I remember once as a kid someone fake-punched me in the nose. This older kid hauled off with his fist and pulled the punch just shy of ruining some great and prominent Italian cartilage in the making. Somehow I stood there without moving, but every nerve in the tip of my nose reacted in a way it had never done before, flaring up in a melee of electrical impulses, readying to deal with a rush of pain that never came, making my nose tingle and twitch.
"That's the closest you'll come to feeling what it's like to have your nose broken without having your nose broken," Older Kid said.
I was younger so I believed him, and for years I told people that I knew how it felt to have your nose broken. I was wrong, and recently I've learned a lot more about just how wrong I was. And this education didn't come in the form of a broken nose, it came in a phone call.
"You just don't get it until it happens to you."
This is the mantra of all who have suffered the tragedy of losing a loved one. When the father of one of my best friends passed away ten years ago I thought I got it. She was devastated. I couldn't figure out how to be devastated with her, but I did hurt terribly for her. I thought and thought and thought about the loss of a parent, and my thoughts pained, confused, and terrified me. I knew I didn't get it completely, but like my tingling nose, I thought I was close enough to say I got it. Nine days ago I learned I was not even on the same planet.
My mother's name was Wilhelmina. After she married my father in 1950, her name quickly became Mom to five of us, and eventually Grandma to another five. She cooked and cared for us every single day, because that's what mothers did in the 50's and 60's, and because she loved it. She was a beautiful teenager, and she danced a lot when she was young. She took up bowling and card games with friends. Unfortunately, she also took up smoking.
In September of 2000 she was 74 years young, still beautiful, and was diagnosed with metastatic lung carcinoma. While no one was looking, the cancer had begun in her lungs and had quickly spread to her adrenal glands, and we found out about it too late. Instantly our family began learning definitions to words we had never heard before: Metastasize – intransitive verb - to spread in the body from the site of the original tumor by means of tiny cells transported by the blood. That's the worst one. Once cancer travels, it often can't be stopped. She was in stage four of four stages of the disease, and there would be no cure. One day you're complaining about the weather and the next day you're dying.
If you have no experience with cancer whatsoever then you are truly in a state of bliss. It has so permeated recent generations that we've all either known someone who has succumbed to it or learned what it is like through movies, books and TV. It's a horrible, disgusting, insidious disease that slowly and inexorably eats you up from the inside out until your organs just can't function anymore. It is your own cells running amok on you, growing without their natural "stop" signals until they take over everything in their path. We know a little bit about how some cancers form, like in the case of my mother and her years of smoking, but there is much more mystery than knowledge, and there is nothing even close to a cure yet.
So often there is great pain for long periods of time while people fight the losing battle. And sometimes there is almost no time at all, as in the case of my 28 year-old cousin, Joseph, who was diagnosed with lymphoma the day after Thanksgiving and passed away before the end of that year. At his funeral I thought again about how I understood what it felt like to lose someone so close. That was six years and a lifetime of learning ago.
"It's time to come home," my sister said on the phone ten days ago.
I had been living in Los Angeles for five years while my mother and father remained in Virginia in the house where I and my brothers and sisters grew up. I had been home just two weeks earlier to be with my mother for the appointment with the oncologist where we suspected we would hear the worst news yet – that the treatments she had been receiving would no longer help her and it was now nothing more than a matter of time. We were right. It was surreal to hear those words - you're painfully alert and powerfully numb at the exact same time. Somehow we got through the news, got home, ate dinner and slept. Somehow my mother guided us through those moments without panic. She breathed deeply and led the way, and we followed.
A few days later I had to go back to LA to finish up some work so I could come right back, called home a few times every day, kept my bags packed and thought about the journey we'd taken for the past 18 months.
We had been so very, very lucky since my mother's diagnosis. We had been spared so many of the horrors of cancer treatment. She had fared very well and remained our mother in true form for the entire time. Happy, sad, positive, sometimes cranky. She lost the hair on her head but had no bad nausea. The wig looked fantastic and she loved to tell people how proud she was of the eyebrows she drew on every morning. Then her hair grew back and she seemed almost normal again. She went up and down, and we went up and down with her. She just...maintained, and with her leading the way, we somehow maintained too. We were all in love, terrified, and tensed up as if a freight train was headed right at us. And it was.
Mom died as I was boarding the plane for home. I got the call just before handing my ticket to the agent at the gate. And by the time I ended the call, my life had been changed forever. I was now in the category of those who Get It. It was nothing like I had ever imagined, and suddenly I knew that a broken nose felt nothing like a tingling one.
She really only had two bad days, was on the couch in the living room, was under very little medication, and just stopped breathing. My father was there, and so were my sister, her husband, and my mother's older sister. I had spoken with her on the phone just the night before and told her I would see her the very next evening. She was alert and pleasant and very calm. In her last conscious hours she told stories and made people laugh. Then she just went to sleep on the couch and never woke up.
We keep telling ourselves we couldn't have asked for anything more peaceful, more comforting. Somewhere inside we all know this is true, but we just don't buy that yet.
The funny thing about dying is that nothing else has that kind of power to obliterate everything else in your life in one instant. I now understand the hanging heads of those people who have just lost someone – they're staring at the ground where everything in their life has fallen and shattered into a billion little pieces. Saying "nothing else matters" is like saying "water is wet," or a punch in the nose hurts like hell. It's a no brainer.
Like everyone, I live in the post September 11 generation where the term "devastation" is tempered by a new reality. Just like that fake nose punch, "tragedy" was something that always came close but never quite happened to us in quite the way it did until that day when we lost thousands in mere minutes. In one morning tens of thousands of family members suddenly Got It and suffered a shocking loss that is beyond my comprehension, and my mother's 18 month slow and mild decline seems like a blessing by comparison.
It was nothing like losing someone to a drunk driver, or a mugging, or some other random act of horrific tragedy. Imagine the family of Kevin S., 8 years old, who was playing in his front yard in Virginia one spring morning in 2000 when a man with no connections to his family whatsoever hopped out of his car and stabbed the boy to death. Imagine. On second thought, forget it. It's impossible to imagine what that family went through. How were we so lucky?
But here's the rub – it defies that kind of intellectualization. When it happens, when you lose someone like Mom, however you lose her, it cuts right through any rationalization, any comparison, any desperate modesty or "but it's not as bad as…" It punches you in the gut and your brain has no comeback. It just plain sucks, and by hearing the news you have signed a contract to lie down and be trampled by large animals for a few days. Or a few weeks. No termination date is specified.
However, then come the hugs. The best thing about dying is the hugging. There are lots and lots of hugs in the days and weeks after your mother dies, and it's hard to find something wrong in a hug. The most potent hugs come from those who have also lost someone – those who were over there beyond the great divide with all of the others who Get It, until you were handed your express ticket to join them the instant you heard the news. Those hugs come with no dialogue - no well intentioned but heavy words that aim to comfort you but somehow hang over your head like a muffled musty cloud with all the other numbness that blankets you. Words that come from the heart of those who, blissfully, don't yet Get It. Words that are no match for the looks in the eyes of the others who know. Those silent hugs are the best.
They're not easy, though. Especially when they come from your brothers and sisters who were plunged into this strange and frightening new place the same moment that you were. Or worse yet, your father, who just lost his partner in the creation of you.
The worst thing about dying is the hole. The space that is suddenly and forever left open, that grows, shrinks, deepens and yawns, endlessly mutating as you move through the days of your new life. It is a journey of endless discovery, morphing perspectives, exhausted emotions and lots of falling into and climbing back out of the hole.
It's painful, yes. It's ugly and hard. It sucks. And yet, somehow, it's also... good.
The silver linings are plentiful. My family spent so much time together in the past ten days that we can't remember our lives apart anymore. Maybe that will change in time, but it feels like this closeness is going to define our futures.
And with tension comes release. Just hours after the funeral service, after all the guests left the house and the food that was generously prepared by friends was eaten, we sat around and quietly started talking. My Mother loved casinos and bingo and lotteries, so my brother brought down a lottery ticket for her but, like me, didn't arrive in time. So he placed the lottery ticket in the casket with her forever. "She always said if she ever won she was keeping every penny to herself," my sister said, and the laughter began. Laughter like warm socks from the drier on cold feet. Laughter that unwound the rubber bands inside each of us and let us collapse into a puddle of relief. We laughed for hours acknowledging and embracing the family that only my mother could have created. We laughed because we missed her and wanted her to know that we still could laugh. We laughed because, at that moment, nothing was more beautiful than seeing my father laugh.
Days later we were still together, still doing errands together, still cooking together, still sitting around the table and talking together, still ignoring the rest of our lives together. And still learning what this was all about, together. That education is only just beginning, and deep inside we all know that there will be no graduation. There is no eureka, no cure. I've heard it said that life after losing a loved one is constant adaptation. I think, eventually, I'll get that one too.
Yes, Mom's gone, but she's also out of pain. Yes, we miss her, but she's also right here in our hearts and memories and in our very cells. It's a game of ping pong between pain and relief, sorrow and happiness, confusion and resolve, and this game never ends.
And that's the key right there - the funniest thing about dying is that it's not final at all. My mother is here in the room with me as I type, telling me to stop obsessing and start cleaning the kitchen for crying out loud, and to get on with my life. I say to her that I'm nearing middle age, single, and how will I ever explain her to the next woman I bring into my life? She doesn't respond to that one but instead just vanishes, leaving that big, fat, gaping hole and I am punched in the gut one more time. Her serve.
Then I get up and start cleaning the kitchen, and I get on with my life. Because that's what we do. There's a giant pile of life out there waiting to be jumped in to, and the clock is ticking. Remember, I tell myself, you still don't know what it feels like to have your nose broken. There's a good one for the "To Do" list. I think I'll put it down at the bottom, right underneath "Get through a day without thinking about mom."
And that makes my nose feel pretty secure.
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