Because I am dealing with an enormous amount of grief, I try to look for simple things that become huge because my expectations are low. I suppose that’s one of the things the death of a parent changes about you. Generally, nothing can get any worse, so it takes very little to make things better. One of the things that always gets me is the train. Someone else is in charge.
I can just sit there and listen to music, or podcasts, or read my current favorite book (I don’t have a favorite book, just the next one, always hungry). It is comforting not to worry about pissing off other drivers, or other drivers running into me, or any number of things that could go wrong when I have control… or think I do.
There are also times I just stare out the window, writing in my head. I can’t do that while I’m driving because I get too distracted to think about what is happening around me. I think so hard I go deaf.
I think about Hannah, my niece, still in the hospital but out of PICU. I think about my mom and what she might have become since she’d just retired about six months before she died. I think about how much it hurts me to know she was only retired long enough to get bored, but not long enough to think about fixing it… not because she wasn’t creative enough to get a new life together. She took a couple of vacations and was then confined to her house with a broken foot. I suggested that when she got better, maybe she should think about yoga, or any number of classes just to get out of the house and see what she liked.
She did not get better.
The broken leg beget an embolism, which beget a full day of picking out a casket, a grave site, and trying like hell to hold it together. No one expected me to, I just did it. I am not okay with breaking down in public. It scares me to be that vulnerable. I used to be. Now I’m not. As I’ve gotten older, the anxiety outweighs the comfort of people seeing that I’m upset and responding. I don’t want you to respond. I want to be left alone. Right up until I don’t.
As painful as it was to divorce Dana before my mother died, I am somewhat glad she wasn’t there through the process. She was the first person I called, the only one I wanted in those first few moments. As time progressed and I became internally angry at my friends who still had mothers, I wouldn’t have wanted to be jealous and emotionally crispy with her, because it wasn’t a passing thing. It was constant. She would not have had a frame of reference for my pain, and I wouldn’t have had the words to explain it.
Though I later treasured these words because of how True™ they were, I even got irrationally angry at an e-mail that said, my mother is still alive, but her death will bring me to my knees. Over time, they became a mantra, because I wasn’t expected to have it together. It was supposed to hurt. But in the exact moment that I read it, I popped off and thought, well, lucky for me I’m dealing with it and not you. By the grace of God I did not say it out loud on my usual “think it, say it” plan. Time had a way of softening that first reaction, and those words run through my mind often, because she got it. She didn’t have to experience it firsthand to know how much I was hurt, and would continue to struggle my entire life. The fight uphill changes, but it does not leave, not ever.
If I am so lucky as to live another 30-40 years, even those birthdays will still be bittersweet. Even though having a birthday is a happy thing, the traditions that my mom started for me will not be there. Just because that much time will have passed does not mean I’ve forgotten anything.
There are moments I forget, though, because since my mom wasn’t a part of my daily life for most of my adulthood it is very easy for me to pick up the phone to call her. With the phone in my hand, the crippling realization will often bring me to my own knees. The jigsaw puzzle that is my mind is permanently missing a piece, like it was shoved under the couch three houses ago, but the box is still on the shelf. You can’t throw away a puzzle you’ve been working on that long even if there’s always going to be a hole in it.
In retrospect, I should have sold my car when my mother died, because I did not realize that I would not be a capable driver for a long time to come. Studies have shown that distracted driving is sometimes worse than having a few drinks. Although I couldn’t have blamed my accident on distracted driving that day, I often non-maliciously cut people off or had a near miss because I just didn’t see them…. and if I’d had a wreck with actual people, my mother’s death would have just been seen as an excuse if their parents were still alive, because they would not have known what a permanent daze it causes, and how you don’t even realize it at the time. I liken it to breaking a bone and being more likely to break another one because you’re off-kilter. You don’t realize your capacity for extra disaster, but it happens. There’s no way to avoid being clumsy on crutches.
I am thankful that I have been alone through this process, because extra disaster could have been emotional. I couldn’t hurt anyone because I wouldn’t interact…. or at least, not enough to move past small talk. I began hiding my grief, because I couldn’t stand That Look.™ If you’ve ever lost anyone close to you, you’ll know exactly what I mean. The moment the subject of your parent or parents’ death comes up, the air changes and awkward becomes onomatopoeia. People don’t know what to say, are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and without meaning to, you’ve sucked the life out of the conversation. Death is gravity’s rainbow, the verbal parabolic trajectory of a missile that launches without warning.
Me: My mom used to X.
Them: Oh, how is your mom? I haven’t seen her in ages.
Me: She died about a year ago.
And like that, the whistle with Doppler effect begins.
There’s just no way around it. You can’t just say she’s fine and move on for avoidance, because first of all, it’s a lie, and second of all, I don’t want to have to deal with why didn’t you tell me?
Because I wanted to keep having a normal conversation is not a valid answer. For me, the answer has been in avoiding all conversation. It doesn’t work for everyone. Some people are verbal processors, and I can’t say that I’m not…. but it’s a different kind of thing to process in writing without expecting or necessarily wanting a response. I only have to keep up my end of the conversation, and I’ve been good company so far.
Or at least, that’s what I tell myself as I see the train arriving.