She wouldn’t have approved, but she was asleep and I was sitting on the plastic-clad love-seat that the hospital provided for visitors. The same sofa that gave me this perspective:
I took the last picture of her. It’s my secret (or as secret as it can be when I’ve just blogged about it). I didn’t tell my sisters or my grandmother. I’m not going to post it here. I don’t even know why I took it – this little comma of a woman with an eye-mask on to keep the sunlight out as she slept. I most emphatically did not take a picture of her dead, or even in the days before she died but after she’d left the building.
But when there was still something on her to-do list, when she was storing up the strength to get on the radiation table the next day, curled around the knowledge that she’d been invited to her last party, her last dinner, her last graduation, her last birth, her last wedding… Bravery in breathing.
In every literal way, that’s the last photograph of my mother. But in a way, this is a picture of her too:
I’ve been known to wax eloquently about language and stories and being human, with the perfectly arrogant implication that stories make us special. That language makes us special.
I’m getting humbled.
It’s brand new that there is something in me that happens before the words. I write. It is all words with me. Until I can write it down and make sense of it, it – whatever it is – doesn’t exist.
The words have a memory, they don’t need reminding. Previously, I was blissfully unaware of anything happening before the words. No more. There’s this thing that gets swallowed just before it can break the surface of language. This animal gesture that has already asked my sister if she’s talked to mom lately, even when my tongue is still finding its way to the first word. The whole sequence of finding the phone because the reptile in me said “mom”, picking it up, dialing the number that is now disconnected (how’s that for a tangible metaphor) that happens in the span of a breath. But the gesture has to turn into words first, and the words know better.
So it stops before it starts, a stutter in time like that cat in the first Matrix. A glitch in the system that somehow reveals a part of the system I didn’t believe existed.
It’s the damn to-do lists. My anxiety about getting stuff done isn’t getting better with time.
Initially, it seemed like you could excuse this by the aftermath of going through the lady’s house. As far as these things go, it really wasn’t that bad. No bags filled with ten years of hair, no secret stash of battery operated boyfriends, no big surprises. The worst of it is in the file box in the back of her car: a folder full of e-mails from my dad’s cousin lamenting the news of their impending divorce. A note from my dad full of anguish and shame – the kind of thing that she would have held on to and wondered why, if she was willing to live with the parts of him that were difficult, he still didn’t choose to stay with her. Why she held on to that, I don’t know. I don’t even want to touch it. Literally.
So having gone through every item in her house in recent memory, it sort of made sense that I’d want to shed all of the things in my life that defy explanation. But this isn’t wearing off. Every day, I’m waking up trying to figure out how to best answer the demands of my to-do list. I’m putting stuff on to it just so I can cross something off. The big tasks – dealing with the data disaster that is my 1tb back up drive, finishing an assortment of writing projects, recording a novella that is more or less finished as part of releasing it on amazon <gulp>, scanning family photos so I can return the pile of pictures from my father’s childhood to him – are stubbornly refusing to be shifted from to-do to done.
Yes. I put “vacuum downstairs” onto my list *after* I’d done the vacuuming, just so I could cross it off. Because I’ve made progress with the photos, but it is a tedious process that isn’t going to be over any time soon and so it just sits there. Staring at me. Relentless. Taunting.
I’m going to go to bed tonight convinced that I didn’t do nearly enough to answer the list. Even though I got my car registered, emissions-inspected, swam 1.25 miles, cleaned my room, did a pile of filing, made dinner, went grocery shopping, vacuumed downstairs (damn it), cleaned the kitchen, and moved 4.14GB of photos around. Oh, and scheduled two interviews, talked to the consignment store that has proven useless, wrote two thank you notes, scanned stuff that came in the mail for mom to send to my sister, sent those e-mails, and that whole “clean up the room” thing went further than it normally does with me.
So the whole haunted thing doesn’t seem so far fetched. Because we all know I’m not like this naturally.
Has anyone ever considered treating a haunting with Xanax? If only I could talk someone into prescribing me a boatload. I’d take it in halves, I promise. I’d stick to taking it at times like this, when the to-do list is making my heart race. That seems like a reasonable response to events, no?
Perhaps it is unfair, the amount of time I’ve spent on my mother’s failings. Seriously, how bad could it have been with three kids that turned into functional adults, none in jail, all reasonably good people… I’ve been talking about the red in her ledgers, but there was plenty of black.
She was a brave one, not because she was unafraid, but because she was terrified. She was born in a mining town in northern Alberta on the edge of the Canadian Rockies. The first daughter of a miner, according to the rules of the world she was born into, she was destined to become the wife of a miner with a world that began and ended at the borders of a company town. New places scared her – in part because she was terrified of looking stupid. I understand this fear. But she did it anyway. She moved a lot in her life. From Alberta to Michigan to Washington State to Indiana (and some places between) to Virginia to DC back to Michigan and on to Florida. She traveled to places that were well outside of her comfort zone. In Morocco, she hung out with my mother in law, bartered for fossils and carpets, and thought the hamam experience was the best thing ever. She got comfortable visiting New York City on her own.
She was determined and saw a thing through once she started it. That determination saw her through a masters degree and a PhD. Her mother completed a GED in her retirement and from that to a Doctorate in one generation – and not just any Doctorate, but a PhD in Education. She increased the quality of the country’s teachers in her sphere of influence.
She fought for the women she touched. When girls under her power got into “trouble” she fought for them. There are several people in the world who owe their lives to her influence. Adoptions she enabled, times when she intervened so that a woman could graduate and keep the kid. As she scrambled for success in her field, it was never at someone else’s expense.
She had a wicked little sense of humor. It didn’t always make itself evident, but it was there in the background. Sometimes it was horrifying and inappropriate, but it was there.
She had great taste. Before there were hipsters obsessed with Danish or Mid-Century Modern, she coveted (and got) this gorgeous flatware set that I am grateful to have inherited. Her furniture was lovely.
At the root of it, she wasn’t malicious or bad. She just wanted approval so badly. The best approval came from authority figures and external sources, and she’d do just about anything to get it. She grew, she really did. In her 50’s, she made some brave choices because she’d finally found a place where her own opinion mattered more than what other people might think of her. I was proud of her. Wherever there is red in her books, there’s a 4 year old with a crayon needing desperately for someone to tell her she was pretty, she was loved, and that she was good enough.
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.
When you start crying over the battle in The Chronicles of Narnia.