last year at this time
Mid-March last year, I had eye surgery, as well as surgery on my uterus. Following those procedures, we took the boys to Maine to see my mom for what we knew would be their final visit. It was around the official beginnings of spring, though none of us noticed it.
I don’t have any photos of the visit. Mom wasn’t in any condition she’d want documented for years and years. So we left the commemoration of it to our brains. I’m terrible at trusting the proper memory of things to my brain. I need a camera, a sketchbook and a notebook (for the poems). And I need things to move slowly.
The environment to recapture things is now because I have all those things: camera, scketchbook and notebook. And I have as long as it takes to spread it out before me and work with it. I am curious about all the pieces and stages and I’m curious about how each of us was impacted in different ways. I’m curious about those things because we haven’t had many of those conversations. Certainly, we can, though. I already have lists of what I know I’ve lost in the chaos of traveling one moment to the next.
There are only three of us (my father, my sister and myself) who are left to really pull together notes/items about the goings on in her final years. I know each of us is most interested in his/her own experience during that time, but if we began collecting stuff and notes and photos and dreams that may seem unrelated, I think we’d have enough stuff that each of us could build something form our direct experience.
I think I want to talk to them more about our tiny little family unit right now than I want to talk about weather and exercise and housework and children’s sporting events. I’m terrible at that small-talk. It makes me feel really distant from people. And this would help me feel closer to them. (I think I’m losing them because I’m not capable of some of the normal interactions they have.) I don’t expect the material to be my mother’s story. I’m looking for mine (and their’s if they’re interested).
I’m extremely interested in looking at when I was there (and how that impacted me) and when I wasn’t there (and how that impacted me). The story that most helps me as I move forward with my own kids and with my father and sister is this: a story about where I was able to be helpful and where I was a pain in the ass. It’s a story about things I learned about myself and other people. It’s a story about witnessing.
So why isn’t it the beginning? you ask. It isn’t the beginning because earlier in the year, during winter, she had survived colon cancer and a big surgery to remove part of her colon, and she was cancer-free. That summer my sister had major knee surgery with a specialist in Boston to remove rare tumors from her knee, and my mom took care of her through the recovery. That summer/fall my grandmother got sick around the same time with rare, fast-growing, 15-pound tumors in her abdomen. She survived the surgeries but the disease was still there and could regrow. After a while her body couldn’t handle the stress and she died in September.
And this picture is “in media res” because it is November 2007 sandwiched between all I just told you — and the onset of her own illness. Pneumonia started pretty much right away (December 2007 and January 2008). A chest x-ray would reveal a tumor in her abdomen — or was it the final scan from the colon cancer that caught it? Either way, same timing, same result: a tumor on the kidney this time. Early 2008 was a major (failed) surgery. Spring and summer were attempts at chemotherapy. December 2008 was another major (failed) surgery. January 2009 were emergency surgical procedures to patch fistulas and address other signs and symptoms that she was terminal. Hospice became involved, and my father cared for her at home until April 18, when she died, at age 56. I was there in January, the boys visited her in March, and I was there again in April.
So the photo, the November 2007 photo which is her last visit to my house (a visit that thrilled me because Jack was learning to read and he was able to read to her) sits squarely in the middle of all that chaos somewhat as the eye of the hurricane. And her expression in it says to me that she is very much in the moment, grateful to be with all of us. The photo is 2 1/2 years old.
This photo is six months old (just two years passed between it and the November 2007 photo above). See how much the boys have grown. I see it even more every day. I consider how big their lives were getting during the time in which they lost two ladies who were very, very dear to them. I consider everything I missed either because I was physically away from them or because I was mentally checked-out.
And today, Davin announces to me on our way into the store, “Mommy, I think I’m big now and don’t need your hand.” It’s always a shock when they’re right about not needing something like that, but it’s also a shock because he’s still 3 or 4 to me (the age when all this started).; he’s not 6 1/2 and finishing up 1st grade.
I’ve missed a lot. I’m still not plugged back in. So today, there are these two old photos — a woman who’s enjoying the moment, three boys who are growing big — and there’s the youngest one who finally today decides he’s too big to hold my hand.
It doesn’t take a genius to know I’ll be in sad shape (we all will be) if I can’t connect with them again. There are many signs (that I won’t get into here; it’s a tangent) that they are hungry for more of me. I have heard that’s a small window of time. I struggle with this responsibility. I love people intensely but fail very often in the tasks that prove and support that love. I don’t want to fail. Not with these guys.
We planted seeds today in big trays and dreamed about the gardens they’ll make. We got ice cream. I watched them climb a tree. We looked for birds’ nests and daffodil blossoms.
Writing is what I do. I hope some of my poems can be about them not as my overwhelming responsibilities but as babies and toddlers and little men and big men. I think they can be, but I’ll have to pay closer attention.
I’ve stretched the limits of what’s reasonable time and space for hiding away with the grief and fear. It’s time to rejoin these boys on their adventures, and if the grief and fear is still with me, I’ll have to carry it in my boot. The backpack will be full of swords and snacks.