A solitary journey

Some of my earlier posts after mom died seem surreal to me now. I was reasonable and sensible. I wrote the obituary. I wrote about what it felt like to lose her. I moved through a myriad of details. I picked up her remains/aka ashes, planned a memorial, created a memorial DVD and prepared for family to come.

I was also in shock. I see that now.

When my son was born and the midwives laid him on my chest, I kept repeating, he’s so tiny, as if it was some kind of mystery. What was I expecting from my fully pregnant 128-pound frame and a basketball-size belly? A 9 pound baby?

I was not in denial about mom dying nearly as much as I was about the size of my newborn.

I prepared for two decades for mom’s death. I have written here about the goodbyes we said, the letters I wrote, the appreciation expressed, the letting go, and the agonizing process of forgiveness.

Why was I shocked? And remain that way. Is it because we argued that last day? She seemed so okay and I was preparing for and making my peace with the possibility of another year or two with mom, dealing with the drama of taking care of her. I was also seeking to find a way to balance my life: thus that last argument about whether or not she should move.

But did I kiss her when I left that day? I always kissed her goodbye and told her I loved her. That day was different. Did I tell her I loved her? I don’t remember. It haunts me, those little details that others might scoff at and say, get over it. Move on.

The family came and left, her things got stored or dispersed, the paperwork remains.

I  settled into the process of grieving. I thought I’d stop writing the blog, but readers encouraged me to continue. The writing of it is what heals me.

A blogger friend, Maggie May, writes about her postpartum depression, sick baby, teenage and adolescent children. It’s raw and gritty and real and poetic and beautiful. She, in turn, gives me courage to tell the truth about grief.

It’s complicated. It’s not easy or predictable or easily defined. It’s not what you expect.

This weekend we stayed with friends an hour from our home for the weekend. I was grouchy when I arrived and they commented on it. But we moved on. It was a weekend to be up and happy.

At breakfast we talked about how we always kiss our mates goodbye. She said, “You just never know if you are going to see them again.” I put my face in my hands and wept. In understanding, husband said, “Another wave.” I recovered and the conversation moved to other topics.

Later we packed for a foray into the mountains near their home. We traveled for eight hours over bumpy roads looking at scenery and searching for wildlife. We went to a high mountain meadow covered in purple wildflowers and took photos and laughed at our dogs. We ate apples and almond butter and commented on the four-wheelers who had torn a track through the meadow.

We moved down the mountain and sat by a stream that had washed out a road. Then turned around and headed another direction–to explore another washed out road. I was restless but remained centered on what we were doing. But it was instructive.

Although I was on the journey with them, I was on a solitary journey of my own.

For now I want to isolate, squat in my garden, pull weeds, close out everyone else’s needs and wants and desires and frustrations and guilts and sorrows and griefs while I get through my own so I might be of some use later.

Taking care of mom took a toll I am just now fully realizing. The caregiving, the anticipated grief for nearly two decades, the working through the enmeshment and anger from the past and the redemptive work we undertook was exhausting.

And now the journey of recovery. It may not look the way others expect it to look; it may not have a smooth predictable trajectory that others may expect. It may not be profound or pretty.  But just as I used to say to husband that the story I told about taking care of mom is the story that happened, that is all I can do now.

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So many stories

Husband and I went to the dermatologist this morning for a checkup for his recent skin cancer surgery and for my yearly checkup to make sure things aren’t growing where they shouldn’t.

It’s also the same dermatologist we took mom to see several times earlier this year.

As we walked into the building the smell reminded me of mom. When we walked into the waiting room, elderly people sat waiting and it reminded me of mom. Needing to do more paperwork reminded me of mom because she always chafed at the paperwork.

We never had a very good time when mom had to see a doctor, but the dermatologist was especially trying. She had a squamous cell carcinoma the size of a large grape removed from her chest in January, one her doctor said not to worry about a year before. But it kept growing and it was uncomfortable and was in her way. Although many elderly opt out of certain invasive surgeries, you can’t just leave things to grow even though you think the person might die soon. It was completely healed when she died.

It was always an ordeal–the waiting room, the trips to the restroom, the complaints because she was uncomfortable…and then on the last visit she had an accident on the way to the examining room to have her stitches taken out. It was an awful moment for her, for me.

It’s in the remembering things like this that make me feel guilty, that I didn’t do it right, that I could have done it different.

Then a woman walked in with her mother. It reminded me of mom. The woman was old, but not as old as mom was when we last took her. She complained about paperwork she had to fill out. The daughter sat across from her while the mother filled out the papers, occasionally asking her daughter a question. The mother was abrupt. I picked up subtle resistance from the daughter. The mother said, “I have to go to the bathroom,” and got up by herself and went off to the bathroom, tapping her cane on the floor as she went.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you,” I said, knowingly, to the daughter. She said, “Yes. Mom is 91, strong…and very spicy,” she said.

Ah yes, spicy. A good word to describe mom’s generation of women.

The  daughter said her mother grew up in Sunnyside, Washington, where she lived for more than 80 years, marrying and farming, and making a life. But then one day a decade ago the daughter says, “Mom, you and dad need to move to Ellensburg because I work full-time and I can’t be driving two hours to Sunnyside to check on you.” They moved north to Ellensburg and then a few years later her father died, and the mother has been alone since then, living in an assisted living facility, and with the local daughter the only caregiver because daughter #2 lives in Korea.

“I love her to pieces, but I couldn’t have her live with me,” daughter said.

I hear you, sister.

I told her to take care of herself. I said we rarely took trips while mom was alive but had taken a trip to Nova Scotia, even though mom started falling and had every sort of issue before we left.

“There’s so much guilt,” the daughter said. “We took a trip to Alaska with the kids and grand-kids this year. I told the staff at mom’s assisted living home that unless it was absolutely critical I’m not coming home. But every time we go anywhere, she falls and hurts herself.”

I told her that you think there’s going to be relief when they are gone, but then you are surprised to find it isn’t so. She said, “No, I don’t think I’ll feel relief.” We love our mothers, no matter what.

I asked her if her mother got along well in her assisted living facility. She said, “No, she doesn’t,” and sort of laughed. I sort of laughed, too, and wished her well as I walked back to the exam room.

In the exam room, the physician’s assistant commented on mom’s passing. “My father died when I was 17–a senior in high school. He had been very ill–mentally and physically. But I hate it when people say, ‘oh, they were so ill, now they are at peace,’ or, ‘they were so old and lived a long good life. No,” she said, “it’s still a loss.” Three months later, her grandmother died. “It was a bad year,” she said.

When I checked out, the lady at the desk commented on a ring I was wearing–a heart-shaped amethyst, my birth stone. I told her I bought it on mom’s birthday and she said, “I’m sorry about your mom.”

“Yes, thank you,” I said.

She told me then that her mother was still having a hard time with the death of her mother 11 months ago. The mother had lived to 96 and then had a stroke and said she was ready to go “home.” The family gathered, she said goodbye, and within a couple of days she was gone.

I said, “We didn’t get that ending, but mom passed peacefully in the end.”

She said it takes a long time for it to feel better.

It was a full experience, that hour at the dermatologist’s office. So many stories.

There is no such thing as reasonable grief

I’ve tried to be so reasonable, but what I’ve discovered is that grief is not reasonable.

Last night I went to bed feeling depressed and hopeless. I couldn’t sleep and after Ben started snoring I left for the other bedroom, something I do when he snores before I sleep. As I prepared to leave he said, “Are you okay?” “No, I’m not okay,” I said, curtly. “That’s why I’m going to the other room.” He didn’t follow me, but sighed.

My mind chafed for another couple of hours, until I fell asleep around midnight. By 2:30 a.m.  I was wide awake continuing the thought parade, gnawing on first one worry then another.

By 4:30 a.m., feeling alone and bereft and missing mom I began to sob–as in out loud, loudly. I guess you might call it a wail, wrenching sobs that arose from my gut and heart and mind and choked me with snot.

Even though I thought Ben was sleeping and I had shut the door, he heard me and came into the room. He was silent while he rubbed my back and sat with me until the sobbing subsided. I couldn’t lie down or I would have drown and he brought me a box of tissue, many of which ended up wadded up all over the bed like mom used to do.

And then we talked–about grief, about mom, but also the other things that are bothering me–about his business, why we haven’t had work coming in as we need and should, how to brainstorm, and why we didn’t talk before bed so we could both sleep.

When he went to make me a cup of peppermint tea, I went to my desk and retrieved a book I’ve been reading every day, Healing After Loss, Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief, by Martha Whitmore Hickman. Years ago her 16-year-old daughter fell off a horse and died on vacation in Colorado. Already a writer, Hickman’s experience shaped her books and stories for years to come.

I turned to May 19 because I was a few days behind. Not every day do I feel the need for the book, but when I do it’s spot on.

This is what I read first:

Many of us have been slow to recognize the value of expressing the full force of anguish and despair. We may think displays of strong emotions are somehow unseemly.

Grief is not a test. There’s no grading. No passing or failing. But if our tendency is to clamp down on our feelings because we think it’s better for us or less disturbing to others, we might try going somewhere we’re not likely to be heard [like the back bedroom] and let it out. Scream. Yell. Berate. Wail. Pound on the wall.

Some hospitals have “screaming rooms”–places where the newly bereaved can go and scream and rail without fear of disturbing others and/or embarrassing themselves.

Not a pretty sight or sound? A human sound.

And this on May 20.

It comes without warning, the feeling of being plunged back into the freshness of new grief–the same bewilderment, the feeling of being disoriented, our life disorganized. Often we don’t know just what has set us off again. And we thought we were doing better!

Yes, I was doing fine in all my reasonableness. I cry when “appropriate.” I keep it mostly to myself, but share once in awhile in measured tones that I miss mom. Sometimes I allow a tear or two to spring to my eyes, letting people see my grief. When people send me a card, I weep a little and then run errands.

But in private [is there really such a thing in a blogger’s life] is this missing of mom’s touch, her words of faith, her perseverance in the face of so much discomfort, her resilience that inspired, her stubbornness that infuriated, her sweet smile when I walked through the door.

The loved one we have lost has probably been with us for a very long time, perhaps all of our life–as when a parent has died. It won’t happen smoothly, either, in some sort of gradual uphill climb out of the valley of despair. It’s more like the work of clearing a rock-strewn New England field. With great labor the rocks are removed, but then the land shifts, the seasons change, and new rocks work their way to the surface. Eventually the land will be cleared, but it may take a long time.

Our vegetable garden presents similar obstacles to the path of grief: rocks emerging, bugs chewing, weather freezing. It’s always unexpected what a garden brings. But it’s not disorienting. I find a sense of order with the straight lines and the fruits of our labor. I love the garden because I know what to do when things go awry. Right now, it’s the only place.

Let it not be death but completeness.

Let love melt into memory and pain into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of the wings over the nest.

Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower of the night.

Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment, and say your last words in silence.

I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way.

–Rabindranath Tagore

(Reprinted from Healing After Loss)


Therapy

I drove to Seattle today to see my foot doctor. When doctors nearer to home couldn’t figure out why my foot hurts, I sought out a doc in Seattle. The drive is expensive and takes a day. But I’ve come to love my more frequent trips over the mountain. Driving soothes me. I process my worries, enjoy alone time, and sometimes get to see son or GF. And sometimes Ben goes with me, but not today.

When I leave Selah, I either drive through one of the prettiest little canyons this side of the Rockies–the 26-mile road through the canyon skirts a portion of the meandering Yakima River–or I drive the Interstate, over the “top,” a high desert plateau with broad vistas and sage covered hills.

The Yakima River Canyon is a magnificent, peaceful place. Basalt cliffs loom over the road the first few miles, giving way to buckskin colored hills, except in the spring when they turn different shades of green. Perennially mint green sagebrush is ever-present.

Splinter groups of elk and bighorn sheep hang near the river in the winter and are often seen grazing. Deer are common. Raptors roost in the basalt cliffs and nowhere else in the world does the basalt daisy grow.

But if I want to carve 15 minutes off my trip, as in doctor’s visits to Seattle, it’s over the top, like today.  After 20-some miles, the highway swoops off Manastash Ridge down into Ellensburg; in the distance the Stuart Range juts skyward. In the recent past, large windmills were installed, about which my husband promises to write a blog, and distract from the beauty of Mt. Stuart. For days on end in the winter the Stuarts are hidden. Then the windmills are even more noticeable.

Then it’s a long stretch of elevation gain for about 50 miles to Snoqualmie Pass, something to behold even when it’s snowing and traffic is stopped for avalanche control, or  for road construction in the spring, summer and fall, while a $10 million road renovation project and other road repair projects are in full swing.

On my drives, I listen to talk radio or CDs. Today’s CD selection was Fleet Foxes. But often, it’s just my thoughts that entertain me.

Once I reach Capitol Hill my appointments are brief. Today I visited the ice cream store where son’s GF works. She gave me a cup of strawberry ice cream and we talked for ten minutes before she opened. I took photos walking down the street to the car and came home.

As I drove, my thoughts that were supposed to entertain me set me to worrying about my son, about my husband. And about why my mom isn’t here to pat my leg and tell me it will all work out. I reminded myself that’s what she would say, even though she rarely knew the details of my worries. Knowing what she would say has to be good enough.

I stopped at Ashael Curtis, a turnoff approaching Snoqualmie Pass from the west, wondering as I have for 18 years, What is there? I discovered that the road crosses the Snoqualmie River (I think) and a fork leads to two gravel forest roads. Rather than travel up either road, I stopped by a rushing stream cascading under moss covered logs and through wild berry bushes adorned with pink flowers. The sound of the water was intermingled with the Fleet Foxes lead singer singing acapella.

I began to cry. I prayed. I asked for help in knowing how I can be of help to my loved ones without prying, but being supportive, without nagging and being supportive.

I felt better for the tears and for sitting in the woods, something I need to do more often.

I also remembered that mom always said that she loved to drive–which she did for more than 80 years. It soothed her, too, and gave her a sense of freedom. When I took her for drives, she would notice everything: especially in the spring when the trees were in bloom, or in the fall when the leaves turned every shade of autumn.

I will drive for you now, mom, and enjoy it all. I will try to worry less, because I promised. I will remember what you always told me, even when you didn’t know why, “It will all work out.”

I awoke to the sound of the mourning dove

I have done that often lately. I hear them when I awake and when I’m working in the garden. They’ve always been here, of course, coupled up on the telephone lines on the backside of our acre, or settled into the curly willow out front.

But this morning when I awoke to their coos I pondered the idea that they had moved to our property when mom died. I dismissed that idea, but thought I would write a blog post beginning as I have, I awoke to the sound of the mourning dove.

After ruminating about the doves for awhile, I got up to write. But before I did I read my email and a few blog posts from people I follow. One blogger writes about elder care–more specifically about taking care of those who care for elders.

This morning the title of her piece was I awoke to the sound of the mourning dove. I was surprised, of course, and was curious to read her post.

I was planning the exact same beginning, I wanted to tell her. But then I read with sadness that her brother died yesterday of a heart attack. He was almost 50 and almost to his wedding anniversary. She rarely writes about herself, but I was glad that she did. I wrote back and expressed my sympathy.

It’s impossible to compare one grief with another. Grief is grief.  But I am again reminded that so many losses are more tragic than losing an aged mother who was long ready to die.

It’s always different when a person’s life is cut short, in our human eyes, too early. Mom always wondered, too, why she was blessed to be here so long.  Three husbands, all her friends and her brother, who died a long slow death of Alzheimer’s disease, died before mom. In the face of so much loss, she was able to maintain her faith, humor and balance.

I pray the same for Karen as she grieves her brother’s passing.

Out of body experience

For the past few weeks I had been feeling especially bereft, missing mom and wondering about the next step. A few nights ago I started to cry and went into the bedroom. I told mom how much I missed her.

Suddenly I sensed her speaking to me. I walked to my bedroom window, opened it and leaned my cheek against the window frame. It was still outside, the only sounds the ribbiting of frogs after a spring rain shower that afternoon. I remained still and breathed in the night air.

It wasn’t an audible voice, but something was being communicated to me.

I am closer to you now than when I was in my body. Be glad I’m no longer in that body. It wasn’t a distant voice with short cryptic messages, but it was as if she was an ageless spirit, still my mom, reassuring me that all was well.

Don’t worry about burying my ashes, she said. I’m already with him [meaning my dad]. It’s not as if she was telling me not to bury her ashes, but just not to fret about it. The ashes are a residue of a body that served her well, but had run its course.

My brother and I had determined that we would bury her ashes next to my dad to “complete the circle,” but Ben and I have to travel to Los Angeles from Washington, my son has to travel from Seattle to L.A., my nephew has to travel from Australia, and the rest of the family has to travel five hours to be graveside at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

It seems nearly impossible for us to gather the family for this final act for mom. But she was saying, no big deal. Just let it happen. She used to tell me that where she was buried wasn’t all that important because she isn’t the body. A weight went off my shoulders.

Stay in touch with Tai. She’ll need you later.  This seemed odd, but I have been worried about maintaining a relationship with my five-year-old niece who lives a thousand miles away. Every year for the past five years, they came to see mom, Tai’s GG, or great grandmother. It was a special time for us to get to visit with them. Ben and I also went to California three times in the last five years to visit. Now that mom is gone, they won’t visit us here and we’ll only be able to visit them once a year. I felt as if I should let go of trying to maintain the relationship with my great niece. It is clear that is not to be the case.

Then mom told me to write, that it was perfectly fine for me to tell the truth exactly as it happened and that she would be right with me. It’s important to tell the story, she said. Others need to hear it. That’s my first project. She said I had much to offer.

For the past two years I felt guilt about writing the blog without her knowledge, as if I was betraying her. I’ve been hesitant to begin writing a more thorough memoir about our experience for fear that I would betray her memory. Not so, she assured me.

I’m not sure how all this works.  Maybe it’s my mind on overdrive. Maybe it’s mom. Maybe it’s God. But whatever happened that evening by the window, peering out into the night as if I was seeing into an unfamiliar realm, I felt comforted and more at peace than I’ve felt in a long time. And although I still miss her, I feel more relief that she is no longer in her body.

The warp to the weave

I read a few days ago in For Those Who Mourn that sorrow attends joy, the highs attends the lows. That’s not the way the author wrote it, but that’s what he meant. It’s the way it is. When you love someone and they are lost, a job is lost, a divorce occurs, it’s important and necessary and fully human to mourn.

But how can this be, I ask myself. How can I feel bereft after knowing for so many years that mom was ready and willing and that I was ready and willing. How can I be shocked that a person two months shy of 102 years old, could die so suddenly. Suddenly?

A few weeks before she died I wrote that I was ready to experience the grief and not just the anticipated grief. But I didn’t know. Not really. I thought I had been grieving for 15 years. Every time I was told she was going to die. Every time she had a stroke. When she was diagnosed with cancer and congestive heart failure. When a caregiver would find her comatose on the floor. I was prepared, dammit.

But I wasn’t. Are we ever prepared for grief? Or, is it simply ingrained in the fabric of life that we know instinctively how to grieve. If we are alive, we will experience loss and we will grieve. But it doesn’t feel instinctual. It feels hard. Like you’re expected to dance to a new tune you’ve never heard. It’s a different beat.

Or as one books says, “It is as though we leave forever a room where we have been comfortable and functioning well, and enter a new room. Some of the furnishings are there, and some of the same people, but the room is different nonetheless and requires a whole new adaptation from us, and probably, from the others in the room with us.” (Healing After Loss, Daily Meditations)

It’s an art, knowing how to grieve. “Don’t move on too quickly,” they say. “Allow time for the process and if you’ve lost a spouse, in particular, don’t make rash decisions.” “Give yourself permission to take as long as you need,” they say. But what does that mean?

When I lost my father, I was a baby. Mom moved on so quickly that within three months we were into a new life, in a new city, with a new “father.” She panicked and made rash decisions that had profound consequences. But she didn’t feel she could take the time to grieve. She had two children to raise and someone came along who said he would help her. So, jump ship.

We weren’t allowed to attend the funeral. Neither of us were given an opportunity to grieve, although I was told many times that “Brother remembered his father,…you were just a baby,” as if that somehow that made the loss of my father more tolerable. After I grew up I grieved for my father and in the last ten years, mom often talked about him, making me realize that she never fully grieved the loss.

When I was 15, my dear neighbor, Nelda, the one who invited me on their family vacations, had me babysit their children, and loved me, died of cancer. I didn’t visit her when she was dying. I couldn’t face it. I hid in the back seat of the car during her funeral.

When I was 18 a former girlfriend was murdered by a young sick priest. She was the only child of an older couple. How did they recover? I don’t know because I didn’t attend the funeral or ever talk to them. That same year my finance got another girl pregnant just months before our marriage. I buried my grief but wondered if her father was going to be present at our wedding.

When I was 20, my father-in-law died of a heart attack while skiing in Lake Tahoe, just weeks after he retired as a pharmacist. He was 46.  We took a PSA flight from San Diego to somewhere near Lake Tahoe and picked up a rental car. I do not remember anything else after that–not the funeral or the burial at Rosecrans Cemetery in San Diego. My SIL talks about the service and how we stood around his casket and held hands and talked about the “energy” flowing, but I have no memory of any of it.

No one counseled me or talked to me about grief. My young husband never cried, but simply took on the role of the oldest son while his mother came undone. MIL and my SIL took a trip to Europe for three months, and that helped us all find our equilibrium. But recently SIL told me that the trip was tedious and painful as they drove through Europe in a new Jaguar.

My Grannyma died when I was 24. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years because I was too busy and  “I wanted to remember her the way she was.” Bottom line, I was tired of grieving. I avoided it.

But it’s not possible to avoid grief. It’s the warp to the weave.

The year before my Grannyma died I went off the birth control pill. Over the next couple of years, I learned that I was infertile. My FIL and doctor had assured me that 5 mg of birth control, taken for four years straight, would not be a problem. Now they give women .5 mg.

I’m not sure when I knew to grieve, but it started after a doctor told me I would need a fertility drug, which I refused. My husband and I divorced when I was 27, and a year later I learned that he was to have another child with another woman.

Sometimes it felt like it was too much to assimilate. But I knew that when mom died I would not numb out. I knew I would face it. I thought, in fact, that it would be straightforward. But I was shocked to discover how empty it feels without her, that I would so miss her presence, her words, her touch, her irritating and excruciating needs, the pain of watching her pain, the wait, the interminable wait for her to make her transition.

Yesterday I knew I couldn’t stay in the house trying to organize my desk that looks like several small explosions went off. I didn’t want to garden, or write, or photograph anything. I told Ben I was going to ride along while he went to paint a fence for a client (also a friend). The sprayer didn’t work, so I hand painted part of the fence while he fixed a latch and we talked with our friends and admired her garden.

From there we drove out into the valley to visit another prospective client. I stood outside the truck with our dog in the quiet spring air in the client’s apple orchard while Ben measured windows. I remembered when mom once worried about “all the trees are being cut down,” and I took her for a drive into this valley, called the Lower Valley, a broad expanse of Yakama Indian Reservation, upon which farmers and orchardists grow everything, including millions of trees. She was surprised and heartened by the view of all the trees, rolling hills and valley floor covered in trees.

After we returned home, Ben and I worked in the garden for a while and our neighbor friend came over and leaned over the fence and invited us for soup and homemade rolls and salad with her and her mom, who is visiting from Texas, and three of her children. It was a fine finish to the day.

I find ways to find joy in the midst of grief, which is really exactly what it’s all about. I didn’t know how to do it before, but mom gave me plenty of time to learn.

I don’t know who wants to read about the story of grief in one woman’s life. But isn’t it the story of all or our lives? Sometimes it feels like the protagonist of this story is gone. But not really. It is I.