Christmas sort of sneaked in on little cat feet this year, even though they were the little cat feet of Maggie, who true to form, was yowling at the door at 5:30 AM demanding her breakfast. Ever since Maggie has been on the prednisolone for her inflammatory bowel disease, she's been like a pothead in a Pathmark, constantly wanting to eat. But aside from Maggie, there's a stillness in the air this morning -- a stillness I usually savor on Christmas Eve, but this year we skipped our traditional Christmas Eve Indian dinner in favor of an aggressively unhealthful lunch at a local many-beers-on-tap local pub with my sister and brother-in-law before seeing them off to their home in North Carolina, to which I too will soon be traveling to begin the daunting task of sorting through our hoarder mother's worldly goods, separating the wheat from the chaff. It's enough to make me want to conjure up the old Clean House
Mom always hated the holidays. I blame Norman Rockwell, for conjuring up images of happy families in a timeless America. Mom always felt like the Little Match Girl during the holidays, looking in on mythical images of happy, harmonious, loving families gathered around the Christmas tree and eating a lovingly-prepared meal. In her fantasy world, grandparents were loving, children were appreciative, and she could feel like she belonged. Mom would get depressed every year around this time, and this only became worse after her husband died right before New Year's in 2000. She never was able to let go of her grief for the next twelve years, which might make you think that hers was a lovely story of second chances at true love, were it not for the reality that six months before her husband became ill, she told me she wanted to leave him, take their Rottweiler and move to New York City. It wasn't that he was a bad person, it was simply that he had been unable, despite jumping through hoops for a quarter of a century, to fill the giant, gaping void at the center of her soul. It wasn't until much later that Mom figured out that it was SHE who was unable to be happy, not that others couldn't make her happy.
Mom had almost departed in late September, when the COPD she'd developed after surviving over two decades since lung cancer surgery while continuing to smoke resulted in a dangerous hypercarbia. She'd had a psychotic episode and landed in the hospital, where she insisted that she'd been picked up in the gutter in Philadelphia while wearing a leopard coat at a protest of some sort, she'd been taken to a basement where they'd cut her hair and tortured her in vile ways. It was at least a week before she realized it had been a hallucination. They didn't do anything in the hospital except keep her oxygenated, and after about five days, we were able to get her a placement in an assisted living residence so that she could be released from the hospital.
She'd been deteriorating again the last week or so before my sister was able to line up help so she could go home. She'd been in hospice care for a while, and when she'd become agitated, the hospice people would give her anti-anxiety medications so she wouldn't gasp for breath as her failing heart and hopelessly damaged lungs became unable to do the job any longer.
She died peacefully in her sleep less than thirty-six hours after entering her house. We think that either her heart just finally gave out, or that the hospice medications allowed her to relax enough to let go. She'd been terrified of an end in which she'd be in agony, gasping for breath (and so were we), so it's a blessing that she was able to depart quietly without knowing it was happening. We just had no idea it would be this soon.
It's never spoken of, but when someone dies after a long and deteriorating illness, there's always a sense of relief that it's finally over. For all that Mom had been of varying degrees of suicidal for as long as I can remember, she, like her mother before her, clung to a life from which she had derived no pleasure for a long time.
And yet, I don't feel any particular grief, or even loss. It isn't as if I could ever rely on my mother for reassurance, for emotional sustenance, for anything -- because she was so needy herself that she really had no room to nurture anyone else. It was always all about her -- her problems, her needs, how my problems affected her. Growing up with her neediness, her depression, and her frequent rages was often nightmarish -- it wasn't until much later on that I realized that being interrogated for hours after visiting with one's father was not actually a normal function of a divorced parent. I long ago forgave her for my childhood, because I know that she just was not equipped from her own abusive childhood to parent us. But we have done the hard work of coming to terms with that childhood and moving past it into successful adult life -- something she was just never able or willing to do.
Tomorrow I head south to help my sister sort through the mountain of stuff in her house -- all that stuff that she said she would miss most when she was gone. Part of me is excited at what we might find, and about some of the beautiful antiques from furniture to teddybears to marcasite jewelry that I hope to give a good home. But part of me thinks I may shed the only real tears I will have shed over this entire week, at the utter waste -- the money wasted on handbags and shoes and jewelry and sweaters purchased in an effort to fill the void in her soul and never worn because they were always being saved "for good wear"; on antique dolls and teddybears and magazine subscriptions and exercise equipment never used and all the things ordered in the dead of night from QVC because the nice ladies on TV helped salve the loneliness that no husband, child, or even dog, could salve; and at the sheer waste of potential -- of a sharp mind and a wicked sense of humor that could never quite overcome the deep-seated self-loathing she had.
I can't be sad that she is gone, as I see the end of this part of her journey as a blessed release from her burden of living inside her head for eighty-five years. But I can be sad at the many "second chances" she was afforded in her life that she never could allow to flower.
Be at peace, Mom. At long last, be at peace.
Mom and me, September 21, 1986
Labels: Christmas, families, personal musings