Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ancestors and Ghosts

The dead an be anything you want them to be. They can be perfect, flawed, a sinner, a saint, a scapegoat, or beyond reproach. The dead can judge you or approve heartily of all you do. With enough time between you and the death of your loved one, they can become whatever you need them to be.

This season of the year makes me think a great deal about my mother. In September of 1993 my mother was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. It was by choice that the cancer had progressed so far. She knew something was wrong, had a good idea of what it was, and chose to put off treatment/diagnosis until she couldn't manage the pain on her own. By the time a doctor was involved, there was no question of death, just how long it would take. This began three months of my life that would change me forever in profound ways.

A week after the diagnosis my brother was driving a car and had an accident that took the life of his passenger. He landed in intensive care and nearly died of a secondary infection. Once he recovered, he went from the hospital to jail, to be held there until bail could be met, which it wouldn't for many months. This left me and Drew as the sole caregivers and bill payers for my mother.

We were 25, married for less than a year, and dealing with a house that clearly needed major work. I was a park secretary, Drew was a technical writer, money was tight. My mom needed us and there was nobody else to help. There was never any question in our minds what we needed to do, she needed us, and we were there. I went to half-time at work and got to the full-time business of managing my mother's health and welfare.

It is important to note that my relationship with my mother was complex to say the least. We had come to some peace since my grandmother's death five years earlier. That didn't mean it was smooth sailing all the time. We fought, called names, wouldn't talk for days, but found common ground we never expected when I was growing up.

My mother was an alcoholic, someone severely depressed who self-medicated with booze. Throughout my life this was a fact, I can't remember a time when she didn't battle it. My reality always included that personality-altering habit. It made her small, petty, and mean. She had words that could wound, and frequently backed it up with arbitrary punishments- months-long grounding, rage-filled calls to friends parents that tried to make made them think the worst of me, hair pulling, slaps. It made me rage against her authority over me, made us hurt one another. I rebelled, fought to be my own person, made sure she knew how little I respected her. The peace we had found was hard won and quite surprising, a gift beyond measure.

Those last months with my mother were so hard. I didn't want her to die. I feared helping her through it. I wanted her to see me have children, I wanted to get to know her better. She was so resigned to dying and even expressed a desire for it. She was so sad in life, I guess she saw death as peace and freedom from all that hurt her. It was the ultimate in self-medication.

Thanksgiving was the day she mentally checked out. The cancer had progressed and she was in kidney failure. Her mind was going and she was set on seeing one more Christmas. She wanted a Christmas like her childhood ones. Drew and I searched high and low for the special candies, the special ornaments, the special things that would give her happiness. Ever day she would ask if it was Christmas, and we would have to tell her no. We even hung an Advent calendar to help her keep track, but when we left for the night, she would move the marker to December 24th.

Just a few days before Christmas she finally became to sick for me to handle at home. We admitted her to St. Francis Hospital for the end of life care I couldn't manage on my own. She was so made that she wasn't at home. She was convinced the doctor's were trying to kill her, and in a way I guess she was right. Her will to make it to Christmas was so great that she refused to sleep for days on end, equating sleep with death. She would get so weak she could barely stand, but she wouldn't sleep. The morphine the doctors were administering were easing her pain, and weakening her ability to fight Death.

I visited every day, sitting for hours trying to get her to eat, making sure she was comfortable, trying not to cry when she yelled at me. On Christmas Eve morning I arrived to find her largely unconscious and having trouble breathing. Not much longer now the nurses and doctors told me. So I sat with her, chatted, smoothed her blankets, brushed her hair. Finally I gazed out the window and miracle of miracles, it was actually snowing in Delaware on Christmas Eve. "What a gift" I thought. I leaned over to my mother and told her that she sure was a stubborn mule but I loved her. I told her the Universe had love for her too. I whispered to her that she had made it to Christmas and that is was actually snowing, just for her perfect Christmas. Then I told her she was free to go, she had done what she wanted. If she relaxed and let go, she would be with her parents for Christmas and have that holiday she remembered from her childhood. I told her I was ok and I would be alright, I had Drew to take care of me. She actually twisted her mouth into a small grin and gave little self-satisfied grunt, her own little "Ha!" Visiting hours ended, she was asleep and I left for a few hours. She died that evening as Drew and I rushed in trying to get to her before she left. We missed her by moments. But I think that was her choice, just like getting that last Christmas.

So now this time of year is colored by that year for the rest of my life. While most people are nostalgic for loved-ones this time of year, I relive her last weeks in my mind. It is hard. Each year I wonder what she would have thought of the events of the last year, how she would behave. When Liam was born and died I was grateful she hadn't had to live through that. When Connor was born I wondered and dreamed of how she would have been with him.

If the dead can be anything you want them to be, my mother would have stopped drinking, stopped smoking, gotten therapy and found some peace in life. She would be here, be engaged in my life and that of my child. She and I would happily spend days together, enjoying life and each other. She would be proud of how I went back to college and graduated, the first in my family to do so. Her face would explode with joy when she saw Connor, and he would run to her calling out "Grandma" so happily. She would make the meals I loved and share them with Connor. She would rejoice in our triumphs, be proud of our accomplishments, and be a happy part of our lives.

I know reality would have been different. My heart aches for the pain my mother felt so deeply that she numbed herself to all the joy in the world. Maybe my gift to her is to redeem her in my life now. I will imagine her all as I hoped for her to be: loving, happy, confident, and healthy.

I hope that in those last moment, she saw her parents and they greeted her for that Christmas she so wanted. I hope that all the peace denied to her in life was granted to her in death. Maybe by imagining her as I frequently do, that is peace for her soul.

Merry Christmas mom, I miss you and wish you were here to share the holidays with.

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