Three Years Gone and Still Teaching Me Lessons
It has been three years since everything changed. Since my moms died.
“Everything” might sound hyperbolic, but from my perspective it is pretty accurate. The first months after that phone call I can only remember as fragmented blur. Like a watercolor painting broken into puzzle pieces. There was paperwork and bureaucracy and an endless flow of tears. The shock threw me into a spiral of anxiety, hypochondria, and illness that took months to recognize as grief’s sinister work.
I was sitting at my desk, still elated from a week in Hawaii, editing a slideshow of the trip that we planned to show to my mother in a couple of days when she would come to LA to stay with us. She never got to see that slideshow; she died in her bed on Wednesday night while I cooked curry and watched the Lakers.
I thought she was healthy. She told me she was healthy. She was lying to protect me from the stress and anxiety that she know would overcome me if I knew the truth. The doctors were concerned, but she either didn’t care or she was in denial about her heart, her liver, her blood pressure, her addictions.
That phone call from a nurse at the Orange County hospital where EMS took her is deeply embossed into my brain. I’ve heard it a thousand thousand times in my head. Mostly in those first few weeks. Before I learned to push is down when it bubbled up; to lock up and only withdraw it when I want to hurt.
Julie drove to the hospital in Orange County while I stared out the window, struggling to accept and understand what it meant. The freeway is wet in my memories, but I think that is just the tears blurring reality. The first few weeks went by in a similar blur of tears.
Humans are remarkably adept at dealing with tragedy. It’s built into our DNA after thousands of years of loss in the face of nature’s indifference. I returned to work. A shell, but still contributing to the company.
Julie’s mom, Ilona, was ill. She had driven down for my mother’s memorial with Julie’s father, Chuck, and she was obviously distressed. I was too numb and exhausted to even notice. A few weeks later, after a surreal Thanksgiving that I have nearly no memory of, we got a phone call that she wasn’t doing well, but they didn’t know what was going on. She was going in for tests.
Maybe a week later Chuck emailed up with the news that Ilona had advanced liver cancer. We’d soon find out it had spread to the lungs and would be terminal.
More blur. More fragments of reality and nightmare. Travel and tears and anguished pleas to understand.
How is it possible that both of our mothers, young and vibrant and spirited, would pass within months of each other?
The death of a parent is a universal experience. The odds are we’ll all suffer it a few times in our lives, but even though it is inevitable, it cannot be prepared for. My mother was taken suddenly, without warning. About a year later a dear friend’s mother lost her years-long struggle with cancer. Both losses were staggering and incomprehensible. It changes you utterly. I feel different on a molecular level – as if all the atoms in my body blew-apart only to slowly re-coalesce into who I am today.
The staggering losses changed everything about my worldview. I felt as if my ego had been abraded away and left pink and weeping like a picked-at sunburn.
A professional mentor shared an observation about loss that I’ll carry for the rest of my time. He said losing someone close was like “the world losing some of its color”, that the absence was present in everything. Everywhere you looked. It could not be ignored or forgotten.
Sitting in a damn Panera restaurant trying not to sob into my soup he laid that gem on me, and its astuteness struck me dumb. While the color wouldn’t ever return, he assured me that, in time, I’d learn to see the absence fondly – the new muted shades of the world would remind me of good things and happy times.
Wounds heal, or we die.
I was given many more kind words and advice from friends and family who had also lost parents. My uncle warned me against emotions taking me “like a baseball bat to the chest” at inopportune and unexpected times. He told me that the pain fades with time, but that you will grow to miss the pain that had been so constant. A friend from college advised me that anger and frustration and guilt would all join the pain and sadness and to let the emotions wash over me like a wave. Experience each wave without struggling and they would all pass like some existential tide.
As I slowly healed and my days returned to routine, I felt as though I’d developed an allergy to the normalcy that I’d so longed for during my darkest points. I was sickened – literally made ill – by the banality of my existence. How could I squander the gift of life in an office and a car and lining other people’s pockets. I couldn’t continue on my that path. Everything was different and I refused to ignore that.
The eternally churning universe had taken my mother. Taken all of our future together. Taken the very color out of my world. But it has also given me a gift of perspective.
Looking back at that first year after her death, I can say that I didn’t handle it very well. It was harder that it ought to have been for me, but I feel no guilt or shame for my struggle with grief. I did what I could, and I survived.
I even feel like I’m thriving now.
At once I am really saddened that she isn’t around to see me achieve life-long goals and thankful that I was offered the perspective and opportunities that I needed to pursue those achievements to begin with. To say that I think about her every day wouldn’t be the whole truth. I carry her with me every day. I miss her every day. I etched a memento mori into my flesh as an indelible reminder to cherish the moments and the memories.
The experience of her loss informs all of my decisions and actions. I still get that baseball bat to the chest when I’m not expecting it, but instead of being staggered or floored by the blows I take them in stride. It still hurts, but I know that I can endure it.
As strange as it sounds, I almost savor those moments of crushing sadness. I know it will pass, and – in that moment – I feel more connected to the loss and the memories. No longer frightened of what the next phase of grief I’ll be burdened with, I’m curious to know what discoveries I’ll make, or wisdom I’ll gain, in the next three years.