Content warning: grief, loss of a parent, suicidal thoughts. Readers, please don’t share this on Facebook. Dad, if you’re reading this or hearing about it: I’m really sorry. This is my truth.
I wrote what follows on October 25, 2018, six weeks after my mom died, almost two years ago, fourteen years after my brother died. I wrote it in the middle of the night while I was binge-watching The Haunting of Hill House and single-handedly working my way through a bottle of Laphroaig 10-year. I’d just learned my collarbone hadn’t healed, my mom was dead, my dad was still looking cancer square in the eye, and I was in constant physical and mental pain. I remember everything about that day very vividly: I remember looking at my bottle of pain pills, I remember considering them very seriously, and I remember calling Drew up to talk me out of taking them all.
I wrote this post that night.
I never showed this to anyone, save one person who doesn’t talk to me much anymore. Another loss I grieve. I couldn’t put my pain on anyone else… doing so still hurts me now… but I did send the post that follows to my husband and my dad this week, so they would know beforehand what I had written.
Last week, I tried to rewatch The Haunting of Hill House. After a night of stormy tears and intense nightmares, I gave up the effort. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great horror show, one that looks honestly into the darkest corners of grief and trauma. But I can’t ever rewatch it. It hits the nerve directly; that’s what makes it great.
Still, the memories were triggered, and I think I cannot exorcise my own ghosts without shining some light onto the places where they live.
I’m doing better these days. I’ve had some important mental health help, some medication adjustments, and I did, after all, get a plate put into that broken collarbone. My dad remarried and is in remission. On damp days like today I hurt a little more, but mostly I’m okay.
Still, I really can’t move on until I’ve faced these things: the raw pain of my past self, the fuck-ups of Last Year Me who tried to escape that pain in some toxic ways, the art I created in those dark days that I haven’t been able to finish. (I’m looking at you, A Veil of Smoke and Shadows, aka Candles, the book I have to write right before I am free.)
And so. I am acknowledging this ghost and setting it free. If you can read, thank you. If you can’t… believe me, I get it. I don’t remember a lot of what I say in this post that I do, but I remember other, worse things that I didn’t write about. I won’t tell you those things now. But I do know and will tell you that I did my best.
I hope that’s what I’m doing now.
Looking back and realizing that the last time I wrote anything on this blog was two years ago, and that it was about the tragic, shocking death of my brother, I’m not sure whether I want to cry or laugh.
Mostly, I want to cry.
This was never intended to be a blog about grief. I still don’t mean it to be. But here we are. Two years have passed since I last posted here, and thirteen years, eleven months, and two days later, my mom died.
Typing those words hurt. But, God help me, writing things out helps me process them. That’s why I gave the eulogy at my brother’s funeral. I didn’t speak at my mom’s funeral. I did speak a lot between the day she was admitted to the hospital and the day she died, though. I laid my heart out for strangers to touch every day for almost a month, and it didn’t make a damned difference whether she lived or died.
I don’t think I can write about what happened in a linear fashion. I don’t remember it in a linear way. Grief does funny things to the brain. Certain memories stand out, crystal clear, stark and brutal, while other things take on a dreamlike quality. The mind tries to protect itself, but some things hurt too fucking badly to blank them out. Moments can change us forever. It takes a split second to shatter glass, and the mind, the heart, the spirit, are much more fragile and more permanently changed than the most delicate trinket. Physical things can be destroyed, but what we carry within us never goes away.
Before they performed the life-altering LVAD surgery on my mom, the surgeon needed to see that she had suffered no neurological damage after multiple heart attacks sent her to the ICU. She was responsive to the doctors, but they needed her to stay awake and alert. One of the doctors talked about me in the third person, like I wasn’t standing in the room watching her smile at strangers, faces she’d never seen in a place she’d never heard of. “Can we use the daughter?” he said. He turned to me. “Can we put you to work?” I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember talking to my mom for three hours straight. A nurse brought me a chair. Someone brought me a Coke after about 45 minutes. I talked about everything I could think of — the Kansas City skyline, the ridiculously handsome doctors in the ICU, my latest sewing project, the weather, the book I was reading. I’m not a talker. But I talked. I talked until my throat hurt and my brain went numb. After that, I read aloud from Harry Potter. I kept her awake until my dad came back and took over.
My collarbone was broken. When we first got to Kansas City, the broken ends kept clicking against each other. I was in a lot of pain, and I had to ask an ICU nurse for an icepack. I took prescription painkillers and washed them down with coffee. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
My ‘tell,’ I realized, was that I gripped my own hands together tight in my lap, so hard my knuckles went white and I could feel the pressure in my upper back. However calm I appeared, my clenched hands were holding me together.
When my dad first called to tell me what had happened, all I felt was intense rage, hotter and more potent than any anger I had ever felt in my entire life. I wanted to throw my phone against the wall. I wanted to break dishes, electronics, my own body. On the drive down, Dad called to tell us she was getting worse. He texted first, and I had to pull over to the shoulder of the interstate somewhere in Missouri. My husband and I switched places in the car; I scooted across the seats and the gearshift while Drew ran around in traffic. My hazard lights blinked, off and on, off and on. Dad told me what was happening and I hit the dashboard of my car so hard I bruised my hand.
The chaplain came and talked to us. I mentioned my brother, and how my mom talked to me on the phone every night for months after he died. My dad started to sob. I took his hand. The chaplain said that gesture told her everything, that our strength as a family would get us through whatever happened.
Shortly before that first surgery, my mom took my hand and kissed it. It wasn’t easy for her. She had a breathing tube and a feeding tube and a dozen other machines connected to her, but she still gripped my hand and told my Dad and me how much she loved us. She made sure we knew.
I met so many ICU nurses in those four weeks. I tried to remember their names, and I failed. One of them gave me her personal phone number and a promise to text me from the OR. Later, she told me I could call to talk, as a friend. I never called, but I do remember her name.
The day of the final surgery, September 5, I knit frantically on a sock in the waiting room. They gave me an update after Mom left surgery, and I had such a bad feeling. The surgeon, a man I had come to like and trust, seemed so exhausted, so beaten down. He had been honest with us, and I couldn’t feel relieved after they left the operating room. But I did what they said; I went back to our hotel room, I showered, I tried to sleep.
I ran, literally ran, back to the hospital as soon as they called.
My hand shook violently in the grip of the doctor who oversaw her final moments. He had to be a foot taller than me and almost 100 pounds bigger, but my trembling made his whole arm shake. I stayed with her the whole time, my hand in hers, gripping tight enough that, could she have felt it, it probably would have hurt her. There was a keening sound, so quiet it took me a long time to realize it was my own voice, sobbing. Behind me, my husband cried and gripped my shoulder. He held me up, and I thought about how no marriage vows cover moments like those. I didn’t even know I was still standing, but somehow I was. The clock had kept ticking, and the doctor marked the time.
My dad got chemo 180 miles away that day. He couldn’t be there. He didn’t tell the doctors until those last few days that he was fighting his own battle. I told him over the phone what was happening, what happened, but I don’t know what I said.
That’s a lie. I know what I said.
There are things I will not burden you with, memories I would block out if I could.
Weeks later, I cried into my mare’s mane. Sobbed. On the drive home from the barn that day, on a date I don’t remember, I screamed into traffic in the privacy of my car, raw and brutal, so loud my throat hurt and something cracked in my vocal cords. I did it again and again and again. No one at the red light seemed to notice.
Grief changes you. There are times now, not quite two months later, when I don’t know myself. Those closest to me still seem to know me, though, and that gives me hope that maybe I haven’t changed as much as I fear. Maybe I’m still in here somewhere. I still need to write, though I’m not sure just what I need to say.
I’ll figure it out. And my people will help me.