I vividly remember standing beside my mother in the kitchen, May of 2011, watching her cry for the first time in three years. Hopeless, helpless, I studied her eye, and saw someone I was unfamiliar with.
She sucked in a couple of quick breaths to stop the tears, exhaled, and looked firmly at the kitchen table. She shrugged, “I’m better off just killing myself.”
In weeks leading up to that comment, her sleep habits became erratic. Days were spent in bed, with drawn blinds and the stale smell of alcohol and depression hanging limp in the darkness. A once-reputable and successful real estate broker, she no longer had the drive to work for others – no less herself – and remained indoors, clad in a bathrobe painted with coffee stains and cigarette smoke. From time to time, she dragged a brush through her wiry hair – once regularly dyed, now predominantly gray. It wasn’t her appearance that I no longer recognized, however – it was the desperation and loss in her voice. In her, I saw an avalanche – every problem compounding and escalating into a rapid-moving descent, wiping out anything and everything in its path. I feared it was only a matter of time before this chaotic downslide reached me.
“If you’re serious about that, I’ll call out of the rest of my shift.” I desperately tried to maintain eye contact with her while she looked down at a smoldering ashtray. “I’m serious. We can go somewhere together and no one has to know.”
A long pause followed, where she resolved to pick up her cigarette and take a long drag. Her eyelids lowered and her stare became indifferent. She exhaled a solemn, smoky breath and looked at me coolly, “I’m not going to kill myself.”
For years, I replayed that afternoon in my head, and carried blame for not tossing her into a car and dragging her off to rehab.
By mid-September, I saw my mother become even less recognizable. She was unable to hide from her addiction behind denial and proclamations as she lay dying in the hospital bed before me. I left college after my first week of senior year to visit her in Intensive Care, making trips back for class, with the intention of coming home on weekends. On my first visit to the hospital, her eyes met mine. They were yellowed like egg yolks, and appeared bulging from the gauntness of her face; the doctors informed us that, although very bloated, she weighed about 80 pounds. It shocked me how drastic her appearance had been altered from the kitchen in May, and from the kitchen in August when I said my goodbyes and promised to be home for her birthday in October.
She resisted any form of greeting as I choked back tears in front of her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I really didn’t expect anything more. She was sick, and dying, and while her body gradually shut down, her aggressive tough-love attitude shined through with biting confrontation from the moment I walked through the door.
For days, I watched my mother lose her lucidity. Her head would bobble and she was wheeled in and out of the ICU for tests and to have the lymphatic fluid drained from her body. When we sat in the hospital room together, she would begin to speak normally, and the sentences would fade as her eyes fixated on a point on the wall, and I would lose her for a few moments as she drifted into silence. From time to time, she would grab my hand and say something like, “I’m proud of you,” or, “You have to be strong.” I would cry and tell her “thank you” or, “I will be,” but part of me didn’t know whether or not to believe what she was saying was sincere or not. Part of me was mad at her for not listening, for not looking at me and thinking I was reason enough to continue living. My arms were extended for years to her and she shrugged me off, stubbornly objecting to my advances and telling me, “You’re not the parent.”
I hurried home one Thursday when my father called to tell me they had to administer an oxygen mask and a feeding tube in her nose. Taking the ferry to Long Island was like wading through sludge, as I rushed to beat the deadline for visiting hours. I arrived at the hospital around 8PM to see her in the dark, wires and tubes all over, her arms covered in bruises and her hair matted around her face like a sickening halo. My family was scattered to their respective corners, all crying or cried-out. I approached her and she grabbed my hand.
“Your hair looks nice.” Labored breaths pushed compliments from her and I couldn’t muster enough to say anything back. She babbled incoherent requests to go home and to have her dog in the hospital, and a nurse finally entered the room and told us it would be best if we left. I kissed her forehead.
“Please stay with me tonight… just in case.”
The last words my mother heard from me were, “I’m sorry. I can’t.” I turned and left the hospital, breaking down in my car, unable to accept that this was actually happening. My head continued to turn over how she could do this to herself, how I wasn’t enough, and how I hadn’t known she was so sad for so long.
Sometime in the night, she slipped into a coma, and was given 12 hours to live. Through her own stubbornness, my mother lasted four days. The morning she died, as I lay next to her in the hospital bed, I was woken up by a phone call from my childhood best friend. She asked how I was, and then about my mother. As I rolled over in the bed next to her to confirm her status, she took her last two breaths.
“I have to call you back.”
I half-anticipated angels, a bright light – something. The room, however, was silent except for my own breathing and the hiss of her oxygen mask; the bright light was substituted by a blinding row of fluorescent bulbs. I stared down over her stillness, completely devoid of thought. How, I thought, how was it capable of getting this bad? I began to replay the past week, month, six months, years in my head. All of those moments, and the last thing I said to her was “I can’t.” I couldn’t stay with her, I couldn’t save her, and I couldn’t take that back.
I was haunted by a lingering guilt for months to follow. The helplessness that a child would experience now found its way back into the forefront of my adult mind. I was matured by trauma, and crippled by a feeling of weakness. School no longer seemed to matter, yet I continued on day after day, determined to get my degree if for no other reason than a fear of my mother haunting me. I was driven by the routine and familiarity of faces I could count on passing me by in the halls. There was no longer a taste for life, not when I didn’t have my mother to reassure me that I was doing the right thing.
We never had that “final talk.” She wasn’t lucid enough to reflect on her last moments and the futility of it all; there was no remembrance back to the younger years, or where I should take my next steps in life. It felt like it wasn’t enough. She was stolen at her own hand, and I had to learn how to deal with it. I tried to cope with therapists, exercise, writing, and that hole remained. None of the guidance, recommendations, sweat or tears would make my mother’s voice appear before me. There would never be a final talk, and I was unable to accept that she left without me knowing she was proud of me, or that I did all I could to save her. All she knew was that I couldn’t stay, and I knew she couldn’t stay either.
Eventually, I got to a point where I realized I had to learn to be proud of myself, and gave up on searching for her acceptance. I would have to learn to live for a self that I wasn’t entirely sure I knew. It seemed almost impossible to go about my days without my mother’s voice, without the conversations about my life, without her reassurance – without my guide. I went about my school year, hole in my heart, fishing through student emails about graduation, online classes, and assignments due. Then, in the middle of it all, I saw a familiar address – my mother’s.
I opened the email, and read through a mundane description of family business. She told me about my father and work, my grandpa, my brother, and my dog. It comforted me to read it in her voice as I scrolled down towards the end. It was there, in the last lines, where I received the answer I had spent the past year searching for.
“I’m very proud of you. You’re like your grandmothers. You are eager and exceptionally bright… but most importantly, you are sensitive to others but don’t take sh…”
There was the outspoken, hard-loving reassurance I craved for so long. It was eternal in emails, and letters I found later in my storage unit, old voicemails, and cards. She was always proud of me. And those last moments of her life, although the freshest, hardest memories, held no candle to 20 years I lived with my mother’s love.