Okay, dramatic title, but it has been one hell of a week. I’m late coming to this post, and honestly, I’m not really mad about it. Here’s what’s up.
First, my three aunts on my mom’s side all came to my Dad’s on Saturday to help clean out my mom’s closet. They wanted to go through old clothes to see if there was anything they wanted. That’s all cool, and I planned to drop in to just make sure things went okay.
The Thursday before, we scheduled a realtor to come to my Dad’s house to check it out and let us know what things needed to be done to sell it, and how much it might actually be worth. I had to leave work early to make it over in time, which was super stressful because my work bill’s by hour – which means every minute of my day is accounted for. So I actually had to make up the time for that day if I didn’t want to spend my very precious PTO on it. Also, it was the first time I’d asked to leave early and it was fairly last minute, which is frowned upon because in a project-oriented software company, your week is planned out to the literal hour and sudden changes like that can screw over some other people.
Anyway, I get a text from my dad at like 11 on Thursday. My grandparents have sold their house to the neighbors out of the blue and told them to just take whatever they wanted out of the house.
Now, to review – my grandparents were both in the hospital the week my mom was. They both only fairly recently have made it into assisted living (or a nursing home in my grandpa’s case) and are being pretty damn erratic through all the changes (obviously). But my dad and his brother, my uncle Steve, who lives down there, have both been talking to them for months about getting an independent realtor out to assess and sell the house for what it’s actually worth.
Obviously that plan has gone to shit.
After the realtor visit on Thursday, my dad has a panic attack because it’s been a little over two months and good god, he’s not even close to ready to get rid of the house that he shared with my mother for almost two decades and watched my brother and I grow up in.
On Saturday, he’s just blithely labeling jewelry to give away to friends and family and I can’t believe it. Decades worth of nice jewelry he gave to my mother. Like he can’t be thinking this through because I don’t know if it was me if I could do it. I know it’s meaningful to him to be able to do that, and it’s wonderfully nice that he wants to gift something so precious to the people he cares about. But it just killed me to see him give it so soon, because I can’t imagine how hard it must be. And he keeps pointing out that it’s all created this or that and it’s not worth that much, but that’s just bullshit. It is. First of all, it’s still jewels. Second – it was my mom’s. And he gave it to her. And that means a hell of a lot. And you know how I know? Because my mom cried every time she got jewelry from my dad. Every time. Bar none.
What I didn’t expect to happen was that my aunt’s put everything they found in that closet away in bags and started the process of giving it all away. Let’s be clear here for a second and say there’s an amazing amount of stuff. I counted at least six bags worth of clothing and purses and shoes, and that’s after they took at least two of them away. But guys – my brother is halfway around the world, doing his best to enjoy a rather bizarre experience in South Korea, and he hasn’t had a chance to go through hardly anything since my mother died. He left about a week after she passed away – just like I started my job. It’s all so fast and no one is thinking this through. I stopped it and stowed the bags in my childhood closet for now, but it’s so much. It’s so hard.
Like clothes are one of the few things I have from my mother to begin with that she really put time and effort into buying me. In recent years I have started to ask her specifically for clothing because her taste was so on point. And I just loved it. I actually sent her and Hannah to re-do my wardrobe back in mid-college before Hannah and I had even started dating. Clothes were just my mom’s thing. They’re so strangely meaningful. I know just about every sweater in my closet now that she got me. Sometimes it’s hard to wear them because I’m terrified I’m just going to wear them out and won’t have them anymore. But I try to wear them too so they don’t just go unused. I don’t really know what I’m going to tell my children about them. They won’t hold anywhere near the meaning. They represent so much of my transformation into who I am today, and how behind me my mother was through that process. It’s just incredible really.
Anyway, on Sunday I went with my dad to his parent’s house and just about every man on that side of the family was there, plus my aunt Teri. That was weird. It was already just about bare because my grandparents took quite a bit with them to their new living places (which I’m actually quite glad of). But there was so much left. I can’t believe what that must have been like for my dad. I know it was really hard on my uncle Steve, who’s your classic stoic man but just about cried when I talked to him. My grandparents have been in that house for more than four decades.
What was cool for me was that I found a bunch of old family photos of my extended family. Like I have one from 1918 of my great grandfather at 16 years old, having just returned from World War I (which he enlisted in when he was 14).
I have a picture now of my grandmother when she was a baby in 1932. And I have a bunch of amazing cross stitches that she did too. Just so many precious things. What I have to return for is their grandfather clock. It’s another item I’m not sure what the hell I’m going to do with, but of all the things on all sides of my family, the grandfather clock from the Kiefers is one of the few items I really have always loved and associated with family. I’m not sure why, but I have.
It’s so odd that we’re going through their stuff and they’re still here, but my mom isn’t. It feels like we should’ve been doing it in worse circumstances like we have been and will continue to have to do for my mom. Obviously, that’s not how it works. But it’s odd. Everything nowadays seems to be, really. I have so much furniture I shouldn’t have. I have so many items I didn’t know existed and I have nowhere to put any of it because I thought I’d have at least another five years to inherit any of it.
That’s all I was really asking for I guess. Five, maybe ten years. A decent long time, but not too crazy really. It seems really reasonable that family at our age would stay stable at least that long, or somewhat close too. But that’s not what happened. Like my dad said, the most stable thing in our entire family right now is Hannah and I. And damn that’s a sore foundation for anything. We’re hardly making it along as it is. Although, we do make it through.
It’s strange. It’s all so overwhelming but I find that every day I can make myself put one foot in front of the other okay. A lot of it is just I keep pushing forward because I have an intense, insatiable need for things to be okay. But I don’t know, I’m proud of myself for it.
It is really hard to take care of myself these days. I think it’s one of the hardest things about my mothers death is that, it means there is so much more to do and the rest of everything doesn’t stop either. Like a started a new job in a completely new industry a week after she died, and started my last semester of school to complete a certificate for that industry on the same day. That alone is a little insane, but on top of everything else. Sometimes it’s hard enough to come home make or eat dinner, do the dishes and wake up the next morning. And for the first time in my life since I was a camp counselor, I actually love my job. I want to go to work. But there’s so much.
Here’s a picture of what all is going on.
First, while my mom left my dad with a very healthy retirement account that he is luckily just old enough to be able to draw from, he is also a freelance writer and can not afford to stay in their current house forever. They were planning to move before my mom died, but got caught in the winter months and didn’t want to post it till spring. So luckily we knew it was coming and some things had been done to prep, but not nearly enough.
I joke that my parents are hoarders, which is not entirely true, but isn’t entirely untrue either. My whole family has a hard time letting go of things that have memory attached to them, and because they live in a house that’s too big for them, they’ve never really had to. To give you a picture of what this looks like – my parents have a three car garage. However, my brother’s car is still parked in the driveway because you can only get one car into the garage. The rest once was moving boxes from almost a decade ago. Now it’s mostly Adam’s in-between stuff while he figures out his post-college life/housing, and decades old odds, ends and power tools. The important part is – two cars worth of the garage is inaccessible. In the basement, there is several hundred square feet of office space buried in art projects, old files, toys and I shudder to think what else. I found cell phone chargers from the early 2000’s in there recently and I’m still not sure why we have them.
So that brings us to the very interesting dynamic of having a shit ton of stuff loaded with emotional baggage taking up near rooms at a time that we get to go through over the next few months to clean it all out so dad can sell the house and move. Let me restate that we have to go through literal piles of things, many of them covered in my dead mothers handwriting, or collected by her, or given by her to us, and try to get rid of as much of that as we can.
So that’s one thing.
Another is just our own house. It’s interesting – especially when someone close to you dies, you just want everything to be put in order. Last year we spent about $9,000 in repairs, maintenance and improvements to our house. Which is a little insane. This year, we’re working to get everything else fixed up. I’m very happy to have our house. And I love everything we’ve done. But it’s also hard to just do that stuff. It’s freeing and terrifying to blow money in hundreds of dollars at a time. We’re fortunate enough to have it accessible to us, but it’s a lot.
The day after Valentine’s day I took off from work because things just keep welling up and I wanted to try and rest and be for one day. I wanted to just sit in silence the whole day, take a bath and read a book, and try to cry here and there, because I find it hard to feel safe enough to (which is a whole thing in and of itself). I couldn’t sleep, I was so nervous about taking the day off. My boss hadn’t texted me back that it was okay and I’d never requested off before. My alarm goes off at 6:15 and when I did check it he had texted at 6:14 to say it was fine. I tried to sleep in, let Hannah get ready and leave, and just sleep, but I didn’t. I ended up just doing that thing where your eyes close and you drift in and out, but never really seem to sleep. I gave in around 8:15 and just scrolled through FaceBook and Pinterest. And then at 8:30 Hannah called me in a panic. She was in heavy traffic downtown, her car was smoking and she couldn’t get over.
She got safetly pulled to the side after she hung up. I got ready and was out the door by 8:35. By the time I arrived, she was fine and her boss was waiting with her since she had been just a short ways behind her, also on the way in. As perhaps a funny aside, she asked me how I was and I responded, “I’m okay, my mom is just dead.” I think I horrified her a little.
Hannah apologized for taking up my day off, and I told her it was fine. And honestly it was, but it just feeds back into the whole thing. Nothing will stop it seems. It just keeps going and going and all I want to do is sit in a quite room and read, or maybe even do nothing. I don’t even want to write this blog post, but I know I need to.
Hell, I almost gave up on my homework today. I was just re-purposing old code in a new language and couldn’t figure it out. I was so close too – just a couple clicks away. But none of it feels worth it. I had a goal when I started to get a 4.0, and because it’s me, I still want it. But I don’t know if I can do it. I can barely put in the 2 hours of effort a week required to get the tasks done. I used to spend 6 hours plus a week on school.
I don’t know, this period is so odd. some days I feel like I’m hardly effected at all, and then I take a bathroom break and find myself in a quiet place and it just slips back in. And I can’t tell if I want it here or gone. I want to feel it, I want to feel broken about it and breakdown crying somewhere. But I’m afraid of that pain, and I’m so driven to keep things as put together as they can be, I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. I’m a fixer. And this isn’t a situation I can fix, so I’ve just grabbed onto anything I can find.
Hannah and I were watching “The Wedding Singer” tonight (which is a great film, actually – really fun) and one of the things that was really poignant for me was the end where Adam Sandler sings to Drew Berrymore about how he’ll do all these nice little things for her and grow old with her and all that. And it’s funny because when Hannah and I got married, I thought about the classic “little” gestures and how I would do them for her. And thank god she made me knock her off a pedestal because I had some idea of what that actually means.
But the death of my mother has brought a whole new kind of dimension to that. Like doing the little things for one another isn’t just nice anymore, but profoundly difficult and profoundly important. A lot of days it’s about the only thing that keeps our little world running. And honestly, it’s very hard. One of the benefits to being alone when really bad things happen is that you don’t have to think about how you want to deal with it will affect other people. If you want to just not do the dishes for a week – it’s just you and your poor dish ware that suffers the consequences – and honestly there’s relatively little harm in it.
But together with another person who is also grieving? Man, life just doesn’t stop. As much as you want a pause button. As much as you want to check out for however long it takes – life continues on. Of course that’s a good thing, and one of the things I continue to hold on to with great joy. But it means things continue to come up.
There’s a kind of fragile little world that we’ve set up here. It comes from many different needs. For me, the one that keeps calling me (the one I can never seem to say no to) is the deep need to care for those closest to me. When my mom died, from that night to now, and for god alone knows how long, I have been preoccupied by it. It makes it hard to grieve and process and let emotions flow when you’re constantly worried about other people. Giving them space to be upset, thinking about how to help them. It’s something I work at just about every day, but it’s hard. I need them to be okay.
My dad said to me once that love means you suffer with the person you love. While dramatic and a bit pessimistic, it’s true. It means it hurts – not double, but a little bit more than maybe it would alone. And that’s why those small things – those small stupid things people don’t think about when they get married, are so goddamn critical. Because doing the dishes, runnnig the laundry, wiping down the counters – all those things mean so much. Because when you hurt you want it not to hurt anymore. You want to fix it, and there’s nothing that can fix this pain. It doesn’t have a remedy. But those everyday things, those are tangible fixes. Those are messages of support and recognition and most importantly of all – they are sacrifices that you can afford to make for one another.
I can’t imagine going through this period without Hannah. To have someone to share the burden with, even if it means a bit more pain here and there to share hers, is a strange blessing. Her support has been incredible. Not perfect by any means, just as mine has not. But together we’re learning how to build our life back up and put things back on the walls, so to speak. To have someone willing to empty the dishwasher – without request or prompt – while you lay staring at the white tiles in the bathtub, because they know you need it. That is a precious and special thing.
It’s interesting. When I thought about love and marriage – i always thought about that old phrase “I would do anything for you.” For me growing up, that was the bar against which I measured love. Would I do any thing for you?
Of course that’s a pretty bullshit measure. When my mom was in the hospital, Hannah came with me every day all day, and that I would say falls under the “doing anything for you” category. And that was amazing. Truly a deep act of love.
But in the weeks and now growing months after, there isn’t an act to perform. There isn’t one thing and even if there was, it wouldn’t matter. Because what is hard is every day. It’s not something you can fix or change. My mom is dead. Our life has changed. And more than any gesture, it’s all the stupid day to day shit that matters. Because life doesn’t stop. It doesn’t just pause for you when shit gets real or beats you in the face. Life keeps going with or without you.
So when I can barely get up in the morning and Hannah opens the door for the cats, or when I come home and have to do homework and really just want to sit and stare at a wall, and Hannah makes dinner even though she’s had a ducking hard day at work too – that’s what matters.
It’s complicated being married and grieving. It’s hard. According to some authority it’s the second hardest thing a couple can go through. Honestly I really wish there’s wasn’t anything more difficult because holy shit this is hard enough as it is.
But what’s hard is the fact that life doesn’t stop. And it can be hard to handle. It reminds me of that quote from some famous book – “the good does not erase the bad, nor the bad the good”. Like my life and the normal emotions I have about it are all still there, living in tandem with the grief. And Hannah is in
I am just so goddamn lucky. I am not as much as I am right now. I struggle daily to be present in anything, and I can feel that in my relationship too. This is not what anyone signs up for when they get married. No one knew they were agreeing to half the person they married. And yet, this incredible woman has stood by not just my side, but my family’s too, every step of the way. It’s not pretty, it’s not perfect, and I hate that I am so little of the person I was with her right now. But I am unbelievably lucky to have Hannah here with me. To have found a person who understands and stays and supports. It is not always pretty. Hannah breaks down almost nightly from the pressure. And we bicker about small chores or missed items frequently. But we both sit together and know that everyone is doing their goddamn best. And we’re going to come through it together. Even if the means we come out with some deep scratches and dark bruises (metaphorically obviously).
one of Hannah’s friends was joking and said, “Nathan, you’re so amazing, you could do better.” And in my finer days I could have said something cute and pithy and true, but today I wasn’t sure how to react because even though it was a joke (and one Hannah participated in at that) all I wanted to say was “No. You don’t understand. This woman has been there for me every step of the way. She has called friends and family to cry while I take a shower so she can support me when I get out, and she holds that for some later time that I can actually hear her talk about it. There is no one better.”
The thing is – no one should ever have to assume the role either of us are in, and she’s done it without complaint.
I didn’t speak at my mother’s funeral. I don’t regret it – I can’t think of how I could have done it in a way that wasn’t just about me. This post will be mostly about my own experience, but it becomes about her too. What I want is to express just how incredible my mother was, and how unexpected this experience has been. Not just because how she died seemed very unexpected, but because none of this has been what I expected.
No movies prepared me for this – ironically I think they tend to focus so much on the drama, they miss just how confusing and profound a thing it is. My counselor lost his mother at an early age and said something that resonated with me because it sounds dramatic, but is just honest. He said, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. Usually when someone talks about their mom. It reminds you that you don’t have yours.”
What I failed to realize in the movies is that the loss of a close family member becomes a part of you. It doesn’t have to be bad per se. It just is. It’s like the scar running down the side of my left thumb from a bad wood carving accident, or the tip of ring finger my dad lost trimming the bushes. It’s a part of us.
I do want to state that this post is going to get very detailed about what happened the night my mother died. I think it’s important to talk about, but it is fairly traumatic, so please don’t read it if you don’t want to know. There is plenty else in here, so skip ahead.
We’re going to start with a very quick summary of the first time my mother had cancer. Mostly so you understand how amazing she was when it came back.
Cancer Round 1
My mother was diagnosed with estrogen-positive breast cancer when I was in high school. I’ll never forget what she said about her visit. When the doctor told her the diagnosis and gave some details they said, “You probably didn’t take in a work of that, and that’s okay.” And my mom said, “Oh no, I got all of it – how do we take care of it.” Because my mom is a fixer. And she was damn good at fixing.
I won’t go into too many details. I honestly don’t remember most of them because as a teen, that was very hard to go through and I’ve shut most of it out. And on top of that, my mom did everything she could to shield her kids from it. I have mixed feelings about it, but honestly it was traumatic enough so I don’t really care.
My mom received chemo treatments and those were the worst. It kicked her ass every time. Her hair fell out and turned gray. I have never before or since seen my mom look so sick. She looked 80 and she was 49 or something.
She fucking hated it.
But she got her chemo done, had surgery (and reconstructive surgery), somehow dealt with the emotional impact of having no nipple (which for me is insane – I’m not sure I could do that well personally) and we all moved on.
The Next Bit
Lots of things happened in the next seven years. Some of the highlights for me was that I got married to Hannah and moved out of the role of child and into the role of adult son. Obviously we hit some snags that I’m sure both my parents will deny. But honestly, after about a year of marriage I had the most supportive and amazing parents (and parent-in-laws) anyone could ask for. It was an interesting year with lots of change, but it turned out simply amazing. In ways it is difficult to express. How do you put into words the fact that you know your parents are proud of you, respect your choices and simply want to be around when you’re ready for them?
Hannah and I had a rough start of it ourselves. We both graduated in the spring of 2014. By the end of the summer we had moved to Chattanooga, TN where I worked at Noodles and Company and Hannah worked in an abusive workplace at the Times Free Press. We left in December with no money. Hannah had gotten a job in Lafayette, IN at a newspaper and I had nothing – just a need to follow (we were engaged at the time) and get the hell out of Tennessee.
We moved into our apartment in Lafayette just before the end of the month. By the 31st we didn’t even have internet yet, and I had told my mom we weren’t able to make the hour trip down for the yearly New Year’s party. So she drove my brother and cousin up to see me. She took me to lunch, to get internet and – I will never forget – she bought us a whole chicken (at my request). Looking back that was a fairly cheap request, but it meant the world to me. It was our New Year’s meal.
I finally got a job in HR for a staffing company. It took me six months to know I hated it. It wasn’t until this past December I was able to leave.
There are few things I am more proud of then telling my mom that I got a job as an Application Developer, that I was following my dreams, and that I was finally quitting the job I hated.
Yes, I am endlessly thankful that my mom was able to come to my wedding (and endlessly sad that Adam will not have that chance). But I am most proud that I was able to succeed at following my dream – because my mom was instrumental in teaching me how to do that.
Sometime in early/mid November, my mom told me that she was getting a pottery kiln. This was after a few years of being offered (apparently the same kiln) from different people and refusing (because it’s a pottery kiln. It’s not like it’s a chest of drawers – this thing is an investment in space and resources). I’ll never forget what she told me about it. She said, “It just keeps coming back to me, so I figure I’m meant to have it!”
So, we drove about half an hour into rural-ish Indiana to a recently divorced woman’s ex-husband’s house (honestly, I’m a little unclear on that one) and proceeded to load up Hannah’s Jeep liberty with a three-tiered electric pottery kiln, shelves, a spare heating wire and an extra (oversized) lid. The bottom ring of the pottery kiln, we were informed, was not working. After seeing the control panel for it (which looks like a mouse nest, if mice liked to sleep in rusty wire), neither of us were surprised.
It looks like that kiln is mine now. For some reason, that really scares me. I’m not sure where we’re going to put it, and to work it needs an outlet wired for a dryer. But how can I refuse it? It was meant for my mother, and pottery was something that over the course of the last two years, we have shared.
You see – I’m actually pretty good at pottery. I got really good back in high school and have made some passing attempts to keep the skill up over the years. My mom has always been fascinated by it, and much like myself, is not in the habit of denying herself activities she is interested in. So one afternoon a few summers ago, I taught her how to throw pottery.
She was terrible.
And she loved it.
Over the last few years she took classes at the Indianapolis Art Center, just about every semester she could afford it (whether in time or money). She was about to start again this spring, despite the fact that she had no money for it (after having been between jobs for about a month and a half) because her love for it was so crystal clear, they were willing to give her a scholarship for it.
My mom got pretty damn good at throwing pottery. There are some pieces she made that I could not do, and that I would happily display in my own home.
She was wonderfully obsessed with it too. Just about every call I had with her – that’s what we would talk about. To be honest, half the time she would say things and assume I understood because I’d done it before, and I would be completely lost. And I really don’t think she cared. She loved it. And I loved that she loved it. And I love that I have that in common with my mother.
And I sigh after all that and think – what am I going to do with that kiln, man?
Timeline/My Week Off
One thing that I’ve found hard to quickly express is what happened. A lot of people have asked if mom was sick for a while, if it was a surprise, etc. It’s a weirdly complicated answer. So here’s the timeline, and some of my thoughts about it all.
In January of 2015, my mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (stage 4). They had found some bits in her bones and lymph nodes that were luckily small and they were able to treat them pretty effectively with a new kind of oral chemo medication that has many fewer side effects (from what I could tell, the only obvious side effects were fatigue and depressed immune system). So…really cool actually. And my mom went HAM on health at that point. She really didn’t want to be on chemo – so she switched to a new (and better, in my opinion) oncologist who was more open to alternative medicine (especially dietary-change-based medicine).
Basically, my mom took classes in Ayurvedic medicine for personal practice, continued going to yoga, started juicing (and enjoyed it? Idk, she did though), and got really into tea. Like more than ever before. I went over to their house and was faced with a tea selection I had never heard of (and it was all good, oh my god).
Anyway, to make a long story short, my mom kicked ass and decided not to live like she was sick. She wanted just to live out her life in the best way possible. She even started drinking wine again – which personally I think was the best choice she ever made (aside maybe from taking up pottery). Because she loved it. Actually, my own love for wine came from her – which I know because I love all the same kinds of wine she did. She was a Cab/Merlot/Malbec lady and honey, so is her son.
I started seriously talking to my counselor about fearing she would die sometime in August or September of this past year. Because even though I had forgotten about it in large part, it isn’t actually something you really forget. And some of her cancer markers had started to subtly rise at that point, so it was fresh on my mind. It was certainly concerning, but while her markers had gone up, her scans showed no changes. So it was pretty much okay.
It was cool for me to talk to my counselor about because you don’t often realize just how much that affects you. And it was. And that was one of the first interactions where someone called me out on wanting to process and unpack emotions. He said, “Sometimes things are just a boulder. There’s nothing to unpack, it’s just a big, heavy thing.”
Sometime, I believe in October, mom’s liver enzymes showed elevation. It was again, concerning, but not terrifying. They were still in a normal range, if high, and we all figured that shouldn’t be all that surprising because she was on chemo. Even if it was Chemo Lite, it’s still poison.
October was also when my mom’s job contract ended and she started looking for another job.
November I helped my mom retrieve that kiln. And she went to Thanksgiving with her family (and I was there too, and that was just a blast). And then she flew to California to be with her crazy, wonderful goddess ladies. That’s a whole story in and of itself, where through some series of miracles she got her entire trip out paid for, got housing, etc. for pretty much free.
From that trip she got a job interview in New Jersey she flew to. Then she started work like a couple days later, in early December.
Also in early December she went to the doctor to be treated for asthma. She was having difficulty breathing sometimes and had low oxygen levels. So they gave her a nebulizer and she was on that treatment for like 3 weeks, but never really improved. Although, I have many texts to prove that she claimed otherwise.
On December 22nd, I had my last day at Knowledge Services. It was a half day, and I was ecstatic! I had worked for 2 years to leave that job and move into an industry I love. And that day I did it. I had a week off before I started my new job and I was intent on taking some chill time and building a bookcase for our living room.
On December 25th, we took my mom to the ER and she was admitted to the PCU. A day or two later, they admitted her to the ICU out of an abundance of caution. at 3:56am December 30th, she died. So I didn’t get my week to build the bookcase. Not that I really care at this point, but man. That was all I had wanted to do!
But anyway, the answer is that it was very sudden. And she was sick for a while, but we didn’t really know. To us, mom went from having asthma to needing care to suddenly not making it through, all in the space of a week – with a few days or hours in between each.
The Week Before
Christmas started off amazing. It was Hannah and I’s second Christmas in our house, and the first one where we were actually prepared. We went a bit nuts and bought a whole set of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer light-up characters for the front yard and it was amazing. Mom had found a job in early December, and despite not feeling well at all, was already doing amazing things. She saw a doctor for asthma treatment some time in early December, and wasn’t really recovering. I had gone over to my parent’s house on the 23rd and made Christmas cookies with my brother because my mom wasn’t up to it, and my brother had literally just gotten back from Brazil.
Mom made it downstairs okay, but she didn’t look good. Tired and winded. But still happy. To see me – to have some Christmas cheer. The whole thing.
We went over to my parent’s house at 1pm on Christmas day. Mom wasn’t out of bed yet and my dad told us that they had called over their neighbors, retired doctors, to check her for jaundice. They didn’t think she was, so here we all were.
It took us probably an hour to get mom down the stairs. She cried on those stairs. Hannah sat with her. I think she knew it wasn’t going to end well, but let me tell you. My mother was determined to have Christmas with us.
And we did. It was one of the best Christmases I have ever had. Obviously aside from the fact that my mother was sick. Because it was a Christmas where we were all there. We all had something meaningful to share.
And when gifts were done, we sent mom to the ER with dad. Adam went with them first. Hannah and I stayed behind to make dinner and walk the dogs. My best friend, Nick came by to help us.
Oh that was hard. My mom couldn’t get enough air when she would move, so she would have a small panic attack. Getting her to the car was a challenge I hope never to have to do again.
Hannah and I came once things at the house were more under control, and when it was clear no one was coming back anytime soon.
I don’t remember much about that particular bit, but I remember that my mom was jaundiced, and that the ER doctor said she was in minor heart failure. Oh that was terrifying to hear. They admitted her to the PCU and we went home at some ungodly hour – honestly probably like 3 in the morning.
And then we started the cycle that would be the norm for the next week. Wake up, prepare, go to the hospital, stay until dinner, then leave to recuperate.
The first night, I met with Nick and Robbie, two old friends who now live far away and were home for Christmas. I don’t remember any of it really. I wasn’t really paying attention, just looking for some time with my friends. When we were done, I went to Menards – determined to buy the wood I needed to build that bookcase. I should have realized it was a mistake when I struggled to put the plywood onto the cart (4×8 feet of plywood is really heavy and unwieldy).
But I didn’t and instead bought the wood and went outside to put it in the Jeep. The Jeep, however was too small, leaving my only option as tying it to the top of the car. In 5 degree weather.
It did not go well.
I donated my wood to the Fishers DPW…involuntarily.
And then the next day went back to the hospital again.
Heart of Stone
I don’t know why it hurts so much to lose a parent. It’s never really made any sense to me. In fact, I’ve always been afraid that I wouldn’t feel anything at all. Our dog Honey Bear died when I was a kid and I remember that I just wasn’t sad. It really freaked me out because that dog I had known my whole life. For probably twelve years or more. At some point I think I became afraid of the force of my love for others. I like to forget how deep that love and care for each person I have met goes. As a kid I moved around a lot and I think it makes it easier to be so open and loving if you forget the fact that it’s going to kick you in the ass someday.
And one thing I learned being in my family, and honestly probably watching my mother, was how to push past emotions to handle the situation. I always knew this about myself. Hannah had to coach me for months on how to communicate my feelings when we first started dating as seniors in college. And that’s not a joke. We spent hours of silence where she would press me, and I would eventually start to express things in a wild string of what always feels like nonsense. It took me four hours to tell Hannah that I loved her and we both even knew what I was going to say.
A part of that, which is something that has stayed with me still, is something I’ve learned about myself. In times of crisis, I shut out my emotions. It feels almost like they turn off. If it’s too hard, that’s just what happens – and honestly I have very limited control over it. The past few years it’s been less of an issue. After regular counseling sessions and several years with Hannah, I have never felt more open or in tune (not that it’s anything all that impressive – it’s just better than where I’ve been).
When I walked (or ran) down the hallway of the ICU I saw my aunt crying. I think she let us in. Adam and my other Aunt where in the room. I took one look at that room. One look at almost 4 in the morning. And all the emotions turned off.
I wasn’t scared, luckily. For the first time in my life I knew what was happening. The force of the adrenaline coursing through my tired body and the ball of things in my stomach told me it was all still there. But my emotions turned off and I just watched everything happen. I hugged sobbing family members. I took the note from the nurse with who to call for the body. And I could only picture one thing in my brain over and over again:
One thing you don’t think about when someone is being given CPR is the fact that you are actually forcing the heart to pump when you give CPR. So when I walked in and checked my mom’s stats I could see numbers – heart rate, blood pressure – popping up and down every half second or so. And every time I could feel the hope that they would hold and improve. And then I looked at the breathing [bubble] and saw the blood leading into it from my mom’s mouth and the little pool of it collected in the blue bulb. And the faces of every nurse in that room who knew too that it wasn’t going to work. But every time that number jumped I couldn’t help thinking “this might be it – it might catch” even though I knew it was already over.
It isn’t like in the movies where there’s a steady increase or decrease of beeps and then nothing. There isn’t anything that simple. It’s alarms everywhere, a dozen people desperately trying to save a patient, and then once next of kin gives the okay (after it’s clear they can’t bring back the dead) some one says “stop, stop, stop” firmly. And everyone backs away. And all that’s left is a bunch of zeros and alarms going off you don’t even hear anymore and profound silence despite the crying.
A lot of people have asked what happened. And because the ICU had pretty much become the Flu Ward by the time we got there, it seems some people think that’s what she died of. That, luckily, is not true. What did happen is more complicated. Actually, what I said to Hannah at 7am on December 30th, after being awake 4 hours already and crying and finally coming back home after a nightmare experience was, “She was just hosed.” Which is pretty much true.
Officially my mom died of cardiac arrest.
That arrest was caused by a blood clot in her leg that travelled to her lungs. I don’t know if anyone is entirely sure why that was there, but it was, and that’s what killed her.
The doctors were aware of the blood clot (although we were not at the time it happened). However, they weren’t treating her for it with blood thinners like they usually would because my mom’s platelet count was super low.
In addition to that, my mom was in minor heart failure (as the ER doctor called it), which basically means that her blood pressure was very low and her oxygen levels were continually low (like usually high 80’s, low 90’s for blood oxygen saturation – for context, it should be 100 or close to in a normal person). To treat her for those things, they gave her norepinephrine (essentially adrenaline for those not in the know) and had her on a high level of oxygen.
But that’s not all either. In addition to all that, my mom’s liver wasn’t working properly. No one was really sure why – there were some small pockets of what were probably cancer on her liver, but not enough to cause the level of issues she was having.
And her kidney’s weren’t doing well either because apparently they are one of the organs that gets withheld blood supply when your blood pressure drops.
Oh yeah, and they also found out that she had pneumonia, which was probably part of the reason she was having such difficulty breathing.
So yeah. Like I said, mom was kinda hosed at that point.
The Missed Phone Call
One thing that still kind of haunts me – and there aren’t too many at this point I don’t think (other than the obvious). Is that the night mom died, Adam slept over. He called me seven times between 1:47am and 3:04am. I had accidentally left my phone on vibrate and didn’t hear it. Same thing happened to Hannah. Adam did reach my Aunts, but I can’t imagine how terrifying that was for him. Hannah kept waking up at 3 in the morning for the next week or two in a full adrenaline rush. Every time I remember to, I turn my phone volume on when I’m home.
I don’t really want to talk about the funeral, or the week after my mom died. So I’m not going to. I remember scant pieces of it, and most of it is pretty boring. Actually, between my parents weirdly excellent long-term financial planning and the nature of funerals, it was way easier than I thought it would be. The hardest parts were just getting photos and video together.
Adam did the video, which I have below. The only thing I want to say about this is that way back in probably middle school, on some road trip with mom, she turned to me and said “I want this to play at my funeral”. The song playing was “For Good” from the Wicked soundtrack. And just like my mom, it is somehow appropriately honest, and also just a little too much all at the same time. I was the only one she mentioned that to and apparently, no other such requests had ever been made. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it was really important to me that we not just play it, but feature it. I am inexpressibly glad we did, even though it makes me sad. Because Wicked was something we shared, and it is so touching to me that she connected with that song. I mean, it’s really appropriate for her, so it makes sense, but I don’t know. I think it expresses what my mom would’ve wanted to say, which is basically just “I lived my life the way I wanted, and tried hard to help the people I met along the way. So now it’s up to you guys to continue your own lives and live them the way you want, and to try to help people along the way.”
So to close out – here’s where we stand.
Two days after my mother’s funeral I started my first day of work as an Application Developer. I also started my last semester of school to complete a Certificate in Applied Computer Science. It became clear to me that first week, that I would have had to quit my old job. I could not have done it. I feel more than just blessed – I feel lucky and proud that I have the job I do now, because I love it. The days are really long, and every day is hard to wake up to. I’m not performing as well as I feel should be and often get confused and distracted. Because I’m a high achiever, I’m doing alright, but guys it is so hard. I wrote this post because I think about everything in here and more every day. I feel frozen most days on how to express all this – because to me it’s all happening all at once, and I struggle to feel that anything I say about it will be understandable.
It is hard to express how deep this cut goes. My mom (in conjunction of course with my dad and many others throughout my life) made me who I am. And she is dead now. Not gone, but I can’t call her up on the phone.
I came home the other day and was clearly upset and Hannah finally got me to say something about it. I said, “The walls feel different.” And it was true. My house, which I love, feels different. I’m not sure why, really, but it does. One thing I know is that I know I can’t show it off to my mom anymore. And sharing the things I love with people I love is a big part of me.
What Hannah said back was this. “This is a whole new world for you. You’ve got to kind of re-learn what everything is.”
I am blessed to have Hannah around. I am blessed to have a wonderful father. I am blessed to have a talented, fun-loving, loving brother, I am blessed to have good friends around the world, and so many other things. It does not take away the pain. But it makes the struggle much easier.
When I was a kid I wanted o be a zoologist. Mostly because I used to watch the Kratt Brothers on Animal Planet and I thought that would be the coolest job ever.
As I got older I wanted to be a few other things. A writer, a manager, an engineer, even a hermit/survivalist/cheese maker. But the one that really stuck was more a spirit than a job. I wanted to fundamentally change the world for the better. That started off in Luxembourg on a one week trip to France back in high school. I said “I want to be a legislator.” So I went to college and studied Political Science and English.
That idea died the minute I started working as a camp counselor. And after a conversation in Einstein Bagels with Hannah that she doesn’t remember, I decided I needed to work in nonprofits.
That’s where I left off college. I went to work (rather successfully) as an intern at the City of Indy. And then came Chattanooga. I followed Hannah there in the pursuit of both our dreams – her in journalism, me in nonprofit. We made it there, but that four month trip changed a lot for me, and for Hannah.
I could not find a job in nonprofits. I worked at Noodles and Co. for just above minimum wage. I applied over and over and slowly found out that intelligence and spirit are not actually enough to make a dream happen.
Hannah got us out of Chattanooga. The direction was from me, but ah got the job in Lafayette. That success alone was one of the most precious I have ever had. It was difficult for its own reasons, but we left the Chattanooga hell hole.
But I was still unemployed. And that’s when the last coffin nail landed on my dream. I couldn’t find a job in nonprofit there either, and instead ended up working for a company I either fail to explain well or just call a staffing agency.
Fast forward almost three years. Hannah and I bought a house we love together. Hannah graduated from her masters degree program this past spring. She also found her passion in museum PR, being basically the best social media manager in the State.
I have received two promotions and done unquantifiable good for some people who need it most. It’s far from perfect, and it comes with its struggles, but I am still moving down my own path. I’m also going to school to pursue something new.
A new dream. My first specific one, in fact. It’s hard to let go of that first dream. It really is.
But what I am coming to realize is that owning your own dream – being intentional about what you actually want – is far more important and special and valuable.
And that is kindof my new journey. So feel free to tag along with me, peruse or whatever.
So for some reason I’ve decided there’s enough going on in my life to start blogging again. Here’s what’s up.
1) I graduated.
2) I’m getting married.
3) I’m working a job.
4) I’m moving to Tennessee.
5) I’m looking for a job in Tennessee.
6) I’m going to a funeral.
7) I’m moving in with my person.
I’ll bet you anything there’s more. But consider it all a preview for what’s to come.