As I type this, there is an estate sale company in my mother’s house, sorting through her belongings. The estate manager called me from where she stood in my parents’ dining room this morning to ask me some questions, and when she looked outside, she …
Quinlan had to write a letter Monday for her language arts class, in which she described to an imaginary other student her first month under stay-at-home orders. “MOM. Mommy. MOM.” Quinn said this as she walked from the dining room, where she’d set up her …
I thought maybe I should spare you an update this week, because I’m in a crappy, crappy mood (a friend asked Sunday how Mom was doing, and do you know what I said? “Oh, she’s totally dying.” The poor guy looked like I’d slapped him in the face). Mom has been declining again–no sooner did we pull her off hospice than she started acting like, well, maybe that wasn’t the best idea. She’s grown progressively weaker, and has become just sort of older-seeming. (This cancer of Mom’s likes to keep us on our toes, but I much prefer the happier surprises, you know?)
On Saturday, David and I had made plans to take the kids to see Mom in the afternoon and have a movie day. The kids were excited–they’d settled on Jumanji, because “cake makes me explode!”–and Mom had been looking forward to it. We went tumbling into her house around 2:15, a big bowl of freshly-popped buttered popcorn in hand, but Mom was nowhere to be seen. The house was quiet, and I could see a tray with an empty coffee cup and bowl sitting on the counter in the kitchen, so I knew she was alive (you’d have wondered the same thing). I found Mom upstairs–she hadn’t yet made it out of bed, though she was dressed, and her caregiver was with her. Mom was propped awkwardly on her pillows because she couldn’t support her weight, but her feet were on the floor. Her hair was a mess, and her eyes were barely opening, but she was chatting with Mary on the phone and laughing at the expression on my face. She couldn’t understand why I was so alarmed. Her caregiver, a kind woman who fills in on some weekends, was clearly overwhelmed–she hadn’t known what to do with her. The children, who’d come up to say hello and give her a hug, were shocked. I’ll never forget the look on Quinlan’s face–I’d forgotten that they’ve only seen Mom sitting up and ready for them.
It turned into the strangest afternoon. Another caregiver, one of our most trusted ones, came in to start her shift, which I’m not ashamed to admit was a massive relief (David and I were struggling to get Mom toward the bathroom at that point–he was afraid of hurting her and I just didn’t know how to maneuver her well enough. Mom’s usual caregiver came in and in two seconds managed to complete what we couldn’t in 20 minutes). We took turns hanging out upstairs with Mom as she tried to muster the strength to come downstairs, until we all finally gave up and wheeled her into my tiny old bedroom around 5 p.m., where she could watch the small TV she keeps in there. The kids looked at me and whispered: “Does this mean we’re not having a movie day?” Instead, David got take-out and we all crammed into the room with her to have a picnic in front of HGTV–it was Love it or List It, and for once, we all liked the couple’s old house better. Mom’s caregiver curled up on the daybed to chat while the kids and I wedged in beside each other on the floor (prayers may have been said that Quinn and Cian didn’t start throwing elbows), and David retreated back to the living room to give us a bit of space. Mom was in great spirits, considering the circumstances. The rest of us pretended to be.
It will surprise no one to hear me admit that things have fallen apart. We got an email from Quinn’s teacher that even though she’s been pulling in great grades, she’s become more disorganized, and more easily distracted. We’ve had issues with Saoirse very recently–some sneakiness, some attitude–that would seem characteristic for any 12-year-old except that they aren’t characteristic for her. The little ones have been struggling with sleep again, and have nightmares when they do. Quinlan’s nervous stomach pains are back. When we sat down with Saoirse last night to talk with her about her behavior, she broke into tears: it’s Grammy, she said. “I’m so nervous about Grammy.” And then David and I were on the couch with our arms wrapped around her wondering how the heck we’re supposed to take away the pain of a grieving child when we can’t handle it ourselves.
I’ve told David that I think I hit the emotional wall in December. We’ve been running and running headlong through this with my mom, and I just…hit the wall. I don’t know how to explain what that means other than, I suppose, I’m exhausted. I spent the first 14 months after Mom’s diagnosis struggling with the fear of losing her, and the worry about those sudden phone calls, and trying to manage All the Things–the kids, the mom, the paperwork, the phone calls, the bills, the scheduling–but with that horrid panic that ran through it all. All of those Things are still there, of course, but now it’s followed not by panic, but by the fatigue that comes with knowing what is inevitably coming soon: we’re here. We’re nearing the end of the road, and I’ve resorted to snarky comments to well-meaning friends. Because now I’m turning to my aunt, who is struggling with all of this, too, and David, with whom this marriage has seen much better years than the past one, and to our poor kids, and I’m realizing how this watershed has taken out more than just me. Saoirse isn’t just handling fear and grief: she’s struggling with the lack of routine, the tension that builds and breaks in the house, the constant sense that everyone is on edge. Her life, too, got flipped upside down in 2018: her mom is away from home a lot, there were no more vacations, no planning ahead, and her dad is stressed out. And it’s easy for David and me not to notice it because she’s a kid who tucks it all inside and, as the first-born, is trying to keep things perfect so everyone stays happy.
This is all kind of like an earthquake, maybe: the house has stopped shaking, but a lot of stuff is still falling off the walls.
David and I sat beside Saoirse on the couch last night, our arms wrapped around her. I asked her: “With Grammy, are you scared about how it’s going to happen, or sad that it’s happening, or all of the above?” Saoirse had her head tucked into my chest, and I felt it nod. “Yes,” she said. David looked at me over the top of her head, and I saw what he wasn’t saying: a) this is the hardest parenting thing we’ve had to do so far, and b) we’ve got to do a better job of it. So add that to All the Things: helping your own parent die in a way that’s graceful enough to make sure your kid knows that, no matter what, she is still safe and loved and that her family will be okay through all of it.
Man, this is hard.
Paul and Sarah come in later this week to be with Mom for a couple days, which will be a wonderful. Mom has a big scan tomorrow with a follow-up with her neuro-oncologist right afterward. I can’t imagine we’re not going to reevaluate Mom’s Avastin treatment–the cancer center is refusing to give her another infusion unless she gets surgery to get a port (her veins are too weak for an IV), and we need a hospital bed back in the house immediately, which can’t happen easily without hospice in place–but I’m certainly not going to volunteer that she stop it. Because as much as I’ll say that I think we’re almost there, Mom has surprised us before.
I told you she keeps us on our toes.
I’ll keep you posted, friends. David and I took a break yesterday from work (him) and Mom-related phone calls and emails (me) to take a walk with the dog, and we found ourselves, as we often do on these walks, making daydreamy plans about the future. It seemed almost like a reckless act in the face of what we’re living in right now, but the sun was shining, and the air was warm, and Mary and Tim were with Mom, feeding her homemade cookies and trimming her hair and keeping her company. Things may fall apart, but I think we also find a way to stitch them back together, as best we can.
My hope is that our kids will grow to realize this, too. That Saoirse and Quinlan and Cian will know: even in loss, the family left behind will be okay, together. And even when the stuff is falling off the walls?
We’ll catch them.
* Because you know this was running through my head the entire time I was writing this post. To say my mom has rebounded from the flu nicely is like saying an ice cream sundae is best made with hot fudge: holy understatement, Batman. She …
Let me tell you a little bit about how 2019 and the entrance to 2020 have gone.
We had a snow storm in our area last week, primarily because David was away for work, and when David goes away for work, the skies decide it’s a good time to dump at least six inches of unexpected snow onto our large driveway. Saoirse and I got it shoveled right away that afternoon, thanks to her enthusiasm for physical exertion and my stubborn will to keep going and ignore the spasms in my bad back (three large pregnancies with three very large babies broke me). When we woke the next morning to a blessed, much-needed, two-hour school delay, a snow squall was rolling through the neighborhood, covering the driveway with a powder-sugared coating that hid the pretty, sparkly, inevitably painful sheen of sheer ice that lay beneath it.
As the kids were getting bundled into their hats and gloves and coats for school, I backed the car of the garage to make it easier for them all to pile in with their backpacks and instruments and lunches. I’d asked Quinlan to take out the dog before we left, but when I looked over from my spot in the warm driver’s seat, here’s what I saw: my little girl was on her stomach and sliding ever so slowly–against her will, mind you–down the driveway. She looked up at me in shock while her knees (bare knees, because #catholicschool) and elbows did their best to hold her up as Riley, paws skittering across the ice, dragged her in slow motion down the driveway. (You guys, it’s a pretty long driveway.) Quinlan couldn’t find purchase on the concrete-turned-skating rink to stand up, and I shouted at her to let the dog go as I threw open the car door to help her. God bless the kid: she hadn’t let go of that leash. But then I moved to get out of the car, and the next thing I knew, my left leg was sliding back under the vehicle, and, like quicksand, pulling me out of and then under the car like so much cake batter pouring out of a bowl. Imagine Gumby, or a Slinky. I flowed out of the car, really, which sounds super graceful except that a) I was yelping as it happened, and b) it hurt. My biggest fear was that I’d slide all the way under and nobody would be able to drag me back out again until the spring thaw.
(Quinlan laughs when I get to this part of the story because she said that as she was stuck on her stomach, gliding along behind Riley, I was rolling around on my back beside the car like an overturned turtle shouting, “Quinn?? Do you need help?! I’m coming to help!”)
There were neighbors who were outside witnessing all of this, by the way. Because of course there were.
Both Quinlan and I were finally able to get up on our very shaky legs, and I sent her (“Slowly, Quinn! Walk slowly!”) back into the house to change her wet knee socks. I shuffled off behind her to get the dog, who, by now, was fed up with the both of us and taking a giant poop on her leash, and by the time I turned back around, Cian had appeared in the middle of the driveway. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been gathering up his coat and gloves inside the house, but now he stood there, arms jutting out from his sides, because he was covered from top to bottom with snow. “Mom,” he said. The look on his face was matter-of-fact. “I fell.”
That, my friends, was what 2019 was like.
But then there’s this: Saoirse came swanning out of the house just then, clueless to the tumbling bodies she will soon learn to pretend are not her family members. She was wearing ear muffs, a pink coat, and fuzzy gloves. Her backpack was over her shoulders, and she held her water bottle loosely in one hand. She was dry and tidy and calm, and as I called out to her to be careful, the driveway’s icy, walk slowly in those darn uniform boat shoes, my oldest child deftly took the dog by her collar to lead her back into the house (I having already disposed of the disgraced leash), then glided over to the car and got in without nary a slipped step.
That, my friends, is how I hope to live the rest of 2020.
I’ll be back to you next week with an update on my mom. In the meantime, I’m installing ice cleats on the bottoms of all my shoes. 2020, I’m coming for you.
Take care of yourselves, too.
Quinlan walked into my office the day after Easter, pursing her lips like she does when she senses deep, deep injustice in her presence. “Mom,” she said. Her tone was accusatory. “The jelly beans that were in our Easter baskets were the same ones you …