This is not the most cheerful post, I promise almost all of my other posts will not be like this. But this story is what made me who I am and a big part of what drove me towards a life of positivity and wellness.
Thank you. –
In November 2013 I was furniture shopping in Tulsa, OK with my then boyfriend, now husband, David. We were having a good time, laughing with each other as we argued about a recliner with a loud floral print. I loved it, he didn’t. I was excited to be picking out furniture with him and to learn what he liked and disliked. Soon I’d be moving into a new apartment and living on my own for the first time. I’d have my own space and I could make it into whatever I wanted. But the momentary escape from my grief was ending. The pit in my stomach returned, before turning into the kind of full blown dread you can feel in the back of your throat. It was time to go back to the hospital. My father, brother, sister-in-law, and extended family would all be there, waiting for my mother to die.
My mother had been sick with rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and the heartbreak of losing her second child. Her “sweet boy” as she had called him over and over again. My big brother Matthew had died in a car accident 3 months earlier. One reckless stranger, one split second decision later–he was gone. The 16 year old driver of the mini van had hit Matthew head on and ended his life. My brother died that day along with several children from the minivan, who hadn’t been buckled into car seats. Matthew was 30 years old, attending radiology school, and had only been married for two years. He would have been a wonderful father. Every wonderful memory from my childhood has my brother’s radiant smile and warm presence. The world was a better place with him in it.
The day Matthew died was the day my mother started slipping into her own grave. I couldn’t get her to eat or take her medications. Sometime in October she started having severe neck pain. Doctors stuck her with injections, put her on medications, and told her the arthritis was slowly crippling her. I remember one day in particular, where the pain got so bad that she told me she didn’t want to live anymore if the pain didn’t stop. I went to bed that night and thought: “God wouldn’t do this to me. I barely survived losing Matt. He couldn’t take my mother, he wouldn’t.” But I felt no comfort.
One morning in early November, I awoke to my mother’s screams. My 12 year old nephew was staying with us. I didn’t want him to be scared so I told him to stay in his room as I dialed 911. I tried everything to keep her calm but she was delirious, screaming “help me” over and over. I didn’t know what to do or what was hurting her. I remember feeling numb and helpless. Not knowing what else to do, I gathered her medications so the doctors would know what she was taking and how much. But when the paramedics arrived, they took one look at her pile of medications and the delirious state she was in, and dismissed it as an overdose. I remember the tone of contempt in his voice. The lack of urgency and lack of compassion. But they were wrong. I tried to tell them, but they brushed me off and assumed I was trying to save her embarrassment. For several weeks prior, I had been giving my mother her medications. I had timers set for the different pain and arthritis pills and wrote down every time she took a dose. I kept her medications in a drawer in the bathroom–somewhere my mother couldn’t have crawled to on her own in her weakened condition. At the time I just wanted them to help her, but my cheeks still flush with anger when I think about how ready they were to jump to the wrong conclusion.
I followed the ambulance to the hospital. The doctor quickly realized this wasn’t an overdose. The sense of urgency that I was feeling was finally shared by the medical staff. Realizing their error, the paramedics wouldn’t even look at me one their way out. I sat in a tiny plastic chair outside her room in the ICU for hours. Nurse after nurse and doctor after doctor went into her room. After awhile, my mother stopped screaming. They had given her pain medication and stabilized her. I like to think from that point on until the second she died, at least she wasn’t in pain anymore.
The source of her excruciating pain was an infection in her neck that had gone on too long and spread into her bloodstream. She was septic. The doctors did everything they could but nothing worked. After weeks in the hospital watching her slowly becoming paralyzed the doctors finally looked me in the eye and told me that my mother would die. I spent day after day with her in the hospital. She smiled when I walked in the room and laughed when I made jokes about needing a margarita. My beautiful radiant mother was trapped in a body that was failing. The last days of my mother’s life she was on a morphine drip surrounded by family, friends, and nurses whose only goal was keeping her as comfortable and as happy as they could.
The night before she died I made a spontaneous decision to go back up the hospital in the early hours of the morning. I knew she’d probably be asleep but I just felt like I needed to sit with her awhile before we went back to the house. When I walked in I was so surprised. She was more alert then she had been in days. She smiled ear to ear when David and I sat down next to her bed. She didn’t seem scared, but I think she knew what was happening. At this point she was paralyzed from the neck down, she could only whisper a few words if I put my ear to her mouth. There was an urgency to her saying how much she loved me, she couldn’t hug me but I could feel the affection coming off her in waves. She was saying goodbye. I whispered in her ear that I would be okay and that it was okay to let go. I told her how much I loved her and what an amazing mother she was to me. David held me as I cried for hours that night. I felt like I would never be happy again.
The next morning my father, brother and his family were already at the hospital when I woke up. I called to check on her and they said she was unconscious. My dad said it would be anytime now. There was that dread again. I remember the panic I felt at the idea of watching her die. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to see her take her last breath. I was scared.
When David and I walked out of that furniture store and reached my car, my heart dropped. I looked at the sunset in the beautiful Oklahoma sky and I realized my mother would never see another one. When we were two minutes away from the hospital, my dad called. I was driving so David answered it. I knew right then. I knew it in my chest before my brain told me what had happened. David tried to keep an even tone, too even. He said “Alright, we’ll be there in a second.” I just had to park the car, I just had to stay calm, I just had to breathe. I couldn’t. By the time I turned off the engine I was losing it. “She’s dead, is she dead? She’s dead.” I cried, I wailed. The pain I felt was something I had never felt before. It was the kind of feeling that makes you feel like you’re drowning, like the air around you can’t keep you alive one more second. The fuzzy warmth in your ears and the coldness that numbs your toes. I had built my life around that woman. A woman who loved me fiercely, a woman who left a hole in my world when she left. I am an incredibly lucky girl to have had a mother and a brother who taught me what true compassion, love, and humor add to this world. A part of me died the day my mother did, but a larger part of me learned how to survive. I remember when I walked into that room and I saw her laying there that I thought I could wake her up. I kneeled by her bedside and I was shattered. I didn’t know what was left of me after they were gone. I was angry at the world, I was angry at myself, I was angry at everything.
The months after my mother’s death it seemed like I was walking a tight rope. With a smile plastered on my face and a gaping hole inside myself I made the decision that I wasn’t going to let this kill me. Whenever you lose someone people like to talk to you like there is some formula for grief. Everyone thinks they understand and everyone wants to help. It took me awhile to figure out how I could deal with the grief. It never goes away and it never gets easier. It hides under your bed like the monster from your childhood. One minute you’re in the present and thinking about groceries, or the weather. The next minute you’re curled up in a ball in the restroom with your arms around your knees falling apart.
I wouldn’t have made it without my husband, my father, my brother, my friends. But especially my step-mother. A woman who patiently waited to be apart of my life stepped forward and gave me every ounce of her love without expecting anything in return. I am lucky to say I have been given two incredible mothers in my life.
I wanted to share this because I want people with pain and grief to understand that it does not define you. There are going to be good days and bad days, but the truth is most days are filled with both. You can lose someone you love but still find a moment of happiness in a furniture store. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Life is short and fleeting and so many of us spend all of our time stuck in the past or obsessing over the future. That’s when time runs away. After I lost my brother and my mother I still had to get on a scale and face the fact that I had ballooned up to 275lbs. When I think back to being at my largest after losing everything. It was because of those dark moments that I found the light. Me, my happiness, and everything I put into this world is that light.
Grief is a very lonely journey. No matter how much someone could empathize with me, my loss was my own. Matthew and my Mother aren’t here anymore. I can’t call them to tell them about my day. They didn’t see me get married and they will never meet my children. Those parts are hard. But it’s not as hard as coming to terms with the fact that their love is gone. The love I had for them remains but their love that surrounded me vanished.
In that void, I had to step up and start loving myself. I had to love myself enough to stop binge eating, I had to love myself so I could be a better wife for David, I had to love myself because they would’ve wanted me to. I know how strong I am now. I know what I am capable of. I know that whatever life throws at me, it’ll have to put me in the ground before I ever quit. I will be on this earth treasuring every moment I had with those two amazing people and being thankful that I got to call them my brother and my mother.
I’m still here and I’m still cheerful.