I had mostly given up on writing ever again. Every time I tried to type out a few lines: a book review, a post to welcome my nephew, anything… all that would come out was sadness. Sentence after sentence I attempted to put something out into the world and every time I ended up closing the laptop or throwing the paper away because grief seems to ooze out of me when I’m not paying attention, when I’m not actively holding it back.
My Mama died last July. I nursed her in her home and watched her take her last breaths. I drained fluid from her belly and changed dressings. I watched her leave me so quickly, it was like someone was skipping pages, whole chapters, of her life. Those last days are a blur punctuated with vivid memories. After she died, I lay in the bed with her and talked to her, held her hand and traced her face. I bathed her body and took her clothes home since I couldn’t take her. They’re still in the bag. I haven’t been able to bring myself to even open it. I moved into her home and absorbed half of her wardrobe into my own. I see her in all the years she lived here, in all the different room designs and decades, as I walk from room to room. I have a stash of her clothes hidden in a sealed bag in the closet that I smell sometimes just so I don’t forget. I measure my children on the same door frame alongside her handwritten scribbles.
Grief is not a moment in time or even a season in your life. Not when you really lose someone important. It is a thing that becomes you or a new skin you slide into because your old one, the lighter and somehow shinier skin, just doesn’t fit anymore.
I lived with the knowledge that my Mama would die since I was 18. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, had surgeries and treatments, remissions and relapse. All those years I held the anxiety at arm’s length and refused to give in… most of the time. I could always comfort myself with, “She’s lived this long” or “She’s so strong” or “She’s too stubborn”, knowing full well that the past doesn’t mean more life, that everyone is vulnerable to cancer, and your mindset alone cannot defeat cancer. When it spread, no, invaded her brain, I could barely hold myself together. It was the loudest warning bell to date. I filled pages of a journal with all my fears and memories and tears. It helped. Some. And then I got pregnant with my son and life moved on. Radiation did its job. It stole her beautiful hair (again) and gave her the shiny, soft head that my oldest loved to run her fingers across. I’ll never forget the day my middle saw her Mimi without hair. She said in her sweet little girl voice, “Mimi, I like your new haircut.” Mama & I cried and I was so proud of her innocent and loving heart.
She went with me for a week to Charlotte. I got my dream job and I had to go there for training. We planned our menu, I cooked way too much food, and packed too many things we didn’t need. I was nervous to leave my 3 month old with her all day when she was tired and he was fussy. He took a bottle for her (the only times he would ever take a bottle, in fact) and she snored all night. I’ll never forget how hot and noisy it was in that hotel room. I slept terribly and could barely stay awake at work that week but I would lay there in that stuffy room with a tiny little radiator baby on my chest and my Mama snoring away beside me and think, “I am so lucky.” I held her hand sometimes while she slept. It didn’t make her stop snoring.
We celebrated Father’s Day on the patio with family. I worked from her house and she snuggled her grandbabies and we all watched bad daytime television.
A few weeks later I was at home and decided to go to bed early. I will always regret missing her call. She was in pain and didn’t know what to do. She ended up in the emergency room where they drained 3 liters of fluid from her abdominal cavity. I thought, “Why would she have ascites? Her liver function tests have been great despite years of chemo…” She told me a few days later that the doctor had given her 6 months to live. I didn’t believe it so I looked up “malignant ascites” in the medical resource I have access to for my job. Six months was a generous estimate but I couldn’t tell her that. She told me she had set a goal… My birthday. It was 3 months away, surely she could make it that long. This was how she had survived 14 years! Set a goal and another and another so that even if you reach one goal there’s always another just out of reach. Always a reason to persevere. If she made it to my birthday, then she would try to make it to my oldest’s, then Thanksgiving, Christmas, and on and on until forever.
She didn’t make it.
She died July 17 at 5:20pm.
This has been the longest and hardest year of my life. I am short-tempered and easily annoyed. Some days I can barely breathe. Others its like I leave black smudges on everything and everyone, like a left-handed person who writes with a fountain pen. I unknowingly deposit drops of sorrow into everything I do.
How can what is missing be so encompassing?
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think this would be easy or swift. I knew that my life would never be the same without her… but I didn’t know how unreal it would all seem. Some days I feel like I dreamt her into existence, that maybe I’m like one of those crazies in a movie who needed a best friend so she created one.
Grief for me is like walking a tightrope in the rain while trying to knit my own umbrella out of grocery bags. There are days when life seems like I am one misstep away from a breakdown so I keep going, keep my hands and mind busy with the things of life like work and kids and groceries and yard work, and once in awhile the rain lessens and maybe a ray of sunshine pops into view…
But I have to keep working on that umbrella because the rain never fully stops.
The hole never disappears.
My safe place is gone. My best friend is gone. So I sat down to write tonight, hoping that something would come out that made sense. And it did. If you’ve read this far, I hope you found some good in it. I will try to write again about life and kids and books another day.
Laughter is slower, anger is faster, and bitterness is deeper. The emptiness is still frighteningly tremendous. I will carry it with me and maybe one day soon the edges will soften on these raw emotions. My grief is a testament to how fiercely I loved, and was loved by, my Mama.