This week marks the second year anniversary of my mother’s death. Well actually she died on the 26th of April, but this was the week that we sat vigil over her hospice bed. I was struck by this fact the other day, and the fact that I seem to be at peace with this history. It’s funny really. This time last year, I was an emotional mess. I wasn’t sure whether it was because I was coming off the cancer diagnosis, or I was truly beginning my period of mourning. Probably the truth lies somewhere in the middle and is part and parcel of both of my realities of the time.
They actually say that it is the second year after a death that is the hardest. The first year, you are basically in shock and taking care of everything that needs to be done. Whether you are the executor of the estate, as I was for my mother, or simply an immediate family member trying to make sense of the unexpected, that first year after a death is at times like walking around in a bit of a fog.
It is not until after the fog has lifted, that you can sit down and take stock of what has really happened in your world. In all honesty it may have taken me a little bit longer, because I was side tracked by the cancer treatment. But then again, as I have written, the cancer center sent me for counseling because I simply didn’t seem worried about the diagnosis. There was so much going on in my world, that curable cancer was the least of my worries.
I know you can laugh at that concept, curable cancer. But with stage 1a breast cancer, that is what I call basically amazingly good luck. Yes, I know, it would have been luckier not to have had cancer, but come on, if you have to have cancer, it doesn’t really get a better diagnosis than the one I had, except maybe if you were at stage 0. And yes there is a stage 0.
In truth, this year was a revelation in so many ways. In fact, these moments came out of the blue for me. I would find myself sad beyond all imagining, without any reason. I would feel overwhelmed and out of sorts simply by getting up in the morning. I felt angry at my mother, and sad that I didn’t have her to talk to. I would argue with her about the littlest thing as if she were standing right beside me. I am not certain why we would argue, because we generally never did when she was alive. I figured I was angry at her for dying and leaving me.
I had another epiphany, one that would make the cancer center happy, too. I suddenly became very aware of my own mortality and very afraid of a cancer recurrence. Not that I am not taking care of myself, seeing my doctors, and getting all the medical check ups that I need to get. But I realized that “heck -I had cancer.” That my body now produces cancer, and that I am vulnerable.
I also realized that my autistic sons are not ready for me to leave them not just yet. Oh they are doing well. Both have internships. The oldest is working on a second masters degree and the younger one is only 2 classes away from receiving his masters degree. But they have a ways to go in the independence side of the street, and that is going to take a lot more work. Work that the hubby cannot do alone. Just as I tell him, that he isn’t going anywhere, because I can’t help the boys on my own either. I will admit it. I get very frightened actually. Frightened because the boys are not ready, and the hubby needs me, and in truth, I am simply not ready to go. Not yet.
So I think the confluence of events have made this a very hard year for me. The fear. The sadness. The aloneness at times. It is interesting how you have to mourn alone. That no matter how many people love you, you need to deal with loss on your own terms and in your own way and in your own time.
I also know that one day, I woke up and I didn’t feel this overarching ache in my heart anymore. Oh the sadness is there. But the pain is gone. I am not certain that sadness can ever go away really. When you remember the ones you loved, you remember the good times for certain. But I think in remembering the good times, you also realize simply what you have lost by your loved ones being gone.
The other day was a yartzheit at the end of Passover. Hubby and I lit our parents’ candles and I recognized the sadness in his eyes. And his parents have been gone for decades. It really isn’t always about length of time. Sometimes, it is simply about missing the other person.
Philosophers say that we need to accept death. That it is a natural part of life. And so it is. If you are born, one day you will die. But in between you fight like hell to make certain that you get every ounce of life out of your time on Earth, and you fight like hell to make certain that your children, and any one else you love gets every ounce of life out of their time on Earth. It is an interesting concept. This desire for life. Where does it come from, and why do we fight to hold on to it so strongly? So strongly in fact, that the idea of suicide is anathema in most societies.
Perhaps that is why we need such rituals around death. Because we consider life so precious. Fighting for life is ingrained within us. It is part and parcel of our DNA, and our genetic structure. And it is not just a human anachronism. The desire for life, is part of the essence of what it means to live on Earth. So to make sense of what we consider the downside of life, we need a ritual way to say good bye, and we need the right to mourn. We need the right to feel abject sadness in the death of those you love.
I also think it is a selfish thing in so many ways. We miss the person because of what we have lost. We miss the conversations. We miss the laughter. I know I miss the hugs. Sometimes I think what life would have been like if my mother had not died. She was on target to live with us and I think about how that would have been. I think about her going to the local gym and where she would find friends. I think how she would maybe volunteer her time and what she would have done to make herself happy. I also think about how she would have cooked the boys pancakes on demand (she had a special recipe). Because you know, grandchildren get what they want at any age. I miss …well I simply miss her.
But I see my parents every day on my vanity. I have pictures of them in their youth, when they were first married. When I was a small child. When they were older and at the boys’ bar mitzvahs. I have a picture of my mother helping me at the Queens World Expo, where I was a child model. I have the mezuzahs they had on their door, and their pictures of Jerusalem in my home. I have their Hamsa hanging by my door. And of course, we have their little Maltese, who is not so little, and has an opinion on almost everything apparently. I feel like she is the last living vestige of my parents. But then I look at my boys and see my parents in them too. I definitely see my parents in me when I look in the mirror.
What I have come to understand about death and mourning is that there may be several stages that psychologists like to point out, but I am not certain that we all go through them in the order modern science has dictated. We all deal with loss individually, and in our own way.
I know that I did the right thing by my mother when I chose hospice for her. I know I did the right thing when I told the nurses to give my father that extra injection of morphine to help him breath better, understanding that it would probably cause him to die sooner. I loved my parents very much. And at times in life, it is because of that love for another person that you have to make the hardest decisions in life you will ever be forced to make.
I also think I no longer feel this overwhelming ache when I think of my parents, because I have also finally forgiven myself for having made those decisions, too.