Browsing Tag

grief

Grief, Guest Posts

To Mom with Dementia

October 22, 2017
dementia

By Caroline Leavitt

You are alive but not alive. You, who used to try to know every single detail about me as if it were your own, don’t know who I am anymore. “Who?” you say. I try to get you to remember something, anything we can hang our relationship on. A song about a turkey sitting on a limb that you used to sing to me, but you don’t remember. “What turkey?” you say. “What song?” I ask about your boyfriend Walter. “Who?” you say.

“Tell me something,” I say desperately. You do. You tell me that you are going to take a streetcar and go home, that you have gone to a restaurant and gotten lunch for yourself, chicken and pie, that you are going to see your sister Teddy. I know streetcar is an old term and anyway, you never leave your room. I know that Teddy, your sister, has been dead for years.

You can’t hear me on the phone anymore. “What?” you say. And then, “Who is this?” The last time I came to visit you told me to leave after half an hour because my presence agitated you. I cried in the car and Jeff, my husband, took us out to dinner.

Oh, Mom.

The only way I can tell you what I need to is through writing now, to imagine how you might respond, how we might work our relationship out.

First, I want to talk to you about all the things you did for me because I want you to know, again and again, how I appreciated it, how I knew you did things that some other moms might not have. I want to talk about how when I was in second grade and I failed a test where all the questions were about Jesus and Mary, and you marched up to the principal and demanded they retract the F I received because I was Jewish and who gives a Jewish child a test about Christianity? You demanded an apology, too, which I got from my teacher, though after that, she never quite liked me again. I want to mention how in junior high when I was denied entrance into the National Junior Honor society, because I was Jewish, you went to the school board and fought for me, and even though they refused to give in, I felt your fierce love. We went shopping and then to eat and then to the movies and then for hot fudge sundaes and we laughed. Oh, how we laughed! I want to remember with you, how when my fiance died, you flew up from Boston at three in the morning. You sprawled on the bed with me and held me while I cried. There was the time, too, when I was critically ill, and you came to stay with us for over two months to help us.

You loved me. I know that. Maybe too much, because you didn’t like when I went off on my own. You didn’t approve of my choices. You hated that I moved to New York City. You despised my wild hair and how I dressed. (“You like that?” you’d say, your eyes gliding up and down my body.) You hated my boyfriends, except for my first husband. “If I were fifteen years younger, I’d take him away from you,” you told me, which stung. You were proud that I was a writer, yet you walked into the bookstore for my reading loudly announcing that no one would show up. Once, when I got a bad review, you went into a bookstore with that review in your hand and asked them if they would stock my book despite this terrible, terrible write-up.

It wasn’t until I was an adult with a husband and a son that I really got to know who you were, and I came to understand you, to feel a deep well of compassion. You were one of 8 kids, the runt of the litter. You grew up with a mother who didn’t really like you or try to understand you, who preferred your shining twin brother. You had buckteeth that your parents wouldn’t fix (You, at twenty, found a kind dentist who let you pay a little every month.). Your fiancé ditched you and you carried a torch for him forever, and you married my father on the rebound, a nasty brute who would punish you with silence, sometimes for weeks. It was the 1950s and you couldn’t divorce, not with two little girls. When I was seventeen, when I decided I couldn’t stand another silent vacation with you and my dad, I ran away from our cottage, and before I did, you shouted at my dad that if I didn’t come back, you would divorce him. He found me, hitching at the side of the road, and because he was crying, something I had never seen before, I came back. As soon as I came into the cottage, I saw your face, how you were packing. I saw you were disappointed, that I had ruined your chance at escape.

I wanted you to change. I begged you. But it wasn’t me who changed you. It was my dad dying. Your life opened up. You traveled! You seemed happy. You and my sister were close as sardines, which made you so, so happy, but I had my own life, and I know that hurt you because you told me so. I was so happy when you fell in love at 90! So happy that you had four years of bliss with Walter, and that when he fell and died, you already started dementia and never knew your one true love was gone, that even today, you are sure you still see him.  You made me realize there is always another chance.

Except for us.

I can’t yell at you for being so cruel sometimes and get you to understand. I can’t thank you for being so loving and make you feel good. We can’t come to any understanding about anything.  Not now.

I write about you. You were Bea in my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, the woman whose fiancé jilts her. You were Ava in Is This Tomorrow, the Jewish woman in a Christian neighborhood who fights back. And most wonderfully, you were Iris, in Cruel Beautiful World, the woman who falls in love in old age. You never recognized yourself in any of my novels, even after I told you. “That’s not me!” you said.

I know, at least some part of me knows that even if you didn’t have dementia, you probably would not hear this. You’d tell me what you always did, that I am selfish. That I am too independent for my own good, that we’ve always had this problem with me. That you were a much better mother than I ever was a daughter. And as always, I’d be silenced by you. I would know if I said one thing in my defense, you would shut me down again.

But I watch you vanishing. From me. From my sister. From yourself. I feel the tears and the rage boiling inside of me.  I remember when my dad died, I slept beside you and you woke in the night, holding me, crying, “I want him back!” even though you hated him.

Sometimes I hated you. I can admit that. But mostly I loved you. I really really loved you.

And I want you back.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, and Cruel Beautiful World, as well as 8 other novels. She hopes there is a cure for dementia because love is fair and dementia is not.

 

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

Guest Posts, suicide

Mental Illness is a Terminal Disease

October 8, 2017
suicide

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Kellie Julia

The picture above is of three of my most favorite people, 2 are gone. My gram died at 93 of natural causes. My son died at 31 and there was nothing natural about it.

I gave my son’s phone away this week to someone who really needed it. It seems like an easy enough thing to do but I cried for hours after. I saved the last text message I had from him which said “I love you too”, that was 5 days before he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. That was 5 months ago.

I still wonder what would have happened if I had gotten to his house 5 hours earlier than I did, what if I would have begged him to please hold on just one more day. No matter what I did or said for many years I could not take his pain away. Believe me, I tried. Do I find comfort in knowing that he is free of pain, yes. Would I rather have him still in pain but here with me instead, yes. Do I feel that is selfish of me, yes. Many suicidal people believe that the world would be a better place without them. Is it? No! Mental illness is a terminal disease and it should be treated that way. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Miscarriage, No Bullshit Motherhood

New Baby Smell

September 22, 2017

CW: This essay discusses miscarriage.

By Sami Peil

It was 8:52 on a Wednesday morning. Wednesday, December 11, 2013 was the first time I heard her heartbeat. Seeing her tiny heart beating as she wiggled around was the biggest relief of my life. It was too soon to determine her sex, but I had a guess that we were having a daughter. When I got to my car I burst into tears—thankful, prayerful tears of relief and love and joy. I hadn’t realized that I was so worried until after. Baby had just been hiding when the doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat two days before.

Since that day exactly one year ago, I have looked at my little girl’s picture every morning. I have the image memorized: At the top it says 12/11/13 8:52 AM 12w5d, and below is the only picture we’ll ever have of our Alaska Eileen—her profile in the grainy grays of the ultrasound. The hospital didn’t offer pictures from the scan 19 days later when we discovered, on the same black and white screen, that our baby had died. No heartbeat. We waited three weeks for the pathology report that confirmed my feeling that she was a girl and left us with no answers about why she died. We received her ashes a few days later. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Practising Grief

September 11, 2017
dementia

By Julie Butler

I’ve braced for my father’s death my whole life.

Dad was two decades older than my friends’ fathers. As soon as I could understand mortality and average life expectancy, I counted down the years and milestones I might have left to share with him. I became a child who practised grief.

As a teenager, I snooped through the folds of his wallet to find the neat, white envelope where he kept his nitroglycerin, as though keeping a secret inventory confirming that he had slipped a tiny tablet under his tongue might protect me from shock if his heart gave out. That was the threat in all my worried forecasts; a sudden, massive, lethal myocardial infarction.

There were times I believed I’d arrived at that eventuality, bursting through the backdoor, my bare feet descending two porch steps at a time. I anticipated the snip of pruning shears that would prove to be too much exertion. Yet, Dad’s heart defied my worry. So focused on what may come suddenly, I did not consider that death may slowly claim him, and in minute pieces. There was no rehearsal for dementia. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Miscarriage

The Unfinished

September 8, 2017
ultrasound

CW: This essay discusses miscarriage.

By Erin Ritch

They say that when the egg and sperm collide, sometimes things go wrong in that moment of magic. For me, as the doctor explained it, the part that formed the womb went right but the part that formed the baby went wrong. A simple answer to a complex problem. A faulty spell, perhaps, missing some key part of the enchantment. Laying on the elevated bed of the dim ultrasound room, the thin tissue paper crinkled and ripped loudly beneath my weight. Cold lube covered my abdomen as the tech searched my new belly. She combed the dark void of space, looking for any flash of starlight. And she searched. And she searched. But it was silent as a tomb.

“Sometimes it’s just too early,” the tech suggested. “Your doctor will tell you more.”

She did tell us more. More about how I could clean this up nice and tidy. Through my tears, I heard her words. We should have seen something by now. She wants me to have surgery but I can’t do it. I can’t. I wonder if my baby has found some hidden passageway in the walls of my uterus, merrily waiting to make an appearance right when no one expects it. What a grand idea! my baby foolishly believes. So I ask for another chance and am allowed an ultrasound two weeks later, as though my doctor is a genie in a bottle granting me my last wish. I cried into the counter as my husband booked the appointment, the receptionist discreetly canceling everything afterward. I couldn’t meet the eyes of the other women in the waiting room who guarded their bellies with their swollen hands. Maybe I would pass my brokenness onto them if they caught my eye. Maybe their baby would come under this spell, too. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

The Sacred Silence of Visiting the Dying

August 23, 2017
hospice

By Larry Patten

Before meeting my new patient, I admired her Ford Mustang. The snazzy red convertible was parked on the street, by her brother’s driveway.

The license plate frame declared: Fly Away!

While unsure if it was her car on that first visit, the frame’s message represented a solid clue. I knew she was a forty-something flight attendant.

This was years ago when I worked as a hospice chaplain and spent considerable time driving to see my patients. Most of them resided in their home or with a family member. I probably visited the red Mustang’s owner on a half-dozen occasions. From our first awkward handshake to the final moments beside her hospital bed in her brother’s living room, our patient-chaplain relationship deepened. She learned to trust me. I certainly learned from her as she continued living and loving while cancer wrecked her body. Even at my last visit, her short gray-blonde hair was stylish. Her make-up, aided by her sister-in-law, was impeccable.

The red Mustang’s owner never spoke a word to me.

The cancer, seemingly everywhere by the end, had started in her throat. Long before entering hospice, she’d lost the ability to speak.

***

Nowadays, I spend hours at a different hospice on the phone. According to my lengthy title, I’m a Bereavement Support Specialist, involved in what other staff and volunteers in other hospices do: contacting family and friends after a loved one’s death. Part of a hospice’s mandated requirement is to support the grieving.

I make a bunch of calls every week.

When someone answers, I try to gauge how she or he is doing and make sure they know about our additional resources for grief support. On the phone, long minutes pass with me only muttering, “I see” or “Really.” I want them to know I’m paying attention, but don’t want to interrupt their stories, questions, or worries. Most calls are brief. A few of the hundreds of calls made every month cause me to feel that what I shared, or how I listened, helped someone find a smidgen of hope in their day.

Long ago, my parents said I had “the gift of gab.” By background I am a pastor and spent years preaching, striving to capture people’s attention for at least a portion of a twenty-minute sermon. In the churches I served, there was also endless phoning: cajoling folks to serve on committees, work with the youth, or teach Sunday school. So many phone calls, so many opportunities!

Though no longer preaching, I’m still talking.

I press the numbers on a phone and reach out to another wounded, fragile person. After asking if this is a good time for a chat, I fulfill the Medicare guidelines to comfort the grieving.

***

The red Mustang’s owner never said a word.

Our first encounter was awkward with a capital A. I was a stranger, the guy from hospice. I babbled. I struggled to find questions that allowed her to shake her head “No” or nod a “Yes.” Her doting brother, who’d convinced her to move in with his family when the disease made living alone impossible, hovered in the background. He didn’t want some fool of a chaplain to upset her. This was his little sister and only sibling. Her dying would crush him.

With each visit, I babbled less and posed easier questions.

We prayed.

We held hands.

We made lots of eye contact. There were stretches of silence. Initially, it felt uncomfortable. Eventually, the silence felt sacred.

She had a million dollar smile. She forgave my mistakes and fumbling questions. She never saw my tears . . . though after leaving, passing by her red convertible as it gathered more dust every week, I would weep.

She died less than two months after our first visit. Her brother buried her ashes in a cemetery with a view of the Pacific. “She loved the ocean more than flying,” he once said to me.

***

Professionally, I understand the value of words. Even a simple Uh-huh contains the power to gently remind a person that I am still listening to her or him.

But I also know silence’s power: touch, eye contact, shared smiles.

Some dread spending time with a loved one who is dying or grieving because they don’t know what to say. So I say, say nothing.

Enter the room. Enter into their day and let them know by a caress, a nod, a grin, or a tear, that you are there.

And so are they.

Larry Patten is a writer, a United Methodist minister and currently serves as a Bereavement Support Specialist at a hospice in Fresno, California. Larry has participated in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and is published locally in The Fresno Bee) as well as in national magazines like Spirituality and Health and The Christian Century. He can be found online at www.larrypatten.com (musings about faith) and www.hospice-matters.com (thoughts on dying, death, and grief).

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. Sep 30-October 7, 2017.. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

 

 

Join Jen Pastiloff at her signature workshop in Atlanta at Form Yoga on Aug 26 by clicking the picture.

 

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

Guest Posts, suicide

Life After My Son’s Death

August 16, 2017
suicide

CW: This essay discusses depression and suicide. If you or someone you know needs helps now, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911. You can also text CONNECT to 74174. Every life matters.Every life matters.

By Kellie Julia

“13 Reasons Why”

My son was 31 when he left, he had suffered through some illness in the past 10+ years both physically and mentally. Sadly these things combined with life’s daily struggles led him to make the decision to end his life. I feel like the spirit does live on after physical death and I like to think he can hear me when I talk to him but there isn’t much I wouldn’t give to be able to hug him one more time.

There has been so much controversy over the series “13 reasons why”. It came out within weeks of my sons death, I watched it. My daughter watched it. We talked about it together, we talked about it with friends. It didn’t focus just on suicide it touched on some pretty real and serious issues for young adults.  Drug and alcohol use, peer pressure, bullying, date rape, homosexuality, mental illness, abuse, neglect, self esteem and so much more.  I feel that it opens the door for parents to start important conversations with their children.

I didn’t feel like it glamourized or romanticized the main character’s suicide.  Suicide is not glamorous or romantic. I saw it first hand and for me it was dark, horrifying, lonely, sad and final.

The series actually helped put some things about suicide into perspective for me.  There was nothing in particular that I solely did or did not do or anything in particular that anyone else solely did or did not do to directly cause my son to end his life. He didn’t list 13 specific reasons why he did it but I know that it was an accumulation of many things over many years packaged into his body and mind and that package became just too heavy for him to carry.  Am I saying “Hey everyone when life gets too hard just kill yourself” of course not. My life has not always been easy, your life has not always been easy and we are still here. But it did help me take a step towards not blaming myself for my sons death and neither should any of you. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Instructions

July 24, 2017
wait

By Meg Weber

I. Before

Wait for the elevator to open, the green one in the lobby of the hospital where she gave birth to you. Wait for the doors to close, buttons to light up, the soft rise of the lift and the faint ding of arrival. On the sixth floor, walk the sterile hallway to the same room she was in last time. Brace yourself to see her, frail and exhausted, curled up in her hospital bed.

Wait for her eyes to peek open just long enough to notice you before she returns to fitful sleep. Feel your veins pulse with more emotion than you want to swim through. Wait for her to wake up again or for the shift change. Wait until you can’t bear to wait anymore.

Turn your attention to the view: forested hills to the north, evergreens for miles. Watch cumulous clouds drift across the bluest blue sky. Notice contrast and light. Feel hope and despair. Take photos of the clouds to add to this week’s study of darkness and light strewn across the spring skies of Portland.

Send a photo of the slightest wisp of a cloud to the person who carries you through your grief. Tell her it reminds you of your last time together. Wait for her text reply. Hope that this one won’t be swallowed in the ether but will arrive like an arrow of compassion sent directly to your heart. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Letting Go

The Seven Stages of Alone

July 23, 2017
alone

By Jenna Tico

Like most roads to hell, it is paved with vision boards. Watered with four-dollar wine, and the metaphorical blood of the men who have “wronged you.” There is at least one volume of sad poetry; probably bought on impulse while waiting in line at the bookstore, impossibly dense text in one hand (“I’ll finally have time to read Kafka!”) and a cheap spiral notebook in the other. Later, you will label this your “INTENTION JOURNAL,” and stare at it each night before going to bed; with every intention of cataloging your intentions, but instead, watching four hours of Lifetime original movies. Which like most roads to hell, are paved with vision boards.

Stage One: Shock

It’s a Nicholas Sparks world, and we’re all just buying tampons in it; and at some point, you probably meant to be here. You probably caught a movie (or twelve) that taught you that, to live the life of your dreams, you must have one of two things:

  1. an easily accessible window, should John Cusack arrive with a boombox, or
  2. a self-induced period of solitude in your twenties; preferably in a rent-controlled apartment; preferably one with exposed brick.

And at some point, the sea of boyfriends inevitably parts; in its place, their echoey chorus of “I’m just not ready” and the expanse of that which you always thought you thought you wanted: Alone. With no end in sight. A space that, while sanctioned by sitcom, remains exhaustingly absent from the cultural consensus on womanhood. Everyone tells you to spend time alone. No one seems to understand, nor believe, that you are.  That the beast of your life leading up to this point, every dream you had for the people you’d loved, has sunk its teeth into your apartment. Noticeably absent of exposed brick. Likely missing several essential qualities, such as street parking, and glue. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Over and Over

July 5, 2017
fishing

By Jessica Knuth

There is an unexpected sense of loneliness in watching the dead body of someone you love being taken away from your home. Alone in the back of a car. Zipped up inside a body bag. Driving away into resounding blackness.

Somehow, in your delirium, through the tears and snot, through the sharp pains in your chest and loved ones touching your shoulders, your hair, somehow you manage to walk down the hallway where your Dad should be sleeping, where he has slept your entire life, and you look inside his bedroom, though you know you shouldn’t. The bed is unmade, sheets jumbled and repositioned in haste. There is a stain on the bed and you can’t tell if it’s blood, or urine, or vomit. Otherwise, the room is the same as it was two hours earlier when he was still alive. When his lungs still worked. His heart, his brain, however limited. Before he went from present tense to past tense. Animate to inanimate. Living to dead. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Beach Town Liberalism, And An Answer For My Deceased Dad

June 18, 2017
dad

By Deidre Reed

It’s Father’s Day, the first one since my dad passed six months ago. Tomorrow is my birthday.  We’re in church, my mom and me.

I lit a candle for my dad, but by the time we got to the last row where my mom’s wheelchair fits, it had blown out. Being full of magical thinking and even more full of guilt, I spent a good while staring it down, willing it to spontaneously light up again.  Certain the dud wick meant that my dad was still pissed at me from The Big Upstairs.  Maybe I’m still a little pissed at him, too.

Halfway through the sermon, the family to our right – all five of them – doubled over with the giggles. That has to be one of the greatest feelings ever, when you get the giggles in church and just. cannot. stop. I nudged my mom and whispered that it reminded me of that Christmas Eve service, remember?  Where we’d sat behind that lady with one roller left in her hair, right smack in the back of her head? We’d taken turns pretending to pluck it out in slow-motion while stifling snorts.

If you’ve ever known someone with dementia, you know that weird things can set off barking laughter, and that did it.  But when my mom laughs now, it turns into something that sounds like she’s wailing and choking and possibly dying.  It echoes, people sometimes shift and look away. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

The Chair

June 11, 2017
chair

By Kirsten Larson

Three days before my mother started to talk to angels, the hospice nurse suggested I get her a recliner. Over the phone, the hospice nurse explained to me that my mother could no longer both lie down and breathe.

That day, instead of eating lunch, I went to The Chair Store, with its unironic name. The sign read “We have over 100,000 chairs in stock.” A store like that would normally repel me.

Inside, a skinny young salesman who wore a thin, short-sleeved, button-down shirt and a sideways smile walked toward me like we had all the time in the world. I waited by the entrance and tried to take in a breath past my throat.

When he got to me he reached his hand out, looked at me, and then pulled it back. “Welcome to The Chair Store. I’m here to help you find what you are looking…”

“I know what I’m looking for,” I said.

I wanted a nice chair for my mom, a chair she would like—a chair that matched the old lady furniture she had left, a blue couch that she loved, and her antique dark wooden side tables. I wanted a chair she could get up and out of easily for when her friends came to visit—something quality, because she deserved every fucking break she could get. That’s what I wanted to say to the salesman, but stress and illness and grief had a way of pounding the nice out of me.

“I’m looking for is a chair for my mother to die in. A recliner. Which way?” I pointed my hand left, then right. The sales clerk’s arms fell to his sides, his mouth dropped open to an O. I felt better.

In the recliner section I sat hard on each chair and kicked the legs out, one after another, until I found the right one. The salesman stayed quiet. Maybe they had over 100,000 chairs in stock, but they had only one that was both soft enough to prevent bedsores on her thin skin and easy enough to get in and out of. And it was ugly—an overstuffed, maroon, synthetic cloth recliner chair that I knew she’d hate. I hated it myself.

I told the salesman that I needed it delivered that day, no matter the cost. I told him if he couldn’t do it, I would send one of my own employees to pick it up. I handed him my credit card and took a call on my cell phone about a work issue while he rang up the purchase. That’s the kind of person I had become.

Usually, I spent the lunch hour with my mom. That day I had called her and explained that I wouldn’t visit until after work because I was going shopping at lunch to “get her a nice chair.” I told her I thought she would like it. I hated myself for saying “nice chair.” I spoke to her like I was talking with a child. She was sixty-five.

To be honest, I was really trying to manipulate her into showing appreciation for the new chair, which I was buying so she could die as comfortably as possible. We never talked openly about her dying. We barely spoke an honest word to each other about her impending death for the entire two years of her illness. We talked around it using our age-old trope, the to-do list.

I loved a to-do list. It made me feel like I was in control, like I could make a difference in the outcome of her illness by being busy. But everything I did for my mother back then took something away from her. The recliner chair was no exception.

While I dealt with getting rid of property, moving her to Oregon, creditors, doctors, prescriptions, medical appointments, medical emergencies, hospice, cremation arrangements, and the like, she continued to act like she would live forever. I let her, something that made me feel more alone than I thought possible.

Over the phone I heard her breathing like an electric teakettle always on boil, “Do you think you could call Dr. Cain and find out if she could put me on that first chemo drug, the one that worked so well?” I heard her roiling breath while I thought up a lie. The familiar churning of pity, anxiety, fear, and sadness made my stomach clench and my fingertips tingle.

“I can do that mom, sure.” But she’d been past any treatment for months.

I was such a fraud.

I didn’t know at the time, but the chair was the last thing I would cross off my to-do list. The only other thing left was to write the obituary. She’d asked me to help with the obituary, but then she started holding conversations, lively and pleasant, with invisible people. “Angels,” the too pleasant hospice worker said. I was angry. Angry that my mother, after all I’d done for her, a woman who’d pouted and argued when she talked with me, was talking so reasonably to “angels.” I was angry that the demented hospice nurse dismissed one of the most profound and disturbing things I’d ever seen with that one word—angels.

+++

The next morning, when the chair arrived, my mother barely registered it. She turned her bald head, her sadder-than-sad face, toward the window.

But she used it.

A day or so later my mother only got out of the chair to take a wheelchair to the bathroom. She worked all of the controls easily and napped often. I felt good about the chair purchase then, despite its appearance.

She spent the last ten days of her life in that chair while I sat across from her on the blue sofa.

On one of those days we had a difficult conversation. She flicked the oxygen tube in front of her with her once elegant hands, then swollen like baseball gloves. “I have something I want to say,” she said.

“What?” I sounded five years old.

“You have become a cold, hard person,” she said. It was true, but it hurt. Stoicism was always my defense against overwhelming emotion. What I really wanted was my mother’s comfort, not her judgment, but I couldn’t ask for it.

My mother, too, was asking me for something, in her familiar roundabout way.

I struggled against the tight pain that clenched my chest. She was the one who had taught me about the uselessness of self-pity. The warm protection of my anger held back the sorrow that I could not bear.

I looked down at my own hands, still young and unlined. “Well, who is the one taking care of you?” I asked.

My hands looked like her hands, strong, but with slender finders. Her hands rested on her swollen abdomen, just five feet from me. The hands that had cleaned and fed me, slapped me, loved me, hands that held cigarettes and too many glasses of scotch. Hands that had cradled her grandson, still slick out of my body. Hands that, for the last two years, had appreciatively dug into what I cooked, helped clean my home while I worked, held tissues to her nose when we argued.

Well, I wanted more arguments. Some perceived or real slights. I wanted it back, that daily shit that falls away when someone is actively dying and all of the love is left out in the open without the protection of irritation. Painful love. Love that was too much for me to have and too much to lose.

For the two years I cared for her, she also cared for me; she took my side on every argument between me and my husband or my son, listened with interest to anything I wanted to talk about, called me several times a day, “Hi honey, it’s Mom.”

If I could write her a perfect ending, she would have had a different daughter, an angel. Someone endlessly patient to deal with her bullshit, someone cheerful, someone who drank less. A daughter who wasn’t rude to chair salesmen and hospice workers. Someone who didn’t flip off slow drivers. Not someone like me. Me, who called the hospice chaplain and asked him to help my mom find peace—I even tried to find someone to fix my mother’s spiritual peace of mind.

If I could rewrite the ending, I would have made her scream and hit and cry. But she sat still in that ugly chair, and I sat on her blue sofa, both in our tense silence, terrified of what sat between us, unspoken, the enormity of the loss.

+++

Even if it were possible to rewrite the ending, there was one thing that happened that I wouldn’t change. Two days before she died, right after the angels came, after we wrote her obituary, she was in the chair, fingernails like chips of bark, pole pine sticks for legs.

Her face was turned away from me, the soft curve of her cheek, my first, hard love. My stomach was in a barber pole twist, my heart a discordant bass drum. There was nothing left but to wait for her to die. Anguish pushed up through my chest.

Her face turned to me and I saw pain. The liquid morphine was beside her, but I didn’t move for it just then because I saw her chin relax into a small smile, her head fell slightly and her eyes went soft on me. Like my own eyes soften on my son, the wonder and beauty of him. My son whom I love more than I thought it possible to love.

I saw that she loved me like that. I didn’t look away.

I slid down to my knees, put both palms in front of me and crawled over to my mother in the chair I bought for her to die in.

I laid my head in her lap. Under my head her body was still and firm. The same lap it had been when I was a child and had trouble sleeping or had an earache. The place where I learned to love stories and songs, my oldest sacred space.

I laid my head in her lap, cried from somewhere down in the animal of me, up through my screwed up face. “I love you so much, Mom. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m just so fucking sorry I can’t help you, this is so unfair,” I yelled, choked on snot and coughed hard between words, words that had cost me so much to hold in. My body was cold to the core with fear and wonder.

“I am going to miss you so much.” My knees shook on the stiff carpet, my chest pressed against the soft arm of the chair. I said these things over and over. Her body, my confessional.

Her hand, falling leaf delicate, quieted my head to her stomach. My mom, soft and slow, touched my head, ran her hands down to the ends of my hair. I let my dying mother comfort me. That time I didn’t pull away first. I knelt like that, into the side of the chair, until my knees stopped hurting and went numb, until her cotton skirt had soaked up my tears and dried.

“I feel like I’ve been a good mother these last two years,” was all she said.

I didn’t pay much attention to those words at the time, but years later when, on an ordinary day, they popped into my head, I understood what she meant. When I took care of her those last two years, I let her into my life. I just let her be my mother. It was the best thing I’d done.

+++

Three in the morning on the day she died, my mother lay in the chair breathing what they call the death rattle. It was just us in the room. I slipped dose after dose of liquid morphine and Ativan under her wooden tongue until her hand stop struggling in mine, and her breathing slowed way down. I told her over and over how much I loved her, soft and calm.

Soon my family arrived along with some of the hospice people I’d pissed off over the last months. We surrounded her in her chair.

My brother sat on one side and I sat on the other. My knees were pressed into the chair’s soft side. We were holding her hands when, comfortable in the chair I bought for her, she died.

For a few hours afterwards we stayed in the room with her still sitting in the chair. Eventually I called the crematorium. They came with a stretcher and, using care, moved her body from the chair onto a stretcher.

One of them remarked that she wore an adult diaper to protect the chair. We may not have talked about her dying, but she planned far enough to preserve the resale value of the chair, something in line with her practical, Midwestern values.

When she died, we divided her belongings as she’d instructed, but no one wanted the chair.  I could not bring myself to bring it into our home, instead put it in the garage where I’d look at it only when I went to and from work. The loss of my mother, while expected, was so very shocking that all I had of her was the absence of her. The chair seemed to have the outline of her body in it.

Sometime later, when I was ready, I put an ad in Craigslist. The chair sold that day.

Kirsten Larson lives in Portland, Oregon. She earned an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. Links to her published essays and stories can be found at kellenlarson.com.

 

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Guest Posts, parenting, Tough Conversations

Bedtime

June 7, 2017
bedtime

By Kristin Wagner

When I say goodnight to Christopher, I curl up next to him in his tiny bed. We listen to the first half of the nursery rhyme CD we’ve played every night for the last six years. I stay cuddled with him until the end of “The Three Little Kittens”; I use my hand as a puppet version of the disappointed mother cat mouthing the words, “And you shall have no pie” then I use my hand to kiss his cheeks as I tell him I love him and sneak over to Nicholas’s bed.

I rub Nicholas’s back and talk with him about his day until “The Wheels on the Bus” finishes up. We have a ritual of conversation that is identical every night, and is repeated on days when he feels most anxious or sad. I ruffle his hair and say, “I love you. Sweet dreams and good night. I’ll see you in the morning,” which he then repeats verbatim, “I love you. Sweet dreams and good night. He asks me, “Are you staying up?” “Yep.” I then wander back over to Christopher for one last hug before I turn on the seven minute CD. As a final reassurance Christopher often throws an arm around my neck tightly then releases me with a sweet but sassy, “You can go now.” Sometimes he has already fallen asleep and I sneak a kiss on his forehead then tiptoe away.

One night, when Nicholas was nine and Christopher was seven, I went to give Christopher his last hug. He perched a little stuffed owl named Syrup on my nose and said in Syrup’s high voice, “Hi, how are you today?”

That moment fell over me in a sort of crushing happiness that felt a little unfamiliar and scary. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Ghosts And The Perfect Puddle Dive

June 4, 2017

By Debra Feiner-Coddington

Inspired by Edna St Vincent Milay’s, What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII) 

“… but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain…”

Part I – My World is Full of Ghosts Tonight…

Our house is getting a new room. Built to make our lives easier, it will stand in front of the old glass double doors dented and scratched by 30 years of assorted cats and dogs.  A portico is what I thought it was called but recently learned it is a vestibule – if one cared about accuracy in names – because it will be enclosed when it’s completed.  A portico would be open sided.  Built to collect pebbles and mud from our boots before we enter our house. Built to hold the mess scattered through our lives and our kitchen: shoes, coats, hats, containers overly full of recycling.  Built to make our lives easier, our home is getting a new room.

Made of wide glass panels, its roof is open and light.  Lovely. My husband built it from galvanized steel sheet he carefully measured, cut, laid and folded to fit glass inlaid with chicken wire, like the glass protecting hallways in the little apartment house in the Bronx where I grew up. The first project he’s done for himself in 25 years, he stands under it looking up through the wired-glass at the threatening clouds. Under the safety of his new roof, arms folded across his chest he surveys his work and radiates satisfaction. His chest rumbles, “Hooommmmme.” It is his home. The home he opened to me so generously when we met 40 years ago. The home that grew our business, our children, our lives. Continue Reading…