An Hour with my Grandpa

“No, no. That was bullshit. See? I wrote there, bullshit.” And there it was, in all its glory, the shaky handwriting of my 97-year old grandpa populating the margins of a World War II story he was given.

Bull

Bullshit

Not true

He handed me a stack of paper in a plastic folio, color printed and donning the emblem of his old bombardier group he was with for the duration of the War up to, and following, his capture in Germany. The initial bullshit in question was a paragraph referring to the prisoners of Stalag 17B – a notorious prisoner of war camp located in Austria (watch the show) – and how they were rationed roughly 54 pounds of coal per day in order to warm their barracks. He and I sat side by side on the couch, while i frantically scribbled in pen his story of the barracks; Anyone who is close to a veteran of the war – any war at that –  knows the value and importance of these stories. And not just, “I was in the war (insert place and time)” but rather the experience stories, the ones that merit a thousand-yard stare and suddenly you as the listener are beside them in their own personal hell. Living with my grandpa for three years helped me to understand his night terrors, and how the war affected him almost 70 years later. It made me more motivated to listen to him, and value his stories and document them.

I saw his eyes drift into another plane, like an out of body experience, grabbed my pen, and prepared. He would systematically look down and acknowledge and make sure I was writing, smile at me, and keep going.

“54 pounds of coal. I can’t believe it. Where did he come up with that number? Hell, I was lucky to get two – a couple of lumps to warm me in the damn winter. And that part about the Red Cross….” He pointed to the next line marked bull and paused while I watched him relive cold Austrian nights in prison camp.

“We had an outhouse….we’d call it the shitter. 150 of our guys – English, American – all crammed in this barrack, and the shitter was in the middle. It was overcrowded, and it smelled, and I didn’t shower for two years. I didn’t brush my teeth for two years. I lost teeth.” He looked at me, flashed his dentures, and stuck his pointer finger in his mouth, mimicking a tooth brush.

“Anyway, the shitter was covered in wood like an outhouse would be, but you know, we’d get cold. We didn’t have anything to keep us warm; they took so much from us. A guy here, a guy there, one by one would take a piece of wood off the shitter. Next thing you know, we’re all shittin’ in front of each other. Who cared? We had to survive…we had to survive.”

I put myself there. I placed myself in this overcrowded camp, full of filth and disease and downtrodden men, and goosebumps covered my neck. Two years. Two years of hell and back for this man.

“The Red Cross would give the English their care packages, and the Americans theirs. It was never much, and it would only usually go to one guy at a time, last you a week maybe. We all shared our care packages….cigarettes, vitamins, whatever they could give us. When I was in there, I got the jaundice real bad. I didn’t know, because I never really looked in a mirror – but all the guys were asking me, ‘Harry, why’s your eyes so yellow? What’s wrong with your skin?’ The English men gave me an English care package, full of vitamins and vitamin C. I got better, I was real grateful.”

Through the squalor these men took care of each other, and this was the first time ever that my grandpa opened up about the prison camp. He remembered the layout of the barracks, the rations, the food, and the liberation. He remembered the Long March, and the pain in his eyes said so much more than his words.

“I wish I wrote down more of those days, it would be important for people to know about the march. It was so cold, we walked and walked for…I think…maybe 28 days. We didn’t have barracks anymore, we barely had shoes. I slept under a horse carriage some nights, and we stole vegetables from people’s gardens to survive until we got to where we needed. I really thought that was the end for me – out there marching – I didn’t think I was going to make it home to my girl.”

I am Grateful

Recently, I encountered a piece of writing – about 70 pages – that I scribbled out in 2012, eleven months after the loss of my mother. It encompassed the dark, secluded, depressed state that I was in for so long after she died, and I read it for the first time since I wrote it. When I wrote this particular novella (I guess), I did so out of anger. I took my insomnia, my fleeting thoughts, my questions, my hate and confusion, and poured them out of me like hot lava over the course of about two weeks. I remember, when I finished this piece, not feeling angry any longer, which is exactly why it stayed a mere 70 pages or so. It hurt me to read it. It rubbed back over all of the emotional scars that I spent the past five years allowing to heal while I tried to figure out how to trudge through the hell that was the death of my mom. The writings were so raw and painful to recognize – to see it as myself, as I was. I cried throughout the Intro (released onto my blog before this post itself). I cried for the girl who I was and for the amount of hurt and loneliness she experienced. The entries lashed out at the world around her; at neighbors, at family. They were paranoid, twisted, irrational ideas, but they were natural and real for someone who feels like they have everything ripped from them at once.

It’s certainly difficult for anyone to lose a parent, no matter what way, or at what age. Loss as I have observed simply within my own family is perceived, absorbed, and handled, dealt with or otherwise, differently by each person. It is a relative experience, felt on a varying scale. I do not share my stories – my loss, struggles, and personal insight – with the idea that how I coped is the right way, or how I survived is the only way to do so. However, I share the stories I write with the hope and intention that someday, somewhere, someone will read what I went through and actually feel like they aren’t alone. In the end we are all looking to feel like we belong, and I know for myself, the hardest time to feel like you’re part of something is when you’re torn apart.

I am grateful. I am grateful to have a passion for writing. I am grateful for the small community of individuals I know who tell me that the things I write about helped them get through something. I love when someone tells me I made them laugh, and I have a mildly sadistic joy inside when someone tells me I made them cry. I love telling stories, and other people’s stories, and I am grateful I can tell them. I lost fear of judgment for writing and being read because, in the end, my writing is my feelings and no one can feel those feelings except for me. The goal now is to have others respect those feelings, or relate to them in some way. If someone feels less alone, then I feel I’m doing something right.

Intro

 

Wake up. I glared bright-eyed into a thick dark nothing while the oscillating fan breathed life back into me with each methodical pass. The outlines of my room became more apparent as the urge to get up increased. I fought my way through the queen-sized down comforter. It’s August. My feet touched the carpet; dirt and small objects imprinted themselves gently into my heels. Although rough and calloused from many summers trudging through sand and gouging on broken shells, my feet were still so sensitive. More sensitive now even after the profession I had taken up in this small, shallow town. I searched helplessly for the light and as it illuminated my room, my eyes momentarily flashed back to darkness with the shock. My graduation tassels hung delicately on my wall, shadows dancing with the fan, ebbing and flooding like a tide that relentlessly touches upon shore.

My door creaked open as I switched up to the balls of my feet on the grainy wooden floor. With each step the panels moaned as the seemingly forever trip to my bathroom became more hurried. I slipped passed my grandfather’s open door, unaware of the conversation he was having with Death, as the invisible cold black figure took his unconscious hand into the moonlight, preparing him for his own end. Then I heard my grandpa snore and roll over and Death shook his fist to the sky in defeat.

The only thing awake besides Death and myself were the crickets – insomniacs that lulled me to sleep with their chirping and chiming ever since I was a little girl. The toilet seat was cold for an August night. I pulled the blinds shut and stared down at a helpless spider I thought I killed hours earlier when I was brushing my teeth. It crawled and crawled up the yellowed siding of the bathtub while its weak threads clung to nothing but soap scum and history. This bungalow had seen better days and so did the people living in it. If walls could talk they would shout through the paper at guests and residents alike, warning them of the death that happened, of the unrest, and of the religious excuses for the actions of others. The fresh coat of paint and new half bath were mere distractions, like a woman reapplying her make-up so people wouldn’t notice that new pimple or her wrinkle she got from fighting with her husband the day before. As each horrible thing happened in my house, we kept fixing it and adjusting the tapestry.

I am stuck in my own personal House of Usher as Poe laughs at me from a higher bookshelf next to my empty diploma case. I feel like my grandpa is nesting; like a woman does for a newborn, except he’s doing it for Death. He tells me almost every night that he isn’t ready to go yet – “The window people are coming tomorrow.” I suddenly became lost in my own thoughts.  I flushed the toilet that would be cleaned tomorrow and washed my hands lazily. The mirror gleamed back at me with pale lights as I stared into my tired eyes, purple bags slouching below them. My hair stood up on many frozen ends like they were trying to escape my thoughts, too. I looked so tired. I always looked tired nowadays. Sleep is for the weak and the dead and I was told I couldn’t be either of those things. I could only think about those in my own mind. My mother, for instance, was always on my mind, and now that she was separated in jars between two dressers and a mantle piece, was more apparent these days. Only she knew how much I thought about just never waking up in this world only to wake up to see her again in the afterlife. This kind of talk warranted my therapist on several occasions to question my mental stability and she always approached with, “So…are you suicidal then?” I always replied with, “No, I’m Catholic.” I had to applaud her boldness in asking me, though. No one really ever asked me how I was doing, especially these days. I returned to a town and a house that boasted wealth but those dwelling inside it were poor in spirits. The stench of the decaying elderly mixed with plug-in air fresheners gave the appearance of a funeral home in this once enjoyable abode. The floral carpeting, spotless hardwood and prescription pill bottles would suggest an older crowd, and I was thrown into the mix as a twenty-one year-old college graduate, waiting on her diploma and her big break.

I, instead, live with my grandfather who is well into his 90’s but still insists on driving and cooking and giving himself the false identity of someone much younger than he is. I have been living here since last November, originally in a room sizeable to a closet with a closet inside of it. I only recently upgraded to the room my mother used to sleep in; the one my Aunt Eleanor died in, and the one next to the room my grandmother took her final heaving breaths in. My mother almost died in this room as well. It was bad enough that I slept in the bed she slept in for almost a month, but that isn’t what bothered me. She actually attempted to die in this bed. I was away at school, and she refused to tell me that she was sick, or dying, or killing herself slowly, and she just expected to expire, engulfed in old floral cotton sheets, head resting on stale pillows that were never replaced, without a care for dignity or admiration or acceptance. She wanted to end it and didn’t care who witnessed it. She wanted to beat her father in the race to Death’s door and rang his doorbell multiple times before he finally answered. And because she didn’t want to die like a dignified person, she unfortunately did not get to choose the manner in which she’d go. This manner, however, was chosen by doctors, and by family, and this was the only decision she was not allowed to have the responsibility over. And because of her, I am now battling a combination of depression and the automated Weight Watchers online guide in a room next to a man who talks to Jesus in his sleep more than I have in my entire life.

 

It’s on nights like these where the August humidity seeps into the blossoming September evenings and attempts to choke you in your sleep that I sit up and contemplate just what in the world is going on. I sit in the dark on top of my sheets and stare at a ceiling poorly lit by the blind moon as he throws around his light carelessly through trees, peering into my window. He imposes on me like a nosy neighbor, like the many we have in this town. My night vision kicks in after a long and tumultuous battle with blackness and I examine my room in its dark form, as if that’s any different from what it looks like during the day. Nothing looks that appealing in the dark except for bodies, and the expansiveness of the twilight hours seems to push my room in on me. My bed is too large. My room is too small. My closet is too close. This mirror is too close to my bed. All of these things impede on my personal space and crowd my body like my thoughts that push against the barriers of my skull. I stare and stare until night takes me away and pushes me into the throes of my dreams where I must be alert in order to see the morning again, no less allow them to take me over.

 

My dreams have been abstract and unpleasant for the past eleven months, where torturous situations place me in the kitchen I grew up in with my mother standing at the stove. We talk about current events as she drags on her cigarette and fries eggplant. She throws each fried circle, crisp and bubbling, onto a paper plate lined with paper towels and I eat them as fast as they touch. Her smoke is comforting and sticks to my body along with the heat and grease of the summer cooking. She tells me she should have never left and that she’s sorry I’m stuck with everything and that I should have the house left to me. She tells me that she never really wanted to kill herself and it spiraled out of control towards the end. I get several apologies, thanks for not judging her, and remorse for not being able to remember what her hug will feel like in the morning. I tell her it’s fine because she’ll stop in on my dream in a couple of weeks again. Things turn fuzzy and incoherent after that hug, and every time someone crashes a car, or I wind up being chased, or I step out onto some weird endeavor that really has no end until I wake up to a buzzing alarm clock. I fight to remember her hug, and her cigarettes, and eventually give in to the morning sun and my full time job. The monotony kicks in and it’s not the pleasant monotony I was hoping for after my mom died. I was hoping for a full house of family; for bonding; for summer days simmering on the beach under the hot July sun like the eggplant in the pan. I prayed for silence and peace and a belonging where everything suddenly and perfectly made sense. But then I wake up again and realize I work seven days a week. I crush my own spirits down to prevent the environment in which I enter everyday from doing so. If I’m anything like my mother, it’s that I would never let anyone but myself bring me down. I lowered my expectations of this summer and the future so much that indifference is the deciding factor in everything that happens. This leads to everything playing out like a radio song on repeat and I can’t change the channel. I just go with it. I’ve become sucked into a routine of work work work and then going home to clean clean clean and then sitting in the black black black dark until I pass out.

I know that every Thursday is cleaning day, where I clean the toilets, mop the floors, vacuum, and dust everything within reason only for it to be disheveled and dirty by Thursday evening. It’s like I can’t make the dust disappear; it just runs away from my Swiffer and hides in the corners and under the couches until I leave. But, I do it relentlessly, and I do it without complaint, because I have a free room to sleep in and a roof over my head. It’s because I’m guilted into feeling like I have done something wrong to deserve the life I’m currently living. Like I’ve done nothing even remotely commendable, I am the Help. I am the live-in maid, psychologist, referee, and janitor. I mop up the sorrows, sweep away the pains, break up the fights, and diagnose the troubles. And just like the dust that is not mine on the floors that I don’t own in the house that I don’t pay for, the problems that do not belong to me resurface and I sweep them away again. And they cannot be ignored. Oh no. Because the second I turn on a fan to relieve myself from the blistering heat the dust swirls up in my face, causing discomfort and I can’t just not get rid of the dust to try and make myself more comfortable. When I get to the point of inconceivable intolerance, I put on my sneakers and walk. I walk for miles and hours in the humid and I push through it as it grabs my arms and pulls me back like everything else. I tell it to go screw and turn the corner, up the hill, make a right, pass some horses, and another right turn. Eventually my left knee gives out but I keep going because the physical reminders that I’m still alive push harder than my numb brain and next thing you know I’m up the hill and going home. I don’t mind the soreness, or the shin splints, or the sweat, because that can just go away. Things like that disappear, and it only happens when I make it happen. It’s control, and it’s all I have.

In this world of confusing monotonous chaos that I exist in the only things I have control over are my bodily pain and how much I eat. If the monotony were a pleasant array of excitement and surprises and happiness this would be different. However, I am stuck being Atlas except I eat more and exercise less. The ratios are currently off in the favor of intake, but at least I can still control it. It is something unpredictable; my feet go until they cannot, and I never know when that will be until I get a shooting pain up to my hip telling me to stop and I shrug it off and drown it out in the soupy summer heat as I pass a field that has more vastness than the confines of my own mind, where everything has become a beehive overloaded with unnecessary troubles and information. I’d rather be sick in the body than sick in the head and the lack of flare and individual input put a damper on my usual taste for excitement. I predict the conversations I have with my grandpa before they happen, I know exactly what my dad will talk about when I get out of work, and I still can’t seem to figure out my own processes. I go back to the thick, dark, soupy night in my bed that’s too big and wonder about the most unknown thing: myself.

I was in constant opposition of staring myself down, especially during those late night stints attempting to solve the crises of the world from the toilet seat. In those nights where I would stare at the ceiling asking where the fuck did I go wrong? I would pray that the answer would fall from the darkness and smack me square in the face. My eyes stay wide but tired as I heave my thoughts around in my head like heavy boulders until I exhaust myself into oblivion yet again. I would wake up several hours later and make that ever-so-familiar trip into the darkness where fear is my only friend and I stare deeply into a bathroom mirror from 1974 and see the same thing over and over again. I would never see change, and Thursday would still be cleaning day.

This horrendous and unacceptable amount of unadventurous life was starting to get the best of me, and I knew that I had to press on with my ambitions. And at the same time, I knew I couldn’t. My life had begun to play out like a sappy and stupid indie film where everything is ironic and the awkward kid gets through school and finds love. I did one of those things, and as a disclaimer my heart is as hard as a rock. I spent days just staring at old pictures and acknowledging that I allowed myself to become sedentary and fat over the past few months (years) up to and following college. Subconsciously my body gave up and decided that years upon years of learning and unbearable, unavoidable trauma needed to take a back seat while I focused on myself. I missed the memo, however, and just sank into oblivion with food and unnecessary spending. My mind would swim for hours with thoughts and ideas of what I could have done, how it could have been, and how much I was pissed off now seeing how everything decided to pan out. Seeing how people chose to take their separate paths and how they indirectly, yet so effectively, dampened my own strenuous existence. I sat undeserving in my Oxford University sweatshirt thinking of better times and the what-haves until I either got hungry or cried or just went to bed.

This unconnected and indifferent chain of events that all somehow swept in and smacked my life square in the testicles equally confused and devastated me. I spent years and months and minutes screaming why out to the ceiling until I realized no one would hear me. When I stopped screaming at the vertical nothingness I was struck with the deafening tones of rejection from the universe. No one wanted to help me, because everyone was busy helping himself or herself. Then when I actually swallowed my pride and asked for help, it was thrown back at me, and I learned quite painfully that I’m the only person I can rely on 100 percent of the time. That idea was comforting and terrifying, because I realized quickly how little faith I have in my own strengths – boasting it in public and unable to find it when alone. I needed to get back on good terms with the universe, and that is a chapter that hasn’t ended yet.

The First Summer I Remember

My childhood was spent in a cape house on Goose Creek in Southold. I lived under the barnacle-covered dock, in the trees, on the sandbars, and in a boat cabin. I was a sailor, a pirate, and an explorer. My imagination was my reality, where time did not exist – it was home. The neighborhood children would roam the quiet side streets, barefoot and wild, picking stones from their toes and walking across each other’s yards. Sometimes we would converge for nighttime games, other nights were spent in solitude in a confessional with nature. Our bodies smelled of salt and fire as our memories struggled to hold on in between the cracks of our skin. We showered outside under the oak trees and dried in the sun, laid out in our bathing suits, only to return to the creek hours later.

One day, I left my creek, my home, salt clinging to my neck as I closed the gate doors one last time. Chipped white paint and rusted hinges, caressed year after year by salted air, clung to the sleeve of my shirt saying, “Don’t go yet.” I shut the flood lights and stared over the dock and saw myself on the water’s edge. I saw my mother, her spirit left behind to guard the kingdom. I wanted to mourn, but instead felt myself smile. I felt warm. Decades under that same summer sky, endless memories, yet in that moment, I recalled my first.

I was two years old, with knotted gypsy hair and doe eyes that were guarded by long eyelashes and the nape of my mother’s neck. My skin was coated in salt and oils from the Mother creek and my mother’s hands. The first smell I ever remembered was coconut. My brother played as I sat in the grass of an infinite lawn. Cool green blades dusted me off while the sun left marks on my face. My eyes grew heavy. I crawled to my mother who lay in a chair, palms to the sun. Her legs were thin and long and rough, and smelled of coconuts. I wedged myself between her legs and rested my head on the belly that once held me, and sleep took me.

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

We were salty children. We were raised at the shore, feet soaked in brine; our mother taught us to trust the minnows that cleaned our toes while we squirmed and giggled. We built empires of sand and dried reeds that housed defiant crabs. We were the crabs. The water’s edge was our kingdom.

The creek was the cure-all. If we were cut, bruised, or sad, Nana would send us “into the drink” to marinade and heal. “It’s good for you,” she’d happily insist, although she never joined us. We would disappear under the dark water and come back up like bufflehead ducks while she watched from land. Loons would perch on dock pilings around us, contrasted black against the summer sun, water-soaked wings outstretched in patience. I saw Nana once dip into the creek, old and regal, as she appeared to wash the years off her soul, only to come back old and regal – and pure. She became sick, and the creek called, but she never did go back in. We missed her on the summer days to follow, when the sun faded and the humidity broke as if God himself took the cover off us. We sat on the shore, examined our scarred feet that lay infinitely beyond us, leathery from the sun; the sand seemed to grow over our bodies and made our skin our own homes.

At night we rested on the dock and watched the moon jellies glide underneath the water’s surface like Hades’ souls, aimless and uncontrolled. The delicate blue lights of the jellyfish mirrored the stars that hung above us, closer than usual over our creek. They illuminated our eyes, and we lay still on the dock as to not wake up Time. He sat behind the treeline for us, and he always came back around with a torch and baked the salt into our shoulders, left his mark on our faces and put knots in our hair.

 

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.

I am a Speck

FB_IMG_1457514094169    Often times, as tiny people on a big planet, the world seems unjustly overwhelming. We get so bogged down with problems, and snags, and hitches, and tragedy, that we feel like there is nowhere to go except under our covers. We bury our heads in the sand, we isolate, we brood, and we wait it out to try and make that feeling pass. I recall overhearing conversations between my dad and grandpa,

“She’s depressed. She needs to see a therapist.” They would agree and I would just listen, never going to therapy and never wanting to speak about my problems. As far as I saw it, what was a third party going to tell me that I didn’t already know? I was depressed, I missed my mom, I had PTSD, I wasn’t suicidal, I was binge eating, I was sad, lonely, frustrated, emotional, numb, regretful, angry, grieving. I knew everything that was going on inside of my head, inside of my soul, and the last thing I wanted was to hear it repeated back to me. I was twenty-one years old, and less than two months earlier, I watched my mom succumb to the damages of alcoholism. I grew up only to watch her suffer more and more, year after year, and feel increasingly helpless and she became increasingly more destitute of hope.

After her passing, more than anything, I wanted to escape. I was living between Massachusetts and New York, driving countless miles, finishing my bachelor’s degree on time, and wondering if life was worth it anymore. I felt singled-out, small, and useless. I felt like I was out of my body, floating above my friends and family, jaded and undeserving of the “normalcy” they all seemed to possess. It was like the sensation of drowning, without being granted death. I longed to just run away, back to Oxford, back to an unfamiliar place to make me find myself again, and as if it were an omen, my best friend Candice entertained the idea of traveling to Portugal.

Eighteen hours of travel and limited sleep mattered very little when we arrived at the empty resort in the empty resort town. I liked the isolation. I liked the solitude. I was with my friends but part of me wanted to stay alone. I wanted to get lost in the streets, and sit in cafes and exchange eye contact with people I would never see again. We walked up and down the piers and beaches, drinking cappuccinos and eating traditional food. Quickly, we were acclimated to the slow and steady drum of that coastal ghost town.

One morning, walking towards the beach, we noticed a sign, and a beaten down foot path. When we could have gone straight down to the water, three of us hooked a right and, single file, began walking. We didn’t know where the path was going to take us, and we didn’t know where we were going, but we could see the whole oceanfront from where we were, and the sun was high and the breeze was inviting. We passed old leaning trees, towering succulents, and rigid dips in the cliff-side. The view was amazing. The ocean – so blue – and so massive from where we were. I strained my eyes as far west as I could, but I only found the bend of the horizon. My friends and I stopped to take photos, inspect the flora, and snoop around fences of houses lucky enough to line the cliff. We walked for what seemed like hours, as if we were headed towards that bend I kept looking to. Red clay dust kicked up, and the earth switched from dirt to grass to tree covering. On the far side of the trees was a large opening, and a sign warning us of where the ocean tore into the cliff, telling us to stop; we didn’t have to go further.

I looked at the midday sun illuminating the world before me. Seagulls perched along the rocks, and I was jealous of them to not have the luxury for myself. I breathed in the salty air – the air that tasted like home. In that moment, I felt like a speck. I was so overwhelmed by the size of my surroundings, I was so far away from home. And yet, I was breathing in the same salt air, and standing under the same sun.

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.”