December 8, 2005 Dear Norman,
Thank you for asking me to write this.
As you know, my mom died one month ago, today. She had three terminal conditions: Alzheimer’s, cancer of the jaw, and ninety years of living. Her death should have come as no surprise, but of course when she died in my arms, I was astonished.
How can this life, which has persisted here on this earth for over ninety years, be over? Just like that? This strange new state of momlessness is inconceivable to me. It is new and foreign, a condition I’ve never experienced in my own forty-eight years of living.
I’ve been taking care of my mom for the last ten years, so my grieving is minute and quotidian. When I go to the grocery store, I find myself searching for things that are soft and sweet (she loved chocolate and she had no teeth), or beautiful bright things (she loved flowers, but her sight was failing). Then I remember that she isn’t here anymore, and I’ll never see her face light up when I come into her room, or hear her exclaim over the color of a leaf or a petal or the sky. For the first couple of weeks, I just stood in the ice cream aisle, stunned and weeping.
When I think about her death from her perspective, mostly I just feel relief. She was beginning to suffer a lot of pain and confusion, and I believe she was ready to go. But when I think about her death from my point of view, it breaks my heart. Maybe that’s selfish. I don’t know. All I know is that I miss her like crazy.
I miss her thin little fingers. I miss holding her hand. I miss twirling her wedding ring around so the tiny chip of a diamond sits back on top.
I’ve tried so hard to be strong for her. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s ten years ago, our roles began to switch. I took over caring for her, and slowly she became dependent on me. In the end, I was feeding her and changing her, and she was calling me mom. Alzheimer’s is an achingly long way to say goodbye, but I had to be strong, I thought. It would only confuse and upset her to see me cry.
Then a few months ago, I had to take a trip and leave her for a couple of weeks. I went to tell her, knowing that she might die while I was gone, and as I sat on the bed next to her, the tears just came and there was no stopping them. I tried not to let her see, but of course she noticed. She’s my mom, after all—it’s her job to notice these things. She put her arm around me, put her head on my shoulder, and although she’d pretty much stopped using language by then, she made these sweet, singing, mom-like noises meant to comfort me. And it worked, and I felt better, and when I left, we were both laughing. So that was good. My grieving gave her something that she could do well, something she could succeed at, and that made her happy. It let her be the strong one for a change.
They say every death is different, and I think every occasion of grief is different, too.
When my dad died, I was angry because he was angry and despairing. He did not want to die. He was not ready; and I was in charge of his health care; and neither of us could do a damn thing to prevent or forestall this utterly unthinkable and unacceptably terminal outcome. I was mad at him for his lack of readiness, and I was furious at myself for my impotence and lack of compassion. After he died, I couldn’t think of him without a lot of pain and anger and confusion and despair and sense of having failed him. I couldn’t look at his picture without feeling my insides twist. I wanted to look away. And I did. I remember I drank a lot, too, in order to get through it. I took his death very personally.
It was different with my mom. We’d had lots of time together, and we were both as ready as we could ever be. And I wasn’t drinking. I quit two months before she died. I’d done drunken death-and-grieving thing once, and it was lousy. I didn’t want to do it again. I wanted to keep my wits about me. I didn’t want to run away.
The last thing I promised my dad was to take care of my mom. He knew she had Alzheimer’s, and he was tortured at having to leave her behind. So for ten years now, I’ve been fulfilling my promise to him. And this has been good, too. His request gave me something that I could do well, something I could succeed at, and this has made me happy.
So I’m grateful to my parents for dying in my presence, and for teaching me their two different ways of how it can be done. It is hard work, dying, but after watching my mom and dad, I realize that we’re built to do it.
Grieving is hard work, too, but again, I guess we’re built to do it. We come equipped with hearts to break, and eyes to cry with. We have brains to hold the memories and stories, and voices to tell them with. We have the capacity to love and heal.
I have my dad’s picture on my altar, next to my mom’s, and now that the anger and remorse has subsided, I can look at him with gratitude. And a month after my mom’s death, I’m not crying in the grocery store so often anymore. Instead, when I think of my mom, I buy a sweet and offer it to her, and then I eat it (she hated wasting perfectly good food). I bring home flowers and admire them through her eyes. I takes walks for her by the ocean and look at the sky.
So that’s a little bit of what it’s been like. Thanks again, Norman, for asking me to write this. It helps to have a place to put the feelings.
with love, Ruth
mom, by the ocean, eating ice cream