June 3rd, 2019: 7:05 a.m.
At this time on this day last year I was slouched in a hallway in Two Palms Nursing Center, shooed out of a room by the caregiver who was preparing a dead body for mortuary pickup. My mother’s, as it happened. A staff member I had never seen before, unusually well-dressed and atypically unharried, was following me around, trying to be soothing but mostly getting on my nerves. When I mentioned that my husband, who had been driving north to San Luis Obispo, had to charge his Tesla in Glendale at least a little before he could turn around and come back, she seemed to assume that meant I wanted to talk about cars. She left when I finally tried to tactfully tell her that I wanted to be alone, still looking over her shoulder nervously as she walked away. What I didn’t tell her was that I wanted to write. Because parents only die once, after all, and if you don’t pause and force yourself to stare the moment in the face your mind will happily paper over all the confusion and raw emotion.
That emotional redecorating had already begun by the time Forest Lawn had come and gone and we returned to the Americana at Brand to finish charging the car. The supercharging station was on the top story of the mall’s parking garage, and in the swanky glass elevator I smiled with other shoppers at our dog’s mild alarm as the world moved around her. Initially I walked through the mall in a bit of a daze. Glendale had been my home from first grade to early middle school, and I was having a hard time reconciling the glossy storefronts, lively fountains, and stylish patrons with the sleepy avenues and vintage mannequins of memory. And of walking those avenues with my mother, so recently gone.
And in the moment I didn’t want to live in memory, particularly not memories of family and youth. So although I was hungry I charged past a Cheesecake Factory that summoned the specter of A Certain Kind of Date in Early College and didn’t pause until we reached a little Mediterranean restaurant called Bacardi GDL, where I could order crab cake Benedict, goat cheese polenta with lamb ragu, gravlax pizza, and iced tea so delicately flavored that it would have been a crime to put sugar in – all anchors to the life I have now as opposed to the days when Der Wienerschnitzel corn dogs and Slurpees were staples of my diet . And somewhere between the fiery chipotle sauce drizzled around the ragu and the grapefruit hollandaise lapping at the crab cake the immediacy of my mother’s passing – already – was in full recession.
There were eruptions throughout the year, of course. Whenever there was a hitch in estate paperwork. Birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Mother’s Day. A strange cluster of anxiety attacks in March and April so extreme and disruptive that my GP ordered a heart monitor, “just to be sure.” When he probed about stressors over the past year and I rather dismissively mentioned her death as being too long ago to count, he replied in a delicate tone, “Don’t discount the impact of events like that, and the time it takes to recover from them.” I still don’t really know what caused the attacks, which have – fingers crossed – subsided, but perhaps it’s as good an explanation as any.
Loss and Memory
I was a little surprised as the date crept up that it was so relentless in reminding me that it was coming. Especially since other, similar dates from the past few years were almost immediately lost in at least a partial haze.
I remember a five a.m. phone call from a Montrose hospital telling me that my father had passed away in the middle of a January night, alone because they hadn’t communicated the gravity of his illness until he was, well, dead. I remember the anger and the sharp pang of regret that I hadn’t been there with him, but I couldn’t tell you the precise date. (January 18th, 2013 says my journal. We had tickets to William Shatner’s one man show and I joked with my husband that the world would have to end before I would miss it. And then, in a way, it did. We gave the tickets away.)
I remember euthanizing our sixteen-year-old lab, suffering from end stage chronic kidney failure and no longer able to stand, on October 19th of some year. It was the first but not the last time that I would sit with a creature as it died, and she gave up her life with what felt like a relieved sigh. (2009, says the journal. I was angry that the receptionist told me that they would bill me later, when I wasn’t feeling so much grief. At the time it felt like that grief would never end, so I demanded that they present me the total and nearly broke the tip of my pen as I scratched out a check.)
On a rainy winter afternoon we euthanized the ancient dachshund we had taken from the animal shelter so he could have a better old age than death in barred concrete, two years after we’d adopted him. He had always been a fighter, and even suffering from crippling pain, incurable cancer and advancing senility he fought at the end. (February 9th, 2011. I held him on my lap as he drew his last, determined breath and felt so traumatized by having balanced the quality of life scales against him that my husband had to lift his body away.)
Perhaps with time I’ll forget this date too. But right now it doesn’t feel that way, and I can’t say exactly why. Perhaps because she was the last of my parents, and my place in the world feels very different now. (On Mother’s Day, a moment when I thought, I am no one’s daughter.) Perhaps because six years of my life were dedicated to her care and the end was in complicated ways a momentous occasion. Or perhaps because she was my mother, and good or not, thorny or not, loving or not, for fifty-six years of my life we had A Relationship.
Although I have two surviving siblings, in any meaningful sense my family is gone. None of us had children or even contemplated it, which I’ve always suspected was more of a commentary on the family dynamic than my parents wanted to believe. My middle sibling is estranged from the rest of us. In his last communication to me, over a year ago, he accused me in the same breath both of demanding that he spend too much time with our mother and of scheming to keep him away from her. When I decided that the wisest course of action was not to wade into that particular fray he shrieked at me a little in further emails to which I also didn’t reply, then said he was never going to speak to me again. Perhaps not to my credit, I breathed a small sigh of relief.
My oldest brother, who I was always more fond of than the rest of the family, is cordial but distant. I sent him an email when our mother died. He replied that if it hadn’t been for having me as his sister he would have been convinced he was adopted, and asked what I was going to do with my new lease on life after so many years of tending to our parents’ needs. He was quite explicit about having moved on from the family decades ago. I don’t feel any resentment over it. He said that he’d really enjoyed attending my wedding, and that’s good enough.
A few months ago I was talking to a friend about losing both of one’s parents in adulthood, and whether or not that constituted being orphaned – since, after all, we are no longer children. Understanding suffused her face, and she said that although she’d endured some criticism on that subject, she believed it to be true. No, you are no longer dependent on them for the needs of daily life, and you aren’t going to be shuffled off to relatives or foster care in the wake of their loss. But still the earliest, likely most formative relationships of your life are gone, and that is going to leave a vacuum. It may not be the total seismic upheaval of a small child losing a mother and father. But it’s still a kind of earthquake.
That criticism strikes me as of a piece with the sometimes bitter arguments over whether the loss of a family member is obviously more meaningful and significant than the loss of a pet. After my mother passed away, I thought I was out from under death for a while. But then our boxer mutt, Guinness, was diagnosed with “kidney insufficiency” last September, and though the vet optimistically promised a good long life for her if we made dietary changes, she hasn’t responded very well and is declining more precipitously than we had hoped. We recently added a new medication, and July’s blood work will tell whether we’ve improved her odds.
And if we haven’t, I know how I’m going to feel. And it will feel different from my mother’s death, but it would be disingenuous to call it precisely a difference of kind or even entirely of degree. My dogs have been in general kinder than my family, and their affection more (though I have an uneasy relationship with this word) unconditional. Guinness has been part of my daily life for ten years. Before the catastrophes that led to my parents’ simultaneously losing capacity over their medical and financial affairs and my taking on that responsibility, I talked on the phone with them a couple of times a month at best. They didn’t come to my wedding, they never saw a single apartment or house that I lived in. We were close (some friends said too close) for as long as I was living under their roof and (some friends would have argued) taking care of them, but once I left to pursue my own life and goals some bridge between us collapsed and we never managed to rebuild it.
And so their deaths were traumatic in the abstract – these were my parents, and now they are gone. And in memory – we had many good times together, once. There was a sense of lost potential, perhaps – the relationships deteriorated, and now they will never be repaired. But they didn’t leave a lacuna in my day-to-day life the way that losing Guinness will. Somewhere at the crossroads of affection, responsibility, potential and proximity lies the heart, and the devils – or angels – that we meet there are uniquely our own.
So if there is any small wisdom I might have gleaned from the experiences of the past seven years, it’s to be gentle with the survivors. They feel what they feel, and judging them for how they respond to loss won’t make the grieving process any easier. But also to the survivors: be gentle with the sympathizers. There is a recognition that sparks between individuals who have walked the same dark paths: be it Alzheimer’s, or cancer, or the short, sharp, unexpected death from an accident or heart attack. Does it shine a little brighter than the well-meaning but often confused condolences of the uninitiated? Often, yes. Support groups exist for a reason.
But there is a grace to be found in the meeting of the weary and the innocent as well, I think. For the one a glimpse – if they pay attention – of eventual, inexorable loss that they would be wise to prepare for lest it catch them entirely unawares. For the other – if they can summon the emotional receptivity – a slender line back to the light of a daily life unperturbed by the reality of decline and death.