Warning: May induce ugly crying and the urge to call your mother.
An 8 am teeth cleaning is not my idea of a great start to my day, but it was nice to have a clear mission for a change. Between my relaxed schedule of working from home, and being off work so much lately, I am definitely out of the habit of getting dressed and leaving the house in the morning. Falling back into the old routine helped me feel like my life is getting back to normal. I was even on time to the dentist, which is rare.
I really like my dentist and all her staff. The office is delightful, and cheery, but not frivolous. It’s a calm refuge. Perhaps a little too relaxing. I’m trying to not wear my feelings on my sleeve, so when the dental hygienist asked how I was doing, it surprised me as much as her when I blurted out that my mother had died. It was awkward for both of us. I regretted burdening her, and it didn’t make me feel any better. She tripped over herself to be extra nice to me the rest of the visit. Sigh.
After the teeth cleaning, I did the obvious thing and got a giant spicy breakfast burrito. It’s my happy place. Don’t judge me.
Leaving the restaurant, a crisp, white envelope on the sidewalk caught my eye. I started to ignore it, but a little voice in my head told me to turn back and pick it up. It was thick, as in “important stuff in here” kind of thick. It also had that intentionally generic look that banks use, and I could see the recipient’s name and address in the little cellophane window. I didn’t recognize the name, and the envelope had been opened and then folded. This was not trash. This had been dropped accidentally, and losing it was probably going to ruin someone’s day.
Well, it’s the year 2017 and I have a smart phone, so I looked up the address and drove the envelope to its owner. It was only a few miles away and somewhat on my way home. Well, sorta on my way. OK, it was totally out of my way. Sue me.
As I pulled up at this random stranger’s house, it occurred to me I should at least look him up on Facebook first. Turns out we have a few friends in common, so I opted to ring the doorbell instead of just stuffing it into the mailbox. After a few moments, he opened the door hesitantly. It’s not a subtle experience to have a 6’4″, 400 lb wild-haired Viking on your porch. Everyone opens their doors hesitantly. It’s a thing.
I handed him his envelope. He was surprised and grateful, of course. He shook my hand, thanked me, said he hadn’t realized he had dropped it. He was amazed I had brought it all the way to his house. Then his wife appeared and said hello and that she was sorry about my mom.
Look, I’ll be super honest, I’m in a weird place right now. Life is busy, and I’m a giant viking with responsibilities. I’m a role model for, at minimum, several precocious children who pick up on any whiff of insincerity. I take pride in being strong physically and emotionally for them. But when your Mom dies, even giant vikings get a pass. It’s one of the few, possibly only, situations where grown, hairy-faced men are universally allowed to cry. I don’t agree with that system, but it’s the truth.
I simply don’t like to cry. I was raised that real men don’t cry, so it makes me feel weak and less of a man when I do it. And this week I’ve been flailing around in that prickly grey area between what I want, what I need, what I believe in, and what society has ingrained. It’s not a fun place to be.
Needless to say, my emotional reserves are thin. Watching your mom slowly decline over a couple of years… it stresses you in odd ways. Deep ways. Every trip to the emergency room, every event you cancel, every time you help her down the stairs, every new nurse you meet. It all drags you down just a little more. And when the optimism starts to fade, when new and worse issues keep popping up… it gets to you. And when you finally recognize that look of grim acceptance in the doctors’ faces, hear it in their voices… the floor drops out from under you.
After the heart attack, she had been in a medicated coma for a while and they had a lot of trouble reviving her. When we got the call that she was awake and alert, I rushed right over with the kids. She was smiling and laughing and all she wanted to do was play with her grand kids. Which was really nice for them, and nice for her, and frankly good for me to see. Don’t ever pass up those opportunities, you never know when it’ll be the last.
But, between you and me, I know the kids and the nurses couldn’t tell, but she wasn’t herself. She wasn’t totally sure where she was or even who I was. But, man, she loved those kids. She smiled and laughed as they climbed on her. She listened intently as they told her all their silly kid stuff. She hung on every word. She was so happy. She asked me to take a picture of her together with the kids.
A photo? My instinct was to refuse. She barely resembled the woman who raised me, with her hair disheveled, her pale skin. I did take that picture, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a great shot. She’s never looked happier, even with an oxygen tube on her face. And, now, it’s the last picture I have of her.
A week later and the next trip to the ER, she couldn’t speak. We gave her a pen and she wrote out a few things. She wanted to know where the grand kids were. She didn’t ask about money or politics or religion or food or her health. She wanted to know where the kids were and that they were OK. She was in and out of consciousness and eventually was too exhausted to communicate. Something told me that she might never come back. I was right.
A few days later, the doctors let us know they had run out of options. Her body was starting to shut down and any efforts at this point were more likely to hurt than help. We made the decision as a family to make her as comfortable as possible, and to wait.
Early that next morning I went back at the hospital to relieve my wife from sitting at my mom’s bedside all night. As an aside, if you find a partner who will stay all night with your dying mother… marry that person. Hang on to that person. My Wonderful Wife talked to my mom all night, sang to her, told her we loved her. She made sure the nurses were doing everything they could. She brushed my mom’s hair and applied her favorite lip balm to keep her lips from drying and cracking. I am dumbfounded by the depth of the entire gesture. The Wonderful Wife says it was not a big deal, but my heart tells me it’s a debt that I can never truly repay.
So, that morning I got to sit with my mom as she lay there, comatose, struggling to breathe, dying. I held her hand and I cried big fat tears. I told her we all loved her, and everything was good, and she could leave. I told her that I was sorry for all of it, the million stupid things I had done, for every time I had gotten mad at her, for all the times I had disappointed her. I told her that none of it mattered any more and I just wanted her to be at peace.
She never blinked or stirred. I had no way to know if she could hear me. Was any part of my mother still in there? Was I being a fool by talking to this physical body that once had held my mother’s essence? Was I an idiot for holding this limp hand that had once comforted me on so many occasions?
A couple hours later, my brother, his wife, and my step-father came into the room, carrying sack lunches and ready to wait with her through to the end. I loudly announced for Mom they had all arrived to see her. She took two more difficult, raspy breaths… and was gone. They didn’t even have time to set down their lunches.
It was so clear that she had waited. She knew. She had heard everything. Somewhere, deep inside there, she heard and she knew and she waited until we were all there before she let go.
So, yes, this morning I returned that envelope. I did exactly what my mom had taught me to do when I was little. Yes, I wanted to see what was inside it. Yes, it could have been a bunch of money or something sensational or wicked. But it wasn’t mine to see. I didn’t look inside and I gave it back to whom it belonged. It was a very minor inconvenience to my day but may have made a profound difference to the owner. Or, for all I know, it may have been just trash after all. Regardless, it made me feel normal, and good.
Back on that front porch, it turns out this is a small town and I had met the man and his wife at an event just a couple weeks before. We weren’t friends on Facebook but they had seen the news about my mom on my wife’s feed. They were gracious and kind and we chatted a little there on their stoop. Mostly we exchanged surprise that our lives had intersected in such an unexpected way. Eventually, I wished them well and went home. It was a wonderful reminder that love and community are everywhere and will find you when you need them.
And, really, what can you do when your mother dies? The woman who literally and figuratively made you, who fed and washed you, showed you how to dress yourself and tie your own shoes. How do you face a world that no longer includes the woman who taught you left from right, right from wrong? How do you leave the house when you’ve lost that one person who you knew would always be on your side, no matter how badly you screwed up?
Well, now I know what you do when your mother dies. I’ve always known, and you know it, too. You do what she taught you to do. You continue being the man she raised you to be. She’s not gone. Oh, no. She’s here and alive in everything I do, every decision I make.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was her voice in my head that told me to pick up that envelope and drive it back to the owner. That voice also told me to not be too proud of myself for doing the right thing, that it should be expected and not rewarded. Her voice echoed in my head, telling me to not tell anyone what I had done because that would just be vanity and prideful on my part.
Well, I am telling you about it. I don’t always do what that little voice says. Part of the benefit of being my own person is that I can also realize she wasn’t always right. Seeking praise is not shameful, when done within reason. Asking for and accepting help is not shameful, but actually quite healthy. Admitting our weaknesses is the greatest form of strength. We all have the amazing gift of being able to question and refine our upbringings, to take the good and leave the bad, to improve and do better. I think one of the greatest accomplishments in my life is to improve on some of my parent’s choices.
But, most importantly, I will do what my mom cared about the most. And luckily for me, I’m already doing it. At the end of her life, I had always expected a guilt trip and an argument about our religious differences. I was ready for that argument. But instead, she made it incredibly clear to me that her greatest wish is simply that I raise her grand kids to be happy, productive, and beautiful people. People who pick up and return envelopes.
And, just for the record, I’m teaching my son that some of the strongest, most masculine things he can do are to cry, to share his feelings, and to ask for help. He’s going to be a stronger man than me for it, and I’m very much OK with that. And so is that little voice in my head.
Thank you, my friends, for allowing me to cry, and to be sad, and to share my pain. And, maybe someday I’ll get better about asking for help. But most of all, thanks for caring and crying with me.
Call your Mom, or remember her well. She deserves it. You deserve it.
Love and Light to you all.