Taking the Edge Off
- IT’S BEEN A LOVELY DAY (EVEN IF I DID WANT TO KILL MYSELF)
“I find that being in a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.” —Anne Enright, The Gathering
After a pleasant Thanksgiving with Mom and my siblings where he won all the after-dinner games, my father suffered a massive stroke. He’s currently on life support in the county hospital. Mom was also admitted, so they are on the same floor!
Dad is not expected to live, and Mom is referred to hospice, meaning the final months of her life.
That’s all I know at the moment, receiving hourly reports here in Manhattan, but please send loving thoughts as we all make this transition.
My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.
The upbeat, even cheerful tone reveals the depth of my denial, up to and including the exclamation point. And here’s the weirdest part, and if anyone can explain it by logical means, please let me know. My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.
From early childhood, I suffered from depression. At various times, I believed that if I killed myself, I assumed power over pain and death. I tucked suicide into my back pocket, an option and sometimes a threat, to extract as needed. You can’t kill me because I’ll kill myself first.
“Who wanted you dead?” When I finally succumbed to asking for help, that’s what the grief counselor asked.
“Oh!” I said cheerfully. “Everyone!”
- IT WAS THIS
When your parents die, your molecular structure breaks down and is re-arranged. You literally become a different person. –Mark
The morning after my father died, I woke with energy and enthusiasm. I loved my first espresso in the bright Manhattan morning. I was ready to run out onto Broadway and dance around. Then my mood shifted. Mark, my partner of ten years, was distracted. He had a show coming up. When he is concentrating on his work, he hardly acknowledges me. This makes me crazy. Or it used to. Before I learned how to cry, if anyone ignored me, I felt invisible. Being invisible was akin to being dead.
I thought I can’t stay one more second in this stupid relationship.
“Are you ready to be a pioneer in the middle of nowhere?” I asked for the third time that morning. When Mark failed to respond, I said, “You don’t care about my feelings.”
“I’m tired of your feelings,” Mark said. He danced around in a fierce circle and pounded the air with his fists. “Why would I want to live in the middle of nowhere when I can be in Manhattan?”
I didn’t bother to respond. I could not wait until he left the apartment, and then I could not wait until he returned. As I followed him around the apartment, I felt like one of our dogs, dependent on his attention. That day, across the nation in sunny California, a famous writer hung himself, and I totally got it. At least I thought I did. I was more arrogant then. I thought Now he’s captured everyone’s attention forever. He’s saying: ‘Here is my pain and here its breadth and height and depth, its weight. This is how grief smells.’
- HOW TO CRY
You only become yourself when both your parents are dead. -May Sarton
When Mark and I finally returned to the sea and sky of the Pacific Northwest, my father no longer in it, I was unprepared for the blow. Nearby, in hospice, my mother’s body died more slowly. For the months it took her to die, my universe shrank to the length of trails near our cabin and my mother’s bedside, and, when the only other choice on offer was drugs, the support group.
“Want something to take the edge off?” Sarah, the physician’s assistant, turns her face toward me, and for a moment, I’m bathed in her gaze. I exist.
“Yeah, a lethal injection,” I say. “Of course I want something to take the edge off.” I think I’m hilarious and ironic, but Sarah returns to the laptop she usually taps instead of looking at me. Suicidal ideation. I could be in big trouble for letting that slip out.
“If you refuse medication,” Sarah says, “the hospital offers a bereavement support group.” Crying lessons, I called the sessions I began to attend every week. As my mother shriveled, I hunched into a brown metal folding chair and shared secrets with strangers with whom I had nothing in common. Except, of course, death. We had death in common. That thing, that word you weren’t supposed to say. Just as I wanted all of Mark’s attention devoted to me, in the group I didn’t want to listen to other people’s sorrows. I wanted to writhe on the floor, my fellow mourners tossing tissues at me, or at least kicking the tissue box in my direction.
“Do not hand a tissue to someone,” the counselor said. “That’s an attempt to stop the crying.”
“Isn’t that why we’re here?” I asked. “To make the pain stop?”
Everyone looked at me and smiled. The other group members were always so nicely dressed, and smart, and dignified, yet I sensed that if I rolled around on the floor and sobbed, they’d be fine with it. And very quickly, despite myself, I did become interested in their lives. For one hour every week, I didn’t have to make tidy. I didn’t have to pretend my father passed. I could say my mother is dying. For one hour, I could rage at the dead and dying, or, more likely, at myself, or I could feel nothing at all. At times, I could even laugh.
- THE SCENIC ROUTE
Addiction to family impacts us on a cellular level, and because of this, escaping is like withdrawing from heroin. –Grief counselor
In Central Park, on my last day before returning West, the witch hazel started to bloom. When I arrived at my cottage in the West, the witch hazel my mother gave me burst with golden stars. I could hear her voice that winter afternoon in Port Townsend when she saw pots of witch hazel for sale on the sidewalk: “Would you like that for your birthday?” And without waiting for my response, she leaned over and swept the heavy pot onto her hip.
Grief became a screen that separated me from those I loved. Although I craved comfort, I forgot the rules of engagement. On some days, I couldn’t even remember how to talk. But worst of all was the exhaustion. My limbs felt heavy. I dragged myself from bed to espresso pot to shower, and then onto the forest paths to walk for miles, so tired I wanted to lie among the mosses and sleep. Several times, tended by my golden retriever and collie, I did. At night, if I finally managed to sleep, I jolted back awake, sometimes filled with terror, the child who has lost its parents and become prey.
Mark stuck it out. He wrapped himself around me like a warm and fragrant blanket, and his touch allowed me to relax in what felt like my own final days.
When we visited my mother, Mark always seemed to know how to be, perhaps because he tended his own mother as she died. He touched her and talked, or just sat quietly with a calm I lacked. My mother had no idea who I was, and without her recognition, it was as if I lacked a self. I dreaded visiting, and then felt guilty for my dread. Once, when ten days passed between visits, the hospice owner, Rosemary, said, “Long time no see,” and I obsessed about it for weeks.
The hospice consisted of two private rooms in the sea-facing home of a couple who grew organic fruits and vegetables. Chickens and dogs rambled around the property. Rosemary prepared meals from scratch and allowed my mother to eat or not eat as she chose. “She’ll eat when she feels like it,” Rosemary said, but I wanted to spoon feed my mother as if she were a baby I could somehow keep alive.
Sometimes, when I returned home, I imagined kayaking toward the horizon, and how it might feel to slide, gently, into the sea. Before my mother was moved into Rosemary’s house, she often kayaked alone, her arms whirling and her body almost invisible in the shallow seat.
“Should you be out there without a life preserver?” I called from the cliffs above the bay.
She shook her head. You really don’t get it, her look said.
- THE GRIEF-CAVE
In essence, a testimony is always autobiographical: it tells, in the first person, the shareable and unsharable secret of what happened to me, to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense, and feel. -Jacques Derrida
On that December morning in Manhattan, after my father’s sudden stroke, when I felt almost merry, there must have been some kind of shock to my immune system. Within weeks, I was struck by one cold and flu after another. Then came kidney stones, two or three bouts with trips to the emergency room. A tooth abscessed, requiring multiple surgeries and a gum graft, which then failed.
Being sick served a purpose. I could burrow into my grief-cave. In our Washington Heights sublet, I hung double layers of dark curtains over the windows, and when that wasn’t sufficient, I bought a silk eye cover. I inserted two layers of ear plugs. I had tumbled over some kind of edge, and my internal structure collapsed. I yearned for that merry day when the patriarch died, and I was, at last, free. Now I wanted to take the scenic route, as my mother always called it, and arrive someplace else.
“Is this normal recovery from a bone graft?” I asked the surgeon when the graft failed.
“No,” he said.
After a month in my isolation chamber, I started the walking cure. On my first day out, an airplane crash landed in the Hudson beside me. When everyone survived, I counted that as hope for me, too. I walked Manhattan for miles, up and down, back and forth, and around the length and width of Central Park. I didn’t listen to music or talk on my phone or look at people. I didn’t really even think.
One night while heading home at night, north on Broadway near Columbia University, I passed a brightly lit café. As I glanced inside, a young woman froze in place, swayed slightly, and then collapsed. I looked around for someone to help, but a policeman arrived almost instantly, and then another stood in the street to flag down the ambulance wailing its way through traffic.
I ran through the dark to our sublet. Once inside, I leaned against the wall, started crying, and could not stop. I replayed the image of the young woman’s collapse, an endless reel of a horror film. My heart pounded.
“What happened?” Mark asked.
“I wish that ambulance was for me,” I said.
Gradually, and then suddenly, like electric shock, a memory appeared as stark as that crashing plane in the Hudson. During my first semester at college, I held three jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet. I took on another, as an artist’s model, and was assaulted. The following morning, I showed up for one of my other jobs: serving pancakes and eggs to my peers. As I stood behind the food cart dishing out plates of food, I fainted.
“Get her out of here,” someone said. The food service inspectors were due at any minute, and when I awoke, I was back in my dorm room pounding my head against the wall.
- COMFORT MEASURES
Social contact constantly rearranges our DNA. -Anna Fels
After my mother could no longer drive, my parents were locked into a six-mile radius around their home. “You need to write your wishes,” I told them, “what you want after your death.” My parents sat in their usual places at the maple table we’d had since I was a kid, their one splurge covered with multiple layers of plastic, so that a lifetime later, the surface remained immaculate.
Obediently, my parents leaned over the bright green Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Paradigm or POLST. They wrote rapidly, and without consulting each other. They knew exactly what they wanted and what they didn’t want. As if completing an exam, they handed the forms to me.
What about afterwards, I asked. Did they want a funeral? Cremation? What did they want then? They needed to write down their wishes about that, too. They glanced at each other and frowned.
“I want to donate my body to research,” my mother said.
“And then what?” I asked. “Do you want to be buried or cremated?”
“Buried,” my mother said. But when I asked her where, she had no idea.
“I don’t need a grave,” my father said. “Just scatter my ashes on the bay.”
“No scattering,” my mother said. “You’ll be beside me.” When my father shook his head, she looked him straight in the eye. “You’ll see,” she said, in a humorous mock-stern tone she often used with him.
I asked around our little village and learned that my parents qualified for a site in the historical cemetery. I contacted someone on the cemetery commission, an elected office, and secured one of the last available sites. My parents seemed disinterested in my efforts, but one afternoon, my mother asked me to drive her there. Just six miles from their cabin, the cemetery overlooks the bay, and the Olympic Mountains rise directly behind. The plot I’d chosen was beside that of the Native American founder of our village.
“You can have a line of poetry if you want,” I said, “on a stone.” She shook her head. Once again, I wasn’t getting it.
“Daddy,” she said.
Then I understood. She meant the grave was for him. That he would die first. And she was, of course, right.
- WAKE TO SLEEP
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. / I learn by going where I have to go. -Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”
I’d been frightened about my mother’s physical death, but with the guidance of the hospice nurse, who’d known my parents for decades, the active dying, as it’s called, was gentle. That first night, two of my sisters and I sang every song we knew, including those she taught us when we were small. The next night, as my sister held our mother in her arms, I read from a book my mother gave me when I was in fifth grade, Words for the Wind. For the thirty minutes or so that it took me to read “Meditations of an Old Woman,” a poem I’d set to music in my teens, my mother stopped her intense dying breath, opened her eyes, and fixed her gaze on mine the way a child does as she’s being read to sleep.
After my mother’s burial, my father’s ashes tucked into her coffin, I felt flattened. Every day, I roamed the trails behind my house. All these decades, my parents lived just through the forest on this land where I grew up, anchoring me to the world. Some of the trails along the shoreline dated from the original people who lived here for ten thousand years. It was my job as a child, and then as an adult, to keep those trails clear.
Once a week, I continued to meet with my fellow mourners. Several of us lost significant amounts of weight, becoming almost skeletal. I could not imagine how I had ever been able to do anything, or that I would ever again function in any kind of normal way. “All responses are correct and normal,” the counselor told us. “You can’t rush grief.”
Most of us focused on regrets. We hadn’t spent enough time. We hadn’t done enough. “She wanted a scarf,” said one widower. He looked down at his hands. “The scarf only cost six dollars, and I wouldn’t let her have it.” One slept in her beloved’s shirt, and another carried her sister’s purse. Yet another tore the clothes from her mother’s closets and flung them into garbage pails, dragging them to a distant shed.
“Don’t rush into any changes if you can help it,” the counselor advised. Yet everyone else pushed the survivors to change. One widow wondered if she should move closer to family, as her sisters were insisting, and abandon the house she loved. The widower’s kids wanted him to shed the too-large family home where he’d spent so many years caretaking. “But then I’d have to pack,” he told us. “I don’t have the energy.” A young woman wondered if it was proper to stay on in her mother-in-law’s house.
“Am I even related to her now that my husband’s dead?” she asked.
One widow suffered none of these pangs. She joined us only once, and she spoke of her husband’s death with glee. “My girlfriends and I are headed for Hawaii,” she said.
“Take us with you,” we murmured. She didn’t need us, and we were glad. But we lacked the will to minister any such kindness to ourselves. In that icy Northwestern winter, our grief seemed frozen into our flesh. We might yearn for bright sun on sandy beaches, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not yet. None of us could even manage hugs. Despite the intimacy of what we shared, we never exchanged numbers. We returned to our warrens like snails to shells, to reappear the following week.
Until we didn’t. When we were done grieving, we simply vanished. Time collapsed and fell forward, moment telescoping out of moment, until I barely remember any of them at all, but for that stretch of time we embraced without touching.