On May 11th 2006, I received a phone call from my mother. Recalling the moment in an email to a friend a few years later, I explained:
She started getting dizzy and experiencing vision loss in her left eye. She went to an ophthalmologist who determined there was a mass behind her left eye. She tried to tell me she was sure it was nothing, but my head has never swam like that… She said the words “mass behind my eye” and I literally had to sit down. I’ve never been filled with such dread in my life … Deep inside, I knew she was already lost. From there it happened extremely fast. She started getting sicker and we eventually learned she had masses all throughout her body and that it almost certainly started as mass never found in one of her breasts.
She was moved from Johns Hopkins to a hospice at 6:30pm on July 14th. Just before midnight on that same night in 2006, my mother passed away. It stands still as the single most determinant moment of my life thus far.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think now I had a fairly typical reaction to her passing, but it was hard. For a few years, I was angry at the loss, ashamed of my perceived neglect to our relationship, and unable to incorporate it into my experiences as anything other than a capital-T Tragedy. I simultaneously wanted to make everything in my life about her death, but also wanted life to be like the death had never happened. After months of Jessica’s abiding compassion and support, and with a bittersweet poetry, one of Mom’s long-time foundational lessons eventually took hold and righted my ship. I determined that it was fair to let the moment have its due on my life, but that I was to be defined by how I reacted to it – how I grew from it– not just that it happened. Now I’ve come to the point where in the past few years, it has actually been Jessica’s kind check-ins preceding the 14th that have alerted me to its approach and reminded me of its significance.
I’ve come to accept a few truths about living in the wake of Mom’s passing, especially having lost her so early in my life. I know these lessons aren’t revelatory, but they bear repeating for the benefit of those who have recently lost a parent, or who may face that challenge sooner than they expect. I hope these words help someone now, or float to the surface in a future I wished no one would ever again face:
- You’ll have difficulty going back to regular life. The irrational part of you will want the whole world to register just how significant an event this is. Some people will reach out to you. You’ll find support from unexpected sympathy. Others still will distance themselves from you, uncomfortable with so significant a reminder of their own parents’ mortality. But regular life will resume, mostly because you’ll soon come to a place where you need it to.
- You will think about them constantly. That is okay. Let that in. You’ll become a bit more used to it eventually, and you will think about them less and less often.
- You will also have that one day when you will realize you can’t remember the last time you did think about them. That is probably the worst moment of all. You will simultaneously know then that you are moving on, and you will mourn their loss all over again. You’ll hate that you forgot them, and hate that you could be so self-involved.
- You will regret. Everything. The smallest slight you caused them once years ago will stand equal with your greatest disappointments. Keep in sight that just as you loved them for everything they were, so did they you.
- You will miss their advice, but remember that you can see the world through their eyes. Use that. Just because you are denied their real-time consul, you still possess the wisdom they spent years imparting to you on all matters great and small. You’ll want more, but it’s enough.
- You will 1, 5, 10, and I assume 20 years later, dream about them. Sometimes you’ll keep your wits and know it for a dream at first sight. Sometimes you’ll be lost in it almost completely. Those will be worse days when you wake up, but those are also the days you know they still live in your heart as fiercely as they ever did in life.
Above all, I think it may help to think of the process like suffering a badly broken bone. At first you can’t imagine a worse pain is possible in all the world and you’ll wonder how anyone can make it through. You’ll be certain you aren’t strong enough, and yes, acting like it’s not broken is the first step to making the injury worse. It will mend, however, and with attention and mindfulness to what’s happened, you can eventually rebuild it to be just about as strong and resilient to everyday life as it was before. But there will be days where the weather conditions of life are just right, or even for no reason you can identify, that the bone will throb with almost equal pain as the initial break. You won’t be able to put it out of your mind for a little while, but that will pass. You do get better, but you will never actually fully heal. Understand that distinction and you will see within the space between that you can live and be truly happy once again.
I’d like to think these are words my mother would read and find true, resonant with her own experiences having lost her own parents and a sister before she fell ill, but that’s one of the little things I realized too late I was denied by her sudden passing (at 27, I’d not even begun thinking of talking through those losses with her). A decade of July 14ths later, my conclusion is one I draw carefully, both to avoid cliché and to not belie the fact I would of course prefer a different history: I think I would now be somewhere very different if not for Mom’s death in 2006. I emerged from the initial grieving process, ugly as it was, much more focused on getting my until-then directionless life under control. Since then, Mom has been with me in pretty much all I do, even if I do sometimes go weeks without thinking about her. It’s not so simple as living in a way that would make her proud of me, although I think she would be. It’s just about living. She got me far enough, and made me strong enough to be able to truly live when she was gone, even though that day was far earlier than either of us anticipated. That strength of living, even though it coalesced when it did as a direct result of her death, is the most precious gift she ever gave me.
Thank you, Mom. While what happened to us on the 14th at one time haunted me greatly, you also helped me get to a place where now… it’s almost just another day in July.