On This Anniversary

On this day, 31 years ago, I lost my mother. I was 21, which is still too young to lose a parent.

Whether or not we dwell on a tragedy or use it to become more than we were is entirely up to us, and I believe most of us do both. I know that I’ve cycled through them more than once.

For me, it was as if she’d been hit by a bus, even though my mother had cancer. I lived on the coast of California, while she lived in the Midwest, where I grew up. I had known she had breast cancer and a mastectomy—in fact, I was there—but not that it had spread everywhere.

Those family members who were still local were sworn to secrecy, so I wasn’t told. Not until the day before she passed when I told one of my sisters I was planning a trip back home. She told me I might want to wait because the doctors couldn’t predict how long she had, and I might want to save my vacation days for the funeral. She died just hours before I could get on a flight. When she did, I knew it because I felt her give me a hug and tell me that I would be OK because I’d soon be together with the rest of the family.

It may seem like 21 is old enough that I could handle her passing as an adult, but it’s still too young to lose a parent. As my father’s abusive and left when I was seven, I felt like an orphan. My mother and I had just begun to build a relationship as adults. She was sharing her own stories of struggle when she’d suddenly become the single mother of seven who had to find a job though she’d never worked. I was hearing about her fears and her successes rather than the anger and pain she expressed through most of my childhood.

Not only did I have to deal with the loss, but also with the fact that she kept the spread of her cancer from me. That, to me, is lying by omission. A few of my siblings had done the same, and I had to deal with that, too. I was so overwhelmed that I literally began passing out — at the San Francisco airport, at the funeral home, at the funeral.

I will admit that I ended up becoming suicidal, which wasn’t entirely new because of my father’s abuses and my not having dealt with them. I had also just gone through being date raped, ending up pregnant from it when I’d been told I couldn’t get pregnant, decided that abortion wasn’t right for me personally even though I’m pro-choice, decided I wasn’t in a position to raise a child on my own and so would put the baby up for adoption, then suddenly miscarried and, at a follow-up appointment with the doctor, he used the words “growths” and “biopsies,” even though he was 99% sure they were cervical warts (he told me later). It was “the last straw.”

I was serious about taking my own life. I was on medication, so I took every pill in the house, followed by most of a fifth of whiskey, after which I lay in a warm bath and sliced open both my forearms. I figured that, if nothing else worked, I’d pass out and drown. It felt fool-proof.

Some claim that what happened next was a hallucination, but I don’t believe it was. My mother talked to me from beyond death. She explained to me that she was in a wonderful place, but that it wasn’t yet time to join her. In fact, she explained that it wasn’t my life to take, but Divinity’s, and then only when I completed what it was I was born to do. I got out of the bath, got dressed, wrapped my wounds, then knocked on my neighbor’s door and asked him to call 9–1–1.

I spent two weeks in a state-run psychiatric hospital. I wouldn’t recommend it. Nearly every other patient was a permanent resident or had been temporarily moved in order to make a court appearance. Most did the “Thorazine shuffle,” being so medicated that they roamed the hallways muttering to themselves. It was nightmarish.

When I stayed in my room, curled up on the bed, I was told that holding in my emotions was the worst thing I could do. After a few days, I began to talk. When I began to express my anger, however, I was given a shot that made me pass out, and I woke up in restraints in an isolation room. Still heavily drugged, I fought the restraints because I was flashing back to my childhood, but couldn’t verbalize that to the staff.

Eventually they eased up on the medication and I was able to let them know that I was done fighting and why I had been. Three days of drugged restraints felt like a month. I was able to share that waiting on the results of my biopsy was a “last straw” situation, but that I was no longer suicidal. The staff wasn’t convinced, and decided I should stay at least until I got the results.

There was still another week’s wait. My psych tech said that, since I was there, I might as well take advantage of their services. Those consisted of one-on-one talk therapy and crafts. I did a lot of both, though I made sure to not express any anger. And I convinced them that I was safe to have a pen and paper so I could journal, though I had to stay in the “day room” in view of the staff. I was basically just passing time.

When I found out that the biopsies were negative, I was ready to go. I still had to convince the psychiatrist I’d been assigned, who had me schedule an appointment for follow-up. I didn’t keep it because he wasn’t on my insurance, but got into a day program for a week and started seeing a therapist. I wasn’t ready to deal with all of my issues, but I did address my mother’s passing and most that it entailed.

About a year later, one of my maternal aunts was in San Francisco and wanted to see me. We weren’t very close, but she said it was important. I agreed to drive down, and after I picked her up at her hotel, we went to Golden Gate Park. Sitting on one of the benches, she gave me one of the greatest gifts I could have been given.

She had been at my mother’s bedside her last three days. She and my mother had talked, with my aunt trying to convince her to tell those of us who were out of town, which by then were only me and my baby brother, who was away at college. My mother said she didn’t want my baby brother’s last memory of her to be of her thin and jaundiced in a hospital bed. My aunt understood, but then asked why she’d been keeping me in the dark as I was older.

My mother explained, then, that she wanted what was best for me. She had weighed the idea for some time before deciding to not tell me. She was a bit forthcoming about my father’s abuses, which she’d never told her family, though my aunt sensed she held a lot back. She told my aunt that it had gotten progressively worse with each of us kids and, with my being the sixth, I’d had it pretty rough. She felt that I had enough to deal with, and it wouldn’t be fair for her to add to it. She didn’t like the idea of lying to me, but she also didn’t want me to lose the life I’d started building for myself, knowing I’d move back home to care for her.

She gave me the gift of life twice.

Even now, at 57, there are times I miss her. But we still talk. I do most of the talking, but every now and then I get an answer. After my best friend passed over last August, the two met. I will never forget how good it felt when they shared that. And now, instead of having conversations with just one, I have three—my mother, my best friend, and Divinity. My own special trinity.

I have been truly blessed.

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