Sinking into the restorative dark.
I have always thought of this week between Christmas and New Years as a sort of Holy Week. Once Christmas is over, and everyone relaxes, you can sink down into the protective darkness, creep off into a corner by the wood stove with a new book and a new notebook and dream your way into the new year. I protect this week. I rarely make plans. I want to stay home, make soup, take down the Christmas tree, and see what’s stuck in my mind after a busy year. I long ago gave up going out on New Year’s eve. Starting the year hung over is not what I want. I want to read and write for a week, maybe have a nice dinner as we head into another calendar, and wake up clear headed to take the dog for a walk on the first morning of the year.
This year, it’s all been both a little darker and a little more restorative than usual. My mother died in mid-December, bringing to an end a long story of love and enmeshment, addiction and flight. And my beloved’s mother is also failing. She fell at Thanksgiving, and while her bone is healing, something has fundamentally broken in her being. A lifelong battleaxe, she does not know where she is, or why, or understand that if she eats, and does her physical therapy, she can go back to her apartment and her husband. Himself was out there for a long ten days, and on the night he came home, while he was in bed asleep, recovering himself, my mother died. We’ve been passing sorrow between us, trying hard not to both succumb at the same time. We’re both cracked open, and luckily, so far, we’ve been able each to rally when the other is sinking. It was a very quiet Christmas and we’re headed up to White Sulphur Springs on New Years day. We’ll go for a hike, take the waters, go out to dinner. Shore ourselves up to launch into a New Year.
The shock of hearing my mother die over the telephone has been profound. I’d been on the phone off and on all night. She’d gone in with COVID, finally infected, probably during a medical procedure the week before. We thought she’d be fine. A few days of antivirals, some antibiotics for the pneumonia she seemed to be brewing, something to treat the GI infection she also seemed to have. And then the calls started coming. Can we intubate? Do you want us to respect the DNR? Should we try to do an emergency bowel repair? No I had to keep saying. She has a DNR. She won’t survive emergency surgery. And finally, the call from the nurses in her room as she was failing. No, I had to shout. No chest compressions. They held the phone up to her ear as I said goodby. Two nurses, a doctor, and her friend were there. She didn’t die, as I’d so often feared, on the floor of her apartment, alone and afraid in the middle of the night. She was in a lighted room. There were people holding her hands. I am grateful for that.
I’m also grateful that I have a beloved partner who I could wake up and tell, climb back in bed with, who held on while my teeth chattered.
At the end, my mother weighed 85 pounds, wizened from a lifetime of smoking two to three packs a day, a lifetime of drinking vodka beginning at breakfast. Her coffee table always had a vodka, a cup of black coffee and sometimes a glass of fizzy water going at the same time, her giant ashtray overflowing. Her great loves, vodka, and cigarettes. And self pity, the fuel of addiction.
She was very funny. Even at the end she was witty, and rebellious, and she went down giving a full-fledged finger to all the forces of the universe who wanted her to behave. Including me.
And yet, no one knew me more deeply. Drove me crazy most of the time, but it was true. I’ve gone to pick up the phone half a dozen times, to call her, and tell her how sad I am, how deeply deeply sad. I miss her, my albatross. She was the last immediate family I had left (my father is alive, but he moved to Prague 30 years ago. I get an occasional email).
And so I flew out to Kentucky, where she’d lived for the last 8 years, and my cousin Adam and his wife drove out from their farm in Missouri with a horse trailer, and we waded through the absolute, shocking and horrifying filth in which she lived to pack up whatever was left that was worth saving. So much was broken, and ruined, and lost. There was some art, much of it her own, and a big family portrait, random silver from her grandmother’s generation, the last generation when the family was wealthy, and a few pieces of nice china. And photographs. All the photo albums had fallen apart, but we packed them in boxes.
The rest went in the dumpster. There’s no cure for consumerism like cleaning out someone’s belongings. At the end, it’s all just stuff. In her case, stuff coated in a thick layer of nicotine, and grime, and the incontinence she shared with her 17 year old blind poodle. Adam took the dog.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to navigate the rocky shoals of my mother’s addictions, and I only mention the filth, and the toll it took on her body as an antidote to layers and layers of denial that come with addiction. If there is a reason I’m so devoted to naming the truth of the world and the situations in which we find ourselves, it is because I had to fight my way out through a jungle of half truths, of untruths, of stories made up on the spot because they were better than the truth, funnier or softer or put someone, usually my mother, in a better light than that of the truth.
Give me a hard clear truth any time over that fog.
My mother had a tough go of it, but that she chose, time and time again to waste her considerable creativity, her talents, and to evade responsibility for herself and for us will remain one of the central heartbreaks of this lifetime. She was enormously talented. She struggled with depression her entire adult life, and never recovered from our father leaving while our youngest brother was dying of cancer. That Dad bankrupted himself a year later didn’t help. She got herself stuck in that self-imposed identity. It was her addiction to that identity, as much as her physical addiction to both cigarettes and alcohol that came to rule the last several decades of her life. We all offered to help. So many people offered to help. But she chose, over and over and over again to refuse help. And it is that choice for which I might never be able to forgive her.
That said, we were in a good place. We had long periods of estrangement, but as it became clear she was in her final descent, there was no point being angry anymore. She was what she was, and that it ended as easily as it did is a blessing of magnitude. We were good. I’d just been there for a visit. She’d been to a family wedding she longed to attend. She’d made up with my cousin, her lifelong favorite and had seen a child she loved married to a nice boy. The health effects were piling up, her money was running out, and she was staring down the barrel of another winter, a season when she always struggled with depression.
It’s a difficult thing to lose a parent, but a tricky thing to lose a problem parent. I will miss her terribly, but I will not miss worrying about her. It is a great weight off my shoulders, that this story is done, and that it ended as well as it did.
And so, as I come out of a deeply restorative week of mostly watching junk TV, and getting to know my book manuscript again, I’m grateful to be heading into a new year with a clean slate. I’ll be able to concentrate again on the job I like so much, and I’m looking forward to having the headspace to do some good creative work there. I like the first chapters of the book manuscript, and can see a way to progress with the next section. And I’m glad I’ll be free of my own tangles of family trouble so I can be there for my love, who with his brothers is facing the daunting prospect of their mother’s ongoing decline, of worry about their father, of their own family story to complete. It comes for us all, this part, but that doesn’t make it any easier, or any less complicated. No matter how many people you have lost, each one is only ever itself.
If I’m ending this year on an image, it’s the pebble laid on the gravestone, that humble reminder that we were here, that our beloved dead were here, and that we’re all doing our best to get through what we have to get through. May we do better next year.
"I miss her, my albatross." The truest words you could speak about these enmeshed mother-daughter relationships, here at the end of a long, painful, bewildering road. My heart goes out to you. I'll be in this position soon myself.
Thanks for your heartfelt and evocative writing, Charlotte. I can relate to your missive as I am shepherding my mother to her next life during these wee days of winter. All the best for 2023.