“A long December and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last. I can’t remember the last thing that you said as you were leavin’, now the days go by so fast…….”
I’ve been dreading writing this post almost as long as I have been scripting it in my head. Not scripting it just for the sake of a blog post, to put out to the world for other people to read my thoughts, but because the words have been swirling around in a jumble of emotions, of grief, highs and lows, in a very nonsensical way. But, I know I’ve needed a way to get them all out. It’s kind of like looking at a laundry basket for days that needs to be folded and finally dumping it all out and getting to work; sorting, folding and getting it all put away where it needs to be. So, in that regard, this blog can be rather handy sometimes, because maybe if I didn’t decide to write this post and share my last year, my basket of thoughts would still be a jumbled mess that I would continue to walk by and say “I’ll get to it tomorrow”…
It’s been 16 months since we lost my mother on December 8th, 2015th after a seven year “didn’t go down without a fight” battle with ovarian cancer. Sixteen months. In theory, it sounds like what it is in terms of time: one year and four months. Quite far removed from present day for everyone else around me, except that’s not how the time warp of loss and grief works. It feels like yesterday, or, a moment ago, at any given time. It’s more like an ebb and flow of back in time to present day; sometimes, not knowing where the time has gone and, yet, other days wondering where it’s all going.
Way back in the 90’s, I became a Counting Crows fan (I also watched Felicity, Dawson’s Creek and wore Steven Madden slides, didn’t we all?). The song “A Long December” became a favorite of mine and stuck with me for some reason even years later. In fact, as I drove back and forth from the hospital to my parent’s house with my siblings in those final days, I thought of the lyrics to the song often…
“The smell of hospitals in winter and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls.”
Although my mom had been battling her disease for years, she was such an amazingly strong person. She rarely let on when she wasn’t feeling well or tired, and she certainly never complained. Although I always feared the worst in those seven years, she continuously proved doctors and statistics wrong, and, as my Dad liked to say, “she always surprised us,” bouncing back from a few setbacks along the way that always gave us the hope, and possibly false confidence, that we wouldn’t lose her. I guess looking back, I figured that if the time came when we were sure she was losing the battle, we would know with TV-style advance notice. We would be able to process the time-frame, gather as a family with her still alert and present and talk with her. I would have shared more stories and memories, thinking that she might have months or weeks left, giving us all that time to have peace and closure. However, she chose the ending to her story, and in her typical, no-nonsense fashion, she wrapped it up quickly. On a Thursday, her oncologist, based on some recent complications, confirmed that there really weren’t any options left, but that she certainly wasn’t going anywhere immediately. That was all she needed to hear, though, to know she had given it her all, and she had. That Saturday night she was taken to the hospital by ambulance, and late Sunday, the last of her kids had arrived from around the state and country. Grandchildren, close relatives and friends had come to say good bye and by Tuesday morning she was gone. All on her own time and not feeling like a burden to anyone- exactly like she had always wanted. Although I wish I had had more time before she slipped into a deep sleep that Saturday morning, I can’t imagine those last few days of disbelief, sadness, and the feeling of desperation being dragged out any further over painful weeks and months. In the end, her rapid decline was not only what she wanted for herself, but us as well. A blessing we all thought, myself included. But in late January…when the whirlwind of her services and the holidays passed…when I thought I had settled into my first wave of grief and began to adapt to it…when I saw that it was a blessing that she was no longer suffering…that we had her for 7 more years than anyone thought…that I needed to pull it together for my husband and children who also missed her and who didn’t need a disaster for a wife and mother…that was when the worst actually began.
“I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower, makes you talk a little lower about the things you could not show her”
If you know me, you know I’ll pretty much talk to anyone, anywhere. My brain spins faster than my mouth, so I talk fast and my stories are always long winded (brevity is not my specialty). My phone usually is dead, which means I don’t always see texts or call alerts after it’s charged, and I literally mean none of it in malice or intended rudeness. I am a little flaky in that way. I’ve been known to text people in my head, but have never actually sent it. I’ve written down the date/time for events on my calendar, but forget to actually RSVP to the host/hostess. That being said, I enjoy talking to people; helping people through difficulties, laughing, engaging. I like people! I don’t try to avoid them. But last winter, I shut down. I’m not sure I even realized how robotic I was. My life went from the present day of 2016 to literally trying to relive each day of 2015 when my mom was alive. Like I said earlier about the ebb and flow of the past to present day, the impending first anniversary of her death was not so much a day of sadness surrounding her actual death, but the end to a time when I could say “this time last year.” This time last year, when the boys had their first day of school, I would have called her and sent pictures. This time last year, she was out helping me hunt for comforters for the boys room and shared my excitement when we found them. This time last year, she was in Rhode Island with us. This time last year was her last Thanksgiving, her last holiday ever with us…it felt like she was just here, yet, suddenly, without the weeks of mental preparation, she was gone. I spent so much time trying to relive this last year that looking back feels like looking down a long dark tunnel.
We went on a family trip to Disney last May. It seems like ages ago and I don’t remember it as vividly as I should for it being only 11 months ago. It was the first time my boys had been. As a mother, it’s one of those trips you want ingrained in your memory. I somewhat remember the week over all: I remember their excitement, loving that we went with a group of friends, celebrating my birthday. But, it was also the first birthday of my life without hearing her voice, without her here. I also remember landing back in CT and the feeling of dread that washed over me when my initial thought was to call her and catch her up on the trip that she would normally be waiting to hear about, and realizing there was no call to make. She was gone and never coming back. That feeling happens a lot. Like when the boys had their March conferences last year. I walked out of their school with my husband and the realization that just that November, less than a month before she passed, she had called before we were barely out of the school parking lot to “see how her little men had done.” As the 8th of every month had crept up or sped by, the year of the anniversary was coming and my grief and utter despair consumed me in a way I cannot explain. I felt like time was running out. Time was running out to stay in the crux between her still being alive and feeling closer to her rather than away from her; feeling that I now would only have far off memories left in my heart and mind. Many of you reading this may be confused I’m sure, but let me explain it this way: last February when it was Groundhog’s Day, I was able to say, this time last year (and every year that I could remember), my mom would call first thing in the morning (imagine that as a late-sleeping college kid) and happily trill “Good morning! Did you see, that rooooodent did/didn’t see his shadow?” and give me the update on spring. Now, with the first year over, I’m further removed from that memory. This past February, now TWO years ago, was when I last got a call like that. Moments with her that once felt so present have officially transitioned into blurry memories that I need to now concentrate on to bring to life in my mind. The time moves like an ocean and it makes me feel like it separates us and the memories further and further apart like two rafts.
“And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last. I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself to hold on to these moments as they pass”
While so much of me didn’t want the first year after she passed to end, because I would be further removed from her, I know I was also missing out in my actual present day life. My youngest son had started Kindergarten the fall before she died. Sure, we can say it goes by so quick with each child, but knowing he was my last kindergartener, I had made mental notes to myself in September to make sure I really took it all in and appreciate the last Gingerbread Man Hunt, Thanksgiving Feast, Artists Tea, etc. Of those nine months of school, I was most present for the first three. I feel like his entire year was a blur, as it was for my then first and second grade sons as well. Thank goodness, I had such great co-room parents and my boys teachers were wonderful and patient as I often felt that I was THE spaciest, most forgetful parent. While outwardly to them, and others, I may have seemed fine and happy, albeit aloof, inwardly, my mind was constantly a million miles away and things felt like they were slipping through the cracks. It’s no one’s responsibility but mine to keep myself together and adjusted to the new normal that comes with losing someone so close to you. There should be no special treatment or allowances just because you have a great day and feel like you again, but the next day you just want to crawl back into bed and hide.
I was continuously amazed at the compassion and understanding that came both friends and neighbors, and even more so from the most unsuspecting people during this last year. People who see that, while maybe you have seemed ok on the outside, know that most days you feel broken and lost, trying to get your footing again on life, and they send a random kind word when you needed it most, or a card on Mother’s Day to let you know they were thinking of you when you had no idea you were even on their radar. That is immeasurable kindness. The friend, who despite moving a town over, drops a beautiful cardinal snow-globe in your mudroom for you to find one afternoon that first week in December knowing you need it; a gift that brings you such inexplicable joy in that dark time. How two of your best friends, one from high school and the other from college, team up to keep each other “in the loop” if they hear from you because they fear your silence. Boy, did they know me. The girls from this blog, who, on Mother’s Day, when my husband was away, arranged for their own husbands to deliver a gift and coffee throughout the morning and then invite me to join their dinner that night. The countless thoughtful gestures, meals and words of wisdom from so many people will stay with me forever.
It’s this kind of compassion that helps you move on a little easier and makes you want to pay it forward, because you don’t ever want anyone else who has lost someone to feel this way. Even though grief is a burden we can never take on for someone else no matter how much we want to, sometimes it’s simply being by their side on their journey and letting them know you are there if, or when they need to be carried. You can learn so much about yourself during grief: about the person you are, who you don’t want to be, and more so, who you want to strive to be after you pick up the pieces. While this has single-handedly been the most devastating event in my life thus far, I do realistically know that I WILL get through it. I didn’t realize that loss and grief can have the same traumatic effect on your body, down to a cellular level, as a car accident. Did you know that? I sure didn’t, but I’m getting better about not internalizing all of my thoughts and feelings. Rather, I am focusing on getting them out, working through it and letting people in a little more, which, as a “chatty” person, is something I never struggled with before I lost my mom.
My horrible dreams every.single.night are getting better. I’ve stopped having flashes of my mom in her hospital bed right after she passed, and, instead, I am slowly replacing them with images of her smiling, laughing her adorable little laugh, and dancing. That woman LOVED to dance. My siblings and I always looked to her for so much of the immeasurable guidance and knowledge that she had, but as the first year has ended and this second one has begun, I am able to look ahead and realize that she gifted us with all the tools we need to carry on in our lives without her, and that they will only grow stronger each passing year until we see her again