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parent loss

Guest Posts, memories

My Mom Drives a Red Race Car

May 13, 2024
Traci

When my mother was alive, she never drove a car. She didn’t fly on airplanes, either or climb the slatted staircase to the observatory at the college where my father taught, to see the stars. My mom had severe anxiety and agoraphobia, and throughout my childhood, our one weekly family outing, besides attending church, was a trip to the public library.

But my mother drives now. She wears glamorous black sunglasses and a scarf around her neck as she roars off in her red Pontiac GTO, similar to the souped-up 8-cylinder Mustang I would have bought with my inheritance, if I’d been brave enough to rumble up in such a car to my job as a college professor in Los Angeles.

Recently, when I told my therapist about my mother’s post-death transformation, his face grew still, a noticeable effort to conceal his reaction. I don’t blame him. I’ve had a hard time believing it myself, but the truth is that my daughter Ivy is a medium, and according to her, my dead mother has things to say.

When grief-stricken people come to Ivy for a reading, she senses the personality and sees the faces of their departed loved ones clearly enough that she could draw their picture. The dead show Ivy images in her mind’s eye, and she describes these to her clients, evidence from their lives the dead can see, or items they remember: a teacup set painted with twin cherries, a toddler’s Jellycat sloth, a hidden box of love letters, lilacs that bloomed where a grapevine was planted.

I didn’t know Ivy was a medium until two years ago. She went to Dartmouth and USC, where she now teaches, and if anyone else had told me they could talk to dead people, I would have had the same reaction as my therapist. But Ivy has always been a thoughtful and serious person. After her fiancé, a beloved psychiatrist, drowned in a surfing accident, as she describes it, “the dead became too loud to ignore.”

Thanks to a research study that involved Ivy as a subject, I now understand that mediumistic experiences, whatever they are, often emerge alongside unexpected loss. When she first told me, though, I was skeptical. I teach critical thinking for a living. As a young mother, I’d left the evangelical church in which I was raised and had spent my adulthood as an atheist. To go back to believing there was an afterlife after all felt like reverting to an inside-out version of the organized religion I had years before dismissed.

But I wanted to support Ivy, somehow help her bear the weight of grief. To understand mediumship better, I set an appointment, using an untraceable fake identity, with Traci Bray, a medium certified by researchers affiliated with the University of Arizona. I had heard it suggested to ask a departed loved one ahead of time for a sign, and although I felt sure I would hear nothing of the sort, I asked to be shown the Christmas cookies with pastel-colored icing and sparkly sprinkles my mom baked with me and my sisters every year, a tradition I had carried on with my daughters.

“Hello?” Traci said on the phone. Her voice seemed surprisingly ordinary, and after offering to allow me to record our call, she immediately came up with the name of my high school boyfriend, the name of my youngest daughter, Allison, and an accurate description of our family dog, who had died years before. She also said my mom was there, showing herself, and gave my sister’s middle name as evidence.

My mom showed the specific grosgrain ribbons she’d tied on my braids in girlhood, then showed herself taking deep, relaxed breaths. Traci asked if that meant anything to me, and I thought back on my mom’s last days. She’d been intubated and I’d sat by her side watching the machine artificially, and what had seemed violently, pushing air in and out of her lungs.

My mom also showed herself reaching for a glass of orange juice from a refrigerator, and when Traci made a point of describing the glass as small, my eyes welled up. Many people drink orange juice for breakfast, but my family’s dietary habits were a defining feature of my childhood, which I have often recounted to friends. My mom grew up traumatized by an alcoholic father. She wanted to give me and my sisters lives of stability, and to her that meant a familiar routine. She made us the same breakfast every morning—one scrambled egg, one piece of toast, a large glass of milk and a small glass of orange juice.

Traci then asked if my mom had had Parkinson’s – no, I said, but she did have an essential tremor, which others often mistook for Parkinson’s. Was this coincidence? Just good guessing? Lots of older people have shaky hands. But of the many symptoms a person could have when they are aging, Traci had described the symptom my mom had found most distressing. In the last few moments of the call, Traci asked, “Did your mom have a special recipe for the holidays, some kind of sticky green spread or cream cheese you’d spread on crackers?” It took me a minute before it dawned on me. Was she seeing our Christmas cookies?

I found the conversation remarkable and moving, but later in the day I was surprised to hear Ivy had another message for me. “Gran’s here,” she said, and when Ivy described seeing a name-inscribed, silver chain link bracelet my boyfriend had given me in high school, my mind began to shift. I hadn’t thought of that bracelet for years. How would Ivy know something I’d forgotten about myself?

Still, trying to absorb the surreal possibility that my dead mother could talk to me felt difficult. When I was a small child, my mom sometimes disappeared into her bedroom for hours, leaving me to cope on my own. And although we had cozy times, too, Sunday night popcorn, reading in lawn chairs together in the front yard, and as many presents on Christmas and birthdays as she could manage, much of my young life revolved around her distress.

The year I was a sophomore in high school, my parents and sister and I went on a rare outing to a new restaurant at the mall, which was on the second floor, up a flight of red-carpeted slatted stairs. When we got there, my mom put one foot on the first step and one hand on the railing, but couldn’t get herself to go up. The restaurant was visible above us on an open balcony, and I remember gazing at the people chatting at tables, as my dad searched for the elevator. After we realized it was out of order, and we’d spent a few moments standing awkwardly around, we got back in the car and drove home.

When I was eighteen, my sister and I tried to teach her how to drive on a country road near our home in southern Idaho, but she gripped the steering wheel for only a few minutes before her arms began shaking from fright and exertion. I can imagine how she might have felt, the road stretching out into the distance, impossibly long, open fields all around. When she put on the brakes and the car jerked to a stop, my hand flew up against the dashboard, and she didn’t want to try again. Everyone drove in Idaho—it was the way we got around, and her refusal to take agency over that part of her life felt emblematic of the way fear was allowed to rule our lives.

But we didn’t press her on these issues. We kept silence around them; that was our family’s unspoken pact. And now in this moment, I was finding it hard to accept this new mom, talking to me so openly, as if my childhood trauma had never taken place.

I decided to schedule a follow-up call with Traci, to confide in her about Ivy’s mediumship experiences, and the conflict I was feeling. “They’re showing me your mother’s anxiety came partly from her own unrecognized psychic abilities,” Traci said, describing mediumship as a strange inheritance that often runs in families. Traci said her own family has refused to acknowledge her stigmatized profession and remarked that my open-minded curiosity was a gift to my grieving daughter, who was struggling with self-acceptance.

And whether I believed it or not, Ivy frequently felt my mom’s presence, so I kept listening. “Why does Gran keep showing me a single raspberry and then strawberry shortcake?” Ivy asked me one night.

I was stumped, then remembered the cereal heaped with raspberries I’d had for breakfast. That morning, I’d been thinking of my girlhood, and how fresh berries had been a rare treat. I have so much, I’d thought, feeling grateful. I had said nothing out loud to anyone about this, but through the images she was showing Ivy, my mom was bringing it up.

“We did have strawberry shortcake in the summer. I remember that now,” I said, laughing at my mom’s correction of my memory, a moment that felt like normal conversation between two people.

It took a while after I started hearing messages from my mom for me to say to her, “I know you loved me so much, but I wish you had been more consistently present for me.” It took guts to say that, even to a dead woman.

Through Ivy, she responded, “I’m so sorry. I will say I’m sorry as many times as you need me to.” And then she said, “that’s the reason why I’ve been showing up so consistently for you now, because I want to try to make up for that.”

Her words made me weep. There were regrets on my side, too. I’d felt guilty when she asked to live with me in Las Vegas where I had a teaching job at the time, choosing instead to visit her in Idaho at the assisted living facility where she spent her final months. But now she showed herself to Ivy in what was unmistakably her own sense of humor, flying over The Strip in a cartoon airplane, quipping, “Granny goes to Vegas! Can you imagine? That would have been a disaster!”

I’d also felt ashamed about the amount of my inheritance I’d wasted buying clothes online, but before I even asked, my mom communicated that shopping had been a form of self-care for a grieving daughter. She said she was glad I’d found a way to bring myself joy in a hard time. I hadn’t known how badly I needed to hear that, and a knot of tension released in my chest.

I marveled at all my mom seemed to know about the private moments of my ongoing life, and she responded by showing Ivy the “cone of silence,” the goofy device used on the TV show Get Smart to send secret messages, as if to show me I now have a direct pipeline to my mom with my thoughts. It seemed purely silly, another perfect example of her sense of humor, until I watched a clip of it again on YouTube, and listened to the dialogue in the scene. Max says, “Well, Chief, I appreciate you taking me into your confidence like this.” And the Chief replies, “Max, there is always someone in whom we must have faith.”

My other daughters say I seem lighter now, more attuned and present. I know intellectually from therapy that my wiring from my upbringing has the potential to tip me into fear and anxiety, but as my ongoing relationship with my mom has evolved, I can feel something inside me healing.

Recently, Ivy spoke as a medium on a podcast hosted by two therapists called Love, Sex, and Attachment about how evidential mediumship can help the grieving develop a more secure attachment through the cultivation of continuing bonds. Similar to narrative therapy, Ivy’s abilities have helped me rewrite my own story of loss.

Somewhere I read that healing doesn’t occur outside of relationships; healing occurs inside safe relationships. Perhaps the most convincing evidence that my mom really might be alive and well in another dimension: my relationship with her is finally becoming a safe place to be.

Constance Ford is originally from Idaho, and has earned degrees in creative writing from Hollins University and UNLV. Her short stories have been published in Pif, Switchback, and Brain, Child, among others, and she currently has a novel out on submission. She lived in Las Vegas for thirteen years, raising her daughters there, and now teaches writing at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her daughter, Ivy Sunderji can be followed at here.  

***

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Grief, Guest Posts, parents

Death and Jeggings

February 21, 2024
sweaters dad

I stared at the rack of enamel buttoned cardigans, hands numb, relaxed chinos everywhere. Nothing made sense. I looked around confused. Where was I? Was this…? Yes.  Right. I was so lost, I walked into a Talbot’s.

I had just left my father at a Memory Care Center and I felt pretty crummy. Not crummier than the place I’d had to leave him at two months prior, but crummy none the less. We’d sat in the common room, people in wheelchairs were being spoon fed in rotation by a caregiver. A woman named Kathy sat at our table. She had big fish eyes and a yellow sweater and a flapsack over her walker in a homemade fabric that had Elvis all over it. Another attendant, a woman in her twenties with a faded tattoo over her eyebrow sat with us.  Whatever was over the eyebrow was in the process of removal.  Around her wrist, a delicate black rosary dripped on to her hand that my eyes kept returning to. Any illustration of faith was comforting in this liminal rec room off the 405.   My dad didn’t say much. I tried not to micro manage but really got into it with Kathy about Elvis hoping the vibe could feel fun.  I rambled about “King Creole,” my favorite Elvis movie.  Going as far as to belt out “crawwwwwwwwfish.” Kathy frowned. I stopped.  I overtry in these situations. Memory Care Center cheerleader. It’s awful. But it is better than the silence.

My dad ate slowly, elongating the time I had to stress out about leaving him there. The truth is, I don’t want to leave him anywhere. Ever. But a lot of him has left us at this point and we don’t have a choice. He gets angry, red faced, violent words he never used in my childhood spew. Last week on the front porch he told my brother and I that he’d cut our fingers off and feed em to us like in Viet Nam. We looked at each other and stifled a laugh; that is where we are. Lewy Body Dementia with a lifelong PTSD chaser. Memory Care people call it LBD. Which used to mean Little Black Dress to me. Halter, strapless, now extra protein in the brain that results in hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia.

He’d been my favorite person to talk to on any given Sunday. The man who made me laugh with wordplay and feel safe with his emotional IQ. But now, he needed full-time attention, twenty four hour tenderness from a professional equipped to not think about the finger eating comment for the next week/lifetime. He got kicked out of the first memory care home we’d placed him in after he lobbed a punch at his 94 year old roommate which I could only imagine looked like slow motion fighting.  We were now here. Praying he wouldn’t have “behaviors.” Praying he was drugged properly. That is the objective now: drug him into a hazy soup of non aggressive jibber jabber. Soup in a fleece lined corduroy coat. No wonder I was looking for spirit in the hands of strangers.

Half of his plate eaten, he shook his head no as I spooned another bit of rice. We got up, took another walk around the empty grounds. When I left I told him I’d see him next week.  He looked at me confused.  On the way out I grabbed Lisa, the activities director and tried not to cry and told her he likes coloring and crafts. Can he have coloring and crafts?  A few people were sitting at a table where she had unpacked some yarn. No one knows what to do with this yarn and I’m sure Lisa has a plan but I feel like a criminal leaving him there.

I promised myself I would move him in and go home. But away from the dribbly food, I had an appetite and remembered there was at Wahoo’s in Crystal Court. In high school, we would pile into a Toyota Forerunner and go to the original one on Placentia in Costa Mesa for lunch. Surf stickers and ahi rice felt like home. These were things I knew.  This is mahi mahi, this is a guy grinding in Vans.  Here is my father, buttoning a flannel as he leaves to run the scoreboard at the high school football game. Waving at me from the box while I grit my teeth through a cheer dance. Never sure why I was doing it, probably because of his wave. Here, here is a Volcom poster from the Pink Is Punk Party you went to senior year. Here. Here is salsa. Here is a fountain soda. Here, hear is a Prussian march cranked up in Dad’s Volvo. He got the collection at the car wash. “Best music and best birthday cards are from the car wash,” he said with whimsical authority.  An attorney in child protective services, I’d imagined the brassy insanity strengthened him to go prosecute bad guys. Years later he told me a story about threatening a father on the phone and knowing it was time to change departments. That it was the saddest he had ever been to me.  I eat my salad, but I don’t want to go home.

I, in fact, want to wander around Crystal Court. So I do. Every person I look at I want to touch. I want to tell them we are all going to disappear one day, as if they don’t know. That our honeycomb brains are going to crumble into fractured poorly edited movies playing in a loop while we sit at tables with strangers, lash out at invisible enemies, and shit in our pants. So buy something pretty while the show still makes sense and the undercarriage is rosy.  I want to tell them I love them and their dumb sunglasses on their heads, and their self important conversations, I want to tell them I love all of it. I look at them lost. Sensitive as a sunburn, searching for something familiar, like my father. I could go home.  Instead, I walked into Talbot’s. No LBDs of either variety here.

I had never stepped inside this store but there was a fair aisle sweater in the window that evoked pumpkin patches and PTA meetings and I liked it. I wandered around and felt shoppers and salespeople look at me, in a backless pencil skirted dress. Everyone in here might be pro-life but I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know why. I just didn’t want to stop being in an in between place between my dad and my own life. I picked up a striped sweater that looked preserved from Annette Funicello’s Mickey Mouse Club wardrobe rack. A woman escorted me into a dressing room. I was tired from the night before but there’s something so soothing to me about a dressing room transformation. Different woman, different pain. Start with different top. Who am I now? Does me dress like the Mickey Mouse Club? Does me have no dad anymore?

The mirror said no sweater. As for dad, you had a feral thug who would be horrified that he was no longer splashed in Aramis cologne making the whole room laugh. At the first home, the ratio of women to men was extreme and he referred to it as “beaver island.” I appreciated the edgier material,  but it wasn’t really him. The way the sweater wasn’t really me. What was I doing in this store?

I left and walked around, but for some reason, I made a freaking second trip into Talbot’s because the fall fantasy in the window called to me, again.  This time I went for it, plus a weird MLFY cowl neck situation and why not, jeggings. A different woman intercepted me. Grayish shoulder length hair, not much make up, understated Talbot-y outfit. She put me in the dressing room and when I came out she stood there and gasped, “no one has ever made that sweater look sexy!” Looks like you just sold yourself a sweater, lady. Oh nooooo…I demured. She shook her head. I asked if she’d give her opinion on the other color. Absolutely, she nodded. I didn’t know this, but what I needed in that moment after leaving my dad, was laser sharp loving attention. Even if it was for mom knits. I showed her the other color, something in her face was so earnest, so heartfelt, I didn’t even care about figuring out the accuracy, her love had me by the shorthairs. It didn’t feel like selling love. It felt like kindness. Like pleasure. I tried on the fair aisle from the window. She shook her head, “it is also absolutely adorable!” We grinned, two basic lunatics in a Talbots. I was getting FREAKING SWEATERS. She looked around, made sure the coast was clear, and said, “I have a forty percent off coupon at the front. You were supposed to get it mailed, but I have one you can use.” I gasped. GET THE F OUT. Okay. We were getting jeggings and sweaters and looking towards a cozy future that hasn’t happened where I will be in knits and cuddled or meeting for a spicey cider thing not being up at 4 am making lists of VA hospitals with psych wards! I had crossed the rubicon into Talbot’s! Transformation complete!

She said, “wait, I have a Christmas one too!”

“What is your name?”

“Karen!” For real. Wow.

“Oh god, Karen,” I screamed at my new best friend, Karen from Talbots-“Bring me the Christmas one!!!!!!” This time last year I was wasting energy on cashmere to go out with a  producer in Venice. But what my soul needed now, was the realest. What I needed was forty percent off coupons with Karen.

By the time I got up to the register (I passed on the Christmas one,  only in petite it read real Susie Chapstick), I felt so easy with her that I had to say it:

“Karen, I was having a really rough day and this was just so lovely.  Thank you.” She told me if I needed to return anything she’s always here. I think I could be here next week. This could be my thing. Dad. Then Talbots. In a month I’ll look like Nancy Reagan and the Orange County metamorphosis will be complete.

“Today was hard,” I continued, embarrassed but unable to stop. Recently someone (yes, a therapist) had told me my ‘work’ was to feel more and love myself for all those feelings (ugh). So here I was, tenderness and gratitude flying. I was on the autobahn of feelings, going a million miles an hour. It felt out of control, like I could crash, but I was going to do what I was told. Feel them, love myself for it, strangers in a mall be damned.  “I dropped my dad off at a new memory care center so, thank you for this.” Just saying it choked me up. And before I uttered another word, Karen stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eye and said, “It is the hardest. I had to drop my mother off two years ago. She was so violent she threw a chair through a plate glass window at the other home and then she got kicked out.”

“My dad got kicked out!”

“We had to put her in a psych ward until we could a find a place in Cerritos. It was terrible. She had dementia. Brought on by alcoholism.” She said it with the same authenticity that had me buying a cowl neck. I felt compelled to share my personal theory.  “I think agent orange!” I practically shouted.

We both nodded together.

“It is so hard,” she said. “I am so so so sorry.”

There was a force field between us as she looked at me from across the counter. She had packed my items, but the moment was easy. It was honest and painful, but easy.

“My mom died last year,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. There was relief. I understood. This grieving, a water torture of sorts. Each shift in cognition, a drop on the forehead. The anxiety of anticipating which part will go next. Eroding my bearings, which led me to this mall. She told me about her hairdresser’s father who had LBD and wanted assisted suicide. I had been listening to my dad say he wanted to die for the past month.  But as long as he could blink there’d be no assisting, my selfishness a surprise.

I almost walked away without the bag. I forgot that I was shopping. The woman at the other register next gave me an ‘are you okay?’ look. I recalibrated. Karen handed it to me. Yes. No. I didn’t know. But I was less lost than when I walked in.

Amy Turner has written for NBC, CBS, Freeform and the CW. It was this or ayahuasca.
Guest Posts, Grief

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, healing, Inspiration

The Poop of Life.

June 8, 2014

The Poop of Life or: When Guilt Masks Shame. By Debra Cusick.

When Jen asked me to write something, I thought I’d scribble about guilt because her post on that topic inspired our meeting. So, I did what any good teacher would do, and I went to see what one of my gurus, John Bradshaw, has to say on the subject. His book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, taught me that shame, disguised as toxic guilt, ruled my life. He says, “people will readily admit guilt, hurt or fear before they will admit shame.” So I’ve decided to examine the girl behind the curtain of guilt and expose my toxic shame. I’m free writing, so I have no idea how this will go.

For as far back as I can remember, I had nightmares about a boogieman in the basement closet, who’d appear out of nowhere and slowly come to get me. I could see the evil in his eyes and ran like crazy, to the foot of the stairs. As I’d get about half way to the top, everything would go into slow motion, my feet would turn into sandbags, and I’d stare in horror as his hand came closer to grasping my ankle. I’d awaken–dripping with sweat, heart pounding, ears ringing– and run to my parents bed, only to be further terrorized by my dad’s snoring that soon became the gruff voice of the boogieman, as I into and out of sleep. I couldn’t find what I needed.

Years later, as I recounted that story in group, my therapist told me “The first memory you have becomes your life script. What do you think yours is?” After thinking about it, I concluded that I had erected a “no win” agenda. If I tried to be a “big girl,” the boogieman would come for me, but seeking comfort from my parents (whom I instinctively knew not to awaken—more food for thought) just lead to more misery.

Bradshaw says, “Shame is internalized when one is abandoned. Abandonment is the precise term to describe how one loses one’s authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically.” I lost my authentic self on Sunday, September 25, 1965, when I was 10. The day my mother died. The day before, an ambulance came to our house and took her away. I had been playing in the front yard, when it arrived. I ran inside and hid behind a couch. I could see paramedics wheeling the gurney to the front door with her on it. She saw me peeking though the cushions and in a drug-induced stupor whispered, “Good-bye, Debbie.” Little did I know it would be the last time I’d ever see her.

When the hospital called that morning, I answered the phone. A voice I didn’t recognize asked to speak to my father. Shortly thereafter, he and my oldest sister left in a fury. Two hours later, when they returned, I was practicing my future cheerleader moves in the front picture window. The moment I laid eyes on my father’s face, I knew. Mother’s dead. I had no idea what death meant, but I knew she was dead.

She had explicitly requested that my seven-year-old brother and I not see her dead. She knew she was dying. She knew she had metastatic breast cancer. But I didn’t. People who are sick get better. Even if they go to the hospital, they get better and come home. But she didn’t. I never saw her again. So I sent a part of me with her. Some might say she abandoned me that day. But she didn’t. I abandoned me that day.

Something else happened that day. I decided that—upon seeing my father’s stricken face—I had to save him. I had always been a daddy’s girl, and I couldn’t have a sad dad. Right then and there, I decided I had to be perfect, so he’d have something to take the place of his grief over the loss of my mother. From that moment on, I vowed to myself that I’d make him proud and never disappoint him. Little did I know that within hours of my mother’s death, which completed the fracturing of my family of origin, I’d create two roles for myself, to mask my shame.

The next few days are all a blur, but at the party which normally follows a funeral, when everyone of Irish descent drinks away his pain and laments the dearly departed with laughter and tears, I could only imitate the adults and must have spoken too loudly or merrily because my dad leaned over to whisper for me to “knock it off,” reminding me that “we just buried your mother.”

In this one sentence, I further cemented my no-win script. If I’m happy at an inappropriate moment, I have no heart, but if I express sadness, I’m a baby (later Drama Queen or Depresso). I had disappointed my dad on the very day I had vowed to be his rescuer! SHAME ON ME!

And the shame—too terrifying to admit—turned into guilt. And the guilt reinforced my no-win script. In becoming an overachiever, to make my dad proud—and hide my toxic shame from the world—I set myself up to experience the wrath from peers who wanted what I got. When I made cheerleading, I felt guilty about beating out other girls. Girls whose mothers didn’t want them hanging around with me, because “she doesn’t have a mother.” When there was a competition, I had to win—to make dad proud—but when I did, my peers accused me of thinking I was better than they were.

Society does an excellent job of telling us how to meet its unreal expectations, but I wasn’t going to fail. By god, I had failed to keep my mother from dying; I couldn’t let my father down, too. So, I earned straight A’s, participated in sports and music and honor societies and went to Girl’s State and dated the captain of the football team (which really made my dad happy) and was a homecoming princess and won the staring role of Maria in The Sound of Music, and earned a 1st in State in vocal competitions, got accepted to Northwestern University’s Music School. And felt guilty every step of the way.

If there were ten reasons to feel proud of myself and one reason to feel guilty based on something I heard other’s say, I listened to the voices that accused. I no longer felt guilty. I personified guilt. And I allowed it to wreak havoc in my life. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted (other than love) because I wasn’t a self. I had no idea what “going within” meant because I had no within to go. I operated as an overachieving shell, who won the cookie after a backflip and the accolades that accompany success. And, as long as it worked, I didn’t have to contemplate the shame I felt, if ever there were a quite moment in my world.

I finally crashed at the age of 40, when I couldn’t get my alcoholic husband to quit drinking (and all the other things that go with it). Admitting I’m powerless over the alcoholic? Inconceivable. In my own world of denial, there was nothing I couldn’t achieve. So, I cracked. But—unlike Humpty Dumpty, whose horses and men couldn’t put him back together—I took all the energy I had spent on others (and avoiding my fractured self) and used it to uncover, discover and recover my abandoned self. And while guilt and overachieving alarms still ring, when I stop working my program, I have my tool belt on at all times and know where to go, when I’m tempted to check out over the poop of life.

About Debra Cusick:  I was born, and grew up in NW Indiana, but I tell people Chicago because I am exactly 28 miles SE of the Loop, right over the boarder and can get there faster than most people living in the burbs and besides, it sounds much cooler.  I went to college at Northwestern, right on Lake Michigan but graduated with a Master’s in English from Purdue. I became a single mom—of two of the coolest kids on earth—when they were 4 and 9 months, respectively, and got five jobs in a week, determined to stay in our house.  Ever the overachiever, I worked from home and as a direct report in Chicago, till the kids were both in school all day.  By then, I took a full-time job as the Director of Marketing for the largest prison lighting manufacturer in the USA (before there were too many slammers and more ill-sentenced inmates).  In 1991, I tried my hand at marriage again, and produced my third child, who must have bargained with the gods to come back this life to teach me more than I knew I could learn.  She is a blessing. The marriage wasn’t. I finally had to choose between death and myself . . . and since you’re reading this, you know which I chose.  Seven years of intense experiential therapy later, I emerged, whole for the first time, probably, since birth. I sucked in everything I could from the lighting industry and eventually worked as a manufacturer’s representative in Portland, OR, calling on the architectural and design communities.  I’ve always been a sucker for beauty, natural or man made, and Portland gave me both. Things brought me back to my house in Indiana—which I had rented to strangers for the three years the kids and I lived in OR—and I began teaching composition, research and technical writing at Purdue University Calumet, while I sought more jobs in lighting to pay the bills.  Since 2001, I have served as an adjunct instructor at seven universities (not all at once, but close) and sold outdoor architectural, custom library, architectural asymmetric lighting and specialty lamps. Three years ago, I started to work for the biggest lighting manufacturer on earth, where I conduct energy audits to show large industrials, schools and other huge energy suckers how to save money and cut their carbon footprint.   I was born with drive and a will to succeed.  I just had to learn self-love first.  That has provided the journey of my life.  With many teachers, right when I needed them, my glass has managed to stay at least half-full.  When I take the time to indulge in them, my passions include reading, cooking (I went vegetarian a year ago and LIVE off recipes from Thug Kitchen and other amazing places on the Internet), gardening and interior design.  I have truly made my home, which I share with Patrick—the kindest, coolest and most understanding man I have ever known—and Max, and Cassie—our two longhaired miniature dachshunds—into a sanctuary of peace and creative inspiration.  If my life is half over, I still have time to carry out the rest of my dreams.

About Debra Cusick:
I was born, and grew up in NW Indiana, but I tell people Chicago because I am exactly 28 miles SE of the Loop, right over the boarder and can get there faster than most people living in the burbs and besides, it sounds much cooler. I went to college at Northwestern, right on Lake Michigan but graduated with a Master’s in English from Purdue.
I became a single mom—of two of the coolest kids on earth—when they were 4 and 9 months, respectively, and got five jobs in a week, determined to stay in our house. Ever the overachiever, I worked from home and as a direct report in Chicago, till the kids were both in school all day. By then, I took a full-time job as the Director of Marketing for the largest prison lighting manufacturer in the USA (before there were too many slammers and more ill-sentenced inmates). In 1991, I tried my hand at marriage again, and produced my third child, who must have bargained with the gods to come back this life to teach me more than I knew I could learn. She is a blessing. The marriage wasn’t. I finally had to choose between death and myself . . . and since you’re reading this, you know which I chose. Seven years of intense experiential therapy later, I emerged, whole for the first time, probably, since birth.
I sucked in everything I could from the lighting industry and eventually worked as a manufacturer’s representative in Portland, OR, calling on the architectural and design communities. I’ve always been a sucker for beauty, natural or man made, and Portland gave me both.
Things brought me back to my house in Indiana—which I had rented to strangers for the three years the kids and I lived in OR—and I began teaching composition, research and technical writing at Purdue University Calumet, while I sought more jobs in lighting to pay the bills. Since 2001, I have served as an adjunct instructor at seven universities (not all at once, but close) and sold outdoor architectural, custom library, architectural asymmetric lighting and specialty lamps.
Three years ago, I started to work for the biggest lighting manufacturer on earth, where I conduct energy audits to show large industrials, schools and other huge energy suckers how to save money and cut their carbon footprint.
I was born with drive and a will to succeed. I just had to learn self-love first. That has provided the journey of my life. With many teachers, right when I needed them, my glass has managed to stay at least half-full. When I take the time to indulge in them, my passions include reading, cooking (I went vegetarian a year ago and LIVE off recipes from Thug Kitchen and other amazing places on the Internet), gardening and interior design. I have truly made my home, which I share with Patrick—the kindest, coolest and most understanding man I have ever known—and Max, and Cassie—our two longhaired miniature dachshunds—into a sanctuary of peace and creative inspiration. If my life is half over, I still have time to carry out the rest of my dreams.

 

Jennifer Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif and over New Years. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up:  SeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Tucson, Vancouver. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. Join a retreat/workshop by emailing barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com. If you want to attend the July 6th London workshop sign up now as it’s almost full.