Today is a roller coaster. This morning my friend said I looked like I was “about to kick some ass today” so in that spirit, here it goes.
The following disjointed thoughts and random musings are brought to you by raw emotion and the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death. We had a wild journey together as mother/daughter and by the end it seemed like our roles were reversed. In this forum I will provide a snapshot of details that bonded us . 10 years equates to 10,950 phone calls she would’ve made to me at 3 per day. Yes, she called me that much.
Just as dead leaves left on the ground feed the roots of the tree, when our loved ones die, they nourish the next steps in our lives.
Every year on this day I feel a little different. A month ago when I initially thought about this anniversary I was wrought with despair about her loss. It went like this: 3–31–18
It’s been weeks now that I have been thinking about my mom. Springtime does that for me as that is when she fell and the month-long events that led to her death began. The thoughts usually stem from a Genesis or Phil Collins song, I’ll hear his familiar voice and in my head immediately hear her sweet, soft, high-pitched singing voice go along to his song. It is then I feel like she is alive and dead at the same time. It is a feeling of despair, fondness, love, loss and great pain all at once. It’s sickening, yet comforting and sends my thoughts immediately to “I can’t believe she is gone”. Usually the song “Take Me Home” hits home because of its anthemic, long notes and comfortable, familiar sound. I make it a trio, Phil on the radio, mom in my head, me in the car with my voice cracking with sadness as I think of my mom not being here and there is nothing I can do. It’s helplessness, nothing can be done. Nothing. Yet, I endure every uneasy second of this mom-memory-pain until the last note of these songs are over. Genesis and Phil Collins made her supremely happy, therefore, when their songs play, I endure the happy-sad-desperate-thoughtful soup, regardless of what mood it will put me in, because the person who gave me life and love has no life, yet listening to this makes me feel like she is actively doing something. Her singing voice was very sweet and she sang frequently, mostly while her 4’ 11’ frame was standing at the kitchen sink with yellow rubber gloves washing dishes. And now I am crying.
She told me I’d be happy when she was dead. True story.
There’s this thing that happens. Loved ones die, they no longer learn, change, adapt to what is happening in the world or know what is going on. At all. (I am reminding myself of this) But we remain in the land of the living. Years fly by, we adapt to their disappearance, we learn how to be happy again, we follow all of the rules of loss; appreciate things more, make more time for loved ones in our lives, forgive, make less time for trivial arguments, etc. What have I been doing with all of the time that not answering 10,950 calls has afforded me?! We may even become better people when they die. One could even say we become better because they die. However, when we look back on their former lives of the past with our current brains as we have become better because of their loss, we rewrite some of the memories with our “now” brains. At this 10 year marker of my mom’s loss, I’ve been feeling helpless, regretful, sad and empty. (Normally I build my everyday life around acting in a manner that would defend against feeling regret and helplessness because those are two of the most dreaded feelings to me.) I am regretting not spending more time with her, not having more patience with her, not doing enough for her to help with her health and longevity. I ask myself, is it really regret that I feel or is it that I now know how to fulfill those regrets. How would I spend more time with her?
Here’s how it would be in 2018: Sure, I’ll call her an Uber and she can come to my house and we’ll have dinner. REALITY in 2008: My mom didn’t drive, Uber didn’t exist and she was afraid to use public transportation to go to the city so seeing each other was a bit of an inconvenience because I’d have to pick her up and drop her off, which added significant time and minor inconvenience to making plans. Also, I was in my early thirties and had a big group of city friends to make plans with and be social. I’m 43 now, comfortable and experienced with my social life and would gladly order up a full day and night with mom instead of going to the newest restaurant with a group of my peers and drinking wine.
I am now 43, she stopped at age 64. It is unreasonable to think of us together as me today and her then, this is not our age difference, it was 33 and 64, and these past 10 years of aging and experience is incredibly significant. I live a different life in so many ways.
What I am doing to myself or what I am referring to as “regret” is placing my 43, not 33 year-old self into a memory or scenario where my 64 year-old mother lived, and that is not fair or accurate. There’s a decade of learning, growing, not to mention advancements in technology and personal character that did not exist in this scenario. It is not fair to do that to myself. I’m fine with wondering if there is more that I could’ve done, but to actually feel regret is worthless. Instead I should be thinking of this scenario as a dream or a wish, not a regret. To have a meeting or relationship with my mother now, as I have adapted to her death and see more of her worth, and having learned 10 more years of life lessons, that would be absolutely incredible. But it’s not real. We would never be these people together. We did our best with who we were. We did our best with who we were. We did our best with who we were. We did our best with who we were. We did our BEST with who we WERE- together. Now is not possible. Now is impossible. There is no possibility of us ever meeting like this, and it is a dream. I dream, I don’t regret. And there, I’ve transformed my pain and would like to write a new story. Wouldn’t it be great if on a Saturday my mom hopped in an Uber, came to South Philly to my house, cooked a vegan meal with me and took a long walk around Center City shopping? Maybe we’d see a musical or go to a museum and enjoy each other’s company without worry and with great contentment instead of contention. Oh what a joyous dream.
We had our share of rough times and as I look back at who she was at certain points in her life I am beginning to see things differently. In my early years she was age 31–44, a stay-at-home mom keeping an impeccably clean house, teaching me how to read and dance and mothering 3 kids. Life was fun and happy. Then, when she was 44 she became a widow with 3 teenagers and a very angry person. As I write this I am 43 years old and trying to imagine myself in her situation, something I have never done before. She was left to figure things out herself, she needed to work. She felt cheated by a short marriage to her sick husband and let’s just say the Last Will and Testament in place wasn’t the version she had known about. She had felt a sense of betrayal because she was not the beneficiary of the house but one of three equal owners. For the record, it was the right thing for my father to do.
This is when things got rough and the 4 of us in the house operated as separate entities. She worked various jobs, struggled with money and let that betrayal fester. Knowing and feeling this as teenager, I did my best to stay away from her and found solace in friendships, music and cheerleading. During that time, there was no real happiness or support at home, just co-existence. And to complicate our relationship further, when I turned 18 we became co-owners of our house together. The mother who used to tell me how much she loved me and how beautiful I was or how proud she was of me was nowhere to be found. Instead she stressed over bills and I wrote big checks each month draining my inheritance from my dead father, whom my mother now hated. I was still in high school. This is when mom and me went from blah to bad. During this time she was miserable, short-fused and waiting tables at diners as I worked at the mall and went to community college. University life was never an option for me, nor was I ever encouraged to do so as she had more on her mind those days and figuring out a path for me was not one of them. Besides, I could hardly afford to pay bills of the house (inheritance gone in a year) how could I go “away” to school full-time, so in the house we remained. Hello, aimless and angry!
There is hardly a nutshell big enough to fit the vast amount of strife, yelling, struggle and bullshit that followed, and quite honestly it was the worst time of my life, and hers. She was struggling emotionally and financially and trying to make things work to stay in her house (technically not entirely hers) because it’s where she felt safe. Co-owner and brother Stephen had moved out and was no longer contributing to monthly bills, so it was just the two of us. Timmy lived there for a little while longer for close to free as he was not obligated to pay for a house he didn’t own.
But amidst the early stages of home co-ownership, her and care and compassion resurfaced. She noticed I had become an aimless young adult, learned about Art Institute of Philadelphia and told me about it. She knew about my hobby of editing music together, mainly for choreographing cheerleading routines (a skill I taught myself as a way to cope with my dad’s death) and thought I could translate that into a career or area of study. I now see this as; her mission was to nurture me to be a successful person (she was about 51 and I, 20). Not only did she schedule an interview at AIPH for me, she also did something that makes me giggle till this day. She got out her big old phone book and contacted movie studios in New York asking how to get me to shadow someone editing music for films. She completely bullshitted her way into making friends with people, receptionists, and it worked. Mom scheduled a day for me to sit with a man named David Carbonara for a day of editing music for the movie, “Money Train” with Woody Harrelson and Wesely Snipes. We went to New York City’s Brill Building and I watched a professional edit music for the film using ProTools as she walked around the Big Apple. It was a great day. Score for mom.
My mom took out a student loan for me, I did as well, and I started school for Video Production. For two years I held down a full-schedule for school; making videos, studying and editing while working full-time at the mall for health benefits and cash to pay the bills with mom. Finally in a decent “place” in life with a goal, I began to date Dan Fein, a driven, kind, intriguing and fun young man. He certainly helped the mood of home life, he was around all the time and he got along well with my mom. She liked when he was around and happy times were in the future.
I ‘graduated’ from AIPH (now 20 years ago) and started my career as a Video Editor for a small production company a month later. The timing was impeccable as I had $100 left in my bank account at that exact time.
I’m sure my mom didn’t have much more in her bank account as she had taken out a loan for my schooling on top of all of the other debt she had. She became good at shuffling bills and due dates around and keeping bill collectors at bay as opposed to figuring out how to make enough money to pay them. A responsible solution would have been to sell the house and move into an apartment but that was a defiant, “NO”. It all came to a head when I opened a registered letter addressed to the 3 owners of the house. It said, Sheriff’s Sale. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had not paid taxes on our home for years despite the fact that I had given her money for it. My portion of money was “shuffled” elsewhere. There was about to be no house to feel safe in for her as it was days away from being sold from under us for $13,000. We needed to come up with money to start paying back taxes. I got in the driver’s seat and devised a plan to get us out of this catastrophic mess.
The fights escalated, I demanded that from this point forward, money for taxes was of utmost importance. Here’s the thing, screaming about money doesn’t produce money. It produces stress and deteriorates relationships. With my new job as an editor and I took on a new role at home as bread-winner and started to assist my mom more and more. Her debt to me stacked up (I was only making marginally more than her). During one of our epic fights that’s when the words were uttered, “You’ll be happy when I am dead.” I thought deeply about what she was saying…she meant, in part, that I wouldn’t have to worry about this stuff.
When we weren’t worrying about money we began a nice routine at home. We’d both come home from work, make dinner together, I’d show her that fresh green beans were better than canned, and we’d sit at the coffee table and watch Jeopardy and Seinfeld with our dinners and Dan. Those were great times; guessing answers, eating and laughing. She had a great sense of humor. Then she’d go off to do dishes and sing out loud. I could see more of her edge soften as she became comfortable with age and our life. She was really getting cuter.
Mom was a fixture at Manoa Shopping Center. It was walking distance from the house, so most of her jobs throughout the years were at a shop or a business in the center. Working at various stores with different people made her happy. She talked to anyone and everyone and thrived on interaction. Her confidence and independence started to shine. When Dan and I got engaged I didn’t think twice and moved five minutes down the road even though this would leave her paying monthly expenses on her own. I still had an obligation to keep on top of ensuring our taxes were paid and she had a roof over her head. Sure she was a little more lonely, but she had a dog and I had a life to build with my soon-to-be husband. A little bit of distance helped improve our relationship. We talked all the time, still enjoyed frequent dinners, went food shopping and had the occasional financial squabble. Normal mother-daughter stuff, for us, at least. She was complaining about being tired around age 56 and didn’t want to walk to the shopping center, a whole 2 whopping blocks. I considered this to be ridiculous and lazy and brushed her complaints under the rug. During a doctor visit she discovered she had a legitimate medical problem, she needed an aortic heart valve replacement ASAP, this was a cause of her lethargy. Mom underwent a heart valve replacement and a surprise triple-bypass surgery. She had a long recovery. At this point it had only been about 12 years since I had lost my dad and my mom and I were just starting to reconnect on a more loving level. My wedding was coming up and I wanted her to see more out of life. I stepped into the role of “drill sergeant” and advocated for her health.
Mom lost some weight and began following a more “heart healthy” diet, but not really. I found Little Bites muffins, cakes, cookies, candy, fried food lurking all around her fridge and house. For years I stressed the importance of adhering to certain rules regarding her diet, but she claimed that the food kept her “happy”. That sentence is perhaps one of the most maddening statements I have to write. My mom began to suffer mini-strokes and develop frequent minor infections. She visited the doctor to get her blood checked because she was on blood thinners and would fill prescriptions for antibiotics, take them for a day or two then stop, which is NOT how any antibiotic should be taken as that could cause resistance.
My mom’s declining health was an enormous stress. When she didn’t answer the phone at night I’d panic and tell Dan to rush to her house 5 minutes away thinking she was laying in her house dead. I’m sorry I had to put him in that position. I couldn’t bear to find another parent dead.
Mom’s health predicament became the new normal and I did what any person facing a burden would do- my husband and I bought a house even farther away from her, in Philadelphia.
Once the shock subsided, the phone calls increased and she became more interested in visiting. I kept an “eye” on her and her health from a little further down the road. But it was this move that afforded us the best times together. We’d have sleepovers at my house, go out to dinner, take walks, go to concerts together and Dan and I would host holidays. She’d jump in the car with Dan’s parents and the three of them would drive to and from our house like a bunch of old friends. Because our one-on-one time together was more infrequent we seemed to appreciate it more. She loved when I had her over to entertain. If she had her way, we’d be together every weekend. I felt her love and she gave it out with freedom. My holiday cards would have messages from her like, “you are my world”, “I love you always, love mommy” and she’d draw pictures of flowers and happy faces. We were having the best holidays together; sitting on our deck for hours one Mother’s Day with Dan’s parents was one of our favorite days. She seemed content and was full of compliments. It was wonderful to see her so happy.
Dan and I took her to Washington DC for a trip, NYC for an overnight and we were getting really good at having fun and traveling together. She went along with the flow with me and Dan, sitting in the back of the car, always talking, commenting, coming along for the ride…kind of what it’s like to be a kid.
April 2008 we got an early-morning phone call about her tripping on her blanket, falling and likely breaking her ribs. She wanted me and Dan to jump out of bed in South Philly and rush to Havertown to take her to the hospital. I’d hardly call the time it would take to get there a “rush” so we readied quickly but encouraged her to call an ambulance. She refused because she feared she’d get a (another) bill she couldn’t pay. We were very concerned and kept calling her along our route, but then she said she couldn’t breathe. I can’t remember who called, but 911 came and took her to the emergency room. Her ribs were broken and she was in a lot of pain so they kept her overnight.
We did not expect the following events to occur.
The following month was hell. She had gotten an infection at the hospital and it spread to her heart valve and she got pneumonia. She had an infectious disease doc, pulmonologist, cardiologist and her doctor checked on her. None of them spoke to each other. She was treated with antibiotics and infection did not improve. Days went by and she got worse. New antibiotics were tested and she did not improve. I knew it was serious because she never called me from the hospital. She stopped eating. Her pneumonia got worse. She became a candidate for another heart valve replacement because the other became infected. Dan and I were there at lunch and after work every single day. I didn’t lead her on to my fears but I also wouldn’t let myself “go there”, not now, not yet. One day I ate my lunch of a salad and black beans and we talked about food and other things. On my drive back to work my cell phone rang. It was her. I was so excited to finally get a phone call from her, but was a little worried.
“Hey, mom! Are you OK?” I said.
“I just wanted to tell you that you are my mentor” she said.
The rest of that conversation was full of love and hope.
I still can’t describe what that did or does for me.
After almost a month she was moved to ICU. Now that is definitely a bad sign, but her mood perked up a bit while she was there. I think she liked having a lot of people around her. She was often the life of the party. We made some funny jokes in ICU thanks to her #1 buddy, Dan. And she was getting hungry again although she was forbidden to eat because they were going to operate on her heart again, 7 years after her last operation.
After a day in ICU I got a phone call that she had to be put on a respirator because her pneumonia was so much worse. They asked if I wanted to see her before they intubated her and I said, “yes of course” and hurried to her side. I calmly told her that she was going to have surgery and that they were going to put her on a ventilator until then. I assured her we’d talk once surgery was done, but in the meantime I asked if there was anything she would like to tell me.
“Nope. I love you.” She said.
“I love you, too, mom.” I said.
Those were our last words. And she went under the respirator.
They changed their mind and refused to operate on her at that hospital. Not everyone on the staff agreed on this decision and I had to scramble and scream and get her to a hospital that would because she was dying.
A day later she was transferred to the hospital that did her initial heart surgery. She was still intubated and had no idea what we were doing to get her help. Her operation was scheduled for the next day.
Our first update about her condition was 8 hours into surgery. The surgeon told me he had a bad first cut into her chest and she started bleeding right away, potentially losing oxygen and blood flow to her brain. This meant that if she came out of it, IF, her condition was uncertain.
I will never forget the wash of sounds, feeling, emotion that came over me right then and there.
There was nothing we could do but wait. I laid on the ground, vomited, cried, screamed, hugged my family who raced to be together. She made it out of surgery, but we didn’t know if she’d make it through the night. We went home.
I vomited all the way home in a Trader Joe’s bag and had a 102 fever. The hospital called in the middle of the night to tell me to come because she was dying. I couldn’t physically bring myself to go. She died. My girl, my mom had come so far from transforming her attitude and life to something good and happy and died at 64, all because she tripped on her blanket.
“You’ll be happy when I’m dead”.
That statement is absolutely true, I am happy. And she is dead. I am not, however, happy BECAUSE she is dead, correlation does not mean causation. I’ll admit that my life is somewhat less complicated and certain stressors are removed now that she’s gone; I don’t have to worry about her health more than she did, I don’t have to worry about her bills, her/our house falling apart, how much money she owed me, when the next guilt trip would come from not spending enough time with her, etc. The past 10 years since her death have been like the birth of a new life for me. But recently all I keep asking myself is “Did I do everything I possibly could to love care and make her safe?” And is that something that daughters should take upon themselves regarding their mothers?
You know the term “appreciate what you have” it’s often used to reference the following; “appreciate your parents, your health, your partner, your possessions, your youth, before it or they are gone.” That generally doesn’t flip the switch in your mind from not noticing to deep caring. It may make you stop and think for a moment, but maybe the action or notion of appreciating will come later. And what does appreciating look like? Is it a hug? An acknowledgement in words? A return gesture? It can be expressed so many ways, but likely the best way to show “appreciation” is to not do something, like show blatant disregard for the item, the feelings of another person or destroy a relationship for no good reason. When you rely on your memories to survey whether or not you appreciated something in the past the answer is not always clear. You might remember some bad times that aren’t representative of full-on appreciation, where you were sweating the “small stuff” or arguing over something petty. These memories make you feel like crap when the other person is gone and regret might creep in because you know you could’ve used that time with the person more wisely, but I am taking the perspective that those trivial times were necessary in building the appreciation you do have.
I write this and wrote this to help ease the pain. To read the words and desperate feelings I felt and observe how they dissolved, bringing my head above water, out from the drowning of despair.
I swear I am a very happy person. Sure I post articles about getting your life in gear ASAP and eat vegetables to fight chronic disease and blah blah blah. And I can talk about death and deaths and hardships and brain tumors all the while, and in actuality, I am totally feeling emotionally stable and normal. All of this is because of today. She said I’d be happy when she’s dead. Those were my mother’s words. Recently when I have thought about my mom being gone for 10 years I’ve felt utter regret and remorse deep in my body. And there are days like today when I feel like things are normal and right.
When I sit down to write about “these deaths” I’m trying to convey feelings that don’t have words. So I try to construct a sequence of words in sentence form juxtaposed with other sentences and somehow, by the end of the paragraph or page there is a semblance of the feelings I wanted to convey. They are complicated, messy, tangled, missing something, overflowing with other things. And just like that, how do you explain the feeling of loss of a loved one? There’s no word and it certainly isn’t sad. Sad is not a strong enough word.
Every day I feel different. Every day I feel differently about my mom’s death and my mom’s life. There’s really no one closer to her left to ask questions about her. Her mother died months before her, my brother Timmy died a couple years ago and he was unreliable. It’s really me looking back into my 43 year-old (and fallible) brain and piecing things together. This is today.