We all lose our parents, eventually. But I’ve discovered that the very ordinariness of it flies in the face of the actual experience. And describing that loss is almost as challenging as describing what happens to you in the first few weeks after your baby is born (well, except the words “give up on sleep” still relate).
It’s been just more than one year since the crisis that engulfed my family of origin began, and I’m flying through all the anniversaries right now: A year since my mom’s surgery for an unidentified tumor that would turn out to be invasive pancreatic cancer; a year since she came out of the hospital after 28 days unconscious in ICU caused by 3 emergency surgeries following the first one; a year since my father called me in a quiet panic: “Your mother won’t eat; she needs to eat to get well. I don’t know what to do. Can you come down?” And then, the unthinkable, my perfectly healthy father, working overtime to make my mother well by his own will (in complete denial about the remaining piece of the tumor inside her, inoperable), is overtaken by a freak infection that causes an abscess in his brain, which bursts as my younger brother is with him in the ER. He is instantly gone; alive, but gone.
A year ago I resigned from an absorbing and challenging job I really loved, working with a team I’d been with for six years (some of them for 10, from a previous position). As I stood before my team that sad day, I said, “I hope all of life’s hard decisions are as easy for you as this one has been for me.” I’d been in magazine publishing for 20 years, and that day I had the heavy feeling that I might never go back, that I was closing a door. (Or that a door was closing on me; I’m still not sure which.)
A year ago my son, terrified by the illness of both of my parents and by my sudden, protracted absences as I drove to Philadelphia to try to manage the chaos of my parents’ care, said to me, “Mommy? Why does life hurt so much? And not the kind of hurt where I need a band-aid, but the kind of hurt where I want to cry and cry?” He broke down at school, and said he wanted to die. My heart was breaking, but all I could do was hug and hold him, and panic and address his reactions with therapists and experts and prayer.
A year ago on Mother’s Day, at a time when we were now sure my father would never recover, I drove to Philadelphia and brought my mother flowers, which I put in a vase at the end of her bed, before crawling into bed with her to thank her for all she’d done and been for me, for my brothers, for our family. There was no brunch, no celebration, no cards. Just silence and breathing and waiting for the inevitable to happen, all around.
This weekend I got up on Mother’s Day—my son at his father’s house for the night—heavy with memory and got up and went to the park. I ran for a bit, then walked, then stopped and stood and thought about the potent mix of all that’s happened in a year. I waited for the fear to recede, for me to remember this was all in the past, but I felt shaken as if it were all new. When I got home, I plopped down on the bench outside my apartment building, next to my boyfriend who was reading the paper, and I cried, slow tears streaming down my face. Afterward, I felt cleansed, washed clean by the simple truth that the pain is the price to pay for the love, the foundation, the memories, the lessons, the years and years of having two people be my anchor, my occasional agony, my forever and constantly constant in a whirled world.
I can’t believe the pain is all so fresh. But in many ways I so feel I am just now starting to put everything behind me. I’ve always heard that it takes a year, and now I understand why. Every day of every month is like opening a jewel box: I lift up and take out these images and memories that seared my soul, hold them up to the sun and find their sparkle once again. Even the most beautiful brooch has a pin on it that can prick you, but that doesn’t keep us from bedecking ourselves in our finery and marching on.