Funeral Flowers

She was dead long before she stopped breathing.

Her sunken, empty eyes

held no hope as she sat idly

on the deck or face-down on the beach as the sun

breathed her in.

She seized her moments of clarity around their necks

and submerged them, whining in ether.

She starved her body of loving embrace

and recoiled to touch like she was toxic

and contagious.

And when her eyes fused shut when life burnt out,

she reached towards the ceiling for God to hold her.

Dirty Secrets

The evening following her death was quiet. Too quiet. My dad sat on the floor of my grandpa’s living room, surrounded by heaps of papers and bills that my mom hid around the house during the last year of her life. I later learned through my own investigation into the mind of an addict that they’re particularly good at keeping secrets. My mom’s secrets were of a financial matter. She had a credit card no one knew about, bills left unpaid, stuffed into drawers here and there, and now my dad was sifting through all of it. 

It made sense to me, though, watching him look at old bills for the first time and have no idea who was responsible for them, or how they were so well hidden. That previous summer, my mom and dad were living with my grandpa who was recovering from surgery. My brother and I lived in our childhood home across town. One afternoon my mom called me and asked me to bring the industrial-sized jug of coffee to her because they ran out and she would rather die before ingesting instant decaf.

Dutifully, I made a pit stop to the kitchen and pulled out the jug. Behind it, my mom’s Minnie Mouse glass – a souvenir from our first family vacation to Disney World – sat behind it, half-full of clear liquid. At first, I thought it was a glass of water and thought it was very strange that it was in a food cabinet. I pulled it from the shelf and brought it to my nose. Vodka. How? She never drank vodka. 

I brought it up to her that same night. Her response was, “Don’t judge me.” I knew she was drinking vodka before she wound up in the hospital, before she turned yellow, before she forgot who she was. Yet, I said nothing, because she told me not to judge her. She told me to stay out of it, and that I wasn’t the parent. So I obliged. Partly out of fear and partly because I thought maybe if I kept her secrets she’d have more to tell me until there was nothing left to hide and maybe – when all other forms of avoidance were exhausted – she’d want to get sober.

It was uncommonly warm – the day after her death – and we opened all the windows in the front of the house, the ones facing the creek. I grew up accustomed to the smell of low tide, the oddly sweet, rotten, organic smell that rose up from the muck when the water receded. When we were little, my brother and I would blame it on the other as our parents drove us near the water. As we aged, we could pinpoint the difference between creek smell and a fart.

The smell at first wafted gently and slowly into the living room. I saw my dad wrinkle his nose a bit – especially since he was on the floor and the odor was too dense to rise up the cathedral ceilings in the cape house. My grandpa, whose diet consisted all-too regularly of things like Jarlsburg cheese and canned sardines, was unaffected. When the smell arrived to me, on the couch, it round-house kicked me in the face. Putrid, rotting organic smell. Human-organic smell.

“That’s shit.”

“What,” my dad began. Then, cut off by his own sense of smell, inhaled deeply and regretfully.

“Oh my god,” he said, “what the fuck is that?”

“Huh?” My grandpa finally looked up. For a moment, my dad and I thought he soiled himself and was trying to play it casual. 

“Shit, pop, shit,” my dad said to him. “It smells like shit.” 

Our attention turned to the four or five open windows that faced the creek. It wasn’t the creek, so my dad and I both got up and walked out onto the deck.

“I think it’s coming from the basement,” I suggested. 

My dad put on his sandals and opened the basement door only to be struck with the affirmation that yes, the smell of raw sewage was down there. Enough, in fact, to flood the floor and anything buoyant enough that once sat on the concrete was now adrift in a sea of poo. 

It was concluded that the influx of visitors over the last week to my grandpa’s house overloaded the septic system and backed up a combination of water and waste, creating an ankle-deep tide pool downstairs. My dad grabbed a Shop Vac and I recoiled to the couch. He called an emergency plumbing service to pump out the tanks and, within maybe three hours, all the crap was gone – except for the smell. 

“Look at this,” he said as he walked back into the house. I did not want to look at whatever he had in the bucket he was carrying. 

“They floated out from behind the dryer.” He tilted the bucket towards me and inside I saw several large, empty bottles of Absolut vodka. 

“Holy shit,” I said. Immediately, I thought back to the summer before, and how I wasn’t able to figure out how my mom was drinking vodka and keeping it from everyone. It all made sense. Laundry, chores, grocery shopping – she hid everything in plain sight.

Dragon Woman

Smoke coiled through the seams of the car

and we sat in the back in the haze while classic rock blared

into your ears and you forgot for a moment that you were a mother,

that you were my mother. 

Loosely strumming on the steering wheel,

palms and thumbs drumming.

Music maker child maker — 

I wanted to be just like you.

I wanted to be like you until the sun went down because 

when the sun went down the bottle came out

and there was dracula — 

And the werewolf — 

And you.

You damaged, fermented 

Dragon Woman with hands that curled

to knotted tree branches and poison spat out of you.

We hid 

I hid in my closet until the lightbulb died.

And I realized I never wanted to be like you.

But you taught me so much.

You taught me to be afraid 

(I was afraid of my mother) 

So I had to be strong  

And you taught me to be strong and to question you

Question everything — 

Go against you.

Your vicarious wishes of who I should be

who I was — 

But I didn’t have a fucking clue.

And when the morning came that I watched breath escape 

your chapped lips for the final time you somehow taught me right there to look Death straight in his face 

and fear nothing because I already knew you, Dragon Woman.

And I don’t want to be you but I came from you

you created me — me.

I am the daughter of patricia — 

Of teased hair and electric blue eyeliner — 

Of wild coolness.

I grew up at the altar of an ‘03 mustang

With empty diet coke cans and Bic lighters on hand.

Bic lighters everywhere 

fire always on hand.

And you drummed your primal ancient animal skin beat to the chant in your head — 

Do no harm. Take no shit.

The final lesson of my mother.

Zombies

Zombies

I didn’t know that people could be empty. Every vampire movie – every soul-sucking, weirdo zombie flick – I finally felt like I was on the same level as those creatures. Empty of blood, of soul, of life. How could I be alive if my entire being felt cold and dead like my mother?

Patricia was on the opposite side of that spectrum, actually. She requested to be cremated. She requested a closed casket, too. No one got to see her in the state she was in; partly because we didn’t want people to remember her bloated, yellow and diseased, and mostly because her bangs were flat and she would have never stood to be in public with her hair in such disarray. Naturally there were comments on how a closed casket must have meant she looked awful. But really, what dead person looks Instagram worthy? On the morning of the funeral we stuffed her shirt with childhood photos to be burned with her and headed to the church. From there, she was carted off to a crematorium, incinerated, and placed in a jar on the mantle of the house she almost died in to serve as a reminder that we were alone and addiction was real.

“Mm, the casket is closed. It must have been awful,” whispered one strange man to another strange woman. I sat in a high-back chair against a wall in the middle of the funeral home and observed them. I observed everyone. Each passing face, each person who I didn’t recognize but said to me, “Oh you have her smile! You look just like her!” But I didn’t look just like her. If they could have only seen what she looked like under that rented casket they’d have different opinions. 

“How did you know my mother?” I glared up at them from my throne. I was the one mourning. I had the power.

“Oh, well, uh, we didn’t. We’re friends with her sister.” 

“Well my aunt isn’t here. So you can either stay or go home.” 

They left.

I felt like a wild animal, protecting a dead pack leader from the hoards of scavengers, all sniffing around for a part of her name to shred off. It was kill or be killed. I couldn’t believe that even in death there were comments about how she probably looked – how she probably died. What did it matter? She was dead. Period. We just had to ride it out, collect the flowers that would also die, and go home. 

The house plants were certainly neglected back at my grandfather’s. Fall took an express lane to the backyard and everything that was once flourishing now hung skeletal and ominous. The dahlias I got her for Mother’s Day, Nan’s geraniums, and the hydrangeas were all limp; Grandma’s peace lily from her funeral in 2008 was also down to one, measly leaf. I didn’t have the heart to toss it so I just kept watering the same shitty greenery inside and hoped for the best. It drowned a little more each day but I didn’t know where to put my need to care for the dying. I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to prevent Patricia from killing herself and, in my mind at the time, failed miserably at that. I felt selfish for going back to school, like I didn’t deserve to grow away from her. I was alive, and that wasn’t fair. 

I wandered campus, juxtaposed between the pressing social lives of my friends and the isolated void that my mind became. My priorities included meeting with professors – all of whom were wonderfully understanding that my situation was tragic, unplanned, and unfair. In particular, kudos to my social work professor who didn’t require me to shadow a hospital for six weeks following my residence at my mother’s bedside (although, I might add, she gave me a C for the semester for not shadowing a hospital, and it was “favoring” me by giving any more lenience). Post traumatic stress disorder was something I believed to be limited to soldiers and victims of national tragedies; I didn’t know it applied to my own personal disaster until the project announcement sent me into a panic attack in the middle of class.

My friends greeted me in varying levels of sympathy and awkward comments of reassurance, because none of them experienced consoling a friend who lost a parent to addiction. Anthony, in his usual silent manner, brought me in for a long albeit soft eyeball-to-nipple embrace. Most friends were silent, and simply hugged me, which I appreciated more than the words. One friend in particular, though, unsure of where to grasp condolences told me, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re back already; If my mom died I would have killed myself by now.” He meant well, and I found it pretty laughable after the exchange because I didn’t know how to react to a statement like that as much as he couldn’t control the backhanded sympathy dribbling from his mouth. 

I turned heavily into baking for some reason. Almost weekly, I ventured into town and bought dollar boxes of brownie mix, or dollar cake mix – whatever was on sale. I’d concoct delicious, although dangerously sweet, experimental desserts that my five other roommates loved and I loved eating. I thought to myself, if I wasn’t the only one eating a Kit-Kat filled brownie with melted peanut butter swirl then it was fine, right? Baking seemed almost cathartic at the time too. There is a preciseness to baking that doesn’t come with cooking meals. Baking is measuring cups and scales, whereas cooking is based off of feelings like, is this enough garlic or do I want it more garlicky? The answer is always more garlic. But, for me at the time, my feelings were so fucking catastrophic that I needed some regimented direction. Baking was a win-all – I had to follow steps and had control, and I could eat my feelings surrounded by friends who wouldn’t dare tell me I was spiraling out of control. For me there was no spiral; I was long gone. 

The isolation began to extend from within my head to my circles, especially my social work class. 

“Who here has lost a grandparent?” My professor raised her hand by example to the 28 of us, all of who raised a hand – almost proudly – in response to the question. “Alright, all of you. Makes sense. Everyone in here is over 18. Now, who of you has lost a parent?” She kept her hand down.

All of the kids kept their hands down. I felt hot and cold at the same time, like a fever. I also felt like for some reason she was challenging me because I had an ace in the hole to get out of the final project. Everything about my being was sensitive and vulnerable and I resented her in that moment. I raised my hand from the back of the classroom and her eyes met mine. Like magnets, all of the students’ eyes turned to see who she was staring at. I was the only person who raised my hand. I picked up my notebooks and walked out of the classroom.

That was the first time I really wanted to die. 

I thought, if I just surrendered to the pain I felt then maybe it would overrun my body and my heart would just stop, and that would be the end of it. I barely made it a month and I wasn’t ready to face the world without Patricia. She was the strongest person I knew and all of that shattered when she died – when she proved to everyone around her that she didn’t want to live anymore. I was so angry when she died I blurted out a couple of times that she killed herself, because I couldn’t understand the hold alcohol had on her. And I was angry with myself for saying it because I remembered how fucking terrified she was looking at me the night before she went into a coma. She knew she fucked up. She knew there was no going back. The end of her life came at 51 years old and I saw her trying to undo years of abuse in her mind for a second chance that she would never receive. 

I thought back to that summer, a month before I left for Oxford. I came home on a lunch break to find her in bed, blinds drawn, dog beside her. I lay down next to her and I asked her if she was sad. 

Three words. Are you sad? She immediately began to cry – the first time I saw her show any emotion other than anger in a year. I didn’t ask her to explain herself; she didn’t owe it to anyone to feel sad. I was just relieved that she finally opened up to me. Eventually I coaxed her out of her room and we stood in the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and took a long, personal drag.

“Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” she said passively through a cloud of smoke.

I took that statement so seriously. I offered to call out of work, take her somewhere – just the two of us. I didn’t want her to be alone.

“We don’t have to tell anyone,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I won’t kill myself.” 

No, I thought, I won’t kill myself.

I Broke up with my Therapist

Jodi has been my email therapist since my break-up in February. It was when I was still sleeping fourteen hours a day, not showering, not eating, not leaving my house that I realized it was probably best to reach out to someone. I stopped recognizing myself and that frightened me, because I spent so many years trying to get to know me better. Suddenly, I wasn’t there anymore. It wasn’t being in the dark – it was being the dark. 

The break-up was the breaking point, I guess. There were the deaths before that; the stress of the relationship before it imploded and then released an amalgam of lies and cheating and false identity. It amazed me how repulsed I became by someone I loved so deeply, and the true root of it was he didn’t know who he was – he never got to know himself. He couldn’t face his past in a way that allowed him to grow upwards out of it, rather, he rolled around in the filth and tried to play himself off as polished.

Polished shit is still shit.

I just didn’t think I was able to have my heart broken further than it already was. I didn’t think anyone could hurt me after seeing the hurt I had been through for sixth months prior. But that’s what’s funny with people – selfish people – they do what they want, oftentimes devoid of conscience. And I still loved him for a time after. I wanted him to be alright because I knew I was stronger than him and I honestly thought he broke himself in the process. I knew he didn’t break me, because I already know me. I just became afraid of myself in the end. That’s when I reached out for someone to talk to. 

My counselor was at the tips of my furiously typing fingers for months. I was reaching out to her multiple times a day, lost and wandering around in the shell of myself. I had zero guidance and for the first time in my 28 years I truly was unable to figure out how to unlock my torment. Things came out of me that I thought I cleansed years prior; moments and experiences that unfolded like a flower and I realized that no, I was not completely OK to begin with. But that was OK. I needed an unbiased third party who I could tell my darkest secrets to without having to look them in the eyes. It was critical for my healing to say things that I never said to anyone, for some weird Catholic fear that I’d be punished if the words existed in the open. I whittled myself down – once again – for the sake of un-becoming the dark that I took on in the winter of this year. I realized too, unfortunately, how many awful things I’ve endured in my life. I know I’m not the only one, but there were so many moments that peppered my youth that I thought at one point were normal. The stupid saying panged the back of my head, “God only gives you what you can handle. Remember that!” I chose to remind whoever that I can also handle an abundance of good. 

Therapy made me question if I’m truly grateful for the things I have, or if I’m selfish for constantly wanting more. It helped me to establish for myself a boundary point of striving beyond my means and living beyond my means. I have felt less materialistic in the last few months. I haven’t tried to reach out for disingenuous connections with men who couldn’t care less that I’ve seen death or that my youth molded me into a person who is hardened while maintaining an unbelievably sensitive core. Therapy made me look at myself in a way I wasn’t able to alone. 

Then I woke up today and realized the last email I sent my therapist was a four-month progress photo of my rescue dog, Randall, who I took into my home this April. That was twelve days ago. My mom’s eight-year anniversary is coming up next month and I don’t feel overly anxious or depressed about it like other years.  I am no longer ashamed to say that I resented my mother – not for who she was – rather, for the choices she made that destroyed who she was. Her reliance on alcohol fueled her belief that she could not function as a human without ether as a catalyst. Booze was her God and her Devil – her Heaven and her Hell – and she just existed somewhere in the middle. And while I don’t find myself reliant on booze to be someone in the world, it scares me to be like her one day. It’s why I ask for help even if I’m embarrassed or afraid because, yeah, sometimes we can’t handle it all on our own. That’s when we get sloppy and selfish in a way that is detrimental to ourselves as well as those who care about us. 

I emailed Jodi and I thanked her for her help. I told her that I’m me again. I’m not the dark anymore – not completely enlightened either – but I’m balanced. I unfolded upwards and I look down at all the dirt I came out of, and I am appreciative of how the mess below me nurtured me to be the person I grew into – someone my mother would be proud of, more importantly someone I’m proud of. 

The Ferryman

When I moved back into my apartment for my senior year of college, I noticed a large black spot on the ceiling. I called my mom to tell her and ask what she thought I should do about it, but she didn’t answer. When she finally did, she was angry at me, told me, “Figure it out,” and hung up. My move back to school was a couple of weeks ahead of the rest of the population because I worked for the campus. Patricia sat on the kitchen chair, her legs elevated, cigarette limp in her hand. It curled and whined upwards. She looked tired.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together this summer.”

“It’s alright. I was away anyway. I’ll be home for your birthday in October.” I looked at the clock, “I better leave. I love you, Mom.” 

“I love you too.” 

We hugged and I made my way for the ferry. Something felt off. I already decided in my head to come home earlier than her birthday – earlier than October 8th. And as I called her – and she didn’t answer – something felt even worse. She used to make me call her everyday the other three years, so what changed? 

I decided to report the black spot to maintenance, and they sent a crew of guys to come rip out a 2×3 foot chunk of my ceiling to address the black mold. It turned out to be a leak in the emergency sprinkler system, slowly releasing warm water for the entire summer.

“Good thing you caught this in time,” one man said to me. 

My mom still wasn’t answering her phone. Then, one night, my dad called me. 

“Don’t call your mother anymore right now.” He sounded frustrated with me, like I was inconveniencing my family’s life. I asked why the hell not. 

“Just don’t, alright?”

“What’s wrong? Is she sick? Should I come home? Is she mad at me?”

“No, she’s fine. Just call me if you need something from now on.”

I felt powerless and small. Clearly, something wasn’t right and I was purposely kept in the dark. It took only two days for my dad to call me again and tell me I needed to come home. He said she was sick; he didn’t say with what. He said to just come home; she was in the hospital. I knew Patricia and hospital didn’t mix well. My mother almost proudly toted the fact that she had not seen a doctor since I was born in 1990. Once I got off the phone, I collapsed to the floor. My gut – my deepest parts – knew she wasn’t coming home. 

I couldn’t sleep the whole night and by the time I got to the ferry, the sun had barely peaked up over the horizon. It was a chilly September morning, my first week of my senior year of college. I bathed in salt air and drank cheap ferry coffee. It was nearly impossible to sit still, as if I thought somewhere inside of me that I would have been able to swim to Long Island faster. I wanted to yell at the captain and tell him to hurry the fuck up.

From the moment I touched down on the island, every basic human instinct stripped itself away. It’s amazing what the human body does when sent into a literal crisis – a life or death situation. My senses went insane; I kept catching myself biting my fingers, crying silently, shaking my knees around. My dad hugged me – then my grandpa. I remember everything like it was on a hyperrealistic recording in my head. The flowers were still in bloom in my grandpa’s backyard; Nana’s geraniums still lined the driveway. The half hour drive to the hospital took longer than the ferry home. Everything around me pulled like taffy and mentally I couldn’t keep up. I just needed to see Patricia. I needed to see my mommy. 

It was so horrifying and real. It smelled. It was dry and asphyxiated me as I entered the ICU. Uncertainty. How could any of this be happening? I saw her there, yellow. Simpsons yellow. Egg yolk yellow. Yellow eyes. Yellow everything. Stringy, limp, matted hair. No makeup. She always wore makeup. No cigarette. Impossible. It couldn’t be her. I needed to snap back into reality. It spoke.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Oh God, it was Patricia. I let out a forced laugh, more so of disbelief than anything, that my own mother was so worse for wear. The conversation was minimal as I described her view outside the window. There was a 7-Eleven, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

“I want vanilla ice cream and a fountain Coke.” 

She said her mouth was dry, which I found difficult to believe especially with the insane amount of swelling in her legs and abdomen. She looked like someone who was nine months pregnant with the calves of an Olympic cyclist. I kept looking at the wall. The woman before me, demanding Haagen Dazs and fast food soda, was impossible to place in the same category as the woman who viciously dragged my hair every morning, who took care of all the kids in the neighborhood – who cursed out my principal. She was laying there, unable to move, shitting in a diaper. The person in front of me was the foil of Patricia.   

I quickly noticed that the room she was in had no clocks and it felt appropriate. Time didn’t exist in a place like that. We sat in the room, stale and stagnant; it smelled like chemicals and had a metallic, sticky taste of pending death. There, in the space of crossing over, I watched my mom slowly drift in and out of toxic hallucinations and call out for our family dog, Duffy, who sat home, unsure where she’d gone. By the time I reached the boat at the end of that weekend and gave my ticket to the ferryman I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned. Everyone gave promising, half-smile reassurance on her condition, but I knew – Patricia had burnt out. 

I was right. It was only four days before I decided to get on the ferry again and see her in the hospital. She deteriorated quickly, and it was clear she wasn’t well because instead of insulting me when I walked into the ICU she told me my hair looked nice. I leaned in to kiss her forehead, bangs matted down to her yellow shell. My dad, brother, and his girlfriend had been there most of the day. They were all puffy and swollen from crying. It was 8:20 PM, and suddenly, time mattered, because the ICU nurse told me I had to leave.

“Can you stay with me tonight, just in case?” She rolled her eyes at me to lighten the overtone that “just in case” meant, “if I die tonight, I don’t want to die by myself.” 

I crumbled in front of her, saying I wasn’t allowed but I loved her, and walked away as her lip quivered and she called out for the dog. 

When they called to say she fell into a coma that evening I felt a bizarre combination of relief and panic. I didn’t have to rush to the hospital, but I felt an obligation to do so. She lay in the same bed, eyes closed, writhing around in pain and I sat next to her and just put my hand on her arm. I told her I wasn’t going anywhere and she moaned and turned her head to the sound of my voice. We were met with a doctor who told us she had a ballpark 12 hours left to live. The finality of that – the time put on life – sent me into a spiral and I had to walk out of the room. What the fuck was happening? Why was this happening to me?

I wrote her eulogy, my head splitting open in a way that I never imagined possible. I thought I was dying too. I hadn’t showered in days, I saw people coming in and out that I barely recognized; my own family seemed like shadows. Someone brought brownies, another sodas, another baby wipes – I was in an alien environment and suddenly needed to be taken care of by everyone around me. I lost function. I became sub-human. There was a point where the only thing I could perform was the writing of Patricia’s eulogy. Talking about who she was made it easier to forget that she was technically no longer there.

We tried to swap funny stories and reminisce of her self-proclaimed title of “real estate slut” as opposed to being a broker. She rarely cried. She had a sick, dark, wonderful sense of humor. She fed everyone. She loved our family dog more than us – I was relatively confident of that. She didn’t deserve to die the way she was. 

A somber tone hit the group at once. There were about ten or so of us sardine-canned into the hospital room, some seated in the window will, a couple tossed onto chairs like old clothes, the rest of us stood, myself included. We looked around uncomfortably, mostly avoiding eye contact although the stench of sadness hung over all of us like a fog. Miraculously, Patricia began to move in her bed. Everyone jumped at the sight of a comatose, technically brain-dead woman rolling around and we all began to collectively panic. We realized quickly that someone, in their awkward, depressed shifting around, leaned on the bed controls and pressed down on a lateral lift, causing my mother’s body to pitch hard to starboard while we all looked on helplessly, trying to figure out which button made it stop.

“Oh my god! Oh my god,” my mom’s friend shouted out as my father threw himself onto her body to prevent her from rolling onto the floor. Hands went over mouths and people began to gasp until one of our family friends, an EMT, stopped the roll and lowered her back to a stable, flat position. It took all of five seconds for me to burst out into laughter after witnessing the dumpster fire that was my family. 

“She would have laughed at that.”

Her death was far less climatic than her accidental resurrection. I actually woke up to a phone call from my best friend asking me how she was coming along. When I rolled over, she took her last two breaths. There weren’t angels to come take her soul away; no soft sound of harps and horns. There was only the buzzing fluorescent tubes above us and the hiss of an oxygen machine. She and I were alone together. It was 12 days before her 52nd birthday. 

When I Dream of my Mother

I often wonder what moment

for you was the pistol

and what moment

was the decision to pull

the trigger.

It’s usually a split

decision that moves like

an indiscernible

brush stroke, uniform –

An obvious beginning

and end but no sign

of the climax.

I often wonder what life

you would have led

if you didn’t stay –

If you didn’t say yes

to a rock that was below

your worth –

If you didn’t measure

your life in poorly

assembled dominoes –

A uniformity doomed from the moment

you began self-medicating.

You were never meant to fall straight.

Would you have

remained

in the Native Land

with red clay to call

home and ground yourself

to ancient beings who never fell from the sky?

Who would you have become

if you stopped

holding on so hard?

I may have never been

but I speculate the sacrifice

would have been worth you knowing

old age.

July 17, 2018

It is so easy to be my mother. It is essentially effortless to turn around, pick up a bottle, become a functioning alcoholic starting at seven in the morning when my night shift ends, pass out within an hour of pounding liquor, waking up in the afternoon and no one questioning it. My life would have numbing, functioning alcoholic sleep. I never saw myself wanting kids, so I could easily get away with addiction. My job pays well, I live alone, and I have an elderly dog who is low maintenance. I wanted to kill myself when my mom died but didn’t have the gumption to do it, partly because I felt like I’d be a failure and I was terrified of being a failure in my mom’s eyes dead or alive, especially when she told me on her deathbed that she was sorry for failing me. Instead, I lost a bunch of weight on my own in an obsessive control-freak episode. I tried out new jobs and stopped smoking weed and limited my drinking. I began to write and write and model my writing outlet to the likeness of Augusten Burroughs’ Lust and Wonder and David Sedaris’ many-a-memoirs.

I then again lost the sense of control, so I read more about what to do when I wanted control, and how to release the illusion of control. I allowed myself to be used by men because, let’s face it, my male role models were less than stellar throughout my existence. I lacked a lot of female guidance growing up, and realized in my 20s that I’d have to do a lot of the growing up on myself. This is why I don’t like the idea of having to fix or take care of people, although by nature I am a fixer. I have a fear of dying alone, do activities with myself for the peace and quiet, but ultimately want to find someone to adventure with.

There is an intolerance that exists within me towards people who are incapable of communicating, and it hurts relationships but I admitted to myself that I’d rather have no relationship than pretend everything is alright. I don’t know if I’m happy; I don’t know if I’m depressed, either. I know I’m doing what I want in the confines of whatever financial resources I currently have. I think what I am is dissatisfied with how certain aspects of my life have turned out thus far. I want to be published and I want to have a stable, healthy romantic relationship. I fear that if I tick everything off my bucket list, I’ll just die – and that’s the last thing I want to do.

Coping

Death is a matter of perspective. As I’ve gotten older, I accepted that dying is an inevitable and unavoidable occurrence that unites us as people just as much as breathing. Each person’s encounter with death is relative (as are all things in life) to what they have already experienced, and what they are mentally and emotionally prepared to experience when the time comes. Death is a wave that, if not learned to be ridden, will pummel whoever it encounters.

From the ages of 17 to 20, I lost both of my grandmothers, as well as my mother. My first grandmother succumbed to her third bout with breast cancer on Christmas Eve morning of 2007 after learning it spread through her body, into her bones, and left her in excruciating pain. I was still in high school, and it was the first “real” death I experienced. Before my nana passed away, I didn’t see her for several days. I missed her, I was sad, however I realize now at that time I didn’t have a solid grasp on the finality of it all.

My dad’s mother left the world July 1, 2008, after complications from an otherwise routine stomach surgery. I saw her the day after I graduated high school – she apologized for not being able to make it, but couldn’t wait to be home again. The following day, she aspirated on a bottle of water as she lay in bed in the hospital. When my parents were called, we learned that she flatlined for 17 minutes before she was resuscitated, and was waiting for us – brain dead – on a breathing machine. It was the first time I saw a lifeless, living, person. I remember my dad telling me to say “goodbye” to her, although she wasn’t there. I remember shrieking as I approached the bed because the oxygen that was forced through her body pushed her chest up and made it look like she was jumping at me. Eventually the children were taken from the hospital room, the plug was pulled, and she died within a couple of hours.

I remember being angry. I didn’t think it was fair that she died in a way so stupid and avoidable. She was supposed to be home that week. She was supposed to come to my graduation party; she was supposed to be alive. It wasn’t fair to her or any of us, especially after losing Nana only six months earlier. At the time, it was like no one could catch a break. I remember my mother being absolutely inconsolable. She sobbed into her pillow on my parents’ bed one morning that she was her mother too. It was that weekend where my mother hit a turning point for the worst with her drinking habits.

My mother died September 26, 2011, at 9:45 in the morning. I know the time because I watched her die. I was in the first semester of my final year of undergrad, when my dad called me to tell me she was in the hospital. My mom suffered. She suffered for years with alcoholism, and eventually it became an extension of her as well as an extension of our family. Wine every night was normal, rum on the weekends was expected, and her chain smoking was since birth. I knew nothing different, and it wasn’t until I was older and more aware that I began to challenge her addiction, only to lose in the end.
We all lost in the end. My mother suffered a very painful, very long death. I learned that when a person dies from alcohol consumption, the alcohol is what does the consuming. She had ammonia poisoning in her brain as a result of her liver and kidneys failing to flush out the toxins in her body. Her skin turned yellow, and her corneas looked like egg yolks. She stopped eating from the lack of appetite that comes with severe alcoholism – and while she only weighed about 80 pounds, she carried roughly 30 to 40 pounds of water weight due to edema swelling. I remember seeing her the first time and thinking she looked like she was in her third trimester.

As her liver broke down inside of her body, a process known as necrosis, I watched helplessly while she reached into the empty air, clutched her stomach, moaned, and furrowed her brows. She was unable to open her eyes and sat for a day or two in a weird coma limbo, where parts of her worked, and others did not. Eventually, the poison overtook her body, and she lay for several days stripped of any medical equipment except for an oxygen mask that forced air into an otherwise dead woman. It didn’t scare me as much the second time around, to see a body lurch upwards at unwelcomed oxygen. I stayed with her morning and night, praying for her death.

Her addiction to me was the embodiment of Pestilence, War, and Famine rampant within her. She was wrought with disease, would not eat, and fought an internal battle of mental illness that she lost. I watched the Apocalypse of self in my mother. In the end, the thing I feared most – death – was the only thing I could have wanted for her.

When she finally died I felt an overwhelming wave of relief that I didn’t expect, and it eventually turned into guilt for having a sense of joy at her release from mortality. I didn’t want her to die, but at the same time I was glad that she wasn’t suffering any longer. She didn’t have the emotional turmoil, the addiction; she didn’t have to fight so hard. It was then up to me to learn how to live without her, how to cope without any female figures in my life, where to place blame, and where to learn no blame was ever to be placed in the case of her death.

These three situations taught me that the act of dying – and coping with dying – were all matters of relativity. There was no right or wrong answer for why my nana had to have recurring cancer, or why my grandmother had to drink water laying down, or why my mom chose a bottle over her family – and more importantly – herself. Eventually, I stopped blaming death. I stopped questioning why the world took people from me, and instead looked at what I could do to better understand the way the world worked. The following work of fiction is from the perspective of Death, the immortal. Its purpose is to show different sides to the workings of the universe, and to allow interpretation and understanding through fantasy. I truly enjoyed writing this, and I hope they help those looking to see deeper than simply the loss of life.

Wishful Dying

I wouldn’t say I was a sheltered child, per se. I was, however, regularly threatened prior to social engagements to be on my best behavior or else I would be beaten/ have something taken away/ left somewhere. Only one of those three things ever happened.
It was a weird dynamic growing up in a home with a chain smoking, functioning alcoholic, successful real estate broker and an emotional eating, workaholic, manic depressive father. My parents lacked consistency in regards to their raising techniques; they loved my brother and me, no doubt, but their words of encouragement were generally masked with negative reinforcement and body image put-downs as a motivator to want to be the best we could be. Modern child psychology would argue that telling your overweight child she is a pig and looks like a sausage in her pajamas has the opposite desired effect of being a weight loss inspiration.
Although the under-the-roof pep talks were seething with backhanded compliments and flat out insults, my parents were known to defend me to the death in public settings, especially in regards to my intelligence. When I was in the second grade, my teacher had me placed in remedial math under the impression that I was, in some way, developmentally disabled. Hindsight being 20/20, I don’t entirely blame her. Almost every morning I hid underneath her desk and scared her when she sat down. I challenged kids to water chugging contests in between lessons. I was horrible at math, and I wrote with my book on an almost vertical angle. I did, however, excel in art and writing.
I spent days and days in the library of the elementary school with other autistic children, utilizing coloring books and bright worksheets, listening to stories, and frequently occupying space in the form of circles. I thought I was having a good time, that is to say until my mom received a progress letter in the mail praising how much I excelled in the remedial class that the school transferred me into.
This was the first time I heard my mom use the word “fuck” in all its forms.
“How could you fucking… why the fuck… put Mike on the fucking phone…” Mike was the principal. Mike was also my mom’s boss at one point. Before she made it as a real estate broker, my mom was a waitress, a stay at home mom, and a secretary in the special education department at the school. Even though the door to the kitchen was closed, I watched in awe as she reamed into this man about me, my education, my abilities, and the lack of faith the school had in my performance simply because I was a little eccentric as a young child; I couldn’t act out at home, I never acted out in church – where was I supposed to truly express myself? Where else, other than school, was I going to play pranks on my educators and challenge students to chugging contests that would be the precursor to my college chugging abilities?
Once the conversation ended, by my mother’s own discretion, I was promptly removed from the special education class and put back into the “normal” class, where I resumed my learning sans pranks – by fear of death by parent. I couldn’t help myself at times, though, wanting to be smart and wanting to be funny. Nothing ever added up in my home, so why did it have to add up in my head? I spent the entirety of the second grade with a backpack full of beanie babies and a pink shoe box in my cubby filled with classic rock tapes I stole from my mom’s car. I had Zeppelin, AC/DC, David Bowie, Aerosmith, and Pink Floyd to name a few blasting through my headphones each morning before we sat down to practice cursive; I knew the words to “Another Brick in the Wall” before I knew how to write my own name in the allotted cursive guidelines. My parents didn’t want to limit my experience in life, but there were certainly points where they shielded my experiences with death.
I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere on Long Island. We always had animals coming in and out of the house that my dad would save – baby birds, rabbits that the cats tried to eat, an adult quail. My brother and I had pets as well that were full-time, not just save, rehabilitate, and release. We had a large mutt, and two outdoor cats. The cats always got into trouble with other wild animals around the property. They would chase moles, bunnies, stalk birds, or even harass our dog when we took him outside for a walk. The interaction with the animals was never really a concern, until one afternoon my mom spotted a raccoon outside in the backyard.
“That’s weird, it’s the middle of the day; raccoons don’t come out until nighttime.” We sat in the bay window of the kitchen and studied the animal, weeble wobbling from side to side as it wandered closer through the high grass towards our house.
“I think it has rabies.”
“What’s rabies?” I was standing behind my mom, trying to peer out the window with her and observe the animal.
“That means it’s sick. If it’s sick, it could get the cats sick. If the cats get sick, we have a problem.”
“Oh.” Seven year old me didn’t quite understand the complexity of the situation. I thought of rabies as some kind of cold, like what kids got, except only animals could get it. My mom picked up the phone.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police station. We can’t have a sick and wild animal on the property.”
“Are they gonna take it to the hospital?”
“Probably not.”
Within a few minutes a cop showed up to the house and met my mom in the driveway. Cops were only needed for bad situations, I thought. When we watched the show Cops as a family, it was always a bad guy trying to run away. I wondered what the raccoon did to be so bad that the cops had to come. It was only sick, right? Sick people go to the hospital to get better.
My mom walked back down the driveway to the bay window where I was standing, but not before I noticed the cop reach around to his waist belt, slowly approaching the animal. She tapped at the window, “Close the blinds. Don’t look.”
“Why?”
“Kaitlin close the blinds or so help me…”
Anything ending in the words “or so help me” never needed to be finished. I knew what she meant. I closed the blinds and waited for an eternity.
A gunshot is a lot scarier when you don’t see where it’s coming from. My ears rang for a second as I stared long at the cloth curtains of the bay window, little birdhouses lining the trim. I thought it I looked hard enough I’d be able to see through them like magic, but even at seven years old I knew what I’d see. I’d see a cop, standing over a dead raccoon, or my dead mother, with his gun drawn.
When my mom walked back inside I let out a sigh of relief knowing that she didn’t do anything to get herself killed by the cop.
“Where’s the raccoon?”
“The raccoon is dead.”
“Can I open the curtains yet?”
My mom looked over the top of the curtains, past my line of sight, “No.”
“Why did he have to kill it, though?”
“Because it was sick and suffering. And sometimes when animals are sick and suffering, it’s better to put them out of their misery.”
I didn’t want the raccoon to feel misery, but I didn’t think it was fair at the time for it to die. As a child, I lived almost zero; I experienced almost nothing. I knew I wanted to do things, I knew I had dreams. I thought the raccoon, too, had a full life left to live, I didn’t want it to die because it was sick. I wanted it to keep living.
It wasn’t until I was 20 years old, sitting in the bed next to my mom, watching an oxygen mask push air into her otherwise lifeless body that I prayed to whatever god I didn’t know to just take her out of this world. I was exhausted and my head was pounding, and she just lay there, most likely unaware of my presence in any form, her body so frail I could see her carotid artery pulsing in the side of her neck. I counted her breaths, wrote her eulogy, and cried until my head hurt so bad I had to consciously prevent myself from crying. All that existed in those moments was the suffering of life; the lack of living, the suspension of consciousness where I had zero control and just wished for her to stop breathing. I didn’t want her to die, but I knew she would never live again.