Browsing Tag

parent loss

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.

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24. 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, 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.