One fine spring day a few years ago, I had a thought — one I probably should have had much earlier, one that would return to me over and over, usually when I was trying to fall asleep: Everything is not going to be okay. For one, my parents will die. I even came up with a comforting counter-thought to recite to myself in response: When the time comes, you will have the tools to deal with it. It was kind of like how women who are having their first child comfort themselves with the idea that their bodies should instinctively know what to do. This comforting thought would turn out to be both true and untrue — but it would have to be untrue first, of course.
I had no idea how close to the precipice I was. My mom would die of cancer, at 61, less than three years later.
There are things I wish I had done back then in those limbo days, conversations I wish I’d had with my mom when she was fine. They wouldn’t have been easy, but they would have been so much easier back when everyone was healthy than post-diagnosis, when even the slightest acknowledgment of the looming specter of her possible early death (like, say, flipping the channel and seeing that Steel Magnolias was on) was enough to send us both into sobs. It turns out that having a conversation with a sick parent about their final wishes can be much harder than doing so when they’re fine. Who knew?
Everyone who loses a parent loses them too young. I was 36 when I held my mom’s hand as she took her last breath. But I felt like a “young 36,” maturity-wise, and my youngest sibling was just 20. We are all too young, too raw, too scared, too unfinished, too vulnerable to lose a parent at any age, especially the parent to whom we are closest.
But losing a parent can make you grow up really fast, especially if you’re the one who handles everything (and you might be surprised to find that this role falls to you, no matter your age). My mom’s death was, in so many ways, the crucible in which my adulthood was forged. I went from skipping around the Lower East Side with my friends on a Friday afternoon with a to-go margarita in hand to being the one to sign the papers to remove a beloved mother, grandmother, wife, friend, nurse, and community member from life support. Because sometimes that’s how it works: Your life can change in an instant.
Does this all sound like a cliché? Good. Someday your life is going to change in an instant, perhaps in this particular way. But I’m bringing a reconnaissance squad, and we want to incept some stuff into your brain so you don’t face the same surprises and have regrets that we did. So that, unlike us, you have a little bit of an idea of what to do. This isn’t about grief—though, of course, grief is always in the room. You’ll be sad, but you can handle it. This is about how.