I am a middle-aged woman about to mark the one year anniversary of my mom’s death on September 16th. I have spent the past 12 months on auto-pilot.
Along the way several things have kept me afloat: my husband, family, friends and oh yes a recent book called “A Widow’s Story” by Joyce Carol Oates. I heard this book takes you through the author’s own aftermath following the death of her husband and soul mate of almost 47 years, and “unflinchingly” takes the reader on her journey of pain, depression, insomnia, madness, guilt and grief.
I knew I could relate to all those things and needed to know in particular how the author coped with losing her beloved husband in such an unexpected manner. Although her husband was brought into the hospital almost reluctantly on his part with a bad case of pneumonia, he was in general good health, and after several days in the hospital and seeming better and about to be released, he contracted a virulent hospital acquired infection and died.
I am flooded with memories of my mom and the last time I saw her.
She was dressed in her favourite outfit, attending a family holiday dinner at my house. Her grandchildren were there, and a great nephew still only 6 months old. She was so excited to have the title of “great grandma” bestowed on her. We were all rejoicing, our stomachs and souls satiated with good food and company and appreciation for this wonderful warm autumn day.
I remember thinking as I kissed and waved good-bye to my mom, sister and brother-in-law, and watched as they gently coaxed and helped my mom into the car, that I didn’t get a sufficient chance to talk and really catch up with her. I remember thinking I would make up for being so preoccupied with serving dinner and just generally being a good hostess, that I would visit my mom at her home on the weekend.
The next morning at dawn the phone rang and my husband told me that my mom was being rushed to the emergency.
My mom suffered a severe stroke. Somehow, she was still able to communicate and answer questions, albeit with difficulty but she completely understood what was happening. As the days continued, my mom’s condition and symptoms worsened and she slipped into a morphine induced on and off again sleep. Joyce Carol Oates writes in her book about the “almost unbearable suspense of the hospital vigil, the treacherous pools of memory that surround us”. I keep visualizing my mom lying in that bed, her face slightly contorted, her hand continuously banging her head, something the stroke caused her to do.
I tried to soothe her by delicately massaging her hand and telling her to try and sleep and think of us walking along the ocean shore, something she and I used to do in Florida. My mom opened her eyes and whipped the covers off her bed, and told me she wanted to go out and go with me. I swallowed hard, my saliva glands nonexistent, leaving me only the bitter taste of reality that this will never happen again.
She lasted one week in that emergency department, not able to even have water, unless it was administered to her by dabbing it on a Q-tip and applying it on her lips. I watched my mom slip away and I couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it!
When you lose someone suddenly without being prepared, you have no time to process anything; it doesn’t matter what age that person is. Reading Joyce Carol Oates’ descriptions of “the derangement of denial, the anguish of loss”, I found myself. In the chapter where her husband dies and she has to leave him there, she writes “How strange it is, to be walking away. Is it possible that I am really going to leave Ray – here” Is it possible that he won’t be coming home with me in another day or two, as we’d planned? Such a thought is too profound for me to grasp. It’s like fitting a large unwieldy object in a small space. My brain hurts, trying to contain it.”
I found myself similarly reliving that grim day when we had to leave my mom behind and as the attendants manoeuvred and moved my mom’s stretcher out of the room where we were allowed to see her one last time. I watched as the two orderlies carried on about something and one of them smiled and I thought I would run over to him and rip his head off with my bare hands, no one should be smiling, no one should be laughing, nothing normal should ever happen again! Like Joyce Carol Oates I too thought some aspects of human behaviour following the death of a loved one seemed completely absurd and repulsive; going home and feeling suddenly hungry and having to eat seemed absurd to me. I just wanted to fall into the depths of a dark abyss Chilean miner’s style, only I did not want to be saved or rescued.
For me the purpose or reading Joyce Carol Oates’s book was that in her lyrical and powerful words and descriptions, I could relate to the hurting and bewilderment of loss. Her book gave me a glimpse of what my mom might have experienced after my dad passed away. We never really spoke about her loss, instead, I wanted to protect my mom and distract her, and perhaps too I didn’t want to deal with my own fears of facing this new life without him. I never truly understood what my mom was going through; I never gave her the credit she deserved for how she persevered and managed her life alone.
As children and even as adult children we rarely stop to remind ourselves that our parents are, despite being our parents, people who had relationships, had desires and are flawed complicated beings just like us. Now that my mom has passed away, I sadly find myself noticing all the things we had in common, from how my aging body now aches in the morning to how I’ve become so forgetful that I have to think what day it is, something my mom always used to ask me.
You know how people say that over the years we start to resemble our pets, or our spouses? Well I think it also extends to grown daughters suddenly realizing they are morphing into their mothers.
I didn’t want to believe it either. For years my husband would mention that I’m doing things and acting like my mother, he would give reference to silly things, like my insistence on forcing friends to have seconds on food or being overly hovering and uber-sensitive. Then of course there were our obsessive shopping habits, which I shared with my mother and in particular our mutual adoration of purses, shoes, make-up counters, gossip magazines and all things related to the show The Bachelor or Bachelorette. Was he right? Was I becoming my mother? I vehemently denied it!
But then one night I had to concede that I owed my husband an apology. It started innocently enough with laundry. I emptied the laundry into the machine, closed the lid, and returned to watching TV feeling good that I was capable of such multitasking. After the laundry stopped, I opened the lid and to my horror I discovered tiny Kleenex tissue pieces stuck to every inch of wet clothes and then saw the culprit…my dark navy top with one sleeve still rolled into a cuff and in it what was left of my Kleenex. You see that top didn’t have a pocket and I grew up watching my mother shove a Kleenex up her arm when a pocket wasn’t available; instinctively I must have done the same. And in that instant I realized there’s no disputing it, I have become my mother!
I keep Joyce Carol Oates final words from her book in my mind “Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think I kept myself alive.” I am not a widow, but a daughter who will light a candle upon the first anniversary of my mom’s passing, read a People magazine and perhaps, when the emotion of that day overcomes me, will reach for a crumbled Kleenex tissue up my sleeve and feel pretty darn proud about it!
All quotes from Joyce Carol Oates ”A Widow’s Story” A Memoir, 2011, HarperCollins Publishers.
©Wendy Reichental 2011
Reprinted from September 2011