This Mother's Day, I'm working with Clever Girls in support of Macy's Heart of Haiti to shine a light on the "trade, not aid" program, which provides sustainable income to Haitian artisans struggling to rebuild their lives and support their families after the 2010 earthquake.
A few days before my grandmother died, I saw her for what I'm pretty sure now I knew would be the last time. It was late in the evening, in the last days of December. My own mother drove us to the nursing home on the way home from a family reunion, where I sat by her bed under the flourescent bulbs and wept and couldn't stop. She stroked my hand with her one good one, bewildered.
"Whatsa mattah? Whatsa mattah? Don't cry. It's okay. Don't cry. Why you cryin'?"
"Because you're so sick," I said. "And I can't help you. I don't know what to do."
More to the point, I told her the truth, finally: that I did not know what I would do when she left me. I told her there weren't enough tears for her. At 38, with a mother there to support me and the wherewithal to do whatever I needed to, really, to get by, I just did not know what I would do without her 85 pounds of awesome and her overall input in my physical world. I did not know how to live without her, because I'd never had to. She existed in my life from infancy as an ally and an advocate, for various reasons and in various ways. They never tell you at the beginning about this part at the end.
I wasn't supposed to tell her these things. She was frail and sick and often confused, her body and her spirit finally caving in to rest after more than a decade of recovery and relapse from a massive stroke and God knows how many mini-strokes in the daily mix. She had never gotten over her anger at losing her physical abilities or her independence, but she showed remarkable flexibility in moving around and adapting to what were sometimes really hard transitions.
I showed up for visits to the various facilities she needed to adjust to as her care needs changed with snacks she didn't want, clothing she wouldn't wear, and an obsessive desire to fix her television that she brushed off in favor of the crappy local news channel. We talked surface stuff, mostly, things she wanted to hear about and know, a work schedule that she said was too grueling even if I told her it was no big deal, and how could I even explain the internet to her as a time-waster? (When I started working in senior services, she'd concluded that I was a doctor for old people. She bragged to the unimpressed residents at her dining table that I was a doctor. I corrected her a couple of times and then I gave up.) I'd sat with her in ERs a couple of times, done some bush league elder advocacy that didn't compare to the stuff my parents dealt with daily when it came to hospital and assisted living and nursing home staff and back again. I cried on elevators and in my car when I left, but I did not let her see it, not ever, until this cold night at almost the end.
I really should have known better than to stress out a dying person. It seems like with all my years of counseling training, I'd have picked this up in one of the manuals, and yet there I was, dripping tears on her bed sheet. I fail end of life in my own family.
However, my grandmother did that night what I've learned over my conscious lifetime that moms do. I learned this mostly from her, and from my own mother, her daughter-in-law, with some other data from my aunts, my friends with kids or even without who possess maternal energy that lights the world, from my childhood stories of Mary that are my strongest mythical tie to Catholicism. I quite simply believe that Marie White stopped her own hastening dying process to attend to me. Her eyes cleared and she looked at me and she told me that this was a real shame, yes, but I would be okay. She transmitted to me with her eyes and with her touch a desire to stay and stop my pitiful sadness that was as strong as it was impossible.
She obviously would never have left me if she had a choice, and beyond me she would have chosen not to die at all, because she liked being alive in a practical, curious way, as well as the way of a caregiver. I actually believe that she stayed alive through as many health setbacks and eating problems and winter colds and crazy surgeries because not only did she not want to leave her family, she just didn't think that she should, or that it was a good idea. And this all sounds as crazy and woo-woo to me on one level as it sounds completely rational on every other. It is the very heart of love. And if one has been lucky enough to be loved, and protected, and fought for like that, I'm not sure what else you need.
My grandmother would have thought that talking about being a parent was ridiculous, honestly, like talking about air or groceries or the veracity of the Holy Trinity. Some things were and that was that. Her dad died pretty young and her brother was killed in World War II, she took care of her sister and pitched in for her mom. In her world of duty you did what you did and you got what you got and what she got was four sons and seven grandchildren and that was okay too.
Yes, she worked her butt off. No, I cannot speak to her dreams and inner thoughts, but from all appearances she really liked her kids and the grandchildren when we came along. She would have always rather been with us than not. She liked helping children learn and being a parent and a coach (although not always the most tactful sort) came rather naturally to her. I think she would look back at me from whatever beyond she's in to say that this is a whole bunch of goings on for something that made a certain amount of sense at the time, that of course I cried that night, of course it was a real shame that she had to go, because she'd have much rather stayed here. As the Irish funeral prayer my sister found for her funeral program says,
"All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting, when we meet again."
She believed that. I didn't, so much. Now I do because I like the concept, nothing more, and whenever I read these words, which is admittedly often, I smile.
I did not go back to see her after I left the room that night, and she died a few days later. I have felt great guilt at various times since that I didn't witness her passing closer to the time, but I've come to the conclusion that we finished our business that night. It was the exchange that we needed to have to mark the end of a profound human relationship. It left space for everyone else to have their time, to say what they needed, or not. I'm pretty sure our parting words that last night were the usual mishmash -- be careful, I'll see you soon, come by when you can.
One brief moment, and all will be as it was before.
When my family drifted out of the funeral home the last night, I hung around until my uncle said that I had to go, that I needed to leave my grandmother sometime. I conceded and did this, but although I was grateful for the nudge, I really was, he wasn't exactly correct. As I move through the world I know all of the hype is true: I never will leave her, and she will never be gone from me. My Kubler-Ross stages of grief have moved in waves for three years, they've gone out for brunch together, picked up hobbies and gone on a few beach vacations by now. But when you aren't ever left by a person in the truest sense of never leaving, you're much less inclined to do it yourself (unless you have a personality disorder or are just not the grateful sort, I guess. I'm talking best case scenarios here.) It's the best kind of luck and the only thing about love I've ever needed to learn. That, and that when you're a mom or someone like it, you'll try to take a break from a process as arduous as dying to attend to what an overgrown weeping kid needs, I guess because you've never ever ignored anything she needed before, so why start now?
I know I've been loved like that. I don't need to ask for more.
Thank you to Macy's Heart of Haiti for sponsoring my participation in this “Share Your Heart" promotion. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective. All opinions expressed here are my own.