The Long, Lonely Road of Grief.

For many years, I had recurring nightmares about losing my mother to a horrific accident or illness. She would be somewhere far away, hurt or dying; needing me. I would run to her tirelessly, breathlessly; circumventing impossible obstacles, scaling walls — my veins pumping with fear, adrenaline and regret. But no matter how hard I tried to reach her in time to save her, it was always too late.

Waking up was a ritual of vast relief and thankfulness for another day. What luck, to be presented a brand new chance to be a better daughter! Through my appreciative tears, I would call her, just to say “I love you.” I couldn’t fathom not being able to pick up the phone to hear her voice.

The day of my mother’s stroke was like a surreal, slow motion reenactment of one of my nightmares. It was all there: the harrowing phone call, the 4 hours of Merritt Parkway traffic, with no information other than “it’s bad.” The desperation, the bargaining, the fear lumped up in my throat; the knowing that this time, it would not be okay. There would be no relief to wake up to. Only pain.

Anyone who has ever loved someone understands the horror of this nightmare; few have a playbook for what happens when it comes to life. Despite years of grazing the overwhelming emotions that would undoubtedly leap out of me if I should ever lose her, I was still floored by how hard her death hit. No contingency plan could have ever prepared me, and my heart’s lack of cooperation with the “plan” left me frustrated and dumbfounded. Much like falling in love, coping with death leaves us with little control over how our hearts proceed.

The despair was endless. The lack of understanding from mostly everyone around me was staggering. The days droned on hopelessly and everything felt wrong.

So it was, living in the valley of death.

I looked on at those walking amongst the living, exasperated, wondering if I would ever join them again; wondering if promotions, moves, petit social slights, new workouts, or politics would ever matter to me again. I wondered if I would ever again feel anything but longing and despair.

I checked Facebook obsessively, hoping that everyone else moving through life as though nothing was different would somehow normalize me. But I only felt isolation.

I stood still as the world passed me by. The worst part was that I didn’t even want to join them.

Few checked in on me after the funeral, and I slid into a cocoon of depression and resentment. I couldn’t tell if they expected me to be ok, or if they just didn’t know what to say; couldn’t deal with how horrible it must be… couldn’t fathom being in my situation.

“She’s always with you,” they said. (“No, she’s gone. And she’s not coming back,” I thought. “I don’t even see her in my dreams anymore.”)

“You will hear her voice with time,” they said. (“Hearing someone’s voice is a choice,” I thought, “and my skepticism makes it too difficult for me to listen.”)

“Just be thankful for the time you had,” they said. (“I can be thankful for the time I had while being completely, totally and utterly devastated that she is gone,” I thought.)

I hated their empty words, yet I seethed and said nothing. They just wanted to help, after all. And to be fair, our culture does not seem to understand that pain and grief are natural; not necessarily “problems” to be cast away, fixed or covered up. I have never been comfortable putting my emotions on the back burner — they are not something I could wish away, even if I tried. And besides; in this case, I rightly deserved every bit of my pain, and then some.

My darling Bonnie shared this quote with me, and it helped me tremendously in that dark time: “If she does want to talk, avoid saying things to diminish or explain away her pain, like, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘Time heals all wounds,’ or ‘God gives us only what we can handle.’ These are things people say when they don’t know what else to say, and even if they’re true, they’re better left unsaid because they can be discovered only in retrospect. When her pain is fresh and new, let her have it. Don’t try to take it away. Forgive yourself for not having that power. Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. They’re sacred. They are part of each person’s journey. All we can do is offer relief from this fear: I am all alone. That’s the one fear you can alleviate.” – Glennon Dale Melton, a passage from Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

It articulated beautifully what I was going through, and reminded me that I was not alone, even when it really, really felt that way. To even have people in my life that cared enough about me to try to snatch away my pain (however misguided they may be) was a blessing.

Besides, the external pressure to move on was nothing compared to the immense pressure I put on myself. How long will it take to feel normal? I wondered listlessly. I agonized over being set back in my life, and promised myself I would feel better after each passing event. I hoped beyond hope that life would take on meaning again; that I could stop sending my zombie representative to parties, dinners, and important occasions. She would show her face and nod politely, but inner me couldn’t help but notice how much she let pass her by.

In my haze, the months all blended together. A full year slipped past me in a vague blur of unspeakable sadness. I was a shell of my former self, and deeply concerned that I was doing it all wrong, despite others telling me how great I seemed, and that I inspired them.

I marched on.

Over time, and through the counseling of friends and loved ones (and a great book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss that my dear friend Kristina sent me), I learned that it was ok to grieve and to take my time. I learned that grief knows no timeline or stages. Grief is fluid — there are fine days, and terrible days, and endless days, and a few days interspersed that remind you to live like hell.

It was not all in vain. I grew in ways I still don’t comprehend, and little by little, it does seem to get easier. I can’t say that I feel completely whole again — that would be disingenuous. I still have days where I break down into tears seemingly out of nowhere; days when I don’t want to get out of bed in a world that doesn’t include my mother. Her death left a Grand Canyon-sized hole in my heart, and a scar on me for life. Nothing will change that.  But the ever-present despair seems to have receded a bit, leaving me just enough energy to reintegrate with the living again.

I am hollow no more, but I continue to navigate this long, twisted, and often lonely road of grief. I may never see its end, but I’ve learned to accept and appreciate my journey. I suppose, for now, that’s all I can really hope for.

My Heart is Broken: Here’s Why.

Four weeks ago, to the moment, my life was perfect. Everything was falling into place, just like every platitude said it would. Good things were finally coming to me, and I was ready for them. My biggest worry in life was how much money it would cost me to fix my bike after I’d crashed it. Ok, ok. It wasn’t exactly a CRASH . . . more like I ran it into a parked car while not paying attention. That’s right: a month ago, parked cars were the bane of my existence.

That’s kind of funny to me now.

Let’s rewind to Wednesday, May 29th: Nance (my mother and bff, for those of you who aren’t in-the-know) and I were excitedly buzzing over making arrangements for my part-time shore apartment in Asbury Park, New Jersey — a move that would fulfill my lifelong dream of living at the shore. It was Adventures in Decorating all over again; except, with this being a second home, I took on more of the role of budget warden and less of the role of a demanding style control freak. I really let my mother take the reigns on this project, much to her delight. I told her “I trust you,” when what I probably really meant was, “I’m far too exhausted to do this whole decorating process again. Do whatever you want.”

If all had gone according to plan, I would have moved in the weekend of June 14-16. Naturally, Nance had arranged for everything: the truck, the furniture (donated from her own collection), the décor . . . plus, every single thing from a list of “First Apartment Essentials” which she had, of course, printed out and begun checking off, promising me “extra” items she had lying around the house. For the rest? She was scheming ways she could buy it all for me without spoiling me too much. Classic Nance.

Right. Well, as I’m sure you can imagine from my incredible foreshadowing, all did NOT go according to plan. Those plans are another world now; a world I don’t even recognize, let alone live in. On Thursday, May 30th, around noon, I got the call from my father that put my life in a blender: “It’s your mother — she’s very sick — was lifestarred to Hartford Hospital — a stroke, or something.” I could tell by his voice that it was bad.

I wailed in the shower, crying “NO, NO NO, YOU CAN’T LEAVE ME YET. NOT NOW, NOT WHEN I NEED YOU SO.”

I wailed on the way to the hospital, as Dave tried desperately to lead my mind away from the dark place: “People make amazing recoveries all the time. Mostly everyone survives from a stroke.”

I wailed when the doctors led us up to Floor 9, the Neuro-ICU, thinking this is really bad. How could this be so bad? How could I have fallen so quickly from a state of grace into a world of horror? Five hours ago, I was texting my mother pictures of lamps, and now I am drowning in a sea of tears and wondering how I will ever live in a world without my brilliant, generous, well-reasoned and overly-involved mother?

I will spare most of the grizzly details, but the gist is that Nance had a very severe and rare stroke which left much of the left side of her brain damaged, and some parts of the right. She had two major brain surgeries in less than 48 hours — one to save what they could of her brain (a feat which proved to be impossible once they got in there for the surgery), and the other, to save her life. Once the doctors were finished doing everything possible in their capacity to save her, we were told we would have to wait to see the extent of the damage. The results might run the gamut from moderate to severe disability, or worse: the unthinkable.

In the days that followed the initial surgeries and news, I will admit, I was a mess. I held it together in emails to friends and colleagues, but inside I silently screamed: I want my mommy. Yes, at 27-years-old, I am still crying for my mommy. To be fair, she is also my best friend, whom I call/text at my every compulsion (or, in the spirit of honesty, any time I have to walk for longer than 10 minutes in the city). She is my go-to; my roll-dog. My voice of reason. My everything.

For weeks, my family waited on news with hushed words and baited breath, wondering if she would survive; and if she did, to what extent we would get her back. We knew that even the best case scenario would mean disability, but we had hope in our hearts and the firmly-held belief that the woman we knew and loved was damn near invincible in her strength. How could she succumb? It was unfathomable.

Yet there was my invincible mother, in a coma, fighting for her life. And I sat looking on, helplessly, not knowing when or if she would get better. The days crawled by, as we exhaustedly lived in limbo. It was the worst kind of hell I can imagine, one I couldn’t have imagined, even in my darkest nightmares of losing her. I’d never felt that kind of pain in my life — the pain of the unknown… my life and my heart were hanging in the balance of something so incredibly fragile; something I couldn’t understand, let alone solve with logic or reason.

It all changed in a moment. A phone call. A word: stroke.

Even through the worst of it, there were beautiful moments, too.

…the first time my mother opened her eyes and looked at me after the stroke, grabbing for my hand and squeezing as I said “I love you, I love you, I love you” through my tears…

…strangers on the brink of collapse in the ICU waiting room, still finding it in their hearts to mouth “good luck” as we would leave to meet with the doctors…

…friends, colleagues, community members and co-workers rallying around my family to provide us comfort, hope, support, meals, flowers, groceries, gift baskets and much-needed distractions during the hardest times…

…somberly celebrating Father’s Day over Mexican food, and still finding a way to laugh boisterously while reminiscing over our favorite family vacation Mom-memories…

…and sitting on a blanket next to beautiful, supportive Bonnie, with the sun shining on my face and the whole park empty except for us, feeling for the first time like some day I’m going to be ok.

Last week, we moved my mother to Palliative (end-of-life) Care. Too much damage was done to her brain; too much functionality lost. She wouldn’t want to live the life she would have been left with. The stroke left her a shell of the woman who taught me the strength I harbor today.

So here I sit in a hospital, watching my mother slowly die an unexpected death. I knew this day would come, eventually. It is the way of the world; of life. Children are supposed to outlive their parents. But nothing could have prepared me for this. Nothing could have readied me for this broken heart, scattered haphazardly in my chest. From the 9th floor window of the hospital, I watch the first nice days of summer disappear over what little skyline Hartford has, and hope deeply that she doesn’t feel too much pain.

I hold her hand and sing softly to calm her, replaying in my mind every moment between us that I can remember, so she still feels close. My mind leads me to this one moment, the day Nance’s mom died. I was 6 or 7 at the time. I was crying in my room, feeling sorry for myself for losing my grandmother. But then it dawned on me that whatever my feelings of loss, there was somebody else in  far more need. I trudged through the house and found my mother, in the kitchen, on the old spiral cord phone, bravely making arrangements for the wake and funeral through her tears. When she hung up, and looked at me, I said “it’s gonna be okay, Momma. You have me.” She pulled me into her, both of us sobbing, and said, “I know honey, I know.” And she did.  Always. I’m proud to say I never faltered in my devotion to her.

I haven’t heard her voice in nearly 4 weeks (the stroke took away her ability to speak), but I can hear her in my head telling me I will be fine, eventually. That it’s going to be hard, but that I am more than capable of absorbing the pain and undertaking the struggles and responsibilities that lie ahead. And there are many. She would remind me that I am a badass survivor; a warrior woman with an endless bastion of heart and strength.

I am my mother’s daughter, after all.