Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Year of Firsts

One year ago we'd just got through our last Christmas with Mom. We knew then that it was the last one. Her doctor had told us in early December that she wouldn't live another year. So we'd gone through all of our usual holiday rituals as normally as we could, despite the knowledge that we were reaching the end hanging over us.

Her health had deteriorated so fast. She could still walk when they sent her home from the hospital, but by Christmas she was in a wheelchair full time and was hooked up to oxygen. Someone always needed to be there to help her with things. I'd go over there in the evenings after work and feed her pills in spoonfuls of applesauce, picking the ones that were still necessary from the pillbox and trying my best to ignore the ones that her doctor said there was no more point in taking. She made it through Christmas, through New Year's, clinging on with quiet determination. I kept a slim hope in the back of my mind that maybe she'd prove the doctors wrong again, but she had run out of luck and by the end of January even her determination was starting to fail.

She passed away in February, and that started the year of firsts. First birthday, first month, first mother's day, first thanksgiving. Events and holidays passed by. Weeks and months that flowed around her absence like a river flowing around a rock. The emptiness that she left was a tangible thing, a grief that changed shape and size every day. Some days it was dark and heavy and blanketed everything around it. Some days it was so small that it could almost be forgotten. I never knew which one it would be until I'd started the day, and it could change from one hour to the next. There were mornings when I'd get up and feel fine. I'd go to work, talk to my co-workers, do all of my daily tasks without a thought. Then suddenly it would hit me and I'd find myself sobbing in my car on my way home.

Of all the firsts I've been through without her, my birthday was by far the worst. Thanksgiving was difficult because my sister had moved back to the state we were born in, and so it was my first holiday without any of my family around me. Christmas just felt strange. My husband and I went to Florida and spent it with my grandparents and sister and cousins, the first Christmas that my grandparents had with all of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren together. There was just one person missing, otherwise the family would have been complete. But that's the way it is, now. This is our new normal, the new "all of us".

Today is the last day of 2015. The last day in the year of firsts. In just over a month it will be the 1 year anniversary of her death. A whole year without her after spending half a lifetime preparing for just that thing. All of the years I spent thinking "This one could be the last, you never know what's coming" culminated in a single night in a hospital room, with her doctor telling us "this one IS the last".

I don't expect grief to ever go away. I think it will continue to change along with me, adjusting itself to fit in my life. It may eventually reduce permanently down to something easy to carry, something that settles in and becomes a part of me instead of something that threatens to swallow me whole. I know there will be days when it looms over everything, even years from now. But my mother raised me to be strong, to overcome things instead of giving in. To move forward even when I think that I can't. Every time a challenge seemed too much, or life seemed too hard, a burden too heavy, every time I said "I can't'", she would remind me that I was capable of so much more than I thought I was.

Perhaps the coming year will be more kind. Whatever it is, and whatever it brings, I'll get through it. I've put the year of firsts behind me, moving on the way she would have wanted me to.

I love you, Mom. Always.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Birthday Blues

Today is my birthday. I turned 34 years old, and it seems every website I ever registered for has remembered the day judging by the sheer number of emails that have been filling my inbox since last week. I think I could paper my walls with all the various coupons I've received, and each one so far has been helping me count down the days until today. I have dreaded today all week, finding myself heartsick as the day loomed closer on my calendar. This is a year of firsts without Mom, and every first is a milestone to get through.

Birthdays were something we were more casual about when I was growing up. We tended to forgo parties and big gestures. We did have our own way of celebrating, though. My sister and I would be excused from doing chores on our birthdays, and Mom would make us whatever we wanted for dinner (my choice was always hot dogs, mac and cheese, and pumpkin pie instead of cake). One of Mom's birthday traditions for me specifically revolved around her extremely long labor when giving birth to me. When I was a kid, she'd knock on my bedroom door throughout the morning and call out "Still in labor!" up until the hour of my birth. When I grew up and moved out, I'd get a morning call from her. "STILL IN LABOR!" she'd cheerfully yell down the phone as soon as I answered. This was the first year without my morning call, without that reminder of just how much of a pain in the ass I was even from the beginning

Her pregnancy with me was a difficult one, requiring bedrest due to a near miscarriage. She hadn't yet been diagnosed with the autoimmune illness and it was causing complications that no one could figure out. She had difficulty gaining weight (at seven months pregnant she'd gained only a single pound) and then towards the end of it she kept going into false labor and was sent home from the hospital more than once. The final time, she told the doctors "I am not leaving this hospital without a baby, so you'd better be sure I have her this time." By the time I was finally born, she was two weeks past her due date in start of a hot Florida summer.

The labor itself was long and difficult and painful. Mom had both my sister and me without the benefit of drugs. From what she told me, by the end of it she regretted that choice. I had to be turned and removed with the aid of forceps after hours of seemingly fruitless labor. There are pictures of me and my mother shortly after birth, where I am an ugly red-faced thing with a misshapen head and dents on either temple from the forceps, and she is absolutely exhausted looking. I had to wear a little rubber cap for the first few weeks to help round my head back out. After I was finally born and cleaned up and put in the nursery, my grandparents brought my sister to the hospital. She was only 3 years old, and she thought that she got to pick which baby they would take home from the ones in the nursery, like picking a piece of fruit at the grocery store. She wanted to take home the black baby with a headful of hair, and cried with disappointment when she was told that no, the one with the rubber cap and the weird head was her sister.

I was just as difficult as a baby as I was during birth. I screamed constantly and for no reason, refusing to be soothed or settled. I was lactose intolerant and had to be fed soy and rice milk and my mother went through more than one doctor trying to find out what was wrong. One doctor accused her of "sneaking chocolate", claiming that was the reason why I screamed and was sick after she tried to breastfeed me. Even after they figured it out, I still carried on wailing as though I was in pain, but no one could find the cause for it. My Mom always said that if I had been born first, there would not have been a second baby.

I like to think that I made up for it when I got older. It was as though my sister and I traded places as we grew up. Shannon had been the easy labor, the easy baby, the easy child. By the time we were teenagers I was the quiet one and she was the difficult one, the one who snuck out to meet boys while I only stayed up late to read books.

Mother's day was hard this year, but for some reason today is harder. I've never really been big into birthdays. As a kid (and an adult) I enjoyed the cake and gifts, but a birthday has really mainly just been another day. They have always passed quietly and without much fanfare. Today just plain hurts, though. I suppose it's because the person who was the center of my life for so long is gone. I wouldn't exist without her, after all, and today is the 34th year I have existed in this world and my very first one without her as a part of it.

Grief has been a long road to walk, and I've not yet reached the end. I'm still walking it every day.

I guess you could say that like her, I'm still in labor.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Pushing Daisies

The other day my husband and I were having a discussion about Mother's Day. Since about this time last month, advertisements for the upcoming holiday have been everywhere. The first one I received was an e-mail proclaiming "Mother's Day is coming!" from a website intent on selling me things.

"I don't know what I'm going to do" I told him, as I sat on our bed next to him. He was rubbing my back as he often does, when he knows that I need comforting. "I kind of just want to crawl into a hole until the day is over and done with." He said that I should still celebrate the day. That I should still do the things I did for her, but to do them for myself this year instead.

My mother's favorite flowers were daisies. Every morning on Mother's Day, before everyone else woke up, I would sneak out of the house and into the back yard to pick some of the wild ones that grew everywhere. Daisies are abundant here in Kentucky. In spring and summer they sweep down the hillsides and fill the ditches with a profusion of white and yellow. They beg to be picked, and they grow so thickly that you can pick dozens of them without making a dent in their numbers. I would gather as many as I could and then tie them with whatever bit of ribbon I'd fished out of my stash of craft supplies, and would present them to her when she woke up. Sometimes I would make her a cup of coffee, except one year I mistook the salt for sugar and she banned me from making it after that.

The daisies weren't always blooming by Mother's Day. Sometimes the way the day falls it's just a little bit too early for them. Their heavy buds would be nodding on their stems, not ready to open for another week. Lately it seems that they've been blooming later and later in the year, so for the past few years I've simply gone to Lowe's and bought her a potted Shasta Daisy to plant. This year I had thought that if the daisies bloomed in time I'd pick her a bunch of them again, but of course she didn't live long enough for that. Spring has come to Kentucky, bringing with it warmth and sunlight and the whole world turning green and full of life. I hate that she died in winter, during one of the worst ones we've had in a while. Her last few months she spent miserably cold because she had lost so much weight that she couldn't sustain her own body heat. She was wrapped in robes and blankets and she kept the heat turned up so high that her electric bills were outrageous. I wanted so badly for her to make it until Spring, so that she could see the sun and feel the warmth of the air one more time.

Mom died exactly a week to the day before her birthday. She died the day before my sister's birthday. Firsts are hard. Having to deal with those particular firsts so soon after the fact was surreal. I was still shocked and numb by then, and both birthdays went by in that haze. With Mother's Day, there has been time for the shock to wear off. The numbness to pass. I feel a sense of rising panic with every e-mail or TV advertisement that I see for it. All I want to do is pick daisies for her. Make her coffee (with sugar, very carefully avoiding the salt). I want to go to Hallmark and find the perfect card to give her, signing it with Xs and Os. It's strange to realize I'll never do that again.

I want her to see the profusion of daisies in the ditches and the fields and I want to hear her say how they're her favorite. Just one last time.

Thursday, April 30, 2015


In my yard is an old cedar wood swinging bench  that Mom and I put together several years ago. She had bought it online, from one of those websites that sells unfinished furniture. Back when we had first moved to Kentucky, our house had an ancient wooden swing sitting under a massive 60 year old Maple tree. One night during a storm, a branch came down and took the swing with it. It was smashed beyond any hope of repair so it had to be thrown away.

So this one was a belated replacement. It was more rustic looking than the old one had been. Even brand new, it looked old. We read the instructions and figured out where each peg and slat and joint went for it, and then we stained it a rich honey color. It was going to go under the same maple tree where the old one had been (keeping our fingers crossed for no more falling limbs), and as we stood in the garage looking at the bench we realized that we really should have put it together under the tree. Mom's yard was divided by a series of fences, with a 4' tall picket fence that served as a dog pen that extended from the back of the house, to the shed, and finally joining back up to the house at the corner of the laundry room. We would have to hoist the bench over that fence at the side and the back and then carry it over a ditch in order to get it to the tree.

Mom was a lot stronger back then, still determined and tough, and all her years of caring for her three acres of land had given her a wiry strength that was belied by her small stature. So between the two of us we managed to hoist the damned bench and its frame over the two sections of fence and the ditch until we finally had it under the tree. We set it up, victorious, and sat ourselves down to enjoy our hard-earned rest. It was a beautiful day, not yet unbearably hot and the wind made the maple leaves rustle and the wind chimes in the trees around her garden ring. I knew it meant a lot to Mom to be able to do these things more or less on her own. She and my father had finally separated, and she was determined that she could get by without needing his help. She needed my help with a lot of things, but the important part was that she didn't need him.

The swing sat unharmed by tree limbs for years. Even after a storm brought down a huge branch almost on top of it. Like Mom, it weathered everything that it was exposed to. Harsh winters and hail and howling storms that pulled so much around it apart left it untouched.

After Mom died, the bench was something I knew I needed to take with me. We won't be able to keep her house. There's too much debt left behind for us to do that. It was the only asset she had and so it will need to be sold to pay for the financial and legal mess that my father left her in after their divorce. So the creaky old bench needed to be re-homed, and my back yard was the best place for it.

Moving it here was easier. This time I had Adam to do the heavy lifting, and his pickup truck to transport it with. We set it up in front of one of my flower beds, across from the arbor we got married under. Mom was the one who gave me away at our wedding. She walked with me from my back porch steps to the arbor, where Adam was waiting for me. She kissed us both and told us that she loved us. She was as much a mother to Adam as she was to me in our years together, and she was happy to see us getting married.

The bench creaks now. It's no longer honey colored, but has gone dull and weathered. Lichen grows along the wood in a map of green and grey. Sitting here makes me think of that day, dragging the bench over the fences and through the ditch, both of us exhausted but proud of how we'd done it by ourselves despite her health problems and my increasingly bad knees. Everything she could do back then was a victory, a sign that she was still standing despite it all. Her still being alive for my wedding was a miracle. I regret that she will never know any children that Adam and I have, but one day I will sit with them on this bench and tell them about her. How much she meant to me and how much she would have loved them. At some point I'll have to scrape off the lichen and re-finish it so that it lasts long enough for that. The things that were hers are things I feel protective of now, as though through preserving them I can somehow preserve her memory a little better. I know they're just physical objects, that the memories I have in my head are worth far more, but they remind me of her and everything that she faced and overcame. Even something as simple as an old wooden bench holds so many reminders.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Giving a Fuck

When I was growing up, my mother never used swear words. I don't mean "she didn't use swear words in front of us", she really just never swore. It was terribly impolite and unladylike to swear, in her opinion, and so she simply never did. Her version of road rage was remarking "Nice driving, Ace!" if someone did something stupid in traffic.

When she was 40 and I was 13, she had a mammogram when she switched to a new doctor. She was too young for it, really, but her doctor was also young and fairly fresh out of med school and wanted to be as thorough as possible. She had no family history of breast cancer and hadn't felt any lumps in her breasts, so she wasn't overly concerned until the doctor's office called her a day later and said they'd found something. A biopsy followed and one sunny day in late summer she told me it was cancer. Tiny lumps smaller than a pea were so heavily scattered through her tissue that they had to do a mastectomy. By that point her autoimmune illness was advanced enough that they didn't want to even attempt chemo or any treatment beyond surgery, so we all just had to hope it would be enough.

As you can imagine, it was hard for her. She'd been battling her health problems for over a decade by that point. In addition to the existing health problems, she was dealing with my father having yet another affair. Throwing cancer in on top of everything else was a breaking point, for her. One day she came into the living room, looked at my sister and me and announced "I can say 'fuck' now". Unbeknownst to us she had been practicing swearing. When she'd turn on the water in the bathtub in the mornings, she would swear as the sound of the water hid anything she might be saying from our ears. She finally became comfortable enough with swearing to start doing it openly - and swear she did. It was like our quiet, ladylike mother had been replaced by a foul-mouthed sailor. Her battle with cancer opened a floodgate, and through that gate poured nearly every bad word in the book, rendered in an impeccable British accent. The only words she refused to use were "Motherfucker" and "Cunt", because she felt those were perhaps a bridge too far. Everything else was fair game, though, and her expanded vocabulary was something we eventually got used to.

She survived the cancer, miraculously. Against all odds it was one of the things in life that she actually managed to beat. By the time she passed away she had been cancer-free for 20 years. Her love of swearing stayed with her, though she used the words sparingly around most people. I still remember the first time she said "fuck" in front of my husband. He was shocked by it because my mother was always so careful with her language around him. She had to be comfortable with someone before she would drop an F bomb, and over the years she and my husband became very close. Her using that word around him was a sign that she didn't see him as any different from her own flesh and blood. "Your mother said 'fuck' in front of me today!" he told me, and then followed up with "it was so awesome.."

She was a unique person, my mother. She was gentle, loving, and unfailingly polite. But she was also sarcastic, sharp tongued, and fond of playing pranks. She was a force to be reckoned with despite being damaged, despite her difficult life, despite her insecurities. She was a delicately built British lady in a flowered dress who liked to say "fuck" a lot.

I miss her every day.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


After someone close to you dies, you look for things. Proof that they're OK. A sign from the beyond to let you know that they're at peace or still watching over you. "Watch your dreams" is what the nurse at Hospice told us, when we gathered in Mom's room after she passed. "She'll let you know that she's OK."

So ever since Mom died, I've searched for signs. The night that it happened, when I crawled into bed exhausted and empty and a little bit drunk I longed for a dream of her. I fell asleep with my great-grandfather's prayer beads in my hand, clutching them because Mom always asked for them whenever she had to go into hospital for a while. They brought her comfort over the years, and I needed to feel close to her. When your mother was the one who comforted you so many times over the years, who do you turn to when she's gone, and her passing is the reason you need to be comforted? I had my husband and my sister and my aunt, but it wasn't really the same, and they were grieving as well. The beads became my anchor, to the point that I often couldn't sleep unless I was holding them.

I didn't dream of her that night, or the night after that, or the one after that. I think it was weeks before I actually had a dream about her, but it wasn't anything significant. No clear assurance, no comforting moment playing out for me to let me know that everything would be fine.

I read a lot of websites about grief and the afterlife and signs in the months leading up to her death. I perused forums for caretakers of terminally ill parents. I sifted through story after story of people recounting their experiences, seeking proof that I'd be able to move on one day. Trying to figure out if what I was feeling was normal, trying to see what I should expect. Of course everyone is different. Every experience is unique, and how people handle things shapes the way they feel after someone they love has died. I read about people who felt emotionally devastated, whose grief ran so deep that even after a decade they still felt as though their lives were ruined. I read about people who felt so empty that they worried they were abnormal. I read about people who saw dragonflies or butterflies or birds in places they ordinarily wouldn't be, and just knew it was their loved one reaching out to them. People who felt a weight settle on the bed next to them, even when no one else was there.

I had none of those things. Just my alarm system going haywire after we brought her ashes home from the crematorium, but that was explained away by sensors going bad. My dreams remained normal. I saw no butterflies and felt no weight settle next to me. I swung from deep grief to numbness to normalcy to sudden tears, sometimes in the course of an hour. I watched my dreams in vain, because even when she appeared in them, it seemed to be nothing different from the dreams I had when she was still alive. I went to her house in hope of feeling some trace of her, but her house felt weirdly empty. It was like her body in the bed of the hospice room. It didn't contain her anymore. It was as though when she took her final breath, her soul had gone so far and so free from the world that she left no trace behind.  She had been so present in life, so vividly there that I expected she would leave an imprint behind, like the image of the sun dancing behind your eyelids on a bright day. I look for her and there isn't even an impression. It's as though she simply evaporated, burned away until there was nothing left at all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

And Columbine

Columbines have always been one of my favorite flowers. I thought they looked like something from a fairytale garden, with their graceful spurs and nodding blooms. The sheer variety of colors and bloom varieties makes them far too easy to plant far too many of. My Mom always used to laugh about my love for them, because I never met a Columbine I didn't want to take home and plant in my garden. Over the years since we bought our house I have planted several different varieties, and they've bred and cross-bred to the point that they're popping up all over the place and I find myself having to dig them out of inconvenient spots throughout my garden. The two pictured here have been the first to bloom so far.

I love reading as much as (if not more than) gardening. Like my columbines, I've amassed a lot of books through my life. They pile up all over the house. There are books in my car and books in the garage and books in the attic. They lurk in closets and desk drawers and on top of the refrigerator.

One of my favorite books is Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees. It's a charming and slightly unsettling fantasy story published in 1926. In that book, I first came across a version of a very old song from a book published in 1628, and it contains a reference to my beloved Columbine flowers. The story alters the original song a bit to refer to one of the characters, but I tracked down the original online. This song has stuck with me over the years, and every time I'm out tending my garden I find it circling through my head. 

"And can the physician make sick men well?
And can the magician a fortune divine?
Without lily, germander, and sops-in-wine?
With sweet-briar,
And bonfire,
And strawberry wire,
And columbine.

Within and out, in and out round as a ball,
With hither and thither, as straight as a line,
With lily, germander, and sops-in-wine:
With sweet-briar,
And bonfire,
And strawberry wire,
And columbine.

When Saturn did live, there lived no poor,
The king and the beggar with roots did dine,
With lily, germander, and sops-in-wine:
With sweet-briar,
And bonfire,
And strawberry wire,
And columbine."

It's not much of a song, really. Just a handful of lines repeating. But I love it. It suits the magic of the Columbines nodding in my garden, often the first to bloom out of all the other flowers.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mommy Magic

When I was a kid and still in public school, we had a Halloween party. I think I was in kindergarten or first grade (my memory is of course a bit hazy). The teacher provided the most amazing cupcakes, decorated with inches of orange and black frosting and topped with tiny plastic skeletons. When I got home from school that day, I excitedly described the cupcakes and how delicious they were to Mom, who told me to draw a picture of them for her.

So with my budding artistic talent I drew as close a representation as I could in crayon of the wondrous cupcakes and gave the picture to my mom. "Watch" she said. "I'm going to do Mommy Magic!" and put the picture in the microwave, waving her hands over it. A few seconds later, she reached into the microwave and pulled out a tray of the exact same cupcakes that we'd had at school that day.

I was amazed. I was still young enough to believe in magic, and that my mother was capable of anything. Here she had worked a fantastic trick before my very eyes. I became a firm believer in Mommy Magic that day, and reverently told my friends at school about it.

Years later when I was old enough to realize that magic was not the actual thing at work that day, I asked Mom how she had done it. "I ran into your teacher at the grocery store while she was buying cupcakes for the party that day. I thought they looked good so I bought some as well, and when you came home talking about them it was too good an opportunity to let go."

I still remember the sheer excitement and awe I felt that day, fully believing that she could do magic. She used Mommy Magic for other situations as well (mainly to make us behave ourselves), but the cupcake trick is what I remember the most. It was better than Santa and the tooth fairy, that beautiful belief that Mom had turned a child's drawing into cupcakes through her own special powers. That was what she did for us. Made magic from bits of paper. Created memories that I can cherish now that she is gone.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How Does Your Garden Grow

I've always enjoyed gardening. Growing up, my mother had flowers growing at every house we lived in. When we made the move from Florida to Kentucky she had a vegetable garden, and the fresh produce made the difficulty of planting and weeding and keeping pests away well worth it. 

I always had a little garden patch of my own during that time. I grew pumpkins one year, enormous things that needed a wheelbarrow to be moved. Flowers were my main love, though, and I grew Johnny Jump-Ups and Siberian Irises and any other flowering plant I could convince my mother to get for me. 

When my husband and I bought our first house together, it came with two very plain "builder's special" type beds in the front. Holly bushes and Liriope and a scraggly Juniper grew in them, and I was already planning on removing those plants and replacing them with something prettier.

It's been five years since we bought our house. Over the years I dug out the holly bushes (a massive undertaking that took hours every time I removed one bush), cut down the wasp-attracting Juniper, and laid waste to the Liriope. I replaced them with Rose bushes and Clematis and Phlox and as many different varieties of Columbine that I could find. 

Now I also have a vegetable garden in the back, and I have advanced to starting seedlings indoors with grow lights to make sure that the longer season plants actually have a chance to produce something before the frost sets in again. 

My Luffa squash experiment.

This year I have been particularly ambitious. I started far more seedlings than I usually do. I'm growing more herbs than I really have use for. It's a comfort thing, though. Gardening was a thing I did a lot with Mom. The past year or so both of our gardens suffered due to her failing health. I was too busy caring for her to really take care of my plants or hers. My routine became going to work, going to her house after work to look after her, going home with just enough time to maybe make dinner and then go to bed, and then getting up the next day to repeat it over again. Not having her to occupy my time has led to an unusual number of empty hours for me. I have to find ways to fill those hours, and focusing on an activity we loved and shared has helped with that. So I started a legion of peppers and tomatoes and squash. I bought pounds of Zinnia seeds for a cutting garden. Every pot in my yard is occupied by seedlings or by plants I dug from Mom's garden. We will have to sell her house and I wanted to preserve some of it for myself, so the flowers that she loved so much have been divided and relocated.

It will be hard, this first year without her. I'm hoping the seedlings will help. A little bit of life to help offset the grief of Mom not being here. Something I can tend in place of tending to her. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Blades of Grass

One of the things Mom always took great pleasure in was mowing her yard. She had three acres of land that sloped uphill, riddled with ditches and bumps and holes, and for years she mowed it with an old Husqvarna riding mower that backfired and died more often than it worked. In addition to the ditches and holes her yard had a lot of very old maple trees,and their roots broke the surface of the earth, massive and gnarled and waiting to snag the blades of the mower. They also covered the lawn in an assortment of sticks in all sizes, and my job when I was growing up was to run outside and gather up all the fallen sticks and pile them up to be burned at a later time.

Eventually Mom grew tired of the jolting, jostling riding mower and bought herself one of those fancy John Deere zero turn radius lawn tractors, and she would ride up and down the slope of her yard, carefully turning circles around trees and nimbly avoiding the ditches and maple roots. She loved to listen to Maroon 5 as she mowed; she said they were the perfect band to mow to and would grumble "Doesn't Adam Levine know that I have grass to cut?" every spring when they hadn't released a new album yet.

She wouldn't let any of the dogs outside while she was mowing, except for Alfie, who knew not to run in front of her as she rode up and down the lawn. Alfie would trot along behind her as she made each pass, trailing her the whole way, frolicking and rolling in the clippings that flew like confetti, pouncing on any snake or other creature disturbed by the mower's wake.

As years passed and her illness progressed, she still climbed onto that mower at the start of the season even after her hands couldn't quite grip the handles anymore. I bought thick black lengths of foam that's used for insulating pipes and fitted those around the grips to give her something more substantial to grasp, but finally between her hands and her growing frailty she couldn't do it anymore. In 2014 she reluctantly gave up the task to my husband, which she hated doing, especially because Adam viewed the mower as something more akin to a go-cart. "He mows too fast! I swear I saw him catch air when he went over that one bump" she would complain to me. "He doesn't mow in the same pattern that I did. The grass doesn't look as nice." To me, I could see no real difference, but she fretted and complained about it every time he mowed for her. I think it was less the fact that he did it differently and more that she could no longer do it herself that bothered her. Giving up caring for her yard hurt her more than even giving up driving had. Despite all evidence pointing to the fact that she was only getting worse, she stubbornly held on to the belief that one day she might at least be able to mow the yard again. Of course, that never did happen.

Before she passed away, she made sure that Adam would inherit the lawn mower. It's too big for our yard, really. We have a relatively small lawn and using something like that to take care of it is overkill. But it sits in our garage, a hulking beast that has eliminated Adam's parking spot. "Are you actually going to use it?" I asked him, and he just shrugged. "Maybe. I've got a sentimental attachment to it." My husband is particular about his lawn, though. His grass is green and lush and he has his own patterns, using an old push mower that had also once belonged to my Mom. He worries about introducing weed seeds into his lawn and so the few times he has taken care of a neighbor's yard for them, he has used their mower rather than risk "contaminating" his. Since we've had buckets of rain recently, the grass has grown fast and thick and was in dire need of cutting already, so during the brief break between storms Adam mowed our lawn with the push mower. Next door to us is an empty house, a foreclosure with a yard choked by weeds that no one comes out to cut, so after he finished our yard he decided he'd break out Mom's mower and do that one as well.

In addition to inheriting Mom's lawn mower, we also inherited her dog, Alfie. He'd been unwanted by anyone else. I worked with rescues and foster groups and shelters and there simply was no room for an 11 year old terrier mix with ridiculously floppy ears. Adam had always insisted that we'd never have pets, but he broke that vow to take in Alfie when it became clear that the humane society would be the only other choice. In the house, Alfie had slept through the cutting of our grass, the sound of the weed whacker and the leaf blower. When Adam fired up Mom's mower and rolled out of the garage on it, Alfie started to go ballistic. He barked and howled and scratched at the door like mad. I couldn't figure out why until I realized it was the sound of the mower. Every spring and summer for 9 years he had trailed along behind that lawn mower, tracking back and forth with Mom and then later on with Adam. He didn't quiet down until I put his leash on him and took him outside, so he could watch as Adam zipped up and down the yard, spinning and weaving. I thought "Mom would absolutely kill Adam if she could see him driving it like that." But I bet it would also make her happy.

Friday, March 27, 2015

On the subject of grief

My mother was sick for my entire life. She was diagnosed when I was a baby with an autoimmune illness that could cause severe complications as it progressed. "You'll be able to live with it as long as you never develop the heart and lung problems associate with the illness", her doctor told her. She did live with it, for over 20 years before she noticed one day that she was having trouble catching her breath. Two misdiagnoses later (first they decided she had asthma, and then emphysema) and it was confirmed. She had developed Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, and was given 3-5 years to live.

I was in my 20s by that point, and always in the back of my mind was the vague knowledge that one day, Mom's health condition might progress to something far worse than what it already was. She was always so tough, so difficult to keep down though that even after the diagnoses it was impossible to imagine that she would ever succumb to it. She had survived breast cancer. She fought the day-to-day complications from her autoimmune illness like she was dealing with something mildly inconvenient. She grew a little more weak every year, a little thinner, shrinking steadily as time went on, but inside she was always pure determination. She did better than her doctors thought she would on the medication for the PAH, staying on the first level of drugs for far longer than most people did. Three years passed. Then five. Then seven. She walked me down the aisle at my wedding and was there for the birth of her first grandchild in those stolen years, the years that her doctors didn't quite think she would still be around to see.

I kept the knowledge that one day it would finally catch up to her tucked away in the back of my mind, only dusting it off every now and then when a holiday or birthday would come around. "This might be the last one, you know" it would whisper to me, and I would think "yes, but she's come so far already and what do the doctors truly know? They're making advances with medication all the time. She'll keep going. It's what she does."

 Denial is a wonderful and terrible thing. It's like the blanket you pull over your head at night, telling yourself if everything is covered the monsters can't get you. But bit by bit, it started catching up. Her hands started to give her problems as her disease marched on, causing the tendons in her fingers to shorten and the skin to harden, rendering her once-clever hands into claws. She used to paint and take beautiful photographs. She would garden and knit and cook. It became more difficult for her, and one by one the things she loved to do became things that she used to be able to. She couldn't drive anymore, so we sold her car to help pay for all the medical bills that constantly piled up. Her ability to sing was the next thing to go. She always sang, all day, whatever snippet popped into her head at any given moment. She had a song for every situation, every occasion that arose. She knew some lyric that fit, and she had a beautiful voice. But her breath was too short and it took too much effort, so she stopped.

Still, I told myself that she would somehow manage, though the creeping fear was growing more persistent. I saw how she couldn't take care of herself anymore and I did my best to shut my eyes to it, because I didn't want to admit what it meant. Her stolen time was running out. In 2013, she was getting steadily worse. By the end of the year she was barely functional in many ways. The slow progression of her illness had turned into something faster, something more difficult for us to ignore, and by the time she was ready to admit that she needed help she ended up in the hospital. Anemia, fluid on the heart and in the lungs, double pneumonia, an infection in her ankle, and so on and so forth. Her doctor used the words "life threatening" and told us that perhaps we should prepare for the worst.

But once again, against all odds she came through it, but this time there was no true recovery. She lingered in the hospital for weeks, then a care facility for months, trying to get strong enough to walk and function again. For a brief time, she managed to drag herself into something resembling life again. It was temporary. Within a year she was fading fast. Her health was going downhill, and one year to the day of her going into hospital, she was admitted again and this time her doctors gave us the worst news. This was it. There would be no more recoveries. There would be no care facility, no rehabilitation, no adjusting of her medication except to take her off of some because it didn't matter anymore. They recommended hospice care and they had her fitted for a new wheelchair because she couldn't walk anymore.

We had one last Christmas with her. Her sister came from Florida to spend it with us. Then her mother and father came and spent a month with her. A few days after Christmas I was over at her house. She and my aunt and I were sitting in her bedroom, talking about music. Mom sang a few broken pieces from songs she had always loved. It was the first time I'd heard her sing in a year or more, and I knew then it would doubtlessly be the last time.

A week after my grandmother left, Mom started having trouble eating. Nothing stayed down. She could barely move. She was admitted into the hospice facility and even then, we all still clung to the hope that she might keep going a little longer. Please, just a little more time, I thought. I knew that it would happen eventually but I wasn't prepared for "eventually" to become "now". She passed away the next day, in her sleep. The night before she passed away, she looked at my sister and me and said "I'm so sorry. I tried." It was the day before my sister's birthday, and exactly one week to the day before her 61st birthday.

Her being gone was a shock to the system. We'd known it was coming. Of course we did. We'd spent years with the knowledge rubbing away at us. I spent years pre-grieving, watching her slip further and further away, knowing she hated the way she had become and wishing there was some way to make it stop for her, without her having to be the one who stopped. When she passed away it was a feeling of "how did this happen so fast?" paired with "finally, she's not suffering anymore. All those years and it's finally over for her." It was an odd combination of feelings, that too-soon and too-long. Her last year was a difficult one, her last month a nightmare. Her tenacity and ability to keep going against all odds won her more time, but it wasn't a pleasant time for anyone, least of all for her. Seeing her deteriorate so much was probably the hardest thing I've been witness to.

Grief has been an odd thing. It's been a month and it feels sometimes as though she's been gone for years, and other times I forget she's gone at all. The first two weeks after she passed away I felt peaceful, full of warmth and love for her, and I thought "I can deal with this. If this is grief, I can bear it". I thought all of my years of knowing what was coming had allowed me to bypass the loneliness and gut-wrenching pain. That quickly gave way to depression and anger, but those days were still mixed in with those oddly peaceful ones. I see things in the store that I think she would like and then I remember that she's not here anymore. I nearly had a breakdown over a red stone cat statue, because it was exactly the kind of thing she would have loved and had she been alive, she would have been getting that cat for mother's day. I had to stop myself from buying it anyways. I have emotional responses to teacups and pairs of slippers (she had a million sets of both). I changed salons because we used to go to the same one, often together, and I couldn't bear to go without her, and the first time I went to the grocery store after she died I almost had a crying fit in the bananas. I'd done all of her grocery shopping for her during the last year, and she was particular about her bananas. No more than four to a bunch, but no fewer than three, and they had to be short and skinny and a mixture of green and yellow so she'd have some to eat right away and some to eat a few days later. Picking out bananas for her was the biggest pain in the ass at the grocery store and the first time I didn't have to do it felt like someone had ripped my guts out. I cried when I got home from the store because of the fact that she was gone and I wouldn't ever be hearing her complain about inferior bananas again.

I assume one day things will even out. That like her, I'll pick myself up and carry on through this. It's what she wanted, for us to live our lives after she was gone. She didn't want us to be lost in grief or to even mourn her too much. "I'll always be there, in some way or another" she said. "Just talk to the trees, and the flowers, and I'll hear you." I hope she can hear me. Even if she can't, talking to her helps. Day by day, I remember her and smile more than I remember her and cry.