die. Midway through, they called for a doctor. Someone was having a medical emergency. I’m not sure how serious it was, but after we landed a lady was helped off by EMTs before the rest of us could exit, and I hoped that she’d be OK.

Tracey, one of my closest and dearest friends, picked me up from the airport and took me to my parent’s house. I thought it’d be better to go up with my dad, although now I kind of wish I’d just gone straight to the hospital to spend as much time with my mom as possible. As I sat there, waiting for my dad to drive us up to the hospital to see her, trying to let it sink in that we were possibly just a breath or two away from losing her, I felt sick, shaky, alone, wanting to cry and scream at the same time and hating myself for not coming sooner. I felt empty of everything except this sickening fear and guilt. I think I was still in shock, and I imagine that what I felt in that moment was similar to what someone who’s just experienced a natural disaster might feel—half confusion and half terror. It was all a blur, and the next thing I knew, I was at the hospital, winding my way down corridors and past room after room while trying to mentally prepare myself for the worst.

No words can adequately describe the sheer emptiness I felt, nor the pain, grief, and despair that came bubbling out of that ineffable darkness. The sadness and tears came in waves that threatened to drown me. I was buffeted by anguish, and it was felt as if some sort of cosmic sinkhole had opened up beneath me, swallowing every ounce of goodness and stability from my world. By then, she was barely conscious/cognizant, but still seemingly in a lot of pain, moaning and what almost sounded like crying at times. I think part of her knew what was happening. When they came in to tell us they recommended putting her in hospice, it felt like everything was spinning. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do anything but hold her hand, afraid to let go, as if she’d drift away the moment I did.

They said that everything was starting to shut down — her kidney, her heart, her respiratory system — and that there wasn’t much more they could do. Once my dad signed the papers, they put her on a steady drip of pain medication to help keep her comfortable. I think it was hydromorphone, also known as Dilaudid; and after they started her on it, she slept heavily, which seemed to us better than the alternative. But at the same time, I was afraid, afraid that she’d never wake up again, afraid that I’d never be able to tell her one more time how much I loved her or hear her tell me the same.

My dad and sister were equally as devastated, as was my aunt Debbie. As we all sat there, taking turns holding her hand and talking to her, we were each overwhelmed by grief. A part of me wanted to die with her. Every time I tried to talk to Annie on the phone to let her know what was happening, I broke down into tears. Words would turn into sobs. Trying to find both privacy and decent cell reception, I passed by the gift shop where only a year ago we’d gotten something for my mom when she was in for her heart surgery, and the memory was like a dagger in my heart, letting my sadness bleed out in uncontrollable spurts over the phone. Annie got a flight that night and flew in the next morning.

Tara and I spent the night at the hospital. Neither one of us wanted to leave her side. Orlando, a friend of Tara’s from school, came up to visit for a while. The next day, my mom’s eyes were open, though she wasn’t blinking, and her breathing had become more laboured and shallow. They said, in so many words, that it was only a matter of time, hours or maybe days, but definitely soon. People came and went — her cousin Cindi, her childhood friend Carol, some of Tara’s friends who had known her — but what I remember most is sitting by her side and holding her hand, telling her that I loved her and that she wasn’t alone. I remember crying a lot. It was like I was stuck in a bad dream I couldn’t wake up from. My dad said some really touching, heartfelt things and I wished that she could hear them. At the same time, I was angry at him for not telling me sooner how serious things were. Maybe he didn’t want me to worry, or maybe he didn’t fully realize it himself, but neither thought comforted me or assuaged my feelings of anger and guilt.

By this time, Annie had arrived, alternating between being a silent watcher, a fellow griever, and an angel of mercy and comfort. She took time with each of us, and seemed to always say or do the right things, having the compassion of a bodhisattva and the patiennce of a saint, enduring her own grief and the burden of ours with a strength I still marvel at. Her presence was my only refuge, the only thing that kept me sane. That night, June 27th, my mom passed away sometime after midnight with Annie, Tara, and I by her side, her hand in mine.

I can’t remember who called him, either me or Tara, but we let our dad know, who’d left only an hour before to let the dog out and get some rest. He came and said his goodbyes, signed some papers, and had the chaplain on duty come to say a prayer. I wasn’t enthused about the idea of some random person who didn’t know us saying generic things and quoting cliche scriptural passages at such an intimate and emotional time, but I figured if it’d make my dad feel better, what’s the harm? Afterwards, my dad, who was close to inconsolable, went out to talk to the chaplain alone and, while expressing his grief, also managed to share his theories about aliens seeding life on Earth and possibly being what we believe to be angels/God with him. That poor man. We left the hospital around 3am, and headed home in the somber darkness and mournful rain.

For the next few days, almost every waking moment was consumed by worry and all the funeral arrangement. All I felt like doing was crawling into a hole and crying, but bureaucracy demanded otherwise. And the whole time, I had trouble believing that she was really gone. Her presence permeated the house, and I kept half-expecting to see her sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. It killed me every time I reminded myself… Making all the arrangements was a surreal, as well as painful, experience; and in between all the phone calls and running around, I was trying to think of something to say at her memorial, but the words refused to come. In some ways, I don’t think I wanted to make it final. I eventually settled on Rudy Funeral Home in part because it doubles as a small nautical museum. My mom loved lighthouses, and I love weird things, so it seemed like the right choice. In addition, Kathy was really nice and helpful.

We decided to have my mom cremated. It was her wish, which worked out well since it was also the only thing we could really afford to do. It’s extremely expensive to bury someone once you factor in the cost of preparing the body, caskets, burial plots, and all the other related fees and expenses. Cards. Flowers. Food. You also need like a hundred copies of the death certificate (usually $15 each, although you get a discount after the first couple) because everyone will want one. Annie helped out with the planning and cost more than I expected, and I don’t think I could have done any of it without her. Looking back, she was like a heavenly messenger, guiding us all through the darkest days of our lives with perfect love, compassion, and patience.

The memorial service itself, which we scheduled for July 1st (inadvertently falling on the full moon), turned out really nice. A lot of people showed up, many that I didn’t even expect. Tracey helped pick out the main flower arrangements and paid for them, a pair of garden-variety flowers, one with ‘mom’ and one with ‘beloved wife’ on the ribbons, which were lovely. Annie’s parents sent roses that were equally as lovely, and a few others sent arrangements as well, including the video game club Tara was the president of at Macomb Community College. We chose a picture of my mom from 1975 to display next to the urn. It was one of her favourites. She was young and beautiful and I know that that’s how she’d like people to remember her. Like my dad said, it was more about celebrating her life than memorializing her passing.

It was a solemn occasion, but the day wasn’t without humour. My dad’s sisters mistook my friend Chris, who can’t speak well due to a stroke, for me, and told him they were sorry for his loss while I was standing nearby. I just smiled, declining to correct the error, happy for the temporary respite from the obligatory stream of condolences. Kathy got a semi-retired Catholic priest, Fr. Dennis Nowinski, to lead the service. He was nice and soft-spoken, with a good sense of humour. The service was a lot like daily mass, with prayers, a couple of scriptural readings, and a short homily. The only thing missing was communion. It was a little awkward, though, since most of the people there weren’t Catholic or even necessarily religious; but I think he did a good job nonetheless.

My dad, Tara, and I, along with my mom’s cousin Cindi, Mrs. Sylvester, one of Tara’s teachers from middle school, and Barbara, a long-time friend of my mom’s, all got up to say something about her. My dad went first, and was surprisingly eloquent, if a bit long-winded. Next up was Cindi. Between the two, they said everything I’d planned on saying, although I did my best to follow them without being too repetitive. I talked about how my mom was our rock, an extraordinary source of comfort and strength who was always there for us, whether we needed advice or a shoulder to cry on or someone to bail us out of jail (definitely not one of my finer moments). I talked about how the Finnish word sisu (a stubborn kind of courage, strength, and resilience that characterizes the spirit of the Finnish people) summed her up perfectly, how her life was an example of sisu, and how she did her best to instill that quality in all of us. And I talked about how, now that she’s gone, it’s our turn to follow her example and be rocks for one another as much as possible, regardless of whatever else life decides to throw at us.

It’s been almost two weeks now since she passed away, yet I still don’t feel like I’ve had the time or space to let it all sink in, to really grieve or whatever it is that you’re supposed to do. Instead, I feel numb, empty, and it kind of scares me. Then again, I’ve often had trouble expressing my emotions. Everything tends to get bottled up inside, like a pressure cooker, until it eventually explodes in a violent eruption of tears and anguish and self-loathing. It’s the way I’ve always been. Thankfully, some of it came out at the hospital. But the moment she died, it became all about my dad, my sister, and the funeral. Once that was over, though, I was left feeling hollow.

I’m trying to go on with life as usual, taking things one day at a time, but it’s not quite working. I can go through all the motions OK, but everything feels different, less real or fun or important. I’m just kind of sad all the time and doing my best to distract myself from the emotional void that’s growing inside of me. On top of all that, the world seems even crazier and more absurd to me than before; and the people I find myself increasingly relating to the most are the religious hermits who turn their backs on the world because the world has turn its back on itself. The only thing that’s helped to fill the void, the only thing that’s helped to heal the hurt and pierce the numbness, has been the love and support of others.

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