Armoured Up

Continued from Another Goodbye

“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”  ~ Kahil Gibran

It is difficult to describe the sensation, the emotions, of walking out of a hospital or facility with only a bag of personal effects. I’m not sure we are ever prepared to walk out of a building as a person so different than the one who walked in. I had done this twice now, first my husband and now my mother and while death is a part of life, how can we ever be ready to lose either? It doesn’t matter how old you are – we only ever get one mother and now mine was gone.

We all – including Abee – went back to the condo that I had rented for the week we were there. It was a surreal time for us as siblings too. The one thing that had bonded us at all through the debacle of my marital drama was mom. Now that she was gone, what would be the motivation for us to ever stay connected? I was hopeful that we could start over here – allow the bonds of family to be stronger than betrayal or deceit and reconnect. We sat together and cried when the feeling overcame us but mostly spoke about the woman that we all loved. We shared funny stories and discussed quirks that we admired. We eulogized her with our hearts that night in a way that would have had her blushing but feeling proud that her intent had been accomplished. There was no doubt that regardless of the differences we had as adults, this woman had five children who revered their mother passionately. I hoped to be so lucky.

The emotional roller coaster I rode while in San Diego was exhausting. There were times I took a break from being in the room to walk outside to enjoy the California sunshine. My instinct was to talk with Hubby because other than my siblings who were here with me, he was the next closest confidant – or had been. Because it was an ingrained habit, I called him to vent my sadness and heartache over the impending and eventual loss of mom. I must have talked to him two or three times a day just because it had been the pattern over that last fifteen years of my life. There was a strange sense of comfort in talking to him, perhaps the familiarity, perhaps the memories of a better time for us… I’m not sure exactly but my instinct dialed the phone and I felt better afterward so it kept happening.

The truly crazy part of this whole thing was that I wasn’t the only one… Abee apparently was doing the same thing. There were times that I would be talking to him and call waiting would beep in to let him know that she was also calling to talk. That week, it was somehow tolerable or perhaps it was that my brain couldn’t process more than one loss at a time, or that the idea of losing mom far exceeded the idea of losing Hubby. As I sit here and recall those moments of recognition that we were each using the same man for emotional support – in the same way – the absurdity of it is staggering to my brain, but that’s what we did. The three of us formed an interactive triangle that would have made the Kardashians raise their eyebrows.

Abee and our brother had early flights but the rest of us were on a red-eye and had the whole day to get through. We had a memorial lunch overlooking the Pacific in honor of mom and probably drank too many mimosa’s in her honor before we bought a dozen yellow roses (her favorite) to throw into the sea at the point in La Jolla. Just standing there, listening to the surf hit the rocks forged memories of mom onto our hearts as the ocean was one of her most identifying interests. She loved, loved the ocean. She was known to wrap herself in a blanket or two as to ward off a fifty-degree wind so she could sit on the Kitty Hawk dunes and read. It never mattered to her how cold or hot it was as long as there was an ocean breeze and she could hear the waves crashing against the sand. We stood there, three of her daughters in solidarity, celebrating not only the woman that birthed us but the woman that had championed for us more often than not, for most of our lives. Even in her faults, she was Mom and we were going to desperately miss her.

Concurrently with our experience, Grandad and mom’s own siblings were making funeral arrangements for Grandmom. The service was scheduled for the day we arrived back on the East Coast and there just wasn’t any way for us to arrive on the red-eye and then – in our own severe grief – make it to her service. The flight home was emotionally arduous as we considered the extent of our family’s losses. It was barely believable that within eight days of one another, they had both simply ceased to exist in live form. Upon landing, I picked up the car and drove us all home; dropping Emma off at mom’s house so she could be with her twin who had gotten back late – the night before. I walked into the house where my family was still sleeping and went into the basement bedroom where Hubby was bunking, took off all my clothes, and got into bed with him.

In that moment, the only thing I needed was comfort and in some undeniably disturbed way, he was the source of that solace. For just a while, the ugly distorted reality that existed in the space between us melted away and we came together one last time. Grief disrupts emotional reason. It didn’t last long however and after a brief nap, I returned to my senses. I unpacked my resistance and reaffirmed my destiny to personal dignity by talking with E. She offered to come rescue me from myself but I was pledging sanity and knew that my extended family was about to transition from one grief to another, which would be chaotic at best. It was better for her to reserve time and energy for when the bubble eventually broke and my reserve was again tested.

The armor I embraced was iron clad. I drove over to Mom’s house – now Abee’s – where people had begun to assemble and sat there deep in an easy chair with a blanket over my lap as I watched a parade of well-wishers and allies move in and out of the room. It was another one of those times, etched securely onto a memory plate, where pragmatism prevailed and reality emerged only superficially. No matter the intensity of emotions only months ago, it was shelved – set aside – with the most interesting intention – so that we could work together and plan what was to happen next.

Hubby came over once to bring our children and the amplitude of awkwardness was immeasurable. We all felt it – he felt it. He didn’t come back. I’m pretty sure that if he had, my brother would have lost his mind and so it was good that he had the kids to keep him busy. We planned a funeral, held in an old Victorian mansion (another love of hers) and made a photo video that brought most family members to immediate tears as they visualized many of the amazing memories they had shared. I was barely cognizant through her service as the grief drowned me but with the love of so many people who together – embodied her, we got through. As we always do.

When everyone had left and gone back to whence they came, I knew Abee would be alone. Of all of us, this was going to hit her the hardest. She was the only one of us without an immediate family to lift her up. I called – believing that we could start over – and invited her to the house or stated that I would go there to be with her.  “Thanks, ” she said, “I just need to be alone”.

I wasn’t yet understanding how self-destructive expectations can be.

Another Goodbye

Continued from No Such Thing as Perfect

“A daughter without her mother is a woman broken. It is a loss that turns to arthritis and settles deep into her bones. ”  ~ Kristin Hannah

My aunt was rather frantic about not being able to get ahold of mom but after explaining she was in Mexico, she agreed to call and talk with Abee who would know how to get through to mom. Not long after that first conversation, she called back to tell me that she had just learned that mom was in the hospital in Cabo. Wait, what?

Why hadn’t someone called? What was wrong? She gave me the phone number that Abee had given her and I proceeded to call myself. It took a few hours until the phone I was calling to get answered and the woman who said hello resembled an extremely weakened version of my mother.

It seems that she had come down with what she thought was the flu. She had believed that if she just rested, she would feel better and two weeks went by before she realized that she was in trouble. By then, she was so weak that she couldn’t take herself to the bathroom and her cousin insisted that she be taken to the hospital. Upon arriving, they realized that her blood disease had escalated, it had spontaneously transitioned into secondary acute leukemia. Mom explained that they wouldn’t let her fly but that her cousin was attempting to get a helicopter to transport her to the closest US city – San Diego. She was simultaneously attempting to cope with the grief from losing her mother who had been a guiding force in her life while feeling crappy and worrying about being in a foreign country. Sometimes, life sent the sourest lemons.

I discovered that Abee was communicating with the cousin in order to meet mom’s transport in California. Within a couple of days, they were both in San Diego and I was speaking directly with the doctor who was caring for mom. It wasn’t good. Her white blood count was in the hundreds of thousands and clogging her organs. He explained that this was a result of the radioactive treatments she had had after her diagnosis of Polycythemia Vera several decades ago; it had just been a matter of time.

I immediately began researching doctors who were experimenting with this problem and found one at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia who agreed to see her immediately if we could get her back to the East Coast. The West Coasts doctors explained that it would be challenging due to the condition of her lungs but that they were making every effort possible. We were waiting with bated breath.

A couple of more days went by and by then, my other two sisters were at my house, thinking that mom was going to be arriving in Philadelphia any day. After a couple more conversations with the physicians caring for her, it was obvious that her condition was far graver than we had hoped. We collectively decided that we would go to San Diego as well. We, three girls, booked flights out of Philly and our brother arranged to meet us there. It was rather hectic getting everything organized and choreographed for an immediate departure but we did it even though I have a distinct memory of arriving at the airport late, running through security by begging people to let us advance crying ‘our mother is dying, we have to make our flight’… two of us got to the gate in advance and made quite the scene as we waited for our other sister to get there; she has a physical impairment that made running impossible.

We made the flight.

So, there we were, all five of us at the hospital, camped outside of mom’s room, realizing that we hadn’t all been together in years now. In fact, I hadn’t talked to Abee in almost a dozen or more months and there were varying degrees of relational disturbance between each sibling combination. We put our personal differences aside and sat outside the room as the children of the woman within. An outsider would never have known how much dysfunction existed in-between us.

Mom was in pretty good spirits but the mere presence of every one of her children was suspect for a good outcome. She realized how sick she was and the doctors were not holding back at this point. Her goal was simply getting strong enough so that she could fly home and die there. She didn’t want to leave the world from the berth of a hospital room. We took turns staying with her, making sure to get at least some sleep every few hours. It was apparent after only a day that this was our time with her. Even though they were running her blood through a machine to separate out white blood cells, her body was making them faster than it would filter. As her body became overloaded, the kidneys couldn’t function properly and she settled into renal failure.

During one awake period when I alone, was sitting with her she beckoned me up on the bed. I scooted up along the side of her, resting my head in the crook of her arm just as I had done a gazillion times. It didn’t matter that I was a forty-something-year-old woman with children of my own. I was struggling to be courageous, to hold in the deluge of emotion that had been damned so haphazardly over the last ten days but I could not. Tears silently unloaded themselves across my cheeks and onto her shoulder as she said: “it looks like I’m not going to make it out of this one”.

“Oh mama”, I cried. Unleashing sorrow beyond comprehension.

This woman, in all her contradiction, was my post, the anchor, the nucleus of everything that I knew to be. She had left, come back, diverged, and suffered a devastating splintering of familial dreams over and over… she was also tired and sought relief. We chatted a bit, reminisced, and tried to laugh about things that were completely inconsequential and then she offered some final thoughts. “You are strong enough to live without Hubby” and paused, “Abee isn’t,” she said… “but if you want him, go get him”.

 

By morning, she was delirious as the organic poisons took over her body. She lost consciousness soon after and we moved her into a Hospice facility that sat high up on a hill so that the entire city of San Diego was visible. Her room overlooked – way in the distance – the Pacific Ocean and if she had been awake, she would have been completely satisfied with the view from her bed. For the second time since the turn of the century, we were navigating the experience of end of life care for a parent and we were crushed with the reality.  Just days ago, her own mother had left this earth as if mom needed an escort into the beyond. We would be mourning two of the family’s most treasured souls.

She slipped away before all the paperwork could be completed, before all of us settled into her space and we stood there – all five of us – not believing that this day had come, wanting it to be undone, wishing that life worked differently.

I was officially an orphan.