Friday, February 26, 2010



Recently, during the end of a family evening, I felt the loss of my mother more acutely than I have in a while. It was during a conversation about my in laws. My wife and I have been on the outs with them for about six months and when we were discussing it this time she hit on an important issue. One of the big issues is that they don’t seem to put any value or priority in getting to know their grandson. And the thing is that whatever they’re mad at us about has become so important to them that they’d rather avoid us than see him. All this continues despite my wife’s attempts to put aside her own discomfort with them to get the family together. While discussing this I felt void left by my mother’s death as if it had just happened. Our lives would be so different if she were still here.

My mother would have wanted to see Ryu as much as possible. In my day dreams, where my mother is alive and well and living just a mile and a half away, we see her three or four times a week. We’re there for dinner because we were passing by and we stopped in and then we all got hungry. She’s over at our place reading to him while sitting on a big pillow on the living room floor. She’d convince us to let her come over to baby sit on Wednesdays so we could get out for a couple hours. In all the dreams of him growing up she’s there rooting him on, smiling that satisfied smile knowing that she’ll do even better with him than she did with us because she won’t have to worry as much. She would have brought all the joy and passion to being a grandmother that she brought to her work and her friendships. She’d be perfect.

Of course this is all fantasy. No one’s perfect. Beyond that if my mother had never gotten sick there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be back in California. If she hadn’t died we may not have felt the same urgency to come back here. We might still be in DC wondering what we were going to do about childcare and desperate to meet other parents. We certainly wouldn’t be in our current home since my mother’s life insurance became the down payment. Instead we’d likely be upside down on some condo in Silver Spring. Still, I think we would have come back by now. I can’t see anything in the last few years that would have convinced me to raise my kids in DC. If there was a positive in my mother’s passing it was that it got us back to our community. Back to our friends who are already experienced parents. Back to the people who can give us advice, and support, and hand me downs. Her passing brought us home.

The next day I heard this story on This American Life. It’s about a woman who’s mother had cancer and knew she was going to die. So the mother wrote a series of letters for her daughter to open each year on the daughter’s birthday beginning at age 18. In the end the daughter and her father come to see the letters as a kind of curse. For them the problem is that while they continued to grow and change the voice of the letters did not. They felt stuck trying to adhere to the wishes of someone, long since gone, who every year would try to exert some influence on their lives. Again I felt my mother’s absence like a swirling vortex in my soul.

My mother and I got to say goodbye, but that was all we got. I know I might sound selfish because many people don’t even get that but I still feel cheated. We could have had so much more except no one would acknowledge that my mother was dying. When she was diagnosed she already had stage four renal cell carcinoma; a kind of cancer that doesn’t respond to traditional cancer therapies like chemo. After the first few months I knew she was going to die. But because she couldn’t admit it, or she was trying to be brave for my brother, or she really thought she’d pull through we never talked about the possibility.

Because no one would talk about mom dying we never got to have the conversations I longed for. I wanted to get closure on all the things that had haunted us for so long. I wanted to tell her that she had been a good mother and that I forgave her for all the negative things that had passed between us. I wanted to get her advice on marriage and child rearing. Mostly I just wanted us to be able to spend her last months really loving each other without reservation. Instead I felt pressured to keep up with the manic positivism of the rest of my family. After all “everything” was “going to be OK.” We’d have plenty of time to hash out the past.

Surprisingly, when my mother died it was sudden and unexpected. She had gone in for some tests and was supposed to go home but she ended up staying. She never did go home. I had spoken to her on Thursday afternoon. This was a day after she was supposed to have gone home. “They’re just going to keep me over one more night for observation. I’ll call you tomorrow. I love you.” Those were the last words my mother ever spoke to me. Not bad as last words go. The next time I saw her she had a tube down her throat and couldn’t talk. That was Friday night. I was living in Washington DC and I’d had kind of a bad feeling all morning when I got a call at my office. The doctor on the phone said that if I was going to see my mother again it had better be today. Two hours later I was on a plane to California.

When I got to the hospital and spoke to the doctors it was clear that my mother wasn’t going to recover. Her organs, at least the ones that filter toxins weren’t working at all and her blood wasn’t clotting. They had kept her alive by inducing a coma and pumping a constant stream of blood in and out of her body. The thing that happens with this is that over time the brain is slowly starved of oxygen. They could have kept her like that for a while, but she’d be a vegetable. The most humane option was to turn everything off and let her go. The one solace was that they offered to wake her up and let her say goodbye.

As the oldest and only adult child the decision making role had fallen to me. When my mom came to and started to reconnect with the world around us she recognized me and took my hand. “Hi mom.” was all I could muster. I think she could see it in my eyes. She knew why I had come. With the breathing tube adhered to her face she mouthed as best she could, “It’s OK. It’s OK. I’m ready.” I explained to her what was going on. She nodded in comprehension and agreement. In her eyes I could see she was trying to comfort me. We were able to call a small group of her close friends in to say goodbye. Mom had faded a little bit by then having turned up her pain meds with the little button next to her bed. I introduced them as one at a time they each got a few minutes to say goodbye. I knew my mom was lucid when I mispronounced someone’s name and she shook her head vigorously. “Mom, Judy’s here. Would you like to talk to Judy?” This was followed by a very strong “negative” “I’m Julie honey.” “Sorry. Mom Julie’s here.” Affirmative. She knew what was happening.

After friends and family had had their opportunity for closure I was able to have one last moment. Around her tube she mouthed, “It’s OK. You can let me go. I’m ready.”

And that was it.

And it should be enough, but it’s not.

I feel cheated.

Not just because my mother died. Not just because my son will never know this wonderful woman. Not just because she missed out on a really fun joyful part of her life that she had been looking forward to for years. I feel cheated because of this bullshit sense that we all have be endlessly optimistic. I feel cheated because I didn’t get to have those final conversations with her that I needed. Maybe it sounds selfish. Maybe it is selfish. After all dying is a very personal process. But goddamnit she’s dead and I’m still here. I’m the one who has to keep living with this pit in my heart every day. I’m the one who has to look at my son and know that there are no answers to my questions.

Which brings me back to the This American Life story. I would give almost anything to have one last token of my mother’s love. One last message, something I could hold on to, something tangible that shows she was thinking about how I could cope with the future without her. I wish she had written something to Ryu, to me, to the family, something that we could go back to and say, “See, this is what grandma thought. This is what she had to say before she left.” The problem for the people in the story isn’t that they were growing and changing it’s that they felt the need to argue with ghost instead of just appreciating that in her final days that mother wanted to remain as a presence for her family. They couldn’t find a way to laugh off or otherwise set aside the parts of the mother’s message that no longer fit their worldview.

I wish my mother still had some presence, any kind of presence, in my life. I don’t really feel one. I don’t’ feel like she’s watching me from heaven. I don’t’ feel like her spirit lives on in the artifacts of hers that I have around my home. I just feel like she’s gone. She’s gone and I’ll always have this hollow spot in my heart. That’s why my in-law’s behavior is so infuriating. They seem like they take it all for granted. They do this despite the fact that my father-in-law may be dying of cancer himself. They have a chance to know Ryu that my mother never had and they don’t care. They’re willing to sacrifice that relationship with him because of some perceived problem with us. I really hope they change their minds before it’s too late. He’s at an age now where he can start to remember people. If you don’t know what you have until it’s gone what happens when you’re the one that’s leaving? What will you leave behind? What will you say before you go? I wish I could have one more message.


Update: In the years since this was written my wife's parents have been much more present in our lives. I don't remember how it happened, but somehow we were all able to set aside our disagreements and hurt feelings and move on. They have been wonderful supporters of us and our now three children for several years now. My father-in-law is in remission and is now able to travel and visit us. It's wonderful what you can accomplish when you have time on your side.

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