Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Within My Cells (an essay about losing my mother)




Within My Cells

Nursing and holding my baby, nourishing her with food that comes from me, from my breasts, but also from my heart, I experience a bliss that I know I will miss. I remember how my infant son made a squeaky hiccup seemingly unique to him, and how my middle daughter reached up to scratch at a mole on my neck. The closeness I feel to my toddler girl now must pale next to the love and security she feels suckling, unaware of most of the world, oblivious of my observations while relaxing her sweet little body, closing her eyes, occasionally “tooting”, flexing her legs, and scratching at my breasts like a kitten kneading. Sometimes I am aware of my own body, how nursing also relaxes me, gives me waves of sleepiness, forcing me biologically to slow down. My breasts remind me of my mother's breasts; a sometimes embarrassingly voluptuous inheritance caused me ridicule as adolescent, but that I have grown to appreciate as they became useful. I am proud of how well they sustained my babies who thrived on the milk they created. At this time of year as Christmas approaches, I think of my many inheritances both helpful and faulted and how long it has been since I have heard my mother's voice. Thirteen years.

December 1999, Y2K, the turning of the century marked a shift in time and in my life in a way I did not expect. I expected the grid to fail; feared the consequences of what it would be like if society experienced a moment of standstill. If airplanes stopped in mid-air and crashed. If electricity no longer powered our appliances. I wanted to believe the crisis would not occur, but I was afraid that it might. I did not expect what really did happen, in my life in a very personal way. For me, the grid did fail. The cord between my mother and I in this life was cut and it happened shortly before the century turned.

I was twenty- six, living in Corvallis, Oregon, at the start of serious relationship,working as a substitute teacher, and thinking about going to graduate school. Michael and I flew to my hometown in New Hampshire for the holiday for the milestone rendezvous “meet-the-parents.” We all gathered for a homemade spaghetti dinner prepared by my mother, enjoyed by my extended family; my ninety-five year old grandfather, my aunt and uncle. I sat with my grandfather long after the meal had been consumed, knowing the importance of spending time with him, wondering if this would be the last time I would see him. We shared a “knowing” together. In his eye there was an unsaid softness, an appreciation in the moment like he knew he was near his “end.” I basked in his stories about meeting my grandmother, often tearing when he spoke of her, stories of his own boyhood, and parenthood. I sat with him thinking he would be the first one I would lose while my mother dutifully cooked and washed the dinner dishes alone and uncomplaining in the kitchen. I regret that I took her for granted. I missed out on the last stories she could have told me, if I had known how little time she had. My grandfather had three more years to his life yet, but my mother, unbeknownst to us, had but four more days.

My sweet smiling, soft and radiant, voluptuous mom, folds and handles, squinting through her mostly blind eyes, struggling through the limits of her body and her mind; branded “slow”. Born too small, pulled out by forceps, brain impaired by an undetected infection; disabilities and epilepsy. It was a huge accomplishment, taking care of a home, raising a child, and serving her community. She overcame so much; she was strong, determined, sometimes even controlling and traditional; yet, she was fiercely loving, the epitome of “the nurturer”. She cared for my father and I, with every ounce of her purpose and I do not think she ever took it for granted. Her vessel of ability may have been drastically smaller than many, but many do not fully use their vessels to their full potentials; many take their gifts for granted when they are in surplus and leave them discarded like used newspapers. She did not discard what she had. She used everything she was given and became more than that. If she had been born with a bounty of intelligence and ability, she may have taken her gifts for granted, but because of her deficit, she had an appreciation of perspective I do not often see, and I miss.

The nightmare began the morn of Christmas Eve. A waffle breakfast together, my parents and my boyfriend at my childhood dining table surrounded by memory. She sat at the table looking tired, face clouded, holding her arm. She disclosed that her arm ached and she needed to lie down. An hour later, she admitted that her heart had been paining her for a few days. She had been helping my grandfather move into his new home and she had thought the pain was from the achy muscles of packing boxes, but now it seemed it was more than that. With a rush of adrenaline, but in a fog of denial, we drove her to her clinic. She walked up to the counter herself as if nothing really serious was wrong to describe her symptoms as if she only had a cold.

They told us to bring her to the hospital.

In the hospital, running tests, lying in bed, under a sheet, she waited, and we supported her in a trance of dystopia and avoidance, unable to take in the possibility of a cruel reality. Why do I remember her fingernails? Jagged cropped to the quick, attached to puffy short fingers; fingers that touched me as a child, cooked food, wrote letters to me when I was at summer camps and at college. Fingers that changed my diapers. Fingers that are genetically related to my own. Fingers that are now in the ground, gone, out of reach, and three thousand miles away. Stolen so soon. Taken before she could join me in my wedding, be with me to welcome my children to this world, bask in the glory and pride of being a grandmother.

We thought it was angina. We thought we were catching a problem early on and that we would later be able to say how lucky it was that we were all together, and thank goodness that she was going to be okay. Heart attacks are when people double over dramatically in pain, not subtly complain of arm pain, right? In the hospital, it felt like it was under control, that she would be protected from danger. The seriousness did not seep in until it was too late. I did not want to believe she could die. It was not time. Parents do not die when they are only fifty-five.

I do not remember crying, but I am sure that I did. I remember my mother crying, but it did not seem like she cried from worry about herself. She cried that she had interrupted the special visit, she had tried to hard to prepare for. At one point, I hugged her, and she held me and whispered, “I am still here. I am still here.” The love and comfort she offered at this moment, fills me with a beautiful pain to this day. How can there be such beauty in such tragedy? Those words both haunt me and fill me with so much love.

That night, we went home without her, separated on Christmas Eve, while a turkey thawed in the refrigerator; the bird would end up being thrown away uncooked. Its life wasted; a regret, she would voice in the hospital as if she had let us down. She wanted us to still enjoy the holiday, she encouraged us to go one without her.

Christmas Eve, my father, Michael and I drove around the Keene neighborhoods, observing our Christmas tradition of looking at the Christmas lights. My hometown has something extra special I am proud of; neighborhoods coordinate together to set out paper bags and milk containers with candles inside lining up the streets on both sides. Street after street lit up by candle light. Beautiful especially when there is snow, elegant, and magical to experience. We drove slowly, with only the parking lights on. It is a tradition, we observed that year for the first time without her. I have not been back for Christmas since.

The dark in my home, without my mother was nightmarish. I had spent years away from her, but not so close to the proximity of real danger; a feeling of foreboding that has haunted me since, first in irrational worries of my apartment catching on fire, and later fears that my husband could be taken away, and then overwhelming anxieties of losing my own babies, even still. That night began that wave of fear in my life. My familiar childhood bed was no comfort to me, the excitement of bringing my boyfriend to visit, washed away. Nothing could soothe me with the reality that my mother rested 3 miles away in a hospital bed, not even new-boyfriend caresses.


The first nights after her death, were even worse, trying to sleep in my own bed with my mother no longer in the next room. I imagined her dead body in the living room lying on the floor like in a horror movie and it scared me. I did not expect that; to be so afraid.

Before I was seven, I did not think of my mother as fragile. After a day of raking leaves, tired out, we all sat down together watching television, eating popcorn and drinking watered down grape juice. My mother sat on the couch in front of me while I sat cross legged on the floor. I felt her legs on my back. I asked her a question, but there was silence. I looked back at her. Her face, eyes still open, was blank, and a giant bubble of grape juice escaped her lips. It was as if her soul had left her body. Scary to see my own mother in that way. My father explained it was a “fit”, and that she used to have them more often, but her pink and white striped pills usually controlled it. She had worked too hard that day. I hadn’t realized that my mother could become sick from working too hard. After that, I worried about her over-doing it.

She used to climb down the steep bank of our backyard to care for her favorite lilac bush and our vegetable garden. Because of her blindness, she could not legally drive, so she would walk across town to buy groceries. With a cart full of groceries, she would call a taxi to pick us up. She knew all the taxi drivers by name. One day, she twisted her ankle while hiking down our hill, and after that, it seemed she walked less and less. Usually, when we went on hikes, we would have to warn her of the roots, so she would not stumble or re-injure her ankle. Without as much exercise, she put on more weight and developed diabetes.

In the hospital bed, she teased her male nurse, like an old friend. Still playful, making it seem all was okay. We spent most of Christmas Day with her in the hospital. That evening, we ate dinner at a restaurant with an address as its name. 176 Maine, a favorite spot of my teenage years. Dinner was an effort at normalcy and consolation, but underlying each attempt at conversation, was worry, and hope that all would be okay.



December 26, I spent less time in the hospital, visiting friends, showing Michael my hometown. While I was away, there had been a moment of danger and they gave her some heart medicine to stabilize her. I did not want to believe she had been in danger. She was not going to die. She was too young to die, and I was too young to lose her. My other grandparents lived no shorter than 76 years. I rationed that she was in the hospital; safe. Sitting with her, was painful, scary and boring. Time passed tediously slow. My mother never demanded our visits, in fact, she encouraged us to spend time outside of the hospital. Some of her tears were spent in sadness in the dismal turn in our visit. She was afraid of ruining our vacation. In retrospect, however, I regret being away from her so much that day. I also regret leaving on the flight back home on December 27.

I asked her if I should stay, felt I should at least give her a chance to tell me she needed me. I had originally planned the trip so that I would be home before y2k. I was worried that if the grid did fail, I might be separated from my life in Oregon that held hope and future possibilities. . I did not want to be stuck in NH in a life that would not work for me as an adult. She told me what I wanted to hear; that she was going to be fine, and that I needed to fly back to go back to work. I wonder what I would have told my children in her place. I look back and see my own adolescent-like excuses, now turned into adult regrets of time lost. Her last day.



We said goodnight, the night before our trip back to Oregon. I hugged her once and noticed her eyes; my last opportunity to realize what was to happen. “She thinks this will be the last time she sees me, “ I thought. How many times do we have these random thoughts that pass and never materialize? Just in case, I went back to hug her once again, hoping I was wrong, telling her I loved her and that she would be okay, but I became the mom and told her to take better care of herself. I wish I had hugged her longer and held my judgment. I wish I had spent more time with her in the hospital. I wish I had had more time to talk to her, be with her, hug her hundreds of more times. The hardest part of grief for me was regret.

I remember little of the flight home, except that once I got home, she called to tell me the results of her stress test performed in Hanover that day. She needed to have a bypass, but that she was not worried, and assured me not to worry. Her last words to me were parentally protective and distanced, commanding me not to worry. I wished that had not been our last conversation.

The next morning, the worst of my fears were realized. The nightmare I had as a child of losing my mother, the ones I would awake from, to find she was still alive, the ones in which she would rock me back to security and I would be relieved that it had all been a dream. The dream of my mother participating in my adulthood, of grand mothering my children shattered that day. She could not take me back to a place where there was going to be a happy ending and a second chance at saying all I needed to say to her, or given more time to fix the list of regrets. The reckoning came before I was ready. Reality in my life shifted.

Still, asleep, on December 28, 7:30AM, the phone rang me awake. My roommate answered the phone, and urgently handed it to me. She somehow knew something was wrong already.

Time stopped. The grid failed before the New Millennium. “It’s the worst news…Mummy died” he said. Her heart ruptured. It was very fast. They could not revive her. There would be no more chances to talk to her and no more last hugs. This was a worst fear coming true. Regret and disbelief emanated from my heart out through my pores.

Then came an agony like none other I had ever felt; an unbelievable denial that something so bad could possibly happen. Sudden, tragical, and out of sequence. You are not supposed to lose your mother when she is only fifty-five. First, all I could do was wail for I do not know how long. At one point during this initial stage of grief, both my cats climbed onto my lap simultaneously, something, they would never ordinarily do, one of many gifts of the mystical that arise out of the ashes of grief. Then, when I could no longer bear the heartache, I went into action. I had to fly home immediately which required phone calls, and I had to find a flight and pack my bags. I had a funeral to plan. The motion of the pragmatics kept me from losing my mind.



Michael flew back with me. Perhaps I married him because of this simple fact. He supported me when I most needed to be supported. On the plane, I could not escape into the pragmatics. Seat belted in, and little to distract me; flashes of memory sent me into a trance of pain. Picturing camping trips of the past; I started to realize I would never go camping again with her; never again experience her busily preparing the meals, canning produce from our garden, humming, invading my privacy in the bathroom, into my personal life. I imagined future moments, mourned one at a time.


No more movies together. No more seeing her body shake as she teared up during the Waltons. I pictured myself as a child, resting in bed as she sat beside me reading to me every night, sometimes until I would fall asleep. Nights I would waken from a nightmare, she would rock me back to sleep. Nights that rocking did not help, she would let me sleep in my parents' bed. One night, from Oregon, after a hard day of substitute teaching, and suffering from a sinus infection I called her, asking her to comfort me by reading to me over the phone. I remember lonely tears escaping my adult self at the reach of her comfort even then. That was the last time, she would ever read to me. No more reading together. My own children would never experience her reading to them in her with her motherly voice. She would stumble over the words, which I only started to notice as an adolescent. It did not matter. She did not have to read well to inspire the interest in reading and writing.

She would never have proudly displayed a wallet filled with grandchildren’s pictures. Each thought, brought fresh loss as if my mind had to go through a list of all that would not happen in the future, so that I cold mourn it, before healing. I regretted for my father who had looked for love so long and finally found it at 36 years old and then to have that relationship cut short. My mother prided herself in their anniversaries, and was looking forward to reaching their 30th, coming up in 2 years. For hours on that plane, I had nothing else to think about, and for hours, I shook with each fresh wave of pain like a laboring into the next world.

I later had recurring nightmares that she had survived, but then suddenly had another heart attack, over and over, I relived her heart attacks. Other times, I dreamed of her whole, and pure, and unencumbered by her disabilities. She was free and smart and no longer held back.

Her funeral took place on December 31, 1999. We celebrated her life amongst family and friends who loved her in this life and there were many people she touched. She would have been so happy to feel the love and support at this event. She had always struggled with feelings of “worth” She suspected that her stoic, veteran, Harvard graduate, pilot- father, did not think she was of much value. There was no hope she would follow in his footsteps. I grew up hoping that we are much more than intelligence and status.

The political correctness would term her, “special” which sometimes seems insincere when some people say it out loud, but in truth she was truly special. Her life was not marked by what she could not do, but what she amazingly could do. She was an incredible mother, who made me feel that I was a miracle, that I had all the value in the world to her. I do not wish her disabilities, or her specialness away. Perhaps she would have not struggled so much to find her worth, her sight, her memory, her train of thought, but in her struggle she became who she was; fiercely loving and appreciative of all she had, not losing sight of her life's core devotions.

Transcending regret, I am also grateful. I am grateful that she at least met Michael, the father of her three grandchildren, and that she told me she liked him, blessing our relationship before it was too late. I am grateful I saw her shortly before she died even though I was unable to say the goodbye to her I needed. I am also grateful for her inheritances both physical and spiritual. Because of her, I love books and writing, and now whole-heartedly make a point to read to my children, snuggle with them whenever I can. She is the one who taught me to love, to be vulnerable, to be selfless at times, and to be strong-willed and also to relax. She taught me to cook. When I cook, I sometimes, feel I am with her, still. When I am sad, I sometimes, feel her rocking me to comfort, when my thoughts are dark and astray, I feel her setting me right and reminding me of all I have to be thankful for. Sometimes, I wonder if perhaps she is an angel that makes possible all that I am grateful for in present, that her spirit infuses everything that is good that comes from my body and my heart. If ever, I resented her advice, she now speaks wisdoms to me within my heart, and even if my children cannot hear her voice or experience her embrace, that perhaps she is inside of them as well, whispering to them, protecting them.

Her fingers are now returning to a more basic form of the earth, but her blood and heritage still live within my cells and the DNA of my own children. I sometimes see her in them and in myself, the hazel of my daughters' eyes, the strength of will. My own body, short, rounding like hers. The milk I give to my toddler girl now, sometimes feels like it comes from breasts so similar to hers. I carry pieces of her with me and within me.
She is achingly close in that way.

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