On July 28th, at 5:55 AM, I held my mother’s swollen hand as she drew her last breaths. An hour later I was sitting in my aunt’s kitchen in a daze with a singular line running through my head: My mother died an hour ago. Later, it was two hours. Then one day. Then one week. And now, nearly one month.
One month without my mother, the most important person in my life.
I have been slogging through the motions at a snail’s pace. Now is the hardest part — none of the other stuff. Not picking out the blue shirt for Mom to wear in her casket; not closing all her bank accounts and picking out a headstone for her grave.
Ok, the bank accounts really sucked. It is amazing how quickly you can tidy away a life.
But now, in this very moment, is the hard stuff. The moments when I’m leaving my boot camp and there are Facebook notifications on my phone and I instinctively think, “Oh, that must be Mom.” Or in my dreams when I’m yelling at her for being a bad mother. Or when I pick up a magazine in the airport to see my byline and realize I can’t show it to her and that I’ve lost my biggest cheerleader.
Grief is weird and heavy and very invasive. It has taken up space in every inch of my body. I wake up feeling fine and then as the day goes on my heart cracks wide open again, and I sit, and I cry. Sometimes for hours. Sometimes I cry so hard at night I can’t breathe and all I can do is curl up in a fetal position and sob. Sometimes I don’t want to ever stop feeling sad because that would mean too much time has passed since I saw her last. Sometimes I cannot believe that I have my whole life ahead of me without her in it. How is the world going on? I just can’t fathom it.
The last two years have been traumatic, to say the least. I’m still at the point where I mostly think about how much she suffered, especially in the final months. She was tethered to an oxygen machine. She was sick, always. Her kidneys were constantly failing. When Dad dropped her off at the clinic for the last time, she said, “I don’t think I’m going to live much longer.” I could see the will to live draining out of her the last time I was home. Her voice had weakened; she napped with the door open and I’d stand there silently in the doorway watching her, wondering what was happening to her. I was in the process of arranging homecare for her. I begged her to come live with me in St. John’s, where she’d be closer to better healthcare. But she was tired. So very, very tired. I do not begrudge her for giving up the fight.
My mother has always been a warrior. Being the second oldest of her 11 siblings, she helped my grandmother raise them like her own children. My Uncle Dennis often jokes that it took him five years to realize my mom wasn’t his.
She lived through poverty so severe that she’d go to bed with frost glistening on the bedroom walls. She gave birth to her first son, Joey, who died a few short minutes later. She lost her own mother far too early — my grandmother was just 65 years old. Then Mom was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in her 30s and with that came all the complications that ultimately made the last few years of her life a nightmare.
But god, did she ever live.
Mom often felt bad that my brother and I grew up “without much” and that she and my father couldn’t give us everything we wanted. But I don’t remember that, at all. I remember fishing for trout, and summer trips to the swimming hole, and reading an endless selection of books from the library. I remember crafts and baking cookies and elaborate birthday parties with my closest cousins. I remember the most profound, unique love a person will ever experience.
In high school, Mom and I had a tumultuous relationship. We were very different people — very different. The best thing I ever did for us was move out of the house and go to university. We fought a lot. We disagreed about everything. Going home to visit was sometimes unbearable.
I often thought that if Mom passed away I’d be wracked with so much guilt, it’d eat me alive. In a weird flipside, the last two years of her sickness brought us together. I spent six months with her at the hospital, witnessing horrific things that no person should ever witness. We talked about everything under the sun. I told her everything I ever wanted to tell her and she did the same. I no longer have that guilt.
Mom was sharp-witted and quirky. She loved her tea, but she only ever filled half the cup. She spooned in heaps of sugar and canned milk. Sometimes, I asked her to make me tea because I loved watching her process. It was like a meditation for her. She read voraciously. She kept notes everywhere. I’ve undercovered heaps and heaps of notes and lists of books she wanted to read and books she had already read. She once told me she dreaded death because she wouldn’t be able to read all the books she wanted to read. So I’m taking that “to-read” list and I’m reading them for her. I’m reading all the books my mother never read.
She kept a beautiful garden. Lilac trees, rose bushes, raspberries. She loved grey jays and bluebirds; before she passed, she was occupying herself by painting birdhouses. Her sweet tooth was insatiable. On August 20th, she would have been 67 years old. 67 years old.
I believe she knew the end was near. A few months ago, she said she had found a journal she kept from when my brother and I were babies. “I couldn’t stop crying when I was reading it,” she told me. “Those were the best years.” I found that journal shortly after her funeral, with a note “for Candice and Adam only,” along with a book that I gave her to fill out about her life. In her safety deposit box was an envelope labeled to me with instructions on all her bank accounts. Her funeral was already paid. Because she was my mother, and even in death she’s still looking out for me.
I don’t know where I’m going with this blog post. I suppose it feels wrong to continue on with blogging about my travels without acknowledging her beautiful life, although this has been extraordinarily difficult to write. I have not yet been able to read her journal, or her notes, or anything else. I have not been able to stare down the barrel of grief to acknowledge that she’s gone forever. Sometimes it feels like hysteria is just on the edges, and if I face it too bluntly, everything will explode.
A friend recently told me that his mother dying was his worst nightmare. And that, like me, he thought about it all the time. But I don’t feel like she’s gone. It’s not like her presence is erased; it’s not like she’s not here with me. Because she is, and I can feel her everywhere. I don’t know how to explain it. But she is still here. It’s just that now when I talk to her, she doesn’t respond. At least not in the same way. A few nights ago I had a particularly bad night; I cried so hard it felt like my heart was going to stop, and I asked for her to please let me know if she was okay. Hours later, I woke up enveloped in the most comforting warmth I have ever felt. I was completely wrapped in a peace so significant I automatically said, “Thank you Mommy” out loud.
My whole relationship with life and death has been forever altered. I suspect the road to healing for me is going to be long and arduous, and I ask my friends and family to be patient with me when I’m silent and turned inward. Not that I have to tell anyone that: I am profoundly blessed with strong friendships and family relationships. My friends delivered a cooler full of precooked food for me and Dad and Adam. They took care of my garden and put together some funds for me to get through the month. They’ve dragged me out of the house when I needed to be dragged out of the house. My relatives flew in from all over the country to be there for us. My cousin slept with me every night before and after the funeral because I couldn’t bear to be alone. My Aunt took me under her wing for a week in Alberta and took care of me because she knew I needed it. I am forever grateful. None of this goes unnoticed.
And please, don’t be afraid to ask me about my mother, or reach out to me with your own stories. I draw incredible comfort from being able to talk about her, and about grief. I might cry but that’s okay. My mom deserves to be talked about. I don’t want people to forget her.
I mentioned this on Facebook: when I was still in shock, I picked up the book I had given to her to fill out about her life, I flipped through it briefly. Among its many beautiful pages, she describes how raising her children were her happiest years, and how she wants to be remembered as a kind person with a great sense of humour. “I always saw the funny side of life,” she wrote. So that’s how we will honour her — with the good. Not these traumatic past few years. And she left me with one final, breathtaking gift written on the back cover of that book:
“Say not in grief that she is no more, but say in thankfulness that she was. A death is not the extinguishing of a light, but the putting out of a lamp because the dawn has come!”
I don’t know what compelled her to write that. In our brief conversations about death, she had told me that she didn’t believe there was anything afterward, so I don’t know why she left me with such a thoughtful gift.
Mom, I am so grateful, for all of it. For the highs and lows, for having been there with you through the worst times, for that deep, deep love that only a mother can give. It has all made me so keenly aware of my own existence and how beautiful my life is.
I have a long road of healing ahead but you have made me a very capable woman.