The Inconsistency of Grief

Feeling My Way Across an Unfamiliar Floor

We lost our mom in January.

She had a thoracic aortic aneurysm, quite unexpectedly. She survived emergency surgery. It was a miracle. But she never really regained full consciousness, and after 10 days of occasionally surprising us by being able to open her eyes or mouth something but then lapsing back into unconsciousness, as the doctors began to prepare her for long-term storage, we prepared to let her go.

It was the hardest decision of our lives. Unbearable. And after it was over, we were swept away in a wave of preparations, decisions and numbness.

It’s almost four months later and now the grief comes in shocking, sucking waves that drag me down into my mattress and clog my head. Hot, huge tears that splash onto and into my pillow with a heaviness that makes me wonder how the body creates tears. Grief must add a physically heavy ingredient to the recipe.

I am haunted by the idea that we abandoned our mom. That you are never supposed to let one of your own go. That we left a wounded soldier behind. The indelible, resurfacing impression that what we did was taboo. Did she feel that betrayal?

Don’t misunderstand. Our mom was a lifelong quality of life advocate. She drilled it into us that we were never, ever to let her live one of those living deaths. We were made to promise her that again and again. She would have been the first one, if she could have spoken and could understand her situation, to tell us to just let her go. Please. None of us were in any doubt about that. And I’m the same way, certain that leaving this planet is preferable to remaining attached to it in pain or confusion or worse.

But long held beliefs don’t really help you when you’re staring at your own mother’s unnaturally swollen form anchored by tubes competing for physical real estate and the blinking, beeping monitors and doctors that tell conflicting fortunes.

I wonder how well her beliefs held up in the end when facing the reality of a theoretical moment. In her brief trips into awareness did she understand we were packing her bags for her? Did she protest inside? Did she suddenly decide that she wanted to stay at any cost? In the end, after all those years of being certain she didn’t want to live in the kind of future the doctors were painting for us now, was choosing to go like she had imagined it or was it more like choosing door number 3 that might have a car or a goat behind it over the $200 that the host was offering you instead?

We began her journey out by singing to her. Because He Lives. Another thing drilled into us. That’s my favorite song, she would say as she made dinner or swept the porch.  Promise me you’ll sing it at my funeral.  When we all started that song, her eyes flew open. She looked all around the room and then closed her eyes. She never opened them again. The pain medicines they gave her did their work. We all watched the monitors as her vital signs went down, went up, defied reason. We kept watching, listening. How could we not? It was DeathTV.  And some of us realized it was the closest the established medical community can come to gracefully assisting someone out of this life.

We held hands, we huddled together in quiet and not-so-quiet whispers. We no doubt disturbed the other ICU patients, but we gave Mom the farewell I later thought I guess we’d all be lucky to have. Your family’s hands the last thing you feel, their voices the last thing you hear.

It was beautiful. It was horrible.

It’s only after months that I have let myself begin think about those details.  The weeks after her death, of course I cried some tears, but that happened less and less as real life seeped back in.  And I thought I was better.  Ok.  Fine.

But in the past few weeks, something changed. The pool of pain began to drift upward and the normalness became thinner and thinner until now it is only a thin skin overlaying the loss. Looks solid on  the surface, is a liquid mess below. Other people’s losses amplify my own.  A friend loses her dog; I cry like it’s my dog.  My dog has a small tumor biopsied. I freak out.

I just know I can’t bear another loss.  How can I bear another loss?

I don’t know how long this part of grief will last. I don’t like it. I don’t understand the guilt when the biggest part of my brain knows good and well we saved her from a fate worse than death. That we loved her enough to do that for her.

I don’t even quite understand, can’t quite put a name to what I feel most days. What pricks me when I think about Mom? I think if I could only NAME it, I could deal with it. But it flits just out of my reach.

Lately I’ve been becoming my mom. Yes, I’ve been wearing her thin, pink nylon nightgowns. I’ve gotten up stupidly early on a few Saturdays to go garage saling. I am not a morning person. I’m not even a mid-morning person. But there I was in my car driving to a garage sale at 6:45 am, shocked to see other people awake and about. I refinished the antique dining room table that we spent our childhood at, eating, shouting, arguing, loving. I don’t refinish furniture. I just don’t. But I did. And it’s done now. Yesterday I finished it. She would have been so proud of me for doing that. God knows, as her dementia crept in, she rarely told me anymore that she was proud of me and I knew this was going to be a home run. I wanted to call her up to tell her.

Sunday is Mother’s Day. She loved Mother’s Day. I hope they are having a big dinner for her with cards and yellow roses. I hope my card gets there in time;  the one that says I miss you, Mom.

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