Do Over

Apparently, I’ve got issues with how it all went down.  I say this because my dreaming self keeps bringing her back.  A few nights ago, it was her choice.  Half of the work had been done.  She’d decided she wanted to go back to the house I identify as my childhood home to die, so my sisters and I had closed down her house in Florida, but there was still the big thing to do: see her through the dying part of the event.  We had this nosy, hoarder neighbor who loved nothing more than stirring shit and being important to the resulting chaos, so she was suddenly in the mix and I was in a panic about having to do it all over again.

The next night, we were in a concert venue with my dad – I have no idea why this particular setting made any sense – and I was trying to talk to her about what we needed in place to do this work, but better this time.  I don’t remember what it was I thought we needed to improve upon the event.  Perhaps to put it off until I am smarter or more competent or at least a little wiser.

Shall we call it unresolved?

Given the parameters, I can’t imagine what it is that could have been done differently.  By anyone.  Maybe you could go back to her going through menopause and keep the hormone replacement therapy far, far away from her.  But I was there for that and she was a terrorist.  The hormones kept the worst of it at bay.  Besides, who knew then?

Once the breast cancer was diagnosed, maybe they could have taken all her lymph nodes?  A radical mastectomy?  There is no reason to believe that the treatment she was given was inappropriate or somehow insufficiently aggressive.  It was a cancer fed by estrogen, they had her on serious estrogen suppressors, they took out the lump and the impacted lymph nodes.  What else were they supposed to do?

When the cancer came back, it wasn’t like it was clearly one thing or another.  It was microscopic scatter-shot, so the markers in her blood went up, but there was nothing on the body-scans.  At least there wasn’t anything until there was around Christmas of 2013.  We can not talk about that adventure at NIH.  Intestinal blockage where they suck the stuff that is blocked out of your nose?  I’ll puke all over the computer just thinking about it.

They took out the blockage and put her on a regular regimen of chemo, and she was fine until she wasn’t.  They thought she had time.  We all thought she had more time.

Right up until her headache on Thanksgiving day, the response to events was exactly where it was supposed to be.  And as the snowball started taking off down hill, there’s still nothing to go back and regret.  When the doctor said “get here,” everyone did.  Everyone, every thing, was exactly in the right place at the right time.

So what better do I want to go back and make happen?  I have no idea.

Do Over


Mom had a dog.  This was my fault, because Exuberance was my dog first.  I got her in the months before the split with my ex-husband under the mis-guided assumption that our existing dog was lonely.  Springer Spaniels fall into two groups – bench bred and field bred.  Bench bred are designed for Westminster.  They are stockier and calmer.  Field bred are the dogs you take hunting with you, water dogs to get the ducks all excited so you can shoot them as they fly away.  Exuberance was a field bred springer with a rough start.  She was always hungry, always willing to eat whatever her nose led her to, whether it was in the garbage, on the counter, or behind a cupboard door.  She found her way to all of it.

In a way, she was a mistake.  I was on a wait-list to get her from the shelter, she’d look at you from behind the gate with these deep brown eyes that inspired a visceral need to save her.  Apparently, I’m not the only one it worked on, more or less.  But I’m the only one who kept her.  She was returned twice before me by well-meaning rescuers who weren’t prepared for, well, her exuberance.  But then I had her, all 17 lbs of her.  We crated her, but it was for hours that stretched too long when the commute was rotten.  And then he left and it was just too much.

So my mom inherited her.   They did well together.  She gave mom something to complain about, an excuse to talk to her neighbors, a reason to get outside and walk, a companion, a schedule.  Exuberance was allowed in a certain spot on the bed but only after 5 in the morning until mom woke up for real.  Exuberance calmed down eventually, but then mom moved from Michigan to Florida and the neighbor who took custody of Exuberance during the day, well he had a grandson who was besotted with Exuberance.  The grandson prayed for her every night, faithfully, and when mom moved, the grandson got the best thing ever: the grandson got Exuberance.  To be fair, Exuberance got an acre to run on and a boy to play with.

Two weeks before she died, mom was talking about getting another dog.  We talked at some length about this new dog business and I thought about how, were Exuberance still mom’s dog, I would have snuck her into the hospital so she could crawl in bed with mom and lick mom’s hand.  Mom would have liked that.  Mom really missed Exuberance, talked about how she wished she hadn’t let her go, cried a little.

Cleaning out mom’s house, we found a shock collar.  I didn’t want to write that down because I can talk about mom’s other failings more or less without shame, but I’m ashamed of that shock collar.  I had to go and look up the research – how awful is a shock collar on a dog that just can’t contain her joy?  Well, the findings are mixed.  The collar is no more effective at training a dog than consistent rewards.  Still, trainers and behaviorists use them, people that adore their dogs use them to address entrenched issues like incessant barking, and how much worse can it be than yelling at a dog (like mine) when you catch her marking territory inside the house?

Still, it’s kind of like everything else when it comes to mom.  These places where you can see the love on her, and not one of them is unmarred by *something.*  I guess you can say the same of me too.  In a quick tally of my accounts, there’s at least a little red in every column.  In taking ownership of the undeniable, this question follows: how is it that I find her red marks so hard to reconcile when I have them too?  The answer I’ve given over the years is that she never owned those debts, to keep the metaphor, and so the holes (to lose the metaphor) remained.  Her daughters patched over them as necessary, but she carried on as if they didn’t exist.  Miss Havisham admiring a rotten cake.

Nothing is simple here.  Nothing is easy.


It Takes a Minute

I woke up the other morning from a dream.  I had been traveling with my sisters in the dream after mom’s death, we were in a hotel and I was cutting threads off of something that I had gotten from mom’s house, but in my commitment to the job, I also cut some of the decorative thingies on a wool traveling rug that I value rather highly.  I was upset about this, separated from my sisters, and trying to find them in this rotten little dark motel.  But no phone.

It took me a minute when I woke up.  I had to go through each of the upsetting pieces – destroying something important from mom; losing my sisters; no phone to solve the problem; my mother’s death – one by one, the way you do after a dream, to sort out that the things you didn’t want were a product of your dreaming mind.  I was doing good.  The blanket is alright.  My sisters are where they belong.  I know where my phone is…

But I got to the question of mom’s state.  You know how you dream you are pregnant and you pat down your belly and count the days backwards and remember when it was you last had sex and it takes some time to settle in that you really aren’t pregnant?  It didn’t work like that this time.  She’s still gone.

It Takes a Minute

The Journal

It’s been over a month now.  Doesn’t seem quite possible.  The days lack a common thread running through them to lend the feeling that they all belong in the same year, let alone the same month.  Wake up one day with sisters and nephews and a house with furniture in it, go to bed with the sisters well on their way back to where they belong, the house empty, and a desk clerk at the hotel for company.  How can these things possibly be reconciled?

I’ve been in my journal, or at least I’ve been trying.  The problem is that I want to keep writing about her physicality.  Over and over: her lips, that last breath, the rickety breaths that came before it, dripping water into her mouth, the idea of someone dressing her body, a random fear that they didn’t put her bra on her – really, what self-respecting lady would go into whatever comes next with out the proper foundation garments? What else needs to be remembered, or integrated?

The lined notebook we found with notes about the dog…  where they walked, for how long, water, progress on getting the damn beast to come when called.

Postcards from her grand-kids, adopted and otherwise.  A card from me thanking her for being the one I called at 5 in the morning.

Making her oatmeal from home because it was better than the stuff at the hospital, knowing she’d have a bite or two at most.

Lying to her about her second seizure…  she thought it was because she hadn’t been eating and as long as she thought that, she ate better.  What good would it have been to remind her that the brain tumors weren’t going to let go of her?

Maybe The Boss, but words aren’t big enough for that one.  She made employee of the month last month.  Apparently we weren’t the only ones singing her praises.

There is the last day Mom was there.  The last things she said.  The last thing she responded to, at least when I was the one speaking, was a message from her drama-mamma sister.  I wish I’d had something better for her to squeeze my hand over, but it seemed important to the Aunt and by then, what the living have to live with seemed almost as important as what the dying had to die with.

She wanted to be pretty.  Something about that makes me want to burst into tears all over again.  She wanted her hair to look nice.

And there you have it, cancer embroidering her brain like needlepoint gone horribly wrong, she was down to the rawest, deepest nerves: her mother, her need for approval. How do you make it all fit together?  You can’t.  At the end, we’re as naked as we were at the beginning.

Between, the number of things that can be true all at the same time defies my ability to keep up.  Layers of my mother piled on each other.  A woman who carried a heavy burden of shoulds.  A fighter.  As unlikely as she was to admit it, a woman who worked her whole life to be defined on her own terms, not through her connection to family.  A gifted educator.  A kind woman with an alcoholic’s blackout rages.  The kind of woman who gave up way too much for external approval and didn’t even know what she was losing in the exchange.

So I have what I have: these things that don’t belong together and a desperate need to integrate the last month so the gap between the last day I worked in December and the first day I worked in January doesn’t feel so much like some mad story I just made up.

The Journal

Back to the Pool

I wonder if the stench of death is hanging off of me.  I was in the pool tonight trying to reconnect the parts of me that feel like the aftermath of a hand grenade and this lady two lanes over looked at me.  Really looked at me.  In the pool, any glance that lasts longer than a fraction of a second qualifies as being really looked at.  It felt like she knew, like something on me tells strangers that I’ve been spending time with Lady Death.  It is impossible, of course.  I look like every other swimmer in the pool.

But it comes back to me unbidden, the memory of everything: the grayish tinge to her skin, how she changed from Tuesday to Friday, the way she became more and more grotesque with every hour.  Mommy becoming a mummy before my eyes, her body curling into itself like a desiccated spider, her open mouth telling me she was as bewildered by what was going on as I was.

She was still warm the last time I touched her.  Dead, but warm.  Just for the record.

My grandmother died the day I turned nine. She had been in hospice at my aunts house.  She was less and less herself as she came closer to dying: Grandma was on morphine and had the hallucinations to prove it.  I remember her fears coming out: bugs and burnt pies.  She scared me, but she was mostly recognizable. When she died, there was a proper funeral with a meal before.  Embalming, open casket, the whole shebang.

I walked into the sanctuary alone, ventured to the casket, and looked at her.  And then I freaked out.  I didn’t know who that was, but it wasn’t my grandmother.  I refused to stay for the service, much to my father’s distress.

Over 25 years later, and the two experiences aren’t so different.  The body that quit, that body stopped being my mother days before. Intellectually, I knew the watch wasn’t over.  The inner nine year old, however, catalogs all the ways that wasn’t her anymore.  The nine year old can’t stop seeing.  And the nine year old is sure that everyone who looks at her her must know that death is still on her somehow.

Back to the Pool


This comes to me while I’m putting a bottle of water into the freezer to chill quickly.  I’m on my way to my storage unit so I can perhaps remove some items with the new perspective gained by going through my mother’s stuff.  Namely “if someone else had to decide what to do with this item I’m hanging on to, would its presence in my storage unit make *any* sense whatsoever?”

Anyway, for whatever reason I was thinking about how refrigerators work.  Cold isn’t a thing.  Heat is a thing.  Refrigerators work by absorbing heat and discarding it.  Cold is essentially an absence.  The space between stars is unimaginably cold because there’s nothing there.

Love is something.  Life is something.  This is why we associate them with heat: instead of absence (which is just as likely as anything else) you get presence.  Metaphorically, the body gets cold because the thing that was the person you knew has abandoned the building.

At least in my experience, grief is an absence too.  I’m naturally absent-minded (or just present-minded for stuff that isn’t immediately obvious to anyone else).  But it’s really bad these days.  I stop sentences in the middle and forget what I was trying to say.  I’ll be in the middle of a conversation and someone has asked me a question and I can’t remember what the question was even though I was watching their mouth as the words came out.

And it isn’t grief for a paragon of motherly integrity.  As discussed elsewhere, the lady had her fractures and a complete blindness to the fact that she wasn’t perfect.  We were in the car two years ago, her bloodwork had come back with the cancer markers on a rising trend.  She said to me “I just want to be your good mom forever,” and I thought “listen lady, you could start by being a good mom now.”

That seems spectacularly unfair in retrospect.

She did what she could with what she had, but she preferred her version of events to the reality.  She didn’t remember or acknowledge the gross failures…  the petty selfishness that was the hallmark of her interaction with the family.  It doesn’t seem fair to recount the minute details, but suffice it to say that she’d prioritize the shine on a Mylar balloon over the emotional wellbeing of those she was supposed to love the most.   Some of the most painful examples are the most petty.  Like, really lady.  What would it have cost you to let the seven year old win in that instance?

Which doesn’t seem to cure the sense of loss – perhaps as much for what she wasn’t as for what she was.  It carries on, this feeling that where there is supposed to be something, there is nothing.  And that nothing is pretty chilly.