Two weeks ago my 87-year-old demented mother fell in her memory care unit and broke a hip for the second time in less than a year. Eight days later she died in a hospital under the care of Hospice, my brother at her side.
Until I sat down to write this, I was afraid I had lost my words, lost the need to write them, lost the ability to form them into meaning. But I haven’t. I’m still a writer. This remains. That’s a relief.
Oh, I’ve been writing. Lists. Notes. An obituary. Texts. Updates to family and friends. Daily journaling. But it hasn’t been creative writing. It hasn’t been this blog, or my fiction. These last two weeks have passed by, the first in a blur of pity and anguish, and the second in numb relief glazed with exhaustion, and I have not posted or published. I haven’t kept track of the days; they spill into one another, as the days and nights blended together while my mother lay dying and we waited.
For a time words have simply been inadequate to relieve the pressure of my feelings in any organized or coherent way. They flew away from me, leaving a series of kaleidoscopic impressions, sensual details so vivid they frightened me with their power.
While my mother lay dying I reread my childhood copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. Reading has also largely failed to sustain me during this time. I find myself unable to focus. I read a paragraph or two, and then realize I’ve been sitting staring into space, out the window or into the garden, not hearing, not seeing, not even thinking. Just sitting. But I needed a companion for the night watches, something comforting and familiar. Something innocent.
The fan in my window purred during those hours, blowing in cool night air and an occasional moth or mosquito. Every night, when I go to bed, I light a tea light in a candle lantern. When calls or texts reached me, I knew when I opened my eyes if it was before midnight or after, according to whether the candle still burned. Propped up on pillows, glasses on, my small bedside lamp alight, I spoke to Mom’s facility staff, emergency department doctors and nurses. I texted with my family. I read, the well-remembered illustrations making me smile as I communed with Rat, Mole, Badger, and the ridiculous Toad, finding respite for a few minutes before turning off the light and lying awake in the dark room, listening to the fan, feeling my heart beat, resting, breathing, waiting.
While my mother lay dying and after, I’ve stained wooden pallets. My partner and I are building a 3-bin compost system against the back yard fence. We set out sawhorses. I found an old brush, a rag, a stirring stick. We bought stain. I lay a pallet on the sawhorses, brush away dirt and debris, and paint every surface. The raw wood soaks in the oil-based stain, a rich brown color. The brush is more and more frazzled. I’m sloppier than I would be if painting a wall. The pallets are splintery. Some of the boards are split or loose. I bend over, the sun hot on the back of my neck and my bare arms. Mosquitos bite me. Stain drips between the boards as I brush their edges, dappling the sawhorses, falling onto the filthy old cream-colored jeans I’ve been wearing all summer in the garden, and onto my worn-out sneakers, used only for outdoor work now. As I maneuver between the boards, stain smears the skin of my hands and wrists. I kept the phone close, in a patch of shade.
This is the only sustained work I’ve been able to do. Now and then I wash a few dishes. I’ve done a couple loads of laundry. I go out into the garden, note the trimming, pruning, composting, mowing waiting to be done, and turn away. It all feels like too much. I don’t know where to start. It’s impossible to open the garden shed, get the tools, wheel out the wheelbarrow.
But the pallets. I can do that. It’s a simple task, direct. I don’t need to make any choices. Each side takes fifteen or twenty minutes. When I’ve finished a side, I wrap the brush in an old plastic bag, cover the can loosely, let the pallet dry an hour and a half in the sun. Then I turn it over and begin again. Two coats each side. One side after another.
The smell of stain. The prickly feeling of intense sun on my skin. I think about compost, recycling, breaking down life to sustain new life. I think of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I wonder if I’ll ever use the compost bins without thinking of Mom. I wonder who names the colors of stain and paint. I chose ‘Canyon Brown’ for this project. I vaguely hear birds, cars passing by. Small groups of women walk by in clumps, hospital employees on their lunch break, talking about families, gardens, school starting, hospital gossip. I should be at work, on that same campus, just a ten-minute walk away. I should be, but I’m not. I’m here, staining pallets, waiting for Mom to die and then on bereavement leave.
Am I bereaved? How would I know? I wonder why I don’t care enough to follow the thought. I let it drift away.
I decide I want to make bread. I don’t eat bread often, so rarely make it any more. But my rosemary is bushy and ready to be harvested, and someone brought fresh home-grown garlic into work to share before … before all this. So I make a sponge, stirring together milk, a little sugar, yeast, water. I chop fresh rosemary and garlic, very fine. I take flour out of the freezer and let it warm. The dough is heavy under my hands, sticky at first and gradually becoming supple and smooth. The earthy smells of garlic and rosemary vanquish the smell of stain in my nostrils. I turn the dough, kneading. The timer ticks off seconds and minutes. I clean the bowl, grease it, use a linen towel to cover it for rising. I put it in the oven for safe keeping, because the cats are likely to lie on it or step in it, or nibble at it if I leave it out. The bread, like the pallets, is a project in stages. I don’t have to focus on any one step for more than a few minutes. I move between the kitchen and the back yard with my phone, not thinking, not planning, just taking the next step, and the next. I can’t remember times, so I write them down. About 90 minutes for the stain to dry. An hour for the bread to rise. Another 90 minutes for the pallet to dry. Another hour for the shaped loaves to rise. Another 90 minutes. An hour for baking.
At the end of the day, I have two enormous round loaves of bread to cool, slice, and put in the freezer. This batch will last me for a year. I have finished another pallet. I leave it on the sawhorses to dry overnight. My stained hands smell like garlic.
I haven’t cried since the last night call, my brother telling me Mom was gone. Perhaps I cried all my tears before she went. I receive condolences with all the grace I can muster. People talk to me about God and heaven. They talk to me about Mom. They talk to me about their own experiences of death. I try to be gracious. I try to look like I’m listening, like I’m there. With my brother and sons, my partner, I can be real. The faces of my friends comfort me. They don’t need anything from me. They don’t ask for anything. I can see their concern, their love for me, their sorrow. They hug me, and smile. They talk to me about small things, the daily things I’ve lost track of – family, friends, outings, work. I pick up a friend’s daughter and feel almost normal, doing an ordinary thing, a manageable task I cannot fail.
I realize part of my feeling of unreality is rooted in a loss of identity. I catch sight of myself in the bathroom mirror and pause. I rarely look at myself in the mirror. This woman, who is she? She isn’t the disappointing daughter any more. She can’t be, if there’s no mother to disappoint. What else is she? Who else is she? I look into my own eyes and feel no shame, no guilt. Did Mom take them with her? How will I navigate my life without them on my shoulders, without the knowledge that Mom is alone, suffering, needing? For fifty years I was at her side, day and night, year after year, ineffectual, helpless to fix or heal her physical pain, her dysfunction. Feeling my failure, my powerlessness, knowing I more often made it worse than better as time went on, even though she clung closer and closer to me as she aged. She could not release me and I almost waited too long to release myself.
But the geographical distance I put between us brought no real release. She still suffered. She declined, grew confused. Her body aged and began to run down. She was just as lonely without me as she was with me, just as emotionally remote, just as relentlessly needy. She cut herself off from me, but I still carried her. Internally, I still orbited around her. I still agonized for her.
I still loved her. I always loved her. I accepted she could not find me lovable, but it made no difference. She was my mother, and I loved her. All I ever wanted was for her to be well, and happy, but I could not make it so, and in her eyes it was my responsibility to fill her need. Indeed, she told me long ago her physical pain started with her pregnancy with me. I accepted the blame, and was heartbroken, and have tried desperately to make up for it ever since.
Now Death has come to stop her suffering. Has mine stopped, too? I don’t know. I’m too numb to tell. But I feel different. I feel … released. I prayed for her release and freedom, not mine, but perhaps they were linked. Many times a day I think of her, hear her voice in my head, and I realize with a painful clench of my heart she’s gone. It’s over. I can’t humiliate her anymore because of what I wear, how my hair looks, what I do, who I sleep with, or, most of all, what I write. She’s moved beyond humiliation. I can’t fail her anymore. And that’s a soaring, joyful, unbelievable thought. I can’t fail her anymore.
I wonder if I’ll finally feel good enough, if I’ll do a good enough job, live a good enough life. Might I simply enjoy my small talents, my joyful work, my community, my garden? Might I immerse myself in the loveliness of life without the gnawing guilt of knowing I’m happy when she’s not, I’m companioned when she’s not, I’m relaxed and rested and peaceful when she’s not, I’m laughing when she’s not?
The last couple of times I spoke to Mom, I told her it was okay to rest now, she could let go, be at peace. We told her her loved ones and animals were well and happy, and she could relax.
I told her, and I meant it. Was I telling myself, too?
She could not release me, yet I am released. Did Death break the chains when he gathered her in? Or now, at last, have I released myself, now that she’s moved entirely out of my power and knowledge?
As I write this, it’s Wednesday afternoon. I have finished another pallet. I have written. I have sat in the sun, read a paragraph or two at a time of an old Edna Ferber novel, rested my eyes on the garden. The lily stems are turning dry and brown, as are the leaves. Sunflowers bloom. The sun is hot. The phone has been sitting on my kitchen table all morning, silent, as I go in and out. I have balanced my checking account, scheduled a private swim lesson in a home pool, ironed a tablecloth and three napkins. Tomorrow I go back to work.
A new page of my life has turned. I can’t read it yet. It’s enough to sit with it in my lap, letting my gaze wander over blue sky and afternoon clouds, the garden, our old cars, the worn wooden boards of the porch, the bruise on my left knee, the mosquito bites on my right arm, the smears of stain on my hands. It’s too bright in the sun to read this new page, too hot, too much effort. I’ll read it later.
I dare to be at peace.
Daughter’s Dream (July 2014)
I dreamt I carried my mother.
The car had slipped out of her control
with a blind will of its own,
and I thought
I knew she shouldn’t be driving.
We landed in water.
I swam to her and held her in my arms.
Then the water was gone.
I carried my mother,
but she left my embrace,
slipping free of her embattled flesh.
Irrevocably, I felt her go.
I was alone.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
Empty beds stood all around me
but the sheets were disordered and dank,
Smeared with shit.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
There was no clean place to lay her down.
I carried the vacant body of my mother,
seeking to slip into my own freedom,
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