March 22-23, 1978: “When suffering, when mourning goes into its cruising speed … Emotion (emotivity) passes, suffering remains.” –Roland Barthes
My mother died a year ago this month after being diagnosed five weeks earlier with a restaging of the triple negative metastatic breast cancer for which she thought she had been successfully treated only two-and-a-half months earlier. My parents were visiting me in Texas when my mother became sick, thus she received the news in an unfamiliar emergency room around two in the morning from a kind ER doc who seemed nearly as shocked and distraught as were we.
My mother first told me she had breast cancer the previous September, a month after we moved to Texas and on the afternoon of Jeff’s new faculty picnic. She was matter-of-fact, trying hard to be unflappable. She said she hadn’t wanted to tell us until she was treated and better, but the oncologist insisted. Part of their visit to our new home in Texas that spring was to include a celebration of her being well and a celebration of my middle child’s birthday.
Instead of the celebration picnic in the park that I had planned, my mother was given weeks to live and I spent my son’s third birthday traveling from Austin to Cedar Rapids with my father, my five and three year old children, nine month old baby, and my wheelchair bound mother who was in excruciating pain from the cancer that had now spread throughout her body, like scattershot, into her lungs, lymph nodes, chest, spine, brain, liver, and throughout the bone marrow of her legs, hips, neck and shoulders. Much to the delight of the birthday boy, the trip entailed transport in no less than one cab, two planes, one airport monorail, and an ambulance. But we made it, well, at least we got her home.
Nearly a year later some of this begins to feel like an old story (I repeat myself, I feel repetitive), yet, I am still negotiating/managing/avoiding grief in increments of hours. Awake or asleep, suffering doesn’t cease. When I’m awake I have to intentionally avoid thinking about her. When I’m asleep, whether my mother is alive or dead or absent entirely from my dreams, there is no relief. I am always uncomfortable. Uncomfortable sleeping. Uncomfortable driving. Uncomfortable in my clothing. Uncomfortable eating. Uncomfortable with strangers, with friends, in public, in private. I’m an uncomfortable dinner guest, am usually over dressed, for the weather or the occasion or both. When the grief hits or when I’m asked about my mother, I usually talk too much. As a friend said to me recently, “You can’t do cancer small talk.”
Instead, I sleep in an extra hour or two on the weekends, make elaborate Mardi Gras masks and costumes with the children, grocery shop for food enough to sustain us for months, research and create extensive trip itineraries, agonize over awkward social interactions, buy camping supplies, bake fancy chiffon cakes, scrub the grout in the bathroom, plan extended children’s birthday parties, organize and reorganize the children’s clothing by size and season, experiment baking blueberry muffins with the perfect oat bran, coconut, honey, orange zest ratio. In Sunday school the children sing “I have peace like a river, I have peace like a river in my soul,” but I hear “I have grief like a river.” It’s grief-like mania. Grief like a mother.
I find the records from my mother’s radiology consultation and case summary reports and her treatment plan, palliative, as I go through our tax records and receipts to send to our accountant. She had no chance.
My mother’s death is everywhere, inescapable. A review of the book my book club read a few months ago begins:
“Is Mom taking over the universe? From Sarah Palin to Cindy Sheehan, from Amy ‘Tiger Mother’ Chua to Michelle ‘First Mom’ Obama, everywhere you look: there’s Mom, throwing her weight around and telling us off one minute, defending and nurturing us the next. Simply put, we are living in the Age of Mom.”
But at this moment, as the children and I sit at the kitchen table gluing and cutting paper doilies for Valentines, I have forgotten that my mother is not actually elsewhere and alive, except that she never answers the phone when I call.
I’ve been on a variety of mothering listservs over the last seven years since my daughter was conceived. At first everyone’s parenting questions involve epidurals, breastfeeding, diapering, which stroller to buy, and sleeping habits, but eventually on every listserv someone posts asking how to talk about death with small children. I have been the one to ask that question and now I’ve been the one to answer it, too.
“Grammie in our heart! I miss Grammie.” And then, “But where Grammie is? Where is her?”
We’re collaging construction paper and doily Valentines on the kitchen table, we’re cutting out paper hearts and gluing them to the red and white doilies when my son says, “Hey!” with a tone of recognition as he cuts out a construction paper heart, “Grammie’s in our hearts. We miss her.” And then, “But I don’t know where is Grammie really.” This is the second time in a week he’s wanted to know where my mother is. I explain that a body can be too hurt, too sick, to recover from an injury or illness and so the person dies. Is dead.
“I don’t understand,” he says. “Where is Grammie really? She in Popa Bear’s town? She at Popa Bear’s house?” After I explain again that Grammie was too sick, her body too hurt to recover, he suggests, “Maybe Grammie need medicine?” My daughter, I think, finally understands some version of what happened. At least when her brother starts asking questions, starts saying that he doesn’t understand, and I say that it is very difficult to understand, she says empathetically, “Especially when you’re three.”
But my daughter suspects something. I think she thinks we pulled a fast one. One night, my husband and I are getting ready to go out. The babysitter is feeding the kids dinner in the kitchen and I hear my daughter tell her, “My grandma died last year on Easter day. She died while I was at the park.” When she left the house her grandmother was there, and when she came back she was gone.
I mean, I’ve avoided telling them that, in fact, Grammie is on top of the piano in the solarium waiting for Dad to die so that their ashes can be mixed together—and have, instead, vaguely indicated something about “when we bury her,” essentially leaving them to think that my mother’s body is in some indiscernible location, perhaps may still be at the funeral home, because really, who knows where my mother is now?
As if contending with my daughter’s subconscious formulation of my intentions weren’t enough, I also receive unsolicited reminders from a digitally engineered universe that my mother is dead. For instance, this afternoon Ancestry.com sent me an email about my online genealogy saying:
Dear Anne, Great news! We’ve found historical records that could help you discover more about your ancestors and grow your family tree! Be sure to visit the following Hint: Linda Lee Coe—Social Security Death Index.
Great news: My mother, the person from whom I received and within whose womb I formed my hands, my lungs, and my own womb registers in the Social Security Death Index.
The kids were not in the house when she died. When my mother’s breathing changed, I sent them out to the park with Jeff and my brother-in-law. But they were with her during the weeks in which she died, in the weeks in which she became a ghost. They saw her disappearing from our view. I’ve failed to adequately explain anything of it to them, really.
“Who are humans’ predators?” my daughter asks.