Archive for January, 2010

The Process

First, a small aside. I find it odd that as the situation with my Mom progresses, I begin to have more and more trouble finding a title for each blog post. Believe me when I say that I seldom find myself at a loss for words – I can go on and on about almost anything. When I’m doing something like a blog post, I also very seldom have difficulty in deciding on what to title a post. But as I sat down and began to write this evening, I found myself at a complete loss in trying to title this post. There’s a message in there for me somewhere I think, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it is. Or not – perhaps it’s just my own OCD rearing its head. Who the hell knows? It’s just bothering me, so I thought I’d mention it, as a sort of apology for the weak title that will likely find its way to the top of this post.

I went to visit my parents today. When I got there, my step-dad was in the kitchen making lunch for my Mom; she was upstairs resting in bed. One of my aunts was there with her, and at one point an old friend of hers came to visit as well. Mom has stopped the radiation treatments now, the only thing that she’s agreed to continue with is the medication for pain. It’s “comfort care” time now; no more aggressive attacks on the cancer to try and slow it down. She’s pretty weak, but she’s also in good spirits – she warned me that she was in a grumpy mood, and I’d best watch myself. Translation: “Be careful what you say. I might be knocked down, but I can still kick your ass if I need to.” She smiled and laughed a lot, but she also looked extremely frail and tired. I didn’t stay very long – too many people, and I didn’t want to tire her out any more than necessary.

On the bed next to her today was a book that she was reading, something that one of the hospice people who come in to see her left for her. I looked it up online when I came home today, and I think it’s something that I need to read, and soon. It’s called, “Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying.” I have this struggle going on inside my myself right now, and I’m not really sure how to deal with it.

On one side, I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to cope with the loss of someone who for me has been the embodiment of what motherhood should be, what it should mean. I’ve never been someone who’s adept or comfortable in dealing with emotional trauma. That seems a silly thing to say – how exactly can someone be “comfortable” dealing with any kind of trauma, emotional or otherwise? But I have known people who, at least on the surface, seem to be somehow equipped to deal with things like this in ways that I still can’t seem to understand. To be concise, I’m grieving and hurting like hell right now, and I don’t know how to really cope with that. I have never understood how to deal with such things, so I’ve always run from them.

This is a situation where running is not an option for me. My mother has outlived three of her five children. There are two rather overwhelming concerns for her right now. She’s worried about how my stepfather is going to cope with things once she’s gone, and she has the same concern about me. In my step-dad’s case, she’s concerned about how he’s going to take care of himself after she’s gone. I think that she feels like caring for her right now is something that gives him a purpose, and that when she’s gone, he will no longer have that. She worries about what will happen once he’s lost that purpose.

In my case, she worries about how I’m going to deal with her death. Or rather, she’s worried that I won’t be able to deal with it safely. She’s afraid that her death may contribute to triggering an episode at one or the other end of the bipolar spectrum for me. While I very seldom have really major bipolar episodes, when I do have them, they tend to be quite extreme. She’s concerned, I think, that I may go off the deep end and do something stupid. It doesn’t really matter that I try to make sure that I’m taking care of that particular condition in the best way that I can. She’s still going to worry about it, no matter how well I take care of myself.

So, I find myself trying to figure out how to deal with the grief of knowing that my mother is very close to her death, while at the same time trying to reassure her that I’ll be okay, and that I’ll be here for my stepfather. The truth is that to some extent, right now I’m giving her half-truths. I don’t have the vaguest idea of how I’m going to cope with this when she’s gone. I don’t want to see her leave this world afraid and worried about the people who are going to be left behind, so I do my best to make her believe that we’re going to be okay.

The fact is that in the end, we will be okay. I suppose that in some ways, what I’m trying to do is shield her from our pain. I don’t want her to have to see us hurting, because I’m afraid that she’ll feel responsible for it. There have been times when she’s done that: She’s taken on responsibility for situations that she could have done nothing to prevent. No matter how illogical it may have been, she’s felt responsible in the past for things that were beyond her control. I don’t want her to feel that she’s hurting us in some way. She isn’t doing the hurting – the impending loss of a mother, wife, sister, grandmother, etc., is what is causing the pain. But in the fashion of a good Irish-Catholic mother, my Mom will take on a burden of guilt at times that really is something she need not take on.

And yet…

Through all of this grief, confusion, and inability on my part to understand and cope, the good things are also still coming through. They may seem to some to be small things, but to me, right now at least, they’re enormous. As I was getting ready to leave today, I told her to give me a hug. She sat up on the bed, and as we hugged each other, she whispered in my ear, “I love you, Steve.” I responded in kind, and as I drove away, I was struck with the thought that her death is still, in all the important ways, bringing us closer together.  I find myself feeling grateful. Grateful that I wasn’t spared this process by her quick and unexpected death. It’s true that if that had happened, I wouldn’t feel this confusion all the time, I would have been spared the difficult aspects of the process of her death.

At the same time though, I would have missed out on the chance to become reacquainted with the mother-child bond. And frankly, it would have killed me to know that she had died without having heard me express my feelings to her, and to listen to her express her feelings to me. In the midst of a painful, heart-wrenching and confusing time, I’m finding a strange beauty in this situation.

I suppose in many ways, that’s one of my mother’s last gifts to me…

Editing To Add: Desideria, if you’re reading this, I left a reply to your last comment, and sent an email as well…


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The last two times that I’ve gone to visit Mom have been really kind of hard for me to handle. I’ve enjoyed my visits, but both times, she’s had me gather some things together that she wants to make sure that I get. Mostly old photographs, and this last time, a few old Christmas ornaments that have been around for as long as I can remember.

This has been really nice, in many ways. I’ve had some questions about some of the really old photographs – they are cracked and fragile, faded black and white snapshots from my mother’s childhood, filled with people I know but don’t recognize when they were children. We’ve sat over coffee, sharing memories and laughing. This is precious time for me, being able to spend hours with Mom reminiscing.

I can’t help feeling an almost overwhelming sadness, though, with each of these visits. She is giving me, really, bits and pieces of a lifetime, lovingly collected through her years, saved in order to hold on to memories of people and places. Some of those people are gone now, and all that remains is this collection of pictures that my mother is now passing on to me, making me a sort of archivist of the past.

That’s something that I don’t mind, quite the opposite. The reason it makes me sad is that she’s giving me those bits and pieces of her life, letting go of them and passing them down to her oldest child. In essence, I feel like I’m watching her physical body slowly give out on her, and at the same time, I’m watching her give up the emotional pieces that she’s collected through seventy-three years of life.

Not only is she giving them up, she’s giving them to me.

The memories that I have of my mother from the time that I can remember anything will always be with me. Those memories are a gift that I’ve slowly accrued over my own lifespan. But the memories of her childhood that she’s sharing with me now – not just the funny stories about the antics of her and her brothers and sisters, but the things that mattered to her deeply – many of these memories are things that I never knew about her before.

She’s dying. As she goes through this process with grace and dignity, she’s sharing so much with me – probably because at this late stage of my life, I’m finally ready to allow myself to be really close to her in ways that I was never able to allow earlier in my life. I regret that, but at the same time I’m more grateful than I can begin to describe that we’re finally discovering that closeness with each other.

I’m going to miss her so much…

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For a number of years, on a sort of on again, off again basis, I played bass guitar with several local bands. At one gig, a charity fund-raiser for a young girl with leukemia, I was asked to stand in as the bass player with a local group called the Sandra Wright Band. I had never heard of Sandra Wright before – at the time, she had been in Vermont for less than a year. When this woman stepped to the microphone and began to sing, I knew that I was a part of something that was pure musical magic. Sandra was one of the most amazingly talented blues vocalists I’ve ever heard; being a small part of that performance has always been one of my fondest memories.

The following is a transcript of a news report I heard this evening on Public Radio:

Vermont Blues Singer Sandra Wright Dies

Tuesday, 01/12/10

Vermont blues singer Sandra Wright has died. Wright passed away Monday at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center after suffering a brain embolism. She was 61.

Sandra Wright lived in Ludlow, Vermont. She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and had been singing since the age of four. After spending a number of years performing in Nashville, she moved to Vermont in 1992, and in many circles was thought of as the state’s “blues diva”. Wright was known for her brassy vocals and passionate stage persona.

Terry Youk of Montpelier played in The Sandra Wright Band for six years [and said]: “When she performed, she really did connect with audiences…first of all I think she just had a joy in singing and music in general. And with such great musicians, she would just open up and shine. It’s a huge blow to the Vermont music audience as well as to the musicians who have played with Sandra all these years, and she will be missed.”

Funeral services for Sandra Wright have not yet been announced.

This quote comes from a YouTube posted upload of one of Wright’s recordings:

“According to a Twitter post by August First this morning and confirmed via a phone conversation with local vocalist Linda Bassick, local blues singer Sandra Wright passed away last night at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center after suffering a brain embolism. Wright was 61.

According to Bassick, whose husband, Dave Nerbak, is the guitarist in the Sandra Wright Band, the Memphis-born singer had long battled diabetes. In September of last year, Wright underwent double knee surgery and suffered an infection following the procedure. Bassick could not confirm that the embolism and infection were related.

Since moving to Vermont in 1992, Wright had been a fixture in the local jazz and blues scene. She was known for outsized vocal chops an ebullient stage persona to match. The singer had performed as recently as New Year’s Eve.

An upcoming funeral service will be private. But Bassick says that a public celebration of the singer’s life will take place this spring.

Thoughts and prayers go out to Wright’s family and friends”

Below are some YouTube videos featuring Sandra Wright. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of hearing her sing is mourning her loss now. I know that I am…

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I suppose that I should consider the fact that we were given another Christmas season with my Mom to be a blessing – a gift as it were. I do think of it that way, really, but the follow-up, announced to me on New Year’s Eve, is a bit too much like a punch to the gut.

Mom’s lung cancer responded well to chemo and radiation treatments. The tumors shrank to about ten percent of their original size. She’s been looking much better, she’s had more energy, and we’ve all been very grateful that it seemed we would have another couple of years to spend with her. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief for the fact that I wouldn’t have to face her death squarely for a while, and that I might have some extra time to be with her.

She called me on New Year’s Eve.

I knew that it wasn’t going to be good when the first thing she did was ask me if I was alone. I told her that I was, and she hesitated to say anything else. With a little encouragement, though, she told me that she found out that the cancer has spread to her neck and to her liver, and that there isn’t much time left.

I did good. I managed to keep myself calm while I was on the phone with her, and I promised her that I’d be over to see her on New Year’s Day. I didn’t fall apart until I’d hung up the phone.

So, things rolled along here. Mom was doing well, I slacked off in terms of keeping this blog updated. I suppose that in some ways, I felt like, “She’s doing well. Don’t jinx it.” Meaning, I didn’t want to write about the good times, for fear that I might cause the good times to end. As if I have that kind of power…

Life is what life is. Death is a part of life. No matter how badly I may wish to deny the fact that my mother is dying, the fact remains that she is dying. Her death is going to come sooner rather than later. There is not one God-damned thing that I can do about that. And I suppose that it’s that feeling of utter powerlessness that bothers me the most.

I’ve discovered something, though. I called my daughter to let her know what’s happening with her Grandmother, and in the course of that conversation, I found out that there is a great deal of strength and comfort to be found in sharing our common pain. While I dreaded having to tell her what I had learned, the simple act of telling her gave me strength that I wasn’t quite aware that I had. While I didn’t break down on the phone with her, my voice did break a bit. Brandi is a person I can feel safe in exposing my pain to. If I need to cry, I can cry, and know that I’m safe in doing so. That, I’ve come to know, is a kind of strength – the ability to cry and to be vulnerable to the people around us.

I’m rambling here…

I guess that in a way, I’m trying to grant some kind of immortality to my Mom. The internet is, at least as far as I can tell, something that will be here in one form or another for as long as there are human beings on this planet. If there is one thing that I know about the internet, it is this: Put something out there on the web, and it is there forever, or until the internet disappears, whichever comes first.

In the meantime, I’ll simply try to cope as best I can with my Mom’s impending death. And I will do my best to live my life in a way that would make her proud of me. More than that, I can’t do…

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