Hello, Grief. You’re back?
No one is really ever prepared for loss. Moreover, there is no tutorial on all that comes with it. Whether you’ve lost an earring, a job, a relationship, your mind, or a relative, there is one common truth to loss. Whatever you may have lost...is gone.
While I was pregnant with my son, my mother would rub my belly with her trembling hands and answer all my questions. She had all the answers and I listened to every single one of them. This deviated from the norm in our relationship. My mother was a stern and traditional Italian woman. Growing up, I hardly listened. I wanted to do my own thing confident that I knew it all. Once I found out I was pregnant, I started to do something I hated. I started listening to my mother.
One June day, it was hot and I was very pregnant. I was sprawled out on my parents’ couch with my mother sitting next to me, my feet propped up on her thighs (at her insistence) so they wouldn’t swell. I was telling her about this breastfeeding group that I joined to get some answers on nursing. She looked confused. “Why would you ask strangers how to feed your baby? Ask me.” She wanted to know what I got from the meeting. I laughed and said, “Not much...although they did say that it’s important to wake your baby every few hours to feed it.” She was appalled. “Wake the baby?” she asked me. “Listen to me. Do not wake your baby. When your baby is sleeping, you leave the baby sleeping. How would you like it if I woke you up while you were comfortable and then made you eat? You wouldn’t like it. The baby will let you know when he’s hungry. Trust me.” We shared a laugh and she made me promise her I would not go back to the meetings. I promised and that was the end of those meetings.
A few weeks after that, I gave birth to a little perfect human named Mario. My life changed. I thought I had a lot of questions before I gave birth. I was wrong. My parents stayed with us the week Mario was born and my mother continued answering all my questions while my father found hiding places throughout our small apartment so he didn’t have to bear witness to his breastfeeding daughter. He took a lot of naps that week.
My parents were getting ready to leave on a lazy July Sunday. They lived about an hour away and my mother needed to get back for a doctor’s appointment the next day. These Italians and their doctors. Haven’t you heard it’s a sin to miss an appointment? My mother hadn’t been feeling so great over the past few years (liver issues and some trembling that testing proved to be nothing), but she continued pouring her energy into her kids and grandkids to remind herself to keep moving. As my parents were packing up to leave, I went in my bedroom, quietly shut the door and cried my eyes out. My mother was leaving. What was I going to do? How was I going to take care of Mario? By myself? Am I equipped to do this? Most importantly, who was going to answer all my questions? I cleaned myself up and walked my parents out. Before my mother got in the car, she whispered to me, “Do not wake the baby up. Ever. Promise?” I winked and I watched them back out of the driveway. As soon as my father’s car was out of sight, I lost it. I was crying at the end of my driveway in sweatpants and my husband’s t-shirt holding a newborn. I looked awesome.
About a month later, I was starting to get accustomed to no sleep and a baby who wanted to eat every hour. I was exhausted. My mother confirmed that the exhaustion was normal and that it never actually goes away as a mother. She suggested I get used to it.
Soon after, I received a phone call from my brother who let me know that my mother had taken a nasty spill at the supermarket and hit her head. An ambulance brought her to the hospital and she was home that night insisting that she was fine and that everything was going to be okay. I believed her. I listened to her. She had all the answers, right?
She spent the next two months in a rehabilitation facility receiving physical and speech therapy. What had happened to my mother was a mystery. No one could confirm that the fall did this to her and no one could confirm that the liver disease was bad enough to be doing this either. We were left as a family with no answers. Even my mother couldn’t give us one.
The rehab center became my second home. I was there each day to be with my mother. One day, I was watching TV with her while Mario slept for hours in his carrier. At this point, my mother was not saying much at all. She had lost the use of her hands and was not getting any better even with the therapy services provided. The therapists and she were working their tails off, but no progress. I stared at her in such disbelief. This was the woman who lived with me after Mario was born and ran my household. Even feeling weak and with trembling hands, she cooked for us, cleaned our home, took care of me and the baby and smiled through the whole thing. Mario’s wail interrupted my thoughts. He was hungry. Exhausted, I shuffled over to him and picked him up. I sat back down next to my mother with the baby and a blanket and began to nurse. Mario stopped crying and my mother looked at me. “See?” she whispered.
We were now in the heart of fall and my mother was not improving. We were preparing to get her home. My brothers and I had a plan in place and my father was diligently working on construction at home for a bathroom on the main floor for my mother to use. We met at a diner early one Sunday morning confirming plans and getting our ducks in a row. We confidently left the diner with a plan in place and went straight over to visit my mother. I was the first one there and when I got to my mother’s room, I knew something was wrong. I looked at her and tried to get some answers, but she could not speak. I tried to feed her some pudding and she bit down on the spoon so hard that I could sense her frustration. Something was wrong.
Back to the hospital. We spent about a week there. Mario stayed with family and friends so I could cover days while my brothers took shifts spending the night with my mother. My father became a lost soul without my mom. It was a sad scene.
I studied my mother’s breath. I knew the pattern so well. I looked over at my sleeping mother as a food tray arrived one afternoon. I stared at that tray for an eternity and looked back at my mother. I did not wake her.
A few days later, one of the neurologists came in and shut the door. Bad sign. He let us know that my mother was not going to make it. Devastated, I was hungry for an answer. I wanted to know what was killing my mother. Was it too much to just want an answer? One doctor said it’s the liver. One doctor claimed dementia. Another was baffled. This doctor spoke to us about his best medical diagnosis based on the week’s testing and felt that my mother was dying of Prion Disease. What in the world is Prion Disease? We had never heard of it, but the doctor seemed convinced that this was why we were losing our mom. We researched symptoms and there was a list staring back at us that accurately described her in the past few years: shaking and tremors, difficulty walking, confusion, cognitive defects, blurry vision, fatigue, difficulty with speech, and developing dementia.
There it was, folks. It may not have been the answer we wanted to hear, but it was an answer.
We confirmed hospice care and got my mother home. We gathered around her in our childhood home and we lost her a day later on November 18, 2015. I was holding her hand. We lost her 59 minutes before my 33rd birthday. She took her last breath shortly before the anniversary of my first breath.
My mother was gone.
I was left with so many questions and no answers. Did she suffer? Did she hear the things we told her before she died? Did she hear Mario’s infectious laugh for one last time? Did she think I was a good mom? Not knowing was eating away at me until it hit me. As Rilke encourages, I had to start loving the questions and living them. So I did.
I learned patience through all of this, which, in turn, made me a better mother. I also gave myself a break and allowed myself to grieve. Grieving is so different for all of us. For me, yes, I went through the textbook stages of grief after losing my mother, but when grief came for me, it took me by the neck and wasn’t very nice. Grief is that nasty bully from high school who keeps coming back for you. You dread the encounter and once it’s over, you can finally breathe. That’s grief.
About ten months after losing my mother, my husband and I painfully lost our second child. The pregnancy was ectopic and dangerous, so I was rushed into surgery losing the baby and my right fallopian tube. Guess what I was left with? Yep, questions. Why did this happen? Why did this happen to us? Was it a girl? Would she have had my curly hair? Am I going to die before I get into surgery? While asking myself these questions, I also reminded myself about living the questions. I didn’t want to. I was angry. I lost my mom and, in the same year, I lost a baby. Grief was back for me and hitting hard. I deserved an answer, so I gave myself one: Our angel baby is now with my mother and I did not die because Mario needs a mommy and my husband needs someone to share popcorn with. This is what I repeated over and over again. Did I still cry and scream and yell? Was I still mourning the loss of a baby that we were so excited to welcome? Oh, yes, but I was living with this answer. It was my answer.
I can’t tell anyone that grieving ever really stops, because it is still new to me. I grieve each day and each day is so different. There’s my private grief that I take time to get through on my own. Then there’s public grief that hits you when someone asks, “How are things?” Well, you asked. Do you really want to know? Grab me some tissues, will you?
Patience, a trait that I never had, is what has gotten me through this year. I faced the inexplicable and began to live the questions. I stopped looking for the answers, which Rilke also suggests. They are there somewhere, but are inaccessible right now. I get that.
For now, let me grieve. Let me lay my head down from time to time to soak in some silence. I may even fall asleep. In that case, please don’t wake me.