I came unhinged last Sunday.
I came face to face with something I thought I understood—the same way I thought I understood how big a deal marriage was. I was incredibly wrong.
I thought I understood Cheryl Strayed when she talked about the tremendous grief she felt when her mother died. Or rather, I thought that I could understand how the loss was excruciating and how terrible it was to watch. I thought that the people who told her that her grief was too extreme were a little pushy and didn't recognize how people experience grief differently (and perhaps how they didn't love their mothers as much as she did). At the same time, there was a part of me that "tried on" her grief to see if I would react the way she did. Try heroin? Have an abortion? Fuck everything in sight? Leave the man with whom I was madly in love? Each thing she did was as alien to me as the moon. I found myself thinking, rather quietly, that perhaps her grief was odd and a little extreme.
But my mother has MS, which, among so many other things, affects the muscles’ ability to work. Ever since my mother’s diagnosis, our doctor has warned us that one good upper respiratory infection could kill her. The distress would be too great for her lungs to work against and would become paralyzed. In effect, she could suffocate to death and very quickly.
The day after New Year’s, my mother entered the hospital with Type A flu and atypical pneumonia. My father was also sick with the flu, so I became the person in charge as he recuperated at home. The day she was admitted, the ER was so slammed that I helped the nurse with the foley. It was my job to talk to the doctors, to the nurses, to call my sister and tell her that our doctor didn’t think she was going to make it, that a ventilator would probably be necessary. But in a turn of events I still don't understand, none of that happened. She didn't go to ICU, and I was able to leave after the nurse said that her oxygen levels were very good, but I was back the next day to sit beside her.
For the next 5 days, I was with her 12 hours a day, listening to her cough, pushing pillows under her behind to ease bedridden aches, folding blankets under her calves to keep her heels from being in constant contact with the bed. The more of these little things I did for her, the more I was reminded that she couldn’t do them for herself, would never again be able to do them for herself. And despite the nurse's assurance and an improvement I could see for myself, I was sure I was watching my mother die. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. Emotionally drained. And when 9 or 10 pm rolled around, I left usually in a slump to go home, to sleep, to do it all again tomorrow.
There was no relief to be had. Daddy was too sick to be here, and my siblings are too far away. When she did fine the first night, I told them not to come. I could handle it. She would be fine. We would be fine. I broke down a couple times on the phone with my sister, but mostly I held it together. I had to. There was no one else to do what I was doing. Until this, I had never understood how isolating hospitals are. How grateful you are when your friends show up with a bag of snacks or a sandwich and hot soup. How much you wish they would come again and bring you wine and hold vigil with you. How much you wish you weren’t fucking there yourself. This is a time when, added to the worry for your mother, you realize you didn't do what your friends needed you to when they were in similar devastating, terrifying situations. But that could be its own post, I suppose.
After several days, the doctor declared his amazement at my mother's improvement—with a warning that it could be and probably was artificial, thanks to the massive steroid and antibiotic intervention. But, she was released to the rehab hospital which was close to my father but not to me. It was too far away or felt too far away with the winter break over and me up to my ears in teaching 3 different novels and an additional prep for 3rd quarter. I couldn’t make the drive out every night, even though at the back of my mind was the doctor's words about how she almost died. My mother almost died. My mother almost died, and I was going to work, teaching, grading, like she hadn’t.
My husband assured me of course that she was not going to die and that I wasn't to think of it because I would think of it enough in 30 years when it did happen. But it burned at me. Hissed. It slithered around inside of me. My mother almost died.
Now, I have a relationship with my father which, for many reasons which are none of your business, is by turns uneasily contentious and perfectly sympatico, but suffice it to say that I love him deeply. And he sometimes cuts me to the bone without ever knowing it. I watch some destructive behavior patterns as they continue to happen and I feel a rage. I want to say horrible things like, if you're so sure you're going to die soon (and he thinks in no more than 5 years), why don't you go ahead and Death of a Salesman it so that we can get on with our lives. In the same breath, I don’t want that at all, could never imagine wanting it. I want my father. I want my father here with me with every fiber of my stupid, mixed-up being. But the fury sneaks up on me. In those moments where he hurts me and doesn’t know, he makes me crazy with his decisions that make life harder on me. With his wild inefficiencies that he doesn't acknowledge. With these habits that are going to kill him. But these are things you don't say at our house.
This past Sunday, I went home to do a deep clean so that when my mother finally came home, the house would be spic and span and her lungs would be as protected as I could make them. Griffin and I set about putting away the Christmas decorations while Daddy puttered in his workshop. The anger I’d been feeling started to well in me, and ripple. Why hadn’t he done any of this? Even the slightest little bit of it? And while we were at it, why didn't he ever help set it up? Why had he never helped set it up? I seethed. I became inarticulate as I carefully put away the Christmas village and the manger scene. I took a Xanax because the rage was building up. I could feel it in the back of my throat closing off my esophagus. Why was I here putting away their shit when he was off fooling around in the workshop? Why was I always here taking care of their shit so he could be off fooling around in the workshop? Here’s the problem, though. It's not actually a fair argument and I knew it and that made the anger so much worse.
When I visit, most every Sunday, the first thing he greets me with is a litany of things he has done so that I didn’t have to. In fact, every time we talk on the phone, I get the list of things he's accomplished that day. It's so irritating. I want to say, I don't freaking need to know that you loaded the dishwasher this morning! It’s taken me until now to realize that he’s not trying to make small talk, and this is the best he’s got. He's telling me he loaded the dishwasher because I always grit my teeth when I see him handwashing because why is he going to all that effort, all that time, when the dishes would be a lot cleaner if he'd just use the dishwasher. What I now realize is that in these sometimes mindless conversations, he’s trying to tell me what he’s done so that I won’t scold him for everything he hasn’t done. The floor that didn't get swept. The towels that didn't get folded. The clothes that didn't get put away. I’m ashamed to write that. I’m ashamed to acknowledge that I’ve become the kind of person who only sees the cup half empty. I’m ashamed that my daddy, with multiple spinal fusions and two hip replacements, feels like he has to defend himself to me, his daughter, his 100% healthy daughter whose own house is frequently a train wreck and who could do more if she weren't so busy. That he wants my approval for something, anything. When did I become that awful person? How do I fix it?
Once the breakables were safely ensconced in their packing, I began cleaning with a detailed fury I learned from my mother. She would have seen the danger signs as I used my finger and a rag to wipe dust from the individually routed edges of the bottom of the buffet and the china closet, as I closed the rag around the rungs of the dining room chairs. She would have known I was ready to blow when after Griffin mopped the hallway floor, I went to my hands and knees to get some marks my husband had missed.
That evening, my father came in and started working on dinner. Sensing all was not well, he offered me sugar. I tend to be evil when I get hungry and that, rather than hunger pains, is usually the indicator I need food. I repulsed his attempts at feeding me through clenched jaws, and with a wisdom earned from 40 years of marriage, he let me be.
Griffin, Daddy and I made it through dinner. I added a prodigious amount of rum to my Coke. Three times.
As we were cleaning up dinner, the dam broke. Dad was standing there when I started crying in a way that I haven't cried in years. It was a sobbing hack that came from the pit of somewhere I didn't know was in me. The fear came out. I poured it out. Questions I never knew I had poured out of me. How would I ever have a baby without my mother? Who would walk me through pregnancy? What would I do without my father? How could I raise my kids without their grandparents? I tried to say things that I had only half-realized I felt. I tried to tell him how I worried I was about him, about Mama. He put his arms around me and comforted me some. I managed to get it together and then Griffin and I left and started home, Griffin driving. I tried to text my sister to tell her how awful the day had been and the sobbing started all over again because what was wrong was more, even, than what I had said to my father.
Who would I be without my mother? How would I know who I was, without that tether to life? Who would love me like my father does? How could I go on without him? How can you live without your parents?
You have to understand that these are not questions I ever asked myself. You are who you are. I made me me. I'll always be Mena. But Mena never didn't have a mother or a father. With all their health problems, with all the crazy of the last 10 or so years, the thought my parents could die had occurred to me loads of time. That thought that my parents would die had occurred. But I’d never thought it would happen. I don’t know a way to explain that trite statement any better or more clearly than that. I had never stared their deaths in the face, never seen their weaknesses so clearly. Maybe they would die, but it wasn’t now. How could it be? I didn't even have babies yet. I wasn't ready. Parents’ dying before their kids is the natural progression. But as far as I was concerned that was never actually going to happen because my existence is fundamentally linked to theirs.
And so I came unhinged. The depth of Cheryl Strayed's grief didn't seem extreme to me at all. I could fully imagine going completely wild in the face of reality ceasing to be real. How can you know anything to be true when the reality is, your tie to life, the reason you exist in the first place is gone? How would I be able to sit at that dining room table across from my mother’s empty seat, day after day until the man sitting at my left hand was gone too? How could it be that a world exists in which my parents aren't immortal?
I’m still struggling with this. I have these moments where I am absolutely drowning in grief and anger, where I cannot breathe because my parents are going to die and that nothing I do—no amount of vacuuming or grocery shopping or dogwalking or floor mopping can make it not happen. I’ve been to more funerals in the past 3 years than I have in the past 15 combined. At each of them, I was struck by the loss, struck by how all those people were going to have to put on their pants every day. Brush their teeth. Decide what to make for a perfectly ordinary Tuesday night dinner while living with knowledge their loved one has died. Their dad or grandmother or friend were never going to walk through the door again.
I just can’t fathom it. I just can’t.