tw: alcoholism, medical descriptions, blood, death
“I don’t know how I stay alive. What I do know is that there is a light, far above us, that goes out when we die, and that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without any sun. It reminds me of everything I failed at, and I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of you.” ― Sarah Manguso, Siste Viator
It was June when I found out my mom was going to die but in hindsight, I had known it was coming. A year before, she had called me one day to let me know she had purchased a cremation package.
"So you know, you won't have to worry when the time comes," she said.
"Okay," I replied. This was very typical for my mom who was morbidly fatalistic.
"Don't worry about anything." She sounded a bit drunk on a Monday afternoon.
"Okay." I could feel my hackles rise at the sound of her slurring and I told her I had to go.
I think now about how I hugged her before my move to Toronto, her frame thinner than in the past, my arms winding around her waist and her face against my shoulder. She felt delicate, her ribs sticking out, her belly swollen, her face sunken; I didn't put it together. I couldn't do anything but look forward to the life I was trying to build somewhere else. By this point, I'd spent over a decade watching my mom drink herself into seizures, rehab, a DUI, fights, and collapsing in the street. There is a special shade of red your face turns when your neighbour comes to tell you your mom is lying on the street and you should go get her before a car runs her over.
I remember when my dad called to tell me she was really dying this time. She had been on a months long bender, drinking liters of vodka at a time; when she finally went to the hospital, my family found empty and full bottles of vodka in cupboards and Christmas ornament boxes and the deep freezer. My parents had been divorced close to 15 years by the time my mom finally died and my dad and stepmom were still the main contingent that took care of my mom aside from my grandma. My dad said he wasn't there when my mom finally collapsed in my grandma's kitchen, all at once hitting the floor as blood and bile gushed out of her rectum; it was the last time my mom would be conscious in her home. Her doctor later described her liver as looking like ground beef in CT scans. He and my stepmom cleaned the kitchen while my grandma sat vigil at my mom's hospital bed.
This happened in mid May and no one told me about it until mid June. My dad finally called me and laid it all out for me.
"Your mom's in the hospital," he said, sounding tired.
"Is she ok?" I probably sounded distracted; I'd had this call more times than I like to remember. "I thought it was weird I hadn't heard from her in a bit but work has been so busy."
"You need to come home, Anaïs."
"She's not going to make it."
I take him seriously most of the time but especially when it comes to things like this because my dad would never throw that kind of thing around. My mom overreacted, my grandma overreacted, but my dad was always calm and comforting when things were going wrong; if he was saying I needed to come home, I needed to come home.
He told me that my grandma hadn't wanted to worry me, that my mom in her increasingly rare moments of lucidity didn't want me to know what was happening, but that he knew there wasn't much time left and that I would want to say goodbye. I thought about my great-aunt in Miami with a weak heart; it had been almost two years since my grandpa, her brother, died, and no one had told her for fear she would not be able to take it. My mom had been sick in one way or another as long as I can remember, when I thought about it, but now it felt newly real. I cried on the phone the way I did as a little girl, utterly inconsolable, and I made plans to come home.
My father-in-law bought me a plane ticket to go home that weekend and someone who isn't even my friend anymore generously gave my husband a voucher to buy a ticket to Florida as well. I have little memory of the days leading up to my visit, just images of sleeping without dreaming and crying into my husband's neck. I got a blow dry before going home to Florida, suddenly very aware that this would be the last time I would see my mom. I wore leggings and a big shirt on the plane and tried to read On Death and Dying. The two girls in my row were spending two days in Fort Lauderdale and then going on a cruise and were very excited.
"Have you ever been to Fort Lauderdale?" One of them asked me.
"I grew up there, yeah." I told her some good things to check out while she was in town.
"Are you going for a vacation?"
I wasn't sure what to say and racked my brain for the right thing to say to the young woman I would have to sit next to for the next hour and a half.
"My mom's dying." I said it once I realized I couldn't fake it even for a few minutes.
She looked at me with a quiet horror in her eyes before nodding and turning back to her iPad.
I made it to Florida and my best friend picked me up at the airport and drove me to my grandma's house. We hugged for a bit and I changed into a nice dress and ate some lunch. I put on lipstick and checked my hair because my brain could only focus on this being the last time. I helped my grandma with her walker and I drove us in her car to the hospital. It was July; appropriately and as always, the heat made me want to die.
Hospice care is strange and expectant. I pressed my visitors sticker on the front of my dress and I rode the elevator up four floors to the very quiet wing. You can feel eyes on you as soon as you walk into hospice, full of both curiosity and recognition. Having spent every day at my mom's bedside, my grandma knew exactly which room to go to and I followed right after her. My heart was in my throat and even now I had no idea what was going to happen. I walked in with a deep breath.
My mom was in the bed but you could barely see her. She was even skinnier than she had been a year before and every part of her was gaunt besides her swollen abdomen. I had always been sturdier than my mom, with bigger and longer bones, and it was never more apparent. She was asleep and propped up, her mouth hanging open. My grandma took her hand and tried to wake her up; she was solidly asleep. I stood next to my grandma but also slightly behind her.
It's strange how people who die slowly end up looking the same. With my great-grandma and my aunt, I could also see the shift as their bodies began to steadily shut down. They took in less food, they slept so much more, they withered into what we would immediately recognize as corpses, except for their ever more shallow breaths. At first glance, I was afraid of my mom in that bed, in that state. This was not the woman who loved me to death and ruled my life in chaos and fear; it was a shell of a life, a slow march towards death. My grandma kept whispering to her that I was there and finally she opened her eyes.
The moments that followed seem hazy yet very clear in my memory. They are hours I treasure and hold in a place in my mind apart from the all of the pain that came from our relationship. I keep this time apart from the mental illness, the alcoholism, the emotional abuse. That's not to say that all is forgiven and that I am not still affected by these things; my weekly therapy appointment says otherwise. It just means that sometimes you get a gift and for me, it was space and time to say all the things we needed to say, to give the woman who brought me into this world the peace and courage to finally rest. What was said doesn't matter, what it did for both of us does: forgiveness for her and a release for me. She could barely talk when I arrived and by the time I left, she couldn't form words at all. I had come just in time.
I spent the next few days with my mom. I fed her, bathed her, held her hand, laid in her bed with her like when I was a little girl. My husband sat with me at her bedside. At one point, I left the room and he talked to my mom. He told her I was happy and that I had a good life. She was distraught and he worried he had done something to upset her but I know that she was both relieved and heartbroken; relieved that I was content and heartbroken that she wouldn't be there. I spent the long weekend like this, with her, crying when it came time for me to go back to Toronto. I usually have a much sharper memory than I do about this situation but I can only imagine that my brain is keeping it safe. I have far fewer memories with my mom that are this pure and I know that I want to keep it like that as long as possible.
She died around 6:30 in the morning about six weeks later. In the days leading up to her death, I bought a new tarot deck, pulling the death card in my first draw just hours before she passed. That morning, I woke up with a jolt and five seconds later, my phone began to ring. It was my grandma and I knew. I picked up and she told me and it was real. I hung up and told my husband. I wandered to the bathroom and threw up. I came back into our bedroom to talk to my husband only to feel the prayer beads on my wrist snap out of nowhere and scatter everywhere. I gasped and felt it: my mom was there.
That evening, I talked to my dad on the phone and learned that my mom hadn't died of a cirrhotic liver but of breast cancer. I was shocked. I did not understand.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I said.
"I didn't know until today," my dad replied. My grandma hadn't known either.
Apparently, my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer two years before. It clicked in my brain: this was when she relapsed and started drinking again, this was when she seemed to just give up in so many aspects of her life. We only found this out because when she was diagnosed, she told my stepmom and swore her to secrecy. She didn't want to alter my life, she didn't want me to put my life on hold for her. My stepmom told my dad in tears on the day my mom died and my mom's medical records confirmed it. I howled in tears on my living room floor while my husband rubbed my back.
Malignant neoplasm of the female breast. My mom had been dead for hours and had still found a way to surprise me and break my heart.
I don't know how to grieve someone who loved and hurt me in life and haunts me in death. I can feel her fingerprints all over my brain, the voice in my head reminding me that the person who gave you life can also destroy it again and again. Death lionizes the deceased and leaves the living lonely and guilty for the things said and unsaid, the peace that may never entirely come. I haven't been able to even talk about this until now as I try to learn how to hold all of it in my head: the love, the pain, the waste, the time lost. I am broken, I am free, I am wandering, I am searching. I have been witness to moments of purest love and I know it exists and is better and bigger than the sum of its parts. I have been ruled by fear but I am not afraid. I have stood with death and I know that there is life even there.