Mom is gone

MomBut she’s not gone. She’s just no longer here. No longer in this world. No longer with me.

I spent last Friday with Mom in the emergency room. She had lost most of her ability to swallow any food or liquids. She was admitted to the hospital and after an endoscopy was performed the next day, we learned that the disease which has plagued her for years, Scleroderma was attacking yet another part of her body. Her lungs had been compromised years earlier. More recently, her stomach and bowels were affected. Now it was her esophagus. It had been damaged and there was no known way to fix it.

Days. Tests. Questions. Guilt for not realizing how dire things had become. Finally a decision. A feeding tube. The procedure took place on Tuesday.

I naively thought the feeding tube was the miracle answer that would give Mom a better quality of life. In my defense, that’s pretty much how it was presented to us. Even as the hospital staff began to use it, and I felt a little panic about learning to help Mom with it, I still thought we were going to turn the corner somehow.

Mom had a lot of pain after the procedure was done. All day and well into the night, I sat with Mom, unable to do anything to ease her pain. The best I could do  was to be there when she opened her eyes looking for some comfort. Wednesday was no better.

Early Thursday morning, a nurse from the hospital called me. Mom was struggling. Pneumonia may have been starting to take hold of her. I got there as soon as I could. It was 4:30 am. I asked the nurse if I needed to call my siblings and she said, “No. We’re not at that point.”

A couple of hours later, I decided to trust my own gut and I called them. Mom wasn’t entirely lucid and she was having a lot of conversations … but not with me. Her eyes kept looking upward to a corner of the ceiling as she spoke. Sometimes I could understand her words, sometimes not. At one point, she said something and then turned her eyes to me. She looked almost surprised to see me there. I asked, “What, Mom?”

“What suit am I in?” she said.

“What suit?” I asked.

“What suit am I in?” she repeated. This was a clear sign to me that Mom thought her time here on earth was coming to an end. She has periodically expressed concern that we dress her in a nice suit for her funeral. I told her, “No suit today, Mom.”

She said, “Oh. Okay.”

My sister and two brothers arrived quickly. The day was very long. Instead of improving as a result of the feeding tube, Mom was declining quickly. We called friends and relatives. We discussed hospice care. Mom continued speaking out loud to people we could not see. She had one foot in this world and one in the next. Her priest came to give her last rites.

Plans were made to move Mom to a beautiful hospice home where my father-in-law spent his last days a few years ago. But as it turns out, we didn’t need the hospice home. Mom was gone before the day was done.

She went quietly and peacefully, surrounded by her family. We were able to take some comfort in the fact that her long struggle was over.

As I now think back over the past few years, my parents’ decline, the loss of my dad, and the care Mom required over the past two years, I have so much regret. I exhibited such an enormous amount of angst and bitterness. I see how it nearly consumed me. And I realize now that it was such an enormous waste! It only served to hurt me, my mom and my family.

I regret that I threw away so much valuable time; gave it up to my hurt and helplessness.

I know that even if I could go back and relive these days, I probably could not change it, and that thought alone gives me some comfort. This world is exponentially more difficult to navigate than most of us will ever stop to think. As I struggled to get a handle on myself during the past couple of years, I looked in many directions for some answers about how to deal with this stage of life. I looked to God, church, books, friends, the internet … and yet, I could not shed the turmoil that wrapped itself around my mind and heart. I heard loud and clear many times that life is short, and so much that we make important is not. I heard that I would have regrets if I pushed away the people who should be most important to me. But I could not be helped. I think that the darkness that often permeated my existence during those days was an inevitable consequence of our circumstances. As did I, the members of my family each dealt with things in the only ways they knew how. It was not for me to understand then. But I think I do now.

My husband has been struggling with his health for about four months now. It’s been nothing life-threatening, but concerning, none the less. My responsibilities at work have increased. It has often felt lately that I’ve been losing my grip. It has seemed as if I was crumbling, inside and out. I cried out to God in anger recently. I said he should not have let me be born. I was doing such a miserable job of managing the life he’d given me and I wasn’t really sure I cared to have it anymore. I prayed for something to break, because I couldn’t take it anymore.

I was not asking for my Mom to be taken from this world. This is not what I was asking Him to do.

My mom’s last days opened my eyes. I hope that she had enough awareness to witness the forgiveness that occurred among her children. I hope she could see the way our divisions dissolved.

I myself cannot fully explain how, or why I have been able to forgive my brothers for what I perceived as their willing and deliberate absence from my mom’s life. I was certain that at whatever point Mom left us, I would sever all ties with my brothers. I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever. Now all I want to do is pull them close. I guess it’s just that now Mom is gone, I’m willing to shut the door on that phase of our lives. I was only able to survive these last days in large part due to my siblings’ presence. I forgive them.

Yesterday as we met at my parents’ church to plan Mom’s funeral mass, I forced myself to say some words to my two brothers and sister before we met with the priest. I told them that I regretted the way I’d let our parents’ needs defeat me over the past several years. I said I regretted the way I’d contributed to the divisions in our family. I said I was sorry, and that I wanted us to be a family. We four came together at that moment. I only wish that we could have made this happen sooner.

Going forward, I believe it will be easier to let each other just be who we are. I know that with Mom now gone from this world, and without such daunting responsibilities, it will be easier for me to lower my expectations of others.

I would like to think that Mom saw us finally pulling together, and this is what made her able to let go of this world and move on to the next. I often had the presence of mind to realize that my role in Mom’s life would serve some valuable purpose. And though I wanted to understand then, it was not until now that I could see it.

Growing up, Mom and I were like oil and water. I was her challenging child. She frustrated me and I never felt understood. My high school years were hell for both of us. It has only been through the growth we both experienced since my childhood years that we’ve learned to understand and accept one another. As I’ve often believed would be true at this point, I have no regrets about our relationship now that Mom is gone. Being able to play a role in her care allowed us to grow together. My love for her exploded during these last years, and she never failed to tell me how important I was to her and how much she loved and appreciated me.

I always thought it would be somewhat of a relief when I no longer had to wake up each day and worry about Mom. So many times, I wished for the freedom to live my life, and my life alone, to be free of the responsibilities that often felt like chains. Now? What I wouldn’t give to have one more day to take care of my beautiful mother.

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Cliché

A new year has begun and I can’t help myself. My thoughts keep turning to how I might make this next trip around the sun better than the last. 2017 left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I’ve come to realize this is largely no one’s fault but my own.

The few words I wrote last year (and the many that I did not,) focused heavily on the stuff that has weighed on me for some time now – my aging mother, the silent war that wages on between her children, and the stifling sense of defeat, depression and sadness that has draped over my soul as a result.

The last quarter of the year really did me in. I had latched on to my anger and bitterness so tightly that I could hardly stand myself. I hadn’t spoken to either of my brothers in months, and every day, my stomach churned with resentment over their continued absence and lack of any sort of support in the daily care of my mom.

I used to be so close to one of my brothers, the one who is two years younger than me. He and his family used to be such a big part of our life. He and his wife used to spend so much time with us years ago. They came over to decorate Easter eggs with us, or carve pumpkins for Halloween, or just to hang out on a long, dreary winter day. He was my kids’ favorite uncle, hands down. And I realized one day in recent weeks, that in spite of all the reasons I’ve had to be mad at him … I missed him. I just missed him.

Why I’ve continued to remain connected to him on Facebook, I don’t know. I suppose it was just some twisted need to know what was going on in his life, and allow myself to feed my resentment every time I saw evidence that he had any opportunity to enjoy life without having to stop and worry about our mom. I could remind myself once again how unfair it was that my brothers seemed to have abandoned her, and left me and my sister to do all of the worrying and care-giving. But I realized maybe it was a good thing after all when I saw that he posted a Facebook status after Christmas, saying how he used to look forward to the holidays, but now he’s just glad they are over. It sunk in that for months, I have failed to think for a moment what it might be like to be in his shoes, and that maybe there was more to his absence than sheer selfishness.

Before I could talk myself out of it, before I could make a list of reasons that I might regret it, I sent him a text, telling him I felt the same way. I said I hated how divided our family had become, that Christmas just wasn’t the same joyful holiday I used to see it as, and that I knew I bore some of the responsibility for the huge mess that is now our family.

My mind was riddled with thoughts about how hurt I was going to be if he fired back at me in anger, or worse, didn’t respond at all. I tried to hang on to the hope that even if nothing changed as far as his involvement with Mom, I could work together with him to repair our relationship. And to my surprise, he responded immediately. My phone dinged over and over as he sent buckets of words back to me, expressing his sorrow over being at odds with me and my family. Words of regret and explanation poured back and forth between us, and tears were shed on both sides of the conversation. We finally made plans for his family to come spend an evening at my house in the near future.

I cannot begin to describe, or even really understand the relief I’m feeling. We are a long ways from repairing all of the damage that has been done, and it’s quite likely that some of the family divisions may never be healed. But I’m trying not to focus on the what-ifs. I just know that I’m only beginning to understand the real meaning of forgiveness, and hoping that I can keep myself from falling back into old habits. I don’t know what it all means, especially because I still feel a lot of resentment toward my youngest brother and can’t see taking any first steps with him at this point. Not to mention, I’m pretty sure my sister is going to be hurt and angry with me, since it has been “us against them” for such a long time.

I guess I’m just allowing myself to be okay with baby steps at this point, and trying not to feel pressured to figure it all out right away. I only know that I haven’t liked myself very much lately. I’m reminded again that “they” are right when they say that withholding forgiveness hurts no one but myself. I’m tired of opening my eyes every morning and my first thoughts being dark. I just think there’s a lot that needs to change inside of me before I can find the sense of peace that I seem to forever be chasing.

So here I am, at the beginning of another year, setting goals and hoping hopes that I can get something right in whatever number of days I have ahead of me. I wish my resolutions could be as simple as improving my diet, exercising more, or getting more organized. I still need to work on those things, but I have to dig a little deeper than that this year. And maybe one of these days I’ll find that the world has become just a little bit better place.

On relationships … and forgiveness

A couple of years ago, I wrote on a few occasions about a work associate who simply rubbed me the wrong way. She is someone I’ve worked with since I started my career with our company more than twelve years ago. I may have referred to her as “Babs” at one point.

Babs is a woman with a strong personality. She rarely exhibits any lack of confidence, and she loves to be in charge, whether or not her role formally requires it, and whether or not her knowledge and experience warrant it. A couple of years ago, I was working closely with Babs. We were peers … equals … and yet she seemed to always be hovering over me, checking my work, trying to boss me around. And she was putting me over the edge.

People sometimes tell me I’m “too nice.” I sometimes think, “If you could only hear some of the thoughts in my head…” And deep down, I recognize that my reluctance to engage in confrontation may contribute to the label of nice. My feelings toward Babs sometimes bordered on hatred, but I would never let it show. And I don’t regret that. I’ve never wanted to be that person. A coworker actually voiced similar feelings to someone who matters, and it didn’t do her any favors.

I remember writing about my frustrations with Babs. It was the only way I could find to relieve the pressure. I’m sure I wrote some things that were not very kind or fair. And while even at the time, I may have recognized that Babs’ behavior likely resulted from a sense of insecurity, I seemed unwilling to admit that my own reaction to her probably came from a similar place.

Fast-forward a couple of years. I got my wish. There was a reorganization in our division, and Babs was the only member of our small team to find herself in unfamiliar territory. The rest of us were quietly thrilled. Her physical location barely changed. Her desk was still located just a few feet and one cubicle wall away. But it was enough to take the pressure off. She may have still been “right there,” but she no longer had any stake in what we did or how we did it.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that inside, I felt a sense of pure GLEE over the relocation of Babs. She was in a new department, one composed of people who had valuable skills, but whom management wasn’t quite sure how to use just yet. I was fairly certain that Babs’ inability to “play nice” with others contributed to her move. She is smart and savvy, but she had created noticeable divisions in our department.

This new department seemed at first, a placeholder. The insecurity that I’d previously suspected in Babs visibly surfaced. She stopped by my desk on many occasions to lament her situation, saying she felt like she’d been outcast. She expressed that she was no longer sure of herself or how she fit in. She worried about her new role, and the fact that she had no idea what she was doing. She half-joked many times that she was sure someone would catch on and she would soon be fired. Any sense of pity I may have felt for her was quickly overshadowed by the idea that she somehow had this coming.

It’s been some time now since that reorganization. New business has found its way to Babs’ department, and the team is moving full steam ahead. Babs seems to have found her footing and she’s busy. So busy that days go by without a single word from her. I have a much greater sense of peace in my role ever since, and I know that I have flourished in the change.

Yesterday, Babs stopped by, not for business reasons, but to show me a photo she’d had printed on canvas. We both have an interest in photography and she knew I’d appreciate it. The canvas print was beautiful, and we marveled over it together. And a realization hit me like a frying pan to the head.

I was actually enjoying my conversation with Babs. I realized that although we may not mix well when working closely together, I might actually be able to  like her. Had our relationship started on another foot, who knows how different things might be today?

The whole thing taught me a bit about myself. That maybe people can change. Or that maybe I have to be willing to look at someone from another angle to appreciate who they really are and why they behave the way they do. I was so certain of who Babs was, but maybe she only looked the way she did to me, because of where I was standing. I considered that the things that bother me most about a person might just be a small reflection of the flaws I don’t want to admit to in my own self.

And maybe a whole lot of this is simply a willingness to set aside judgment and forgive a little.

This gives me hope for other relationships in my life that are less than what I’d like them to be. Maybe nothing changes today. Probably not tomorrow either. But someday. There is always hope.