I'm staring out the window of the apartment I'm dogsitting at on 12th at Pine, in the Packard Building. Fifth floor. The fog that's been rolling in nightly and lingering through most of the morning for the past run of days has burned off, leaving the sky a bright, whitish-blue; the sunset on my last night here promises to be spectacular. It's been a staycation of sorts, save for the dogwalking at waking hours I usually reserve for work days -- the flat feels like a magazine, sparse but well-appointed, quality kitchen tools, Edison lights in one of the windows. Straight ahead of me is downtown, on the right edge, the Space Needle; beyond that, the mountain range. It's the grown-up version of everything I want. Living here is city-fringe and beautiful and serene, and makes me want to decorate and get a proper mixer and frames for all my best posters.
I'm going to Ikea tomorrow to get a frame for one of my posters.
The spare tracks in my brain have had knocks at their door for weeks, maybe months but the pace of the holidays and everything that surrounded the season has left my edges a bit blurred. One knock is asking me to write an essay about my mother dying, and those last days in Hospice as her soul disconnected from her physical body; one is asking me to write about coming out. Then this week, my therapist suggested I really dig into all of the things I want to say to a particularly gnarly ex, list them, and list all the things I need to hear (and some that I'd rather not); he also suggested tracing my frequent discomfort back to childhood days in an effort to purge it: those days in the cafeteria when everyone knew where to sit but me, realizing suddenly that I was wearing all of the wrong things, stuff like that -- pre-consumption markers of my hardwiring as an alcoholic.
Not to turn this into a listicle of unwritten topics in my brain, but there's others: the one about how driving a responsible, fully-together car without problems seems... well, boring, and how the part of me that wants to be driving a vintage Bug would be lamenting about not having a car that worked consistently if she'd bought one, as I sit lamenting about all of the things that are Right and Safe about a red Ford Focus and how I'd much rather be driving the bug, but how I know better. How I've been meaning to paint. To send a letter to Steve. And then there's the article I keep meaning to write about all the new music Greg Vandy turned me on to at the end of 2012, and a few unpublished photo posts, and how it's hard to stay on track at work with all this brain noise. Perhaps I need to just pick one and start, chip away at them one by one, and then reward myself with a photoshoot of my new cat in a pile of gauze on the floor, like I've been picturing since the day I met her.
This may bear resemblance to what I wrote five years ago, during the time surrounding and after my mother's death, but the words have resurfaced and need to be rewritten / retyped I suppose -- as Jesse Sykes has said, we are but servants to our vision. And my vision keeps taking me back to a bedside moment in Branford, Connecticut at a Hospice facility.
Have you ever seen someone die? Like, really die? I'm talking about someone transitioning from a living, breathing, upright human to a withered body that's come disconnected from their soul on a hospital bed in a matter of weeks. I sure as shit hadn't. When my mom died my dad had been gone for five years already, but he went out on a technicality: the last time I saw him alive was on Christmas day in the evening, after he'd come outside to brush approximately 1/16th of an inch of snow off my car for me before I left my aunt's house. He was kind, and I was happy. Around 10pm (I think?) we got a call at the apartment that something had happened and that we had to get to the hospital. I left without any panic, one of the last times my grandmother had been to the hospital (before she died of an unrelated cause) the whole shebang had turned out to be a bad case of heartburn. I wasn't expecting to hear my dad had collapsed in the living room. I wasn't expecting to hear he'd had a massive heart attack. The priest came into this tiny room where we all were and we told him to leave because they only showed up for dead people and that our Person was going to be just fine. Then the doctor came in with the "We Did Everything We Could" speech. I tore out into the hallway and finally burst outside, screaming as I hit the pavement. I remember thinking as it was happening that it must be a shit deal to have to work in a hospital and see people like me lose their minds all the time, and how many of the people that worked there were either super sane or had a bevy of disorders as a result of constantly being exposed to it.
When I could breathe again the priest was there and he told us that we'd have better closure if we went into the room to say goodbye. They'd closed up anything they'd opened and it just looked like he was sleeping in an operating room. That part looked like TV. He was still warm, I touched his hand and sobbed and told him I'd remember him at all the important parts. My brain didn't understand completely why he didn't just sit up at that point and start talking. The time surrounding was a haze: the wake / funeral combo, the speech I gave, waking up for days / weeks / months afterward and bursting into tears as soon as I kind of came to and realized what was going on, for yet another day. And eventually it got better. It faded, there was a surge of dreams that subsided, and now -- ten years later -- I can write two paragraphs like that and not have any of the tears that well up spill over onto my face. The sting's gone out of it, somewhat, I suppose. But it's different with my mom. It stings less, I mean, but the dying was worse, and if I had to pick, I'd pick reliving my dad's death a hundred times over going through my mom's again just once.
My mom didn't tell anyone she was dying besides my father's sister, who lived a few states away. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, did chemo and an operation and more chemo, and we thought it was all over and done with. Then it came back, held on stronger, and spread. The last time they went in to operate, there was so much of it -- they said they'd gone in to remove a mass and it was as if someone had thrown a handful of gravel, pockets of it everywhere -- that they couldn't operate, that there was no way my mom would have survived the surgery for how long it would have taken and how badly it would have stressed her body. I guess I thought then that she could keep up the chemo with some kind of result? Or something other than realizing she'd been handed a death sentence -- there's Polaroids in my mind: running outside (are we seeing the theme, here, kids?) after the post-surgery conversation with the doctor, how she couldn't walk from the car to the doctor's office after that without completely running out of breath, how I stopped by the house to see her watching a half of a television screen and not being able to tell me how long it'd been broken, how she told us about a spot on her lung where the cancer had spread in a painkiller haze when we rushed her to the hospital one night, not knowing she'd never come back home.
How all she wanted to do was just be home, and how it was the one thing we couldn't do for her. And the weeks following between the hospital and her death where my life got divided into Hospice and Not Hospice, how I dropped all my shifts at work, the last coherent conversation we had, the ultimate grief I felt cleaning her dentures out in the sink one day (because she couldn't get up to do it herself), and the last part which is what's been plaguing me to write this for so long now, which is the last time her physical body was alive in that bed.
And now that I'm at the point where I'm Actually Writing About It I almost can't describe it, and I'm also struck with pangs of hey, you're over this, why are you rehashing it? and all kinds of silly, self-deprecating white noise. But it's what's on the surface right now, and I committed to go with it about sixteen paragraphs ago.
It's been a few weeks in Hospice at this point, with episodes comical and tragic. I've stopped taking shifts at work so that I can be with my mom during the day, as most of the visitors come to see her at night after work. At first, it's like visiting anyone else in any other hospital, only heavier: you drive in, some days the sign churns your gut and sometimes it doesn't. You park, you sign in; some of the doctors and nurses and volunteers recognize you, depending on how your Person is doing they smile warmly or nod and look away. You get up to the room and pull up a chair, bedside. At some point a nurse or a doctor comes to give you an update. Sometimes the person in the other half of the room has visitors and sometimes they don't. Pretty standard stuff. Except for the part about how none of the patients in this place go home. The night in question is, literally, the end of the line.
A few weeks ago, my mom could talk. She could laugh and cry, tell us what she wanted and what she didn't. I remember the day before the fog settled in that she never came out of -- no one was there, and I'd climbed up into bed with her, resting on her familiar angles, warm skin through the fabrics. I don't completely remember the context of the conversation outside of me telling her that this was hard, and her telling me that everything was going to be okay, fundamentally. After that night, she was less and less there, exponentially, every day. As her body stopped functioning properly, she'd get fevers, and slur her words sometimes. Her friend Dorothy came over to do her nails, and she described this imaginary scene going on out the window. We agreed with her because we didn't know what else to do. As she stopped responding completely outside of groans and whispers, I'd do things like get her ice chips (during the fevers), rub her feet (to help with circulation), and once I brushed her dentures for her because they were bothering her. Standing over the sink with her teeth, that was the exact moment that denial opened the window to reality, and I suddenly felt like I was being hit with a hundred thousand machine gun-fires at once, only I was standing there in utter silence. Teeth and brush in my hand, water running into the sink. I shook it off and went back into the room, but something changed in that instant. Some fabric of my being was torn right then.
And so it went, a little worse each day with moments of reprise, until that last night we were sitting around the bed. She was on her left side, no longer able to whisper or groan, or make noises or bitch about the bed pan or tell us she needed ice. It was a waiting game with a morphine drip at that point, and my sister, my friend Pauline and I had come to a point where we knew what was happening in real-time and were talking about what we'd do for her service. What she'd wear, where it would be, what the cards would say, who we'd have get up to Talk About Things. My mother's eyes seemed like they were focusing me for little instants, though the doctors assured me it was just reflex at that point, a nervous tic of the pupils almost, that you see in the end stage. We hugged, my sister, Pauline and I -- and as Pauline and I got to our cars my sister called me. "She's gone," she said. "She waited until we were gone and I was out in the hallway. She's gone." Part of me thinks that she heard us talking and knew we'd be okay then, that we were through the layers of denial and fear, at least for that moment.
The rest is a blur just like it was after my dad's passing, and just like that last night, it all unfolded: you pick out what to wear to the thing and where it will be and what the cards will say and who will get up to Talk About Things. In between, there's shock and grief and anger. In my case, there was also Mom's drunken sister who went over to the house under the guise of getting dog food to take her mother's ring away so that yours truly would never lay eyes on it. (Stay classy, Cookie.) And there were dreams and mornings when I woke up swearing she'd just been there, that I could smell her on my clothes or that she'd just been in the room. There were nervous breakdowns on the floor at Target realizing I'd suddenly been orphaned, the trip to Arizona, the getting engaged, the breaking up, the leaving and the coming out. And the pain, in stages, and the growing, in stages.
The better part of a week has passed and I'm at another apartment dogsitting now (we're back in real time), trying to embrace this strange flow of financial abundance (peppered by dreams about making ninety-five dollars a month). I'm a few more days used to Safe Car, I framed the poster, and I spilled my guts to a new friend last night about parents and relationships and therapists.
At this very moment I'm sidesitting with my laptop and a bowl of cereal, dogs sleeping on the couch, all three of us listening to the hum of the highway traffic on the Belltown fringe. I'm trying to wrap my brain around said therapist basically telling me tonight that I'm healthy and sane and that I don't need therapy, you know, pending some sort of crisis situation. Because hearing that isn't as reassuring as you'd think.
When you tell your story for years and years, with a clear and seemingly accurate intention (all real things: being the girl with dead parents and a bit of malajusted hardwiring, who came out late in life, and is dealing with the trials and tribulations of long-term recovery, among other things) and then have a Registered Adult basically make you the hole in the donut for a minute -- it just takes a few tries to swallow, I guess.
I'm sure I'll have more to say on that as it settles in.
There's really no tidy wrap to this other than to be glad it's finally typed and can stop swirling around in my brain. For the folks who come here traditionally looking for photos, well -- this is my corner of the internet, and I've got to emo-out like it's 2002 sometimes. And there are days when it looks pretty and there are days like today.
I promise, we'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming in just a shake.