Stuck

Why we can't (or won't) move on from bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad habits, and how we can all move ahead.

The Lost Last Parent

Becoming orphaned, at whatever age, makes everything weird.

The day before yesterday was the third anniversary of my mother's death. And yes, I was beside her in her final hours and yes, her minal microsecond too. But so what, since she spent those last three days sleeping a morphine sleep and the previous month delirious, hallucinating—or, if you believe as I do in the supernatural, actually seeing bygone loved ones through the veil between the worlds, waving from her hospital bed at them, calling out names I did not recognize, her hands miming the slicing and serving of cake.

During those days she never realized I was there. Sitting beside her bed, I had become fully invisible while George and Celeste whom only she could see made her smile. I was glad to see her happy at last. After a lifetime of low self-esteem, she had spent years wishing to die, which she had told me at length in every phone call for the last fifteen years. Now swathed in white sheets, intubated, she smiled into space. Only twice in that final month did she gain momentary clarity. Once, she blinked up at me and said, I'm dying, aren't I?

I said, Doctor Yamamoto said so. But you know I love you, right? 

She said, But you know that doesn't matter anymore.

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Another time, she blinked at me as if startled and, batting at her tubes, growled, Get me out of here. I said I couldn't, that the doctors wouldn't let me, that this was where the doctors insisted that she stay. Punching the bed with both fists, she hissed, After all the f---ing things I f---ing did for you which I f---ing never wanted to do, I f---ing ask for just one thing and you refuse.

I told myself this morning not to write this, not to tell this story again but I have. This is like an addiction, exposing myself and her in order to gain sympathy I quite possibly don't deserve, in order to gain absolution for not being there enough, not being enough, not being.

Last fall my friend D lost her mother, who had spent ten years with Alzheimer's Disease, tangibly suffering as she tore up old family photo albums because their pages seemed stocked with the faces of strangers and smashed clocks because they seemed to have betrayed her trust. D and her siblings had ensured that she spend her last years in a safe home. They took turns visiting her nearly every day. They sat beside her in the hospital whenever she was ill, even braving a bout of C. diff. They were there and they were numerous and (unlike me) they were sane conscientious grown-ups and were good. 

They saw her nearly every day although she long ago forgot their names, forgot their father who died fourteen years ago, forgot eleven thousand sunny days in our hometown: her leaf-green kitchen and her Hummel figurines lining the almost-Swedish Modern midcentury shelves. The olive trees, the playhouse in the yard, the art classes she took because she yearned to be more than a perfect prim suburban housewife. Those mornings she drove us to the beach leading us all in song. Her insecurities, the Shake-and-Bake. Yearning year on year for the trip to Italy she never got. Forgot

D and I both lost our dads years ago. That was bad, but losing our mothers felt not just sad but weird. Strange things happened in our lives. The morning of Mom's funeral, a radio in her room which had been broken for years suddenly switched on of its own volition and played "Hard Day's Night." That night, I exited a restaurant to find, dead-center in the middle of its welcome mat, a metal hairclip like the ones Mom always wore. D's house was burglarized the day after her mother died. A bird flew beak-first into her window the next week, falling dead onto the deck.

Having both lost our fathers, we imagined ourselves "ready" for the passing of our mothers too. But no. Because when you lose your last parent, the second of two, you become alone in a certain way that changes everything although to the naked eye you might seem the same. I think our parents know this too, that wherever they went they have left us alone.

Other people I have known have experienced strange events after losing their second parent. Spontaneous fires. Phones ringing in the middle of the night but when they answer, no one's there. I think the universe kind of snaps and crackles a bit when our last parent dies. Maybe our grief and love and guilt and relief and other emotions act as "live wires" that attract chaotic energy, or whether our deceased parents are letting us know that they know that we know that they have left this world.

Maybe the strange event—the hairclip or the burglary—is their last "wave" as they make the transition from this world to the next. I think they can still see us and talk to us from the next world, but it's almost as if they are tugging the end of the tablecloth as they depart—snap! And all the dishes go flying. Because the world, our world, will never be the same again, and we know it, and they know it, and even if the rest of the world does not acknowledge this loss, somehow it HAS to still be acknowledged. Maybe we're just more spaced-out at such times, more accident-prone. But I think it is more than this—something unearthly, something cosmic, which eventually settles back down to "normal" once the living and the dead accept that "normal" is and always will be different now.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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