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.

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