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.

If you are Grieving

I wanted to write something about grief, because I am grieving now. Because it’s hard. Because I’ve been through this too many times in the past ten years.

• everyone grieves in their own way so try not to take a change in their behavior personally. Also, try to be conscious of what is *your* grief and your own expression.

• you will be achy, cranky, oddly calm, have an anxious mind, and feel like your brain is a rocky ocean because all the dust is settling from a whirlwind of change. Don’t fight it, just batten down.

• don’t be afraid to take an extra nap. Don’t fear being a little impulsive. If you feel impulsive, try a productive impulse like hanging a picture, cleaning something, planting a house plant, cooking, buying a $5 book (or two, or three like I did), cleaning out your closet for donation… things that won’t cause any self damage.

• if you feel the need to damage, go to the gym. Or eat a bag of chips, just remember they’re grief chips so the calories don’t count, but also that they – like your feelings – are temporary and should not be a permanent daily helping of grief chips. May I recommend Doritos?

• don’t be afraid to tell someone you don’t have the emotional/mental energy to help them with something that may seem overwhelming to you because you’re grieving. We all have a set amount of energy and grief takes a lot of it out of us.

• it will get easier. It may always be there like a crack or a stain or rust but hey – people call that vintage and you’re popular with hipsters and gastropubs.

• you’re loved and not alone. Some people don’t know how to console a grieving person. It doesn’t mean they don’t care.

Good morning, Mom

20160105_072602 I woke up at 4 AM like a shot. The February wind beat on my window, and I could feel the cold at the back of my neck, which prompted me to sink further under my blankets. It rained the night before, the temperature dropped and the unforgiving Long Island winter called to remind me that, even after five years, I still wake up missing my mom. My eyes slowly adjusted to the room, the moon lit one corner, and my dog stirred while I turned over on my side and checked the weather to see sunny and cold, a favorite of mine. A yin and yang of sensation that I always looked forward to; a balance of beauty and bitterness.

Sunrise wasn’t for another three hours, and now that my mind was on, I threw on my clothes and made coffee. The winter woke me up more than my drink. There was something that comforted me about a dark house, lit up only by the sound of wind and my own thoughts. I thought of my mother the night before, I thought of the pain, and the memory of her face the day she died. It did not look like her. She wasn’t smiling, her hair wasn’t done, she was gaunt and tired and done with this world – her light gone off to somewhere else. I couldn’t remember it actually leaving, I just remembered the day it was no longer there. I remembered the long painful journey, endless days, and her last breaths and how bittersweet of a release they were to her and I – how I felt the silence between us, the devastation of death coupled with the final acquittal of her soul. It was 5:30. I looked down at my dog, who looked up at me, ready for command of the day. I fitted him his sweater, and headed for Montauk.

With my insides wrapped up in hot coffee, and my shih tzu wrapped up in blankets, we embarked through the darkness, destination eastward. The moon dropped beyond the pines as the stars showed themselves, if only for a moment, as the sun prepared to make its debut. I took comfort knowing that I would reach it once I reached the end. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had no need to rush. I belonged to the schedule of no one, I only belonged to that morning’s sunrise. Everything was cold and baron and quiet, except for the wind, which breathed through empty trees and stirred litter and leaves over quiet weekday streets. My dog rested his head on the cup holder and slept, unaware of my mission, unaware of my impassioned memories.

****************

Montauk was empty. The wind was violent and unforgiving as it raged across the baron parking lot and the outside temperature read negative six. I shouldn’t, I thought. This is a terrible idea – I’m the only one here. I could see the morning glow beyond the lighthouse, the water crashing against the jetty rocks, coated in ice and mist. There was a fog in the far distance and a tower of clouds with a halo of pink and orange, gulls flew defiantly against the bitter February wind. I left my dog in the car with the heat on and made my way down the steps towards the beach. As I came around brush cover, a gust of wind caught the inside of my hood and shocked my senses as my whole body went cold. I pushed my way towards the water’s edge, cursing the wind and the gulls and the drive and then, without warning, my anger was silenced as I looked beyond the cloud cover at the sudden manifestation that was the sun.

I watched it rise so bold and gently up higher and higher into the morning sky, warming my spirit while the wind battered my face. It climbed over the mist and quieted the last breaths of night. My mind was stilled. I couldn’t remember the evening or when my world became light; it just was. I stood stoically against the wind as the closest thing to my mother’s love illuminated the horizon and bid me “good morning.”

 

It’s Not You, It’s Me.

Being 25, being young, having a good job, my own house, a car, bills paid on time, I would have expected that would be happy by now. I realized though, and very recently realized, that I am not. I continuously find myself being independent, being in a routine, and feeling a void that is constant and negates all of my accomplishments thus far when, in reality, I have done a lot (and survived a lot) to be this miserable.

I do not love myself. It is a hard thing to say when you think you should. I look in the mirror everyday and smile, but I do not love myself. I wear fashionable clothes, I laugh, I workout hard, I push myself to be better, but I do not love myself. I thought I loved myself, until I engaged in a relationship that pushed me to the edge of my sanity, left me feeling like a crazy person, and realizing that all of my effort was for nothing because, in reality, I do not love myself.

I always blame the other person, spoke of the other person and how I was taken advantage of, hurt, used, manipulated, and I had to admit that in all of these horrible relationships was the common denominator. I pick and choose individuals who either see my character flaws or take my inability to say ‘No,’ and just run with it because, in a relationship with me, people can get away with almost anything.

Taking a long, hard, look at myself, my co-dependency issues, my trust issues, and my unhealthy need to please people, I came to the conclusion that I am the way I am because of my upbringing and my constant desire to try and save my mother. My mom, for my whole life, was an alcoholic. She died in 2011 from her disease, but I didn’t notice until almost five years later that my tendencies all stem from my relationship with her. I excelled in every school activity, every class, every extracurricular. I got my schoolwork done early, I worked from the time I was 12, I did my chores, I got scholarships to college, I was accepted to so many amazing places, I went to Oxford, I paid my own bills starting at 16, and it wasn’t until I was walking on campus the day after her funeral my senior year of college that I felt a black hole in my gut, and realized that I did all of those things for her.

*********

As a kid, you always think it’s you.

I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I had it in my head from the time I was ten that my mom’s drinking problem was me, it was my brother, it was everything but her. Because, really, how could someone want to destroy their own body? It had to be an outside force. It had to be me. From the time I was very small I did everything my mother asked, and not in the sense that it was teaching me responsibility, but because I thought it would make her less drunk if I did these things. I thought that she would be less sad, I thought she would want to go out of the house again, I thought it would make her realize that she had something great to live for.

In relationships that developed after her death (because, let’s face it, I was so absorbed in saving my mother’s life that I had no regard for myself or confidence to try and date before and during college), I began to notice that every single guy I dated or went for or liked would take advantage of me, hurt me, or I would try and make it work because, “it just felt like it had to be.” Nothing I could do would make them want to stay, but I felt happy in their arms, I felt happy when I laughed, so that had to be real. I was incapable of saying no because, if they were rejected by me, they would want to run away, the same way I shut down when my mother rejected me as a kid. This led to destruction, regret, anger, mistrust, and putting myself in situations that I shouldn’t have stayed in but still lingered at the hope that there was going to be that one little thing I did to make them want to stay. But, just like my mother, you can’t change people. You can’t make people want to be a certain way, you can only change how you see things. You can only change how you handle situations. You can trust your intuition, and you can build the strength to realize when something isn’t meant to be.

My Mother’s Day is About Me.

This is my fifth Mother’s Day without a mother to celebrate. I am bombarded with advertisements, telling me to buy her perfume, a new dress, a purse, or a gift card. Nowadays, though, I’d rather buy some more time. I’d love to buy her voice and play it over and over again. I’d give anything to be selfish with time. Five years, 60 months, somewhere around 1,800 days that I have lived and she has not. Her last two breaths are frozen in time in my head, as I scroll along websites and am force fed advertisements, telling me to buy her perfume, a new dress, a purse, or a gift card.

This Mother’s Day, I request my mother come back and make her delicious roasted chicken. I implore the universe to interlock her fingers in mine, her rings securing a fit that insures, at the end of the day, I won’t have to let go. I would rather fool Death and God and the Universe and risk my own judgment to hear her say “I love you” somewhere other than my dreams. I would make her listen to my day and my months and my years and everything she missed. I want to celebrate her ears and her eyes to hear me and look at me while she’s listening to I know she’s there. I want to celebrate her smile as she laughs at my jokes. I want to hear her heart beat. This is my Mother’s Day.

 

 

Sixteen.

Sixteen days were all it took for me to be forcibly thrown into the world of adulthood. Every time I look at myself in the mirror I see a little, scared child, when I’m now expected to be a twenty-one year old adult with a handle on things. I’ve taken a year off from applying to graduate school, I’ve decided. I just finished registration for my last semester of undergrad. My life is successful, and yet it feels meaningless now that my mom isn’t here anymore.

The two most cliché phrases you can ever say to a grieving person are, “Are you OK?” and, “She’s always with you in your heart.” No shit. I appreciated all of the condolences, and the openly caring people, who said these things; because there really isn’t anything someone can say in a situation like mine. I shook so many hands, and reacquainted myself with multiple unfamiliar faces that loved my mother like a sister and cried the same salted tears that fell down every last cheek, but they had no idea how those tears felt to me. Those burning, pained, tears of remorse and longing that retreated from my eyes because if they didn’t my head would explode. In a way I feel like my mom just abandoned me in the brightest moment of my life, but I know I cannot allow myself to think so selfishly. The most beautiful, shining light that guided me through almost every step of my existence was blown out in the short course of two weeks. My days were spent in a hospital, not as a patient, but as a person patiently waiting for a woman in a coma to finally take her last breath.

When my dad called me and told me my mom had been admitted to the medical center thirty minutes from my house I immediately collapsed to the floor. I was at school in Massachusetts, entering my first week of classes in my senior year. Everything that I had felt was normal and on the right track, and everything that I thought would never happen to me was skewed and twisted like a train flipping off its own tracks. Never in my entire life had I thought this woman would be so careless with her body and her own health. I asked my dad why. He told me they were continuing to find bottles of vodka hidden between the two houses; my mom was sleeping for fourteen hours a day, eating next to nothing, and her stomach was distended. She had quit drinking cold turkey roughly ten days before they took her in because her skin started to jaundice. She was violent, screaming, and avoiding everyone by driving back and forth to go sleep in my bed, or her own. Who was this woman? This was not my mother. This was not the woman who raised me to be the individual I have become.

I was so sick to my stomach I couldn’t attend classes that day. I booked a ferry and packed, and spent the afternoon hiding in my room, blinds drawn, crying. I felt so powerless to know that I could do nothing to help her now, nor could I have done anything to help her before. That was the odd thing about my mom – she did everything for everyone else, yet took nothing in return. My mom paid for three years of my college tuition in full behind my dad’s back without him knowing. She hosted dinner parties, holidays, family reunions, and get-togethers. She taught me how to spell my first name with a song, how to sail, how to drive, how to cook, and how to give myself the credit I truly deserved. She instructed me to never settle for less, to always push myself, and believed in me. My mom accepted me for everything I was and loved me for everything I wasn’t. She was my hero.

 

I arrived the following morning in New York in a complete and utter tear-filled haze. As I passed the house I grew up in, still inhabited by my brother and his girlfriend, I noticed that it looked as if the essence and life and memories had been sucked out of it. The yard was barren and the gardens overgrown, the flowers were wilting and her irises were brown and dried up. It looked like no one had lived there for years. I felt as though even my memories meant nothing now.

When I finally got to my dad and saw the incredible mess he was, I tried to hold it together for the two of us. However, this obviously failed miserably. My grandpa (Mom’s dad), was suspiciously chipper for such a horrible occasion, considering his daughter was in ICU at the time, but his smile made me feel a little better as I was greeted by my aunt and uncle and dog. My dad tried to explain to me that she looked bad, described her eyes as the color of egg yolks, and said her speech is slow but coherent. I felt like I was visiting a stranger.

The car ride was incredibly silent for the first twenty minutes until I mustered up, “I’m scared.” I had no other way of describing my feelings. Sadness was there, so was love, and it was all overpowered by a crippling fear. The real life horror movie I was stepping into yielded no promises and no plot, and had no hints as to who would make it out alive. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking, and next thing I knew we were in the hospital parking lot. Everyone piled out as if we were going to dinner together – all dressed nice, and happy-looking under the shining sun. I grabbed my grandpa’s arm and went to the ICU floor. We rang the entry bell where I then switched gears and entered with my dad.

Her room was the corner room. The view was that of a 7-11 convenience store and the rotary below. When we got to the doorway, the lights were off and the furniture was pushed outside of it. Oh God, I thought. It looked like the scene after my grandma had died. I whipped around to face my dad and immediately started crying. The nurse told me they were only changing her and I could go in momentarily. I still couldn’t stop crying, though, as my dad threw tissues in my direction. I heard some machinery move behind me, so I turned around. There, yellowed and thin, was my mother. She extended her arm towards me like an angel, opened her mouth and said in a voice the opposite of her delicate motions, “What the hell are you doing here?”

I let out a forced laugh as I went into the room. She took my hand in between her frail fingers. Her voice was kind of drawn out and whispering, but it was certainly her accent. “I’m so sorry, honey. You shouldn’t have come down here. I’m fine.” Yeah, definitely mom.

“You honestly think I wouldn’t be down here? Real nice.”

My mom rolled her eyes at me and told me to sit down. My dad then proceeded to go about this routine checking of her edema swelling, which had gone down, and told her of all the things the doctor said to make sure she understood. She quasi-blew him off and proceeded to talk to me of things I can’t remember, due to the shock of what I was seeing before me. All I remember her saying is, “I feel like I’m seven months pregnant,” as she poked her distended belly, full of fluids her liver didn’t process.

 

The following few days were those of trial and error, trying to figure out how bad the damage to her liver was, and to find some out-patient rehabilitation clinics on Long Island that she would consider going to. I knew she wouldn’t ever go, though. I knew from the moment when I saw her in the hospital that she had been beyond the point of repair. When the doctor told us that she fought with the psychiatrist, that’s when I knew she couldn’t be cracked into realizing what she did to herself.

“Mrs. Oster, when did you start drinking to the point of giving yourself liver damage?”

She blankly looked into the man’s face, her thousand-yard stare going past him, and replied, “My liver started to hurt after my mother died.” Then everything hit me in the face. She never cried, because she drank it away.

I tried to talk to her about things other than the shit condition she was in, because I knew she would appreciate it. Instead, the only moment I got alone to talk with her, she did all of the talking, and it was about nothing I wanted to hear.

My aunt had just stepped out and I stayed at my mom’s bedside, holding her hand. “Kate, you’ve never done anything, anything in your life to…disappoint me. I’ve always been so proud of you.”

“I know, Ma. I love you.”

“I love you too sweetie. And…I’m sorry…I’ve disappointed you so much.”

I choked back sobs as tears still ran down my face. “Mom, you’ve never disappointed me. I’ve never judged you. I always will love you. You’ve given me everything I ever wanted even without my asking. I just want you to get better.” With that, my aunt walked in, and the conversation ended.

I left her that Sunday, looking better than she had all weekend, with the intention of not visiting for another two weeks. The doctors said she still had a 50/50 chance, but her health seemed stable. It wasn’t until that Wednesday night that my dad called me and told me they had to put her on a full-face oxygen mask to help her breathe, because the fluid they tried to drain from her replenished within a day and got into her lungs. She tested negative for pneumonia, but they wanted to keep an eye on her.

Thursday afternoon rolled around, and my dad called me again, telling me that my mom said she wanted to see me because she missed me. My red flag of concern went up on this one, considering the woman just told me a week prior that I shouldn’t have spent the money to come home because she was “fine.” After heavy internal and external debate, my friend convinced me to go home that Thursday, just as a surprise to my mom. I packed an overnight bag and booked my ferry and just like that, I was headed back to the island.

By the time I got off the ferry and to the hospital it was already eight at night, just thirty minutes before visiting hours ended. I ran up to the third floor and got into the ICU to see my family sitting in the dark; my brother and his girlfriend quietly side by side in chairs, eyes red and swollen, and my dad off in the corner by the window, hiding his sobs with a towel. There my mom was, heaving breaths, disorientated staring, and then we locked eyes. I went over to her and held her hand. She said, “Your hair looks nice,” And proceeded to go on, very slowly, about how she wanted the dog. There was some silence, since the oxygen was so loud, and her voice so muffled. She pulled me in close to her:

“Kate, can you…stay…with me tonight…? Just…in case…” Again, she sarcastically rolled her eyes, but I knew she was so scared, so scare. And I was so scared too. I told her I would, even though I knew visiting hours were almost over and I would have to go home. 8:20 came around, and my mom had been persistently calling out for her dog, delirious, oblivious to what was going on. She kept pressing us how badly she wanted to go home, and how badly she wanted the dog. We tried telling her we couldn’t bring him to ICU, and with that she said “Goodnight.” We all gave our kisses and goodbyes and left.

The following morning began with a phone call and my mother was in a coma. By the time we reached the hospital she had been given twelve hours to live with necrosis of her liver, and my family and I stood around in shock, unable to think, unable to do anything. Hearing something so final, so horrific as “I’d be surprised if she lived another twelve hours,” completely numbed my soul. It’s something out of a medical show, something people watch on the television. Hell, it’s something I’ve watched on the television. Yet never in a million years would I ever suspect to hear those words uttered to me as a precaution to prepare myself the best I could and wait for her final breath. I don’t really remember what happened between me hearing the prognosis and me finding myself in the hallway outside of the ICU. I paced back and forth, everyone was walking around like lost little bugs – making circles with their feet, sitting on the window ledge, looking across the street to the 7-11, and making more and more phone calls.

A priest was called in to give my mom her last rites. I remember thinking how pissed off she probably was, that we called in a priest to tell her she was forgiven. She was the type of lady who didn’t go to church, and she always told me whatever she did was between her and God and there was no need to present herself in a room of people to prove her relationship with the guy upstairs was sincere. We followed this man like death camp detainees, single file, shaking, worn out, and scared. He began to speak, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” My mom began to shake her head back and forth with a wrinkled brow, like a person trapped in a shell. Her brain was screaming “No! Get this man out! I’m not ready.” My dad, brother, and brother’s girlfriend stood with me at the foot of the bed with our heads down and hopeless tears streaming. I wanted her to open her eyes and tell that priest to fuck off, and then say she was fine. I wanted her to yell at me, so I could say I was sorry one more time. I tried not to let out the sobs that I needed to get rid of, because I didn’t want to scare her.

After her last rites were given, we met with the social workers to arrange to have all of the machines taken off my mom. We went in for another visit with my grandpa, a ninety-one year old World War II veteran. He took off his hat and all was silent, save the scratching of the chair across the floor. He started stroking her hair as her brows wrinkled her yellow infected skin, “My baby. It’s all right my baby.” He let out these half-chuckle, half cries as he told her she was going to be fine. My dad leaned in and kept telling her, “It’s fine, babe. We’re all going home. We’re going to go home. And your Duffy dog will be there. Don’t worry.”

I remember so much pain, and a headache that lasted the five fucking days that stubborn, pig-headed woman lasted in a coma while I slept on the floor and in the bed next to her along with four to ten other family members at a time.

Make shift beds and mats were provided the first night; we used chairs and spare blankets and the hardwood floor to support ourselves. The hospice and palliative care people managed to snag a double room for her and even allowed our dog to visit her one last time. He crawled up alongside my mom and began to lick her face and cry as he nuzzled his nose under her chin. That was the last time she opened her eyes, and that was the last time she made a sound.

 

It’s pretty damn difficult to describe what someone feels when they’re waiting for their mom to take that permanent and final exhale. We all went through our own private motions, some of us crying in silent heaves with our backs turned to her, thinking she knew that she was the reason we were crying. My relatives brought comfort food and coffee the first night we were all there. Mom spent the night lunging her arms forward for my dad, as she moaned in his ear and I held her legs so she didn’t fall out of the bed. I sat there, crying on her leg, and I remembered the summer when I was four years old: We were in a chaise lounge in the backyard. I was resting at the foot of the chair, lying on her legs. It was so warm and sunny, and the grass was so green. I remembered the smell of coconut sun block, and the feel of her stubble on my face. I don’t know how long I slept for that day, but I just remembered it meant a lot to me. I spent the next couple of hours living that memory down at her feet, as her brain, writhed with sickness and ammonia poisoning, fought to stay there, and fought to try and see my dad one last time.

After a couple of hours she just stopped moving. I couldn’t move either, I couldn’t accept that her body had finally given up, and that she was officially brain-dead, technically deceased, “not too long now.” The storm that was the evening quieted down, people began to clear out, and eventually it was just my dad, brother, his girlfriend, cousin, aunt and uncle, and myself. We all sat around fairly motionless, never saying much. Dad lay in the bed next to her holding her hand, humming Amazing Grace, while hopeless tears trickled out of his empty eyes. We adopted the idea of simply passing out from exhaustion, only to sleep for an hour or so and be awoken with a jerk after realizing we were waking up into a nightmare. Nick and I were lying on the floor of the hospital room, simply not caring of sanitary things and wishing I were the one in the bed in a coma. I kept thinking that – if it could have just been me.

To this day I tell my mom I love her, and ask her for advice, and weep at night when my own shadow consumes me with flashbacks and nightmares of those last few days. Oddly enough, the last day she was alive was the first day I felt relief. We never turned away from her and we kept our promises. We told her we were going home on Friday, and we brought home to her. We even brought her 23-pound beloved shih tzu through the hospital to spend my mother’s last semi-conscious hours with her. And I kept my promise: I stayed by her side the whole time, “just in case.”

It was 9:45 in the morning. I was in the bed beside my mom, with my brother and his girlfriend sleeping quietly on the floor. My eyes were shut, and the hospital was so incredibly quiet for a Monday morning. My back was turned. Suddenly I felt a vibration under my body, and jolted up at my phone ringing. I noticed the empty room, and I looked at the clock. As I rolled over I looked at my mom’s face, looking back at me. Then without blinking, I watched her take a heaving breath in, and her bony shoulders pushing her gown, and then releasing. I counted to ten, and then twenty, and then thirty, and there was nothing. There was nothing but the hiss of the oxygen, and the sound of my own heart breaking. I stood in my pajamas, beside her, touching her still-warm hands, and crying silently like a child wanting to wake her mother up because of a nightmare, but afraid to do so. That was it. I had no more Mommy. I could never again rouse her with my own nightmare.

She is on my Mind Late Tonight

No matter how many times I tell myself that I am strong, I will always allow myself to be weakened for missing my mother. Four and a half years have gone by, my life has shifted so drastically, and she missed all of it. It bothers me to think that this September will be five years without her. And five years is a quarter of the life I lived with her in it. Five years of a roller coaster of a life, where I feel I have lived more than most people do in an entire lifetime. Some days I think to myself how tired I am – how broken I’ve been, and I just want to curl up into a ball and hide or get in my car with my dog and never look in my rear view mirrors. I just want to drive at night and not stop until I find the sunrise. I look at all the moves I’ve been through, the incredible amount of family drama, the stress with the law, police, jobs, graduating college, trying to find myself when I lost such a huge part of me. I realize now, in five short years, how little I understood of life and death and meaning, even after I watched her take her last breath.

I was raised by an addict. I am not one. Addict did not define her. She was my best friend, my confidant, my war buddy, my manicurist, my mother.

I will never be ashamed to say my mother was an addict, because it is not something to judge a person by. I slowly began to recognize her less and less as who she was as her disease progressed. It crushed me – but I never judged her. It consumed her. It ruled her life. It ripped into our beds and stole our bonds.

I will never ever try to put myself in her shoes. I will never say, “I understand,” or, “I know she was sad.” Sadness doesn’t begin to define it. I – I was sad. I was sad when she died. I was sad when I graduated college without her nine months later. She was strong. She was strong and she was scared. She tried so hard. She was so beautifully broken and put back together and broken again by her fears of judgment from others should she admit that she was in a space where she needed help.

For that, I do not judge. For that I do not try to assume I know what someone is going through. For that, I would rather understand a person’s silence then blame them for being so. I saw her silence. I saw her fear and I did not judge her. I loved my mother. I love my mother.

When the Dead Rise

The day my mom died was not the worst day of my life. It was surprisingly freeing. In a win-win sort of way, her last breath ended her suffering, and ended my suffering. The worst day, as it was for me, was being told by a short haired lady in a long white coat that my mom would never wake up again. I went completely numb. I looked at her writhing around in pain, unable to open her eyes, unable to look at me ever again, and that’s when it hit me. That finality, that sinking reassurance the woman in front of me wouldn’t say “I love you,” ever again. That, was the worst day of my life.
I went through the process of blacked out rage, punched a wall, experienced crippling shock and a nauseating headache. The doctor said it was only a matter of hours before she died, and suggested the best course of action was to unplug everything except the oxygen and move my mom to a quiet corner room, make her feel at home, and wait it out. We met with a grief counselor, a social worker, were already pawned off to a laundry list of trauma therapists and told PTSD was common in these situations. I couldn’t think straight. Wasn’t PTSD for war veterans? Is this a life war?

I didn’t expect my mom’s life to play out in the end like it did. She, a maintenance drinker my whole life –her whole life– began a vicious downward spiral in the summer of 2010. There were a plethera of reasons to cause depression for her, but it was so unknown to me what drove her to hide vodka bottles, glasses filled with vodka, diet coke bottles mixed with vodka, vodka waters in the morning, vodka on the beach – just vodka everywhere.
Luckily for me, and the mahic wheel of genetics, I never adopted the addictive personality of my mom. Growing up, her with a glass of wine every night was normal. If she didn’t have a glass of wine, something was wrong; that’s just how it was. There was no such thing as “addiction” or “habitual drinking” at that time. It was a known fact that a wine glass was merely an extension of her left hand, and a cigarette of her right. I’ve only dreamt her absent of both.
As I grew up, and became more aware that no, it was not normal for an adult to drink at the same time everyday, multiple glasses, and fall asleep on the couch, I began the pleading process with my mom and tried to convince her she could do without.
“You’re not the parent.”
I loathe– utterly, and truly, loathe that phrase. In four words, my power of influence over that woman was stripped of me, over and over again, each time I brought up the subject of her addictive behaviors. I couldn’t cope with her self-abuse, sunk into a solitary depression, and in the process found my own addiction – food. So as I coped, and traveled, and lived away at school,  progressively growing in size and shrinking in self-respect, my mother sat at home, selling houses, became a recluse, and began the slow process of killing herself.

We were over-educated on the process of necrosis, how the liver is killed and begins to break apart inside the body. We saw the catheter bags, filled with coffee-black urine from kidneys that ceased to work. I looked over  her deep yellow hue, bloated belly, and straw hair matted down. This isn’t her. My heart shattered at the thought of never having her again. Her quick wit, her sarcastic and brutally honest demeanor were lost to me. I lost my best friend so many times in her, and this was the last time.
The important step was to administer a numbing agent that would alleviate pain and also assist in the process of dying (quite frankly, after watching the suffering my mom endured at the end of her life, I now support case-by-case adult euthenasia). This shell of a woman lay in a hospital gown, hissing oxygen the only audible tone aside from the throb of my headache, and the quiet ghost-like murmurs of visiting friends and family. I didn’t blame my own friends who stayed as long as they could, but couldn’t handle the sight of a woman dying, while her family watched in a quasi-sickening anticipation. We all by this time settled with the notion that she would never wake again, and we said our goodbyes, countless goodbyes, and we waited.
I wrote her eulogy on the first night, next to her bed, while my family sat around.
Any minute now. I could see it written on their faces. I fell in and out of sleep, and distinctly remember being woken up by the voice of my grandmother, my mom’s mom, who passed almost four years earlier.

“Patty is in here.”

Now the dead are speaking, awesome. I jumped up and ran to her room. It was about five A.M. and she was still breathing. My dad was awake.
“She was never a quitter.” Ironic, I thought, her not being a quitter is what got us all here in the first place. I looked at her in the bed. Now you’re just being an asshole.
The next afternoon dragged. I washed myself in baby wipes and ate Lorna Doone cookies with tiny gingerale’s to satiate myself. I had no appetite, but my giant Italian family was there and insisted I throw something down my gullet so I didn’t get admitted myself. I watched and watched, her vitals unchanging, “Lord of the Rings” on the television in the background. People came and went, I stayed next to her. Tears came and went. Tears came and went again. Tears made multiple unwanted visits. How do I have tears left? Must be the gingerale.
The third day was sunny and bright. Mom lasted much longer than this twelve hour bullshit the doctor said. She was clinically brain dead, but her heart wouldn’t quit. I stood at the foot of her bed, alongside a family friend, Sue, who lived behind my grandpa’s house. I saw the shock in her face, not realizing the damage my mom cause to herself. I saw the same gutted loss of someone who wasn’t completely dead yet.
My mom started to move.
She’s fucking moving.
I caught, in the corner of my eye, her body rolling to the right. She’s trying to escape! The tone of the room changed immediately while for a shared moment we were all flooded in shock, disbelief, and a silent rage that mom was moving. Sue jumped up, looked down only to realize she was sitting on the bed controls and my mom in fact, was still in a coma, but was now on an unstoppable roll over the side of her bed, ass out, body limp.
“Oh my god! Oh my god!”
My dad and brother grabbed her shoulders.
“Hold her down! Stop the bed!”
Sue found the switch and stopped my mom from toppling over onto the floor and returned her to her original state of sleep.
We all looked at each other, in shock, and began to laugh. In a split second I went from being solemn, to in absolute disbelief my mom was coming back from the dead, to a slow, boiling rage that she put me through hell only to come back swinging. You bastard, I thought. I thought how mad she would be to learn I wrote her eulogy before she even stopped breathing, and how happy I was to think I’d hug my mom again, and she’d hug me back.

My mom died quietly on a Monday. The sun was out, and it was warm and breezy for the end of September. Her birthday was in a week.
“Maybe when you come home for my birthday, we’ll do something fun and spend more time together.” She said that to me in August the day I moved back to Massachusetts for my senior year of college. And here we were, September 26 – I hadn’t left her side in days. It was just her and me present when she stopped breathing. My brother and his girlfriend we asleep on the floor and in an armchair, respectively. I answered my phone to hear one of my closest childhood friends on the other end ask how I was, and how my mom was. I rolled over to look at her, and with two last breaths, she ceased to be.

“I have to call you back. I think my mom just died.”