Sunday, February 1, 2015
"Sorrows," Chapter 16, BUT...AT WHAT COST
Beth and Andrew were already settled in Atlanta, and Randy and Sue had been married for two months, when my mother died. Unfortunately, my completely empty nest, combined with the natural let-down after the wedding bustle, turned me into a workaholic. Amy, my new business partner (Alice had moved to Vermont), and I took on every job offered… leaving me little time for my parents. Mom had been too ill to make it to Rand’s wedding reception, but somehow I didn’t recognize how close the end was until she called and asked if I had forgotten about her. I had. I had gone two weeks without calling or having them out for dinner. Unheard of. And of all the dumb times to check out! That was the only time she ever laid a “guilt trip” on me… but boy, am I glad she did. She was dying.
Through sheer determination, Mom had lived five years longer than her surgeon had predicted after her third mitral valve replacement in 1981. The last three years (until February, 1991), however, were Hell for her. I am crying as I think of her struggle and try to write this, twenty-some years after the fact. Grief never goes away – especially for atheists who can’t see the Heavenly light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
I’ve always wished I were a believer for that reason. Belief in an after-life can mitigate the suffering and sense of loss in survivors if they can envision their loved ones in a better place.
That place doesn’t exist for me, so I am left with only the images of her heroic struggles. Alice spoke at Mom’s funeral and recounted some of them. Her favorite memory and mine was of my mother’s standing or often sitting in her hillside garden, raking with her long-handled miniature rake. That image tells it all. She never saw herself as helpless; she always found a way to accomplish her goal… despite the fact she could barely breathe and, due to her stroke, had only one hand that could grasp.
On Valentine’s Day, only days before she would enter the hospital for the last time, she cooked dinner for us. Dad must have helped (you can’t peel potatoes with one hand), but she made a full meal and entertained us with joy in her heart. She knew; I know she knew – and was doing her best to banish any guilty thoughts we might bear. That was Mom; she really understood human frailties and forgave them.
I was with her when she died after being comatose for two days. I talked to her almost the whole time because the nurses said she could still hear and that I should try to convince her that it was okay to let go. The woman visiting the patient in the next bed had to leave the room because she was crying as much as I was as she listened to my eulogy to my dying mother. I said everything I needed to say, and I hoped I said everything Mom wanted to hear. There was closure, but I still cry.
I still cry for Gram, too. She’s been dead for thirty-one years, but I laugh and cry at memories of her. I am so very grateful for having had both of them as mothers, and for having the chance to have had closure with each of these two strong, wonderful women. I wasn’t with Gram when she died; I had been with her over-night, but had gone home to change my clothes. When I returned, she was dead. At least I had talked to her and held her hand the whole day and night before. Mom and Dad were with her when she died.
“Closure,” I guess, is my term for alleviating regrets. I think there’s always guilt; you can always remember something you wish you had done differently or something you wish you hadn’t said or done, but most of those “if only I had” regrets will disappear if you have the chance to be there at the end. At least, that’s how it was for me anyway. It was a comfort for me to be there. Beth made it back North in time to say her good-byes, too.
As I get older and am more prone to facing my own mortality, I realize “closure” may not be as important as I thought. That is, it’s important to the survivors, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Assuaging one’s guilt (or heading it off at the pass) really isn’t a very noble reason to do anything. Wanting to be there for your loved one is a better reason. But, not to worry – old, dying people “get it.” Sometimes, for some people, some things are just too hard to do. And that’s okay.
Mom’s death brought a whirlwind of activity for me. I’ve seen this happen time and time again. It seems a loss compels some of us toward physical labor. Endorphins, I guess. All I know is: I accomplished more in the year after Mom died than I had accomplished in any other three years combined. I built stone walls, laid a stone path, installed a water garden, and planted a huge flower garden. I was up and out every morning at the crack of dawn hauling rocks and moving dirt… weather permitting, of course.
Amy was the one who got me hooked on gardening. She was (and is) great at garden, floral, and interior design. Ours was a great partnership. Though Amy and Alice have little in common, Amy and I found a very good business dynamic and friendship. Lucky me.
The tale I’m about to tell may be plunked in the middle of the wrong chapter, but while I’m on Amy, I’ve got to tell it. (I think I need a break from “Sorrows.”) This is funny only in retrospect, but try to picture it: I got an emergency call from my mother. “You’ve got to come in. Romeo (the neighbors’ dog) and Nipper (Dad’s huge mongrel) beat up Griz (Mom’s small Cock-a-poo), and Dad is having chest pains.”
I called Amy, my go-to person, and we sped to the rescue. Dad’s angina had disappeared once he took his pill, so nothing was critical when we arrived. However, the scene was one we will never forget. Mom, Dad, and Griz were all lined up on the couch, covered with mud and blood. “We’re okay; we’re okay,” Mom and Dad said in unison.
To which I replied, “What the hell happened?”
“Well, Romeo and Nipper attacked Griz, so we went out to separate them,” she said.
“You tried to separate them?” Mom weighed 85 pounds and had the strength of a five-year-old. “Are you crazy?”
“Dad started having chest pains, so I had to help. Then I fell down in the middle of the dog fight and Dad had to help me, and, well, that’s what happened.” I can picture it as if I’d been there: three snapping, growling dogs and my parents, ineffectually rolling around on the ground in the mud with fur and blood flying. Can’t you see it?
It turned out most of the blood that was on them belonged to Griz, but Mom’s arms were still bleeding from minor bites and scratches (she was on blood thinners, so it took awhile for clots to form). Dad had a few nips and scratches too, but nothing serious. Poor Griz needed a vet; his ear was half gone. Amy took Griz, and I stayed behind to clean up my parents. Amy and I were laughing and shaking our heads all the way home. All’s well that ends well.
I needed that literary break, but now back to Dad’s struggles with grief and loneliness. If weather didn’t permit my gardening pursuits, I wrote essays or went to see Dad. He was struggling, big time. I notice the word “struggle” has appeared, yet again. Ordinarily, I’d be checking the thesaurus for a synonym, but not this time. Life is often a struggle –and there is no better word to describe it. His anxieties about being alone forced him back to the bottle again. Grief was but a part of the cause.
I think there is usually a profound sense of relief when a long-sick person dies. I know I felt it. It was as if a yoke was lifted from my shoulders. We had spent years fearing the inevitable. At the worst times, it was a very heavy yoke; sometimes only a faint dark shadow, but it was damned near always lurking. When the worst has happened, it’s gone, and recognizing the relief for what it is can overcome you with guilt. Yes, life is hard.
Dad had an additional cross to bear, well, three added crosses actually. In a matter of days, he went from being a full-time caregiver to a man with no purpose. One of my favorite memories of Mom’s and Dad’s relationship was the vision of his checking her before they left the house. “Okay, Oma, let’s have a look at you,” he’d say. She’d turn around with a grateful smile, and he’d grab her pants by the waist band, lift her up, and shake her into them. (She could never get the left side up all the way.) They’d laugh and out the door they’d go. From that kind of attentiveness to nothing is not an easy transition.
We also lost Nana, Dad’s mother, the same week we lost Mom. I don’t even remember who died first; that’s how overwhelming that week was for us – but especially Dad. Aunt Bernice was going through the same “what do I do, now” transitions Dad was experiencing. There weren’t enough tears to go around to all those who needed tears shed for them.
Dad also, I would later learn, had a very real fear of being alone. He alluded to his fear the night of Mom’s funeral, “I can’t be alone, Judy. I need to find another woman right away.” He was drunk and crying and I didn’t think too much of it at the time. Only years later when I myself was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder did I truly understand what he was feeling.
Evelyn moved in with him inside of six months. Randy, who was very close with his Oma, was more than a little annoyed, but got over it when he saw Pop was happy. I did too. Evelyn was a good ol’ gal and they were googly-eyed in love. It’s never too late!
I have another story about my dad. As I remember Mom on the hill with her child’s rake, I often think of Dad as he bandaged Mom’s Uncle Harold’s leg ulcers. I never saw that in person, but the scene is easy to imagine. My father had no real connection with Harold, but when he found out through the family grapevine that Harold needed help, he took it upon himself to step in. This was after Mom had died and Evelyn was living with him, yet he went to dress Harold’s wounds every day for weeks. I don’t know many people who would have done that, but that was Pop; he cared.
He could embarrass the hell out of you when he partied hearty, but he was one of the more caring people you could ever meet. We want our heroes to be pure heroes and our villains to be pure villains, but that is seldom, if ever, the case in real life. Sometimes we forget that.
We are serializing on my blog Judy Axtell's new book, BUT...AT WHAT COST: A Skeptic's Memoir, now available through its publisher, Outskirts Press, as well as through amazon.com and other on-line publishers.
I am proud to have coached Judy and edited her story of her transformation from liberal to conservative.