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As a writer, I have always been able to find the perfect words to describe what I’m thinking and feeling. In the past eleven days, words have fallen short. The words I am writing now will fall short as well. They simply will not do justice to the heaviness that lies in my heart, nor to the panic that rises in my chest that I am forced to settle when I realize that this is my new reality.
Eight years ago, my father lost his battle with stage four cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer). Lying next to him in the bed I’d run to in the middle of the night for all the years of my childhood when I had a bad dream, I watched him fight to take his last breaths. Over and over again, he gasped for air. Over and over again, I somehow held on to the tiniest hope that by some miracle, he would keep on breathing. But he stopped, and so did my world.
My parents and I had not always gotten along, and because of this there was a lot of space between us. Life got in the way, struggling to survive on my own got in the way, my denial of the severity of his illness got in the way, and I got in my own way. I will always regret the days I could have spent with him, but in his last days, I was able to apologize... to be forgiven, and to forgive. To say goodbye.
Eleven days ago, my mother departed this Earth without any of us having that chance. I didn’t even know she was going in for the routine tooth extraction we’d discussed at length the week before, until I received a call from my sister at work that morning. “Mom is having a reaction to the nitrous oxide,” she told me. I reassured her that all would be fine, and to keep me posted, but felt myself unable to return to my desk When she called me back ten minutes later, our mother was already gone.
I felt it the moment I saw my phone ring, I felt it the moment I started my car, and I felt it as I drove rather recklessly to the emergency room forty minutes away. I felt her joining my father. Out loud, hands gripping the steering wheel, I begged for his help, for God’s help. I told him that we were not ready, that my sisters were not ready. That we were not strong enough. But I could not bring myself to ask either of them to send her back, to wake her up, to keep her here with us. I could not, because I already knew that with one glance at the spirit of my father, the love of her life, there would be no turning around. We were not ready, but I knew that she was.
When I arrived at the hospital, I knew that I was nearly running through the infuriatingly slow-moving doors to one of the worst days of my life. When I saw the ambulance pull up moments after me—leisurely—I knew what awaited us. When they finally led the three of us, hand-in-hand, into the room to be with her, my fears were all confirmed. The next few hours were a blur of anxiety, futile glimpses of hope and devastation. It is one thing to watch a loved one pass away in the comfort of their own home. As difficult as it still is, you are left with only a desire for their peace, for their ability to finally be able to rest. This was not that. Not even close.
This was a room full of at least twenty people working in organized chaos to give us the knowledge that they did everything they could, even when they knew there was nothing more they could do. This was hearing my sister imploring our mom to stay with us, somewhere above the beeping of ten different machines. This was her labored breathing, the coldness of her hands, the dilation of her pupils, the coldness of her hands, the suctioning of the blood from that damn tooth she had complained only about having to spend her whole tax return on taking care of. This was the knowledge that she had been without oxygen, and without a pulse, for too long. This was knowing, deep down, that if she could hear us at all it was from up above us, not from below us on that stretcher. This was leaving the room to allow for a chest X-ray and a central line to see technicians performing CPR, and letting my sisters think it was necessary for its insertion. This was reassuring them that a trip to the ICU was a good thing, because she would be stable enough to be moved. This was re-entering the room only to be forced back out moments later after hearing someone yell “V-fib!” and telling them not to turn around before the doors closed because I knew exactly what they’d see if they did. This was the look of pain, kindness ,and sympathy in the eyes of the doctor who asked us to make a decision. It was knowing she could not influence our decision by saying there was no more hope, but seeing the lack of hope in her expression. It was all of us, huddled together, united in our choice to let her go if she needed to go. It was watching the techs work vigorously to keep her heart beating until her brother arrived just in time to see them stop, it was the hands of the nurses holding us up in case we could no longer stand, it was the announcement of her time of death, and it was thanking the doctor for trying everything she could. It was being handed the wedding rings she never took off in a plastic bag... seeing her sneakers in another bag sitting on a chair. It was providing her address, phone number, place of employment, and primary care doctor and changing my vocabulary to past tense. “She was.” The finality of it all.
Walking away from the room where she was kept until we were prepared to leave was one of, if not the, most difficult thing I have ever done in all 28 years of my life. I could not touch her skin, or kiss her face, because feeling its lack of warmth would mean it was all real. But I could not leave, because leaving meant I would never see her again. Leaving meant abandoning her. I knew she was no longer there. I knew her soul had moved on. But still, I felt like I was leaving her all alone. I turned back around, ran my fingers through her hair and told her I loved her one last time before forcing myself from the room, knowing yet again I would never be the same person I was standing inside of it.
We all know that one day our time will come. We just never expect it to come so suddenly, without explanation, without reason. Nothing can prepare you to lose the people you love, and no amount of distance between you can make it hurt any less. My mom and I were slowly settling our differences. I had voiced the hurt I had felt, and she had heard me. She had consciously made the effort to make me feel heard, and though I reciprocated, I held back slightly. I was still afraid of getting hurt again. I was afraid of being misunderstood again... of my child, recently diagnosed with autism, being misunderstood. I hope she didn’t feel that. I hope I hid it well. I hope she didn’t feel any guilt, or any pain, the same way I hope she didn’t feel scared when her time came. I hope she knew what was in my heart. I just thought I had more time to find my strength, to be present and to become fearless so we could finally become as close as I’d always wanted to be. We always think we’ll have find the strength, and we always think we’ll have more time.
This past Sunday, my mom filled a gigantic room with more people, and more love, than chairs for them to sit in. She filled our childhood home with food, laughter, tears, and our children rolling in the same grass we’d laid in looking up at the stars. She was loved, and in these moments so were we. We were given so much love, and so much support, and without that support I know we would be in an even darker place than we are right now. But still, I do not know how to cope with this loss. I do not know when my heart will ever stop feeling so heavy. What I do know is that it will take a very long time. Eight years, and I have still not finished coping with the loss of my father. Now I have to find a way to accept that I will never again be able to hug either of my parents in this life.
Grief is not constant, nor is it linear. It comes in waves, hitting you over and over again, lapping at your feet then knocking you down when you least expect it. The tide may go out for a while, but it will always come back in full force. They always tell you that time heals all wounds. What they never tell you is that some wounds never heal. It doesn’t really get easier. You just learn how to live at the water’s edge.
So the only thing left to do—that I know how to do_is to become one with the ocean, while simultaneously trying to not let it swallow me up whole.