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.

Exposure

I generally peruse Pinterest when I’m at work on my overnight shift in between talking to planes, even though it’s advised that I don’t use Pinterest at work because it may be considered “distracting” or an unhealthy use of social media. Pinterest to me is not social media, rather, a drug and the only drug I am currently hopelessly addicted to. I find inspiration for new drawings or paintings, compare myself to other artists, look at outfits I’ll never buy, and save dozens of paint swatch ideas for a house I don’t own, but when I do will have 37 different rooms of different colors; it’s an oversaturation playground for people such as myself to become hopelessly lost in the world of elevated expectations.

Recently – and more aggressively – I find advertisements from Pinterest directed to me for handmade coffins available through hyperlink on an Etsy page. Each time I log onto Pinterest – every five lines of clickbait or so – is an ominous albeit beautifully crafted coffin, advertised as reclaimed wood (and, of course, customizable). I’ve never clicked the advertisement for the fear of being redirected to the page, thus creating more coffin traffic to my paint swatches and floral designs, but I thought back long and hard to what other internet activity suggested me as a potential demographic for such a product in the first place. I honestly have found myself torn between being offended, or simply impressed to see a niche market for handmade, reclaimed wooden coffins available through a craft site.

 

It was almost refreshing to see mortality advertised to me in such a comfortable, soft manner. Alternatively speaking, however, the oversaturation of craft and talent and accomplishment has bled over into the afterlife: “We’re all gonna die anyway, but make sure you stay dead in this chic, custom coffin!” Our media platform has run rampant with options and blasts of what we each can do – a lot of which is amazing – but I would be lying if I said I didn’t find myself often comparing my own abilities as a writer and an artist to the constant flowing stream of relevant social media content.

Sometimes I forget that even as a part of this huge planet that somehow functions in its own way of synchronized entropy, I exist within my own microcosm that most of the known universe will never have the experience of viewing. And even if, for whatever reason, my entirety of life was exposed, no one can truly know the wholeness that is myself.

It makes me wonder then, as an artist, as a writer – creator in general – why I often find myself feeling so pressured to live up to a standard that ultimately proves nothing in the long run. Call me a cynic, but my exposure in this world since birth has either been censored without option, or exposed without filter. The only difference as an adult it he introduction of social media, which has mastered the art of over-exposing filtered content. It’s like playing God or controlling the weather each time I post to Instagram or Facebook, showing the world only what I want it to see and then captioning it as raw and true; we’re all guilty of it. What makes me laugh in a sad way – so sad that it’s humorous type of way – is that I’ve experienced things in my short lifetime that many would consider fake, and that I am so conditioned to be used to that I don’t bat an eye at the obscurity of it all. At the same time, I’m not sure what the point of any of it actually is.

I know what the endgame is of course – death. Dying, mortality, the only one true unifying thing we as humans all have in common. The idea that we’re all going to die one day should make us enjoy our lives more, but instead many of us spend our days trying to prove to outside eyes that we are truly enjoying our lives. In reality, though, a very large number of us are blowing away weekends to make up for our 9-5 or our shift work or our multiple jobs that we need in order to satiate our desired lifestyles and somewhere along that line we lose the true value of what our lives are meant for. We aren’t meant to just bide our time until we die; we aren’t meant to prove anything to anyone.

 

What I’ve always wanted to do is simply share. I want to give my weird, outlandish life stories to people and hope they’ll laugh, cry, gain insight, maybe even hate me; at least they’ll feel something.

Meeting Death

It’s weird to think that I met Death

Not for myself, always in passing.

He is quiet and humble

And collects final breaths

Of people who he’s ready for

It doesn’t matter if they’re ready

For him.

When it’s my turn to die

I look forward to the encounter

Not the end of my life

But the reunion with the last being

Besides me

To hold my mother’s hand

 

 

To Die Smiling

I spend so much time thinking about my mother’s passing; how it could have gone differently, how she looked, how she smelled, how it all sounded. I remember the drumming in my ears of my own heartbreak when she stopped breathing. I remember sizzling yellow overhead lights and yellowed skin, bloodied lips and scabbed nostrils. I see her carotid artery pulsing through her neck; she was so frail I could see her body fighting through her skin. Her once-voluminous hair was matted all around her face, bangs fallen to the sides like wilted flowers. Her death itself was so anti-climactic and quick and so final, that although the end of a chapter, was not the saddest part of the story.

When I think about those two weeks of  pain and torture and confusion,  I no longer cry. I no longer weep over death, and I no longer fear it. Death itself is one of the only things that we as humans have in common besides breathing, and seeing someone die made me fear it less. What I fear now, is suffering. I fear that uncertainty when you are suffering and do not know if you will wake up again. I fear not knowing if your last words will, in fact, be your last. I fear saying something and never being able to touch back upon it.

Towards the end of her life, my mom said very little. She never wanted to discuss her addiction, she never wanted me to help, and it was hard to try and speak on anything else when the elephant in the room was the person who raised me. I remember so vividly sitting in wicker chairs on the deck, the summer sun on the creek, saying nothing with her. The world around us spoke from the grass to the trees to the ospreys in the sky and she and I shared between us a silence that deafened them. I knew she was sick. She knew she was sick. She knew that I knew, and neither of us had to say it. I watched the water while she slowly dragged at her cigarette, using her free hand to lift a glass of ice water to her lips, bracelets dangling off her wrists and ice cubes clanking the crystal like wind chimes in the dead of August. She put her glass down and, without breaking eye contact with the shore, reached across and grabbed my hand in hers. We said nothing as I maintained a steady gaze on the world before me, and we agreed in our silence that we knew.

A month later, I stood in the darkness of the ICU, looking at her while she looked around wildly, incoherent and afraid.

“Please stay with me, just in case.”

I said nothing back. I couldn’t say anything back. I stood frozen in the doorway while her bottom lip quivered in fear and she called out, the nurse telling me I couldn’t stay past 8:30 PM. “I love you.”

I love you. I love you. I love you. I don’t know if she ever heard me say it that night, because she was so beyond a steady stream of consciousness. I was escorted out of ICU. She slipped into a coma alone, in the dark, sometime in the night. And I made sure I stayed with her until she drew her last breath beside me.

I think of the fear and the uncertainty. I think of how, in that moment, I saw how much she didn’t want to die, and that her last words to me were of a helpless child, finally asking for my aid her after months of defiance and silence. When I think of her death I no longer cry, yet when I think of her last words, I fight to control myself. I do not want my last words to be those of fear – I do not want last words at all. I want my last exchange to be like the silent embrace she and I shared on the deck in August. I want to look up at my loved one, and smile. I want them to know. I want them to smile back.