The day my mother died, I hadn’t spoken to her in over two and a half months.
The reason is benign and indicative of our overall relationship. I felt overly criticized. She felt wronged. Both of our feelings were hurt. We were both far too stubborn of people to wave the white flag first.
Neither of us knew there wouldn’t be more time.
I was at her bedside and talked to her as she was slipping away, but by the time I’d gotten there she’d long moved past any point of showing signs she could communicate. Even so, I talked to her like she could hear me, although I’ve never been quite sure whether I hoped she could hear me, or whether she was mercifully unaware of everything going on around her.
Most days, I really, really hope she heard me apologize.
A year and a half later I was in that same room, staring down the same fate, only this time I was holding my dad’s hand. The only stroke of good “luck” in this situation was that we had both learned from what happened before and as soon as his illness was found, I moved in with him and our relationship flipped from Parent-Child to Caregiver-Patient, and then finally to Child (as parent) and Parent (as child).
It was not a role I fell into naturally, nor did I enter gracefully. I am not a natural caregiver. I am brash and loud and selfish and do poorly with interrupted sleep. I do not always give affection freely, and years of working in a hospital made me cold with medical facts.
But I tried.
And he and I stumbled and fought and cried together. We somehow managed to give each other space while becoming closer. As he struggled to find things that he had an appetite for there were days I spent driving all over town buying up anything I thought he might be interested in.
There was also the day my meat-and-potatoes loving father suggested I hide vegetables in his food and I snapped at him that I wasn’t going to treat him like a toddler, and if he knew he needed a vegetable he should eat one.
He was being ridiculous, and I was being cold. We were imperfect people doing our best and we both knew it.
I don’t quite know why I’m writing all this out now. The process of losing my parents and the grief that ensued is so complex. I’m fairly stoic with my emotions and never really had that “break down” moment after my dad died. Six months later when John McCain died I was inconsolable for days. I knew at the time I was likely sublimating my own repressed sadness for my dad into my grief for him. I’ve never had any real fondness for McCain. He isn’t even someone I politically agreed with, but I have never cried so much for another human beings death than I did for McCain.
Now I’m past the point where the grief is a thick cloud of smoke, choking me every time I try and fill my lungs and begin again. Now the grief is more like a tiny electrical buzz in the background. Mostly always there and almost always unnoticeable. But occasionally, with the prime conditions, that low buzzing deafens you for a brief moment, and you wonder if it will ever quieten or how you will ever be able to unhear it again.
But it does and you do.
Here is the part of the story where, if I were a better writer or a better person, I’d tell you the secret to overcoming grief. I’d have a magical elixir or a soothing mantra. I have neither. Some days I feel better and others I feel caught in the thick of it.
I’m finally able to write about it, so I’m assuming the worst is behind me.