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Writing Out the Guilt

Mother’s Day 2016

Eventually, I will write a tribute to my mom on my blog, Big Green Pen. When I do, I don’t want the primary theme to be guilt. I want it to be a tribute to her incredible qualities of intellect, kindness, and generosity.

But there is plenty of guilt in the aftermath of her death. Maybe if I get most of it out over here at Medium, I can concentrate on everything else when I write my tribute.


My mom was the one human being around whom I was the most relaxed. That’s not the kind of relationship quality you can force; it either happens or it doesn’t. We didn’t have to be talking. We could just be. We all need one person in our world who fills that role. She probably didn’t need me to tell her that she filled that role for me. She probably knew (because moms know so much), but I wish I had told her.


Most of all, I wish I had paid my mom more attention. I mean this in a variety of ways. Throughout the funeral planning, when we would tell someone about the baby who died at birth (a boy, two years before me); when we saw his grave next to hers; when that wound was opened for my father repeatedly, I thought “it must have been so difficult to muster up the hope to try again.”

Having had two miscarriages myself, I have a tiny inkling of the grief a mother feels after losing a baby, the sadness at all that won’t be for that little life.

Through great stretches of my teenage years, the young adult years before I had my own kids and realized rapidly how much we as parents want desperately for our kids to be happy, I was disdainful and unappreciative.

I wish I had spent the last 10–20 years, especially, paying more attention. Calling more often. Opening up about my life.

My mother-in-law and I were extremely close. I *think* my mom knew that was a different “close” than she and I shared, but I still wonder if I needed to make sure.


I suppose there is nothing else I could have done to change the outcome of the past two months. The three hospitalizations, the periods in the ICU, the several times when she could not breathe without intense intervention, the final time when a decision was made not to intubate her.

One night in the ICU at UF Health, she was especially struggling to breathe. This was after the first breathing tube had been removed and before a decision was made to reintubate her. She was extremely restless (one hallmark of this whole hospital stay was difficulty sleeping at night — she had difficulty sleeping anyway, but the hospital environment and a host of other factors conspired to make the sleeplessness worse). The nurse felt if she could have Benadryl, she could relax. The doctor kept declining it, on the premise it would suppress her breathing. The nurse said “the day doctor will be more receptive.”

I don’t know why a doctor couldn’t be receptive at 4 am when she really needed “receptive,” (and I realize Benadryl itself may have been contraindicated, but there has to have been some relief available) but I wish I had stood up for her better, that time and other times throughout the hospitalizations when she didn’t get what she needed. I think she especially needed us to unify around trying to make sense of the multiple, conflicting “diagnoses” we were given and pin down a treatment plan that made sense. (And I’m not casting aspersions on the medical personnel necessarily, just saying there were many moving parts of the situation and I think some vital signals that a crisis was impending may have not been attended to as well as they could have.)


I feel guilty that she died without me being able to pay back the money I owed her. I know I still owe it to my dad, and she never complained or even brought it up. But I feel I let her down by asking in the first place and furthermore by paying back extremely slowly. I wish I could have rectified that before she was gone.

Phone Calls

I hate making phone calls. Ironically, one piece of guilt I carry from my sister-in-law’s death in 1993 at the age of 30 is the fact that Wayne said, the night prior to her death, “you should call Ann and let her know the house got painted today” (we were in the process of buying a townhouse from them). I blew him off, thinking there would be other times.

There weren’t. She died unexpectedly of Long QT syndrome at 4:30 that morning.

I was not a frequent caller to my parents (or visitor, for that matter). We had a Sunday night standing appointment, and I would often find myself running late on whatever project was on that week’s agenda, emailing my dad and telling him I would call the next day.

The calls were so much more perfunctory than they could have been.

I used to complain to my mother-in-law that I always had to call them (they were very hesitant to call me) and she (a person who called/emailed FREQUENTLY) would say, “they brought you into the world; it’s the least you could do.”

She was right. We also could have emailed or communicated in other ways.

I am always hungry to hear from my children, even if there isn’t “news.” I wish I had fed her hunger more completely.


I wish I hadn’t left out the paper I wrote in college that got extremely detailed about family dynamics in a place where she could see it. I know how hurt she was, and that one is all on me. Writing can be a blessing and a curse, no?


Finally, I wish I had given her more time. She was always saying “I know you’re busy.” I’m busy but not that busy. I’m not sure how I could have convinced her I wanted to talk/interact.

One of the absolute most powerful moments I ever had in therapy was when the therapist led me through a guided imagery session in which I viewed my mom as I knew she could be — — — speaking up for herself more forcibly, wearing more expensive clothes, not hiding her light under a layer of “subdued.” I was in tears after that. I had to make peace with the fact that a) she as an adult had the power to be whoever she wanted to be, and b) she may want something completely different than the “perfect self” I saw for her.

(And by “expensive clothes,” I don’t mean she didn’t keep herself well — it’s complicated — but the vision was more about confidence and carrying herself as though she had as much right to stand out as anyone else did.)

I think that “more assertive” her would have asked for the time she wanted or in some other way gotten through to me to let me know how it hurt when I didn’t call, didn’t show up, wasn’t respectful.

(And, in the last few years, when I had my face half in my phone and half in the room.)

I can’t change the past.

She would be the first to forgive.

Now the challenge is forgiving myself.

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