Reminders.

I vividly remember standing beside my mother in the kitchen, May of 2011, watching her cry for the first time in three years. Hopeless, helpless, I studied her eye, and saw someone I was unfamiliar with.

She sucked in a couple of quick breaths to stop the tears, exhaled, and looked firmly at the kitchen table. She shrugged, “I’m better off just killing myself.”

In weeks leading up to that comment, her sleep habits became erratic. Days were spent in bed, with drawn blinds and the stale smell of alcohol and depression hanging limp in the darkness. A once-reputable and successful real estate broker, she no longer had the drive to work for others – no less herself – and remained indoors, clad in a bathrobe painted with coffee stains and cigarette smoke. From time to time, she dragged a brush through her wiry hair – once regularly dyed, now predominantly gray. It wasn’t her appearance that I no longer recognized, however – it was the desperation and loss in her voice. In her, I saw an avalanche – every problem compounding and escalating into a rapid-moving descent, wiping out anything and everything in its path. I feared it was only a matter of time before this chaotic downslide reached me.

“If you’re serious about that, I’ll call out of the rest of my shift.” I desperately tried to maintain eye contact with her while she looked down at a smoldering ashtray. “I’m serious. We can go somewhere together and no one has to know.”

A long pause followed, where she resolved to pick up her cigarette and take a long drag. Her eyelids lowered and her stare became indifferent. She exhaled a solemn, smoky breath and looked at me coolly, “I’m not going to kill myself.”

For years, I replayed that afternoon in my head, and carried blame for not tossing her into a car and dragging her off to rehab.

By mid-September, I saw my mother become even less recognizable. She was unable to hide from her addiction behind denial and proclamations as she lay dying in the hospital bed before me. I left college after my first week of senior year to visit her in Intensive Care, making trips back for class, with the intention of coming home on weekends. On my first visit to the hospital, her eyes met mine. They were yellowed like egg yolks, and appeared bulging from the gauntness of her face; the doctors informed us that, although very bloated, she weighed about 80 pounds. It shocked me how drastic her appearance had been altered from the kitchen in May, and from the kitchen in August when I said my goodbyes and promised to be home for her birthday in October.

She resisted any form of greeting as I choked back tears in front of her.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I really didn’t expect anything more. She was sick, and dying, and while her body gradually shut down, her aggressive tough-love attitude shined through with biting confrontation from the moment I walked through the door.

For days, I watched my mother lose her lucidity. Her head would bobble and she was wheeled in and out of the ICU for tests and to have the lymphatic fluid drained from her body. When we sat in the hospital room together, she would begin to speak normally, and the sentences would fade as her eyes fixated on a point on the wall, and I would lose her for a few moments as she drifted into silence. From time to time, she would grab my hand and say something like, “I’m proud of you,” or, “You have to be strong.” I would cry and tell her “thank you” or, “I will be,” but part of me didn’t know whether or not to believe what she was saying was sincere or not. Part of me was mad at her for not listening, for not looking at me and thinking I was reason enough to continue living. My arms were extended for years to her and she shrugged me off, stubbornly objecting to my advances and telling me, “You’re not the parent.”

I hurried home one Thursday when my father called to tell me they had to administer an oxygen mask and a feeding tube in her nose. Taking the ferry to Long Island was like wading through sludge, as I rushed to beat the deadline for visiting hours. I arrived at the hospital around 8PM to see her in the dark, wires and tubes all over, her arms covered in bruises and her hair matted around her face like a sickening halo. My family was scattered to their respective corners, all crying or cried-out. I approached her and she grabbed my hand.

“Your hair looks nice.” Labored breaths pushed compliments from her and I couldn’t muster enough to say anything back. She babbled incoherent requests to go home and to have her dog in the hospital, and a nurse finally entered the room and told us it would be best if we left. I kissed her forehead.

“Please stay with me tonight… just in case.”

The last words my mother heard from me were, “I’m sorry. I can’t.” I turned and left the hospital, breaking down in my car, unable to accept that this was actually happening. My head continued to turn over how she could do this to herself, how I wasn’t enough, and how I hadn’t known she was so sad for so long.

Sometime in the night, she slipped into a coma, and was given 12 hours to live. Through her own stubbornness, my mother lasted four days. The morning she died, as I lay next to her in the hospital bed, I was woken up by a phone call from my childhood best friend. She asked how I was, and then about my mother. As I rolled over in the bed next to her to confirm her status, she took her last two breaths.

“I have to call you back.”

I half-anticipated angels, a bright light – something. The room, however, was silent except for my own breathing and the hiss of her oxygen mask; the bright light was substituted by a blinding row of fluorescent bulbs. I stared down over her stillness, completely devoid of thought. How, I thought, how was it capable of getting this bad? I began to replay the past week, month, six months, years in my head. All of those moments, and the last thing I said to her was “I can’t.” I couldn’t stay with her, I couldn’t save her, and I couldn’t take that back.

I was haunted by a lingering guilt for months to follow. The helplessness that a child would experience now found its way back into the forefront of my adult mind. I was matured by trauma, and crippled by a feeling of weakness. School no longer seemed to matter, yet I continued on day after day, determined to get my degree if for no other reason than a fear of my mother haunting me. I was driven by the routine and familiarity of faces I could count on passing me by in the halls. There was no longer a taste for life, not when I didn’t have my mother to reassure me that I was doing the right thing.

We never had that “final talk.” She wasn’t lucid enough to reflect on her last moments and the futility of it all; there was no remembrance back to the younger years, or where I should take my next steps in life. It felt like it wasn’t enough. She was stolen at her own hand, and I had to learn how to deal with it. I tried to cope with therapists, exercise, writing, and that hole remained. None of the guidance, recommendations, sweat or tears would make my mother’s voice appear before me. There would never be a final talk, and I was unable to accept that she left without me knowing she was proud of me, or that I did all I could to save her. All she knew was that I couldn’t stay, and I knew she couldn’t stay either.

Eventually, I got to a point where I realized I had to learn to be proud of myself, and gave up on searching for her acceptance. I would have to learn to live for a self that I wasn’t entirely sure I knew. It seemed almost impossible to go about my days without my mother’s voice, without the conversations about my life, without her reassurance – without my guide. I went about my school year, hole in my heart, fishing through student emails about graduation, online classes, and assignments due. Then, in the middle of it all, I saw a familiar address – my mother’s.

I opened the email, and read through a mundane description of family business. She told me about my father and work, my grandpa, my brother, and my dog. It comforted me to read it in her voice as I scrolled down towards the end. It was there, in the last lines, where I received the answer I had spent the past year searching for.

“I’m very proud of you. You’re like your grandmothers. You are eager and exceptionally bright… but most importantly, you are sensitive to others but don’t take sh…”

There was the outspoken, hard-loving reassurance I craved for so long. It was eternal in emails, and letters I found later in my storage unit, old voicemails, and cards. She was always proud of me. And those last moments of her life, although the freshest, hardest memories, held no candle to 20 years I lived with my mother’s love.

A Terrifying Encounter with Sleep Paralysis

I have dabbled in the world of lucid dreaming, and generally speaking, remember the vast majority of my dreams, coherent or otherwise. I write down the ones that have meaning to me, or have symbols or omens in them that interest me, and the others just fizzle off. This evening, however, a dream was burned into my head, and it has jacked up my entire night (maybe even my tomorrow), and I want to log it in order to confront this horrible nightmare I had.

It started out incoherent and sporadic like most dreams. I was walking down a dark street, not an ominous-feeling street, just a street nonetheless. There was a projector screen at the end of the road, running through a slide show of photos of my friends and I – photos that were never taken in the conscious world, but they seemed pleasant and when questioned, my friend Amanda said, “I just want the world to know how great of friends we are.”

Well that was sweet.

“I had to give the puppies back. He won’t take care of them. I know he won’t. He’s going to do a terrible job, but I had to give them back.”

“What about he baby goat?”

“That too.”

Damn, I thought. I came over to see three puppies and a baby goat and none of them were there. I hung out with Amanda and our new friend she lived with. She was a pretty girl, tall, and for some reason I just knew she played basketball. There was a euphoric-feeling throughout the encounter of us friends, and I quickly forgot about the puppies.

The dream shifted to Amanda’s roommate and myself going to play basketball at a local park, but we forgot the basketball, so we just threw around a shoe. I remember the hoop being ludicrously high, even for me, and I missed every shot. However, the sun was out and we were all having fun.

In the conscious world, my dog got up off the floor and I heard his collar jingle as he put his paws up on my bed. I began to shift from my dream to waking up, when my happy, nonsensical time immediately turned into the most hellish experience I can recall to date. A force much stronger than me held me down at my wrists and ankles, as if there were two. I could only hear one voice. It sounded like I was in a wind tunnel, the lights a flashing blue. My blankets covered my face as I could only turn my head to try and assess my danger. I could hear my dog on the outside, much more frantic. I tried to pull my hands up, but the grip became tighter. The voice became coherent as I opened my eyes and saw the imprint of this thing in the blankets staring down at me screaming in a low, growling tone.

WHY HAVE YOU DONE SO MUCH DAMAGE

WHY HAVE YOU DONE SO MUCH DAMAGE

WHY HAVE YOU DONE SO MUCH DAMAGE

I tried to scream back at it, but my voice was cracked and I was unable to convey. The background noise became louder and louder like a train was running through my room. I was trying to scream and kick and writhe my wrists around until suddenly I wrenched my shoulder and the pain threw me over to my side where I woke up screaming.

“Mom protect me! Mom protect me!”

I was heaving and sweating and I couldn’t figure out where I was until the cold air from my open window hit me. I looked over and saw my dog in an absolute panic on the floor, staring up at me in the dark.

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.