A Passing Observed

Monday, October 02, 2006

Initial Thoughts

It may seem odd to write about my mother’s death. It certainly seems odd to me in some ways. Call it a symptom of the age. Either that, or in these times of grief you’re never quite sure who to talk to and how much. You have plenty of friends and they are very sympathetic. Those who have been through similar things are empathetic as well. But there’s a finite nature to such conversation. Any more than a few sentences, an affirmation of sadness, and a polite “thank you” seems indulgent on your part. It’s not so much that people wouldn’t listen, but the unspoken relief when the conversation moves from “that” to more normal things is palpable. It almost seems like your conversation partners are getting a tooth pulled. There’s mingled anticipation/dread alongside the conviction that this is something that needs to be done for the good of all. Sometimes they jump in with both feet, coming right out with an, “I’m sorry about your mom.” Other times it sits for a while, like the elephant in the closet. You can see the eyes move and hear the wheels turn during the conversation, and the longer it goes the harder they have to think about the “right moment” to bring it up. “Now? No…we can’t just jump from talking about sports and spaghetti into that. What kind of segueway can we find?” In any case, when it’s done…when the tooth is pulled…when it doesn’t drag out any longer than strictly necessary…you can sense the relief. “Oh, is that all it was? That wasn’t so bad. Thank goodness we’re safely beyond it.” I think mostly people just want permission to feel OK and want to know that you’re OK. I don’t hold that against them or anything. I’ve been the same way on the other side of similar situations, I’m sure. (In fact I’m aghast that my thoughts in such situations may have been more transparent than I realized.) So even though they’re good friends doing a good thing and are more than willing to listen, I feel reticent to presume. Here that’s not the case. You’re free to stop reading any time you wish and I’ll never know. Anonymity grants a certain liberty that can be refreshing in times like this.

Having never experienced a loss in my family like this before, I have no way of knowing if any of it is “normal”. What I’m about to share is just me.

The bare bones of the story are simple. I was up past midnight on Thursday, having just finished typing at this very computer, when the phone rang. In my line of work it’s not unusual to get calls in the middle of the night. Usually it means something is wrong for someone, somewhere. This time it was for me. The first hint that something was amiss was that the person on the other end used my whole first name, David. I always went by that as a kid but everybody I’ve known for the last eighteen years calls me Dave. My initial thought was that it was a scam artist who got my number out of a phone book somewhere. The voice sounded nervous, which confirmed that impression. But then she said that I didn’t know her, but she was my mom’s friend, J. I recognized the name at once, since mom had spoken of her often. I also knew in that instant exactly what it meant. The tone of voice and time of night said it all. It didn’t surprise me when she said she had noticed lights on at my mom’s house and had gone in to find she had died. Ironically enough, she had my number because it was on the answering machine. Earlier that day I got this strange urge to call my mother. That was unusual because, alas, I was not the best person for communicating and most often let her call me. I got the urge and I did call though, only to get the machine. They don’t know exactly when my mother passed, but I think I know to the minute.

In the first flurry of getting the news you don’t have time to feel much. There are people to call and to receive calls from—brothers and sisters, friends and such. Everybody’s making sure everybody else heard. Nobody is sharing much besides shock. The list of people to check with is the first of many, many details that will come in the days ahead. It’s funny…at a moment in your journey which is among the most profound, the most life-changing, and the most beyond control, you are plagued with a million little tasks that swarm around you like gnats, needing desperately to be swatted. Who’s going to take care of what? Who signs this? Who notifies these people? Where is the this and does anybody know about the that? Going to the mailbox to pick up your loved one’s letters and bills is like walking into a hail of skillfully-thrown softballs…each one a new headache in the waiting. Don’t even talk about visiting the funeral home or lawyers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

That first night I didn’t sleep much. I was mostly in shock. To say my mom and I were close would be stretching it. There had been good times and bad times. But we loved each other and you only get one mom. Losing that is a break in your life that even now I’m still processing. (The finally summation of that is another post for much later, if ever.) She was in her 70’s, so her passing wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility, but she had been in good health as far as I knew, so it was a major surprise. She lived in Arizona while I live in Idaho, so we saw each other infrequently. She had just been up for a visit a couple months before. I’m glad we had that time. Over the years we had worked our relationship to a point where it was comfortable and familiar. I came to the realization quickly that one of the blessings of all this was that although I missed getting to talk to her with that last phone call, it would not have been any different than the dozens of other conversations we’d had. There was nothing left unsaid between us…no greater healing or depth or profundity for the relationship to grow into. We were what we were, and it was good. There could have been more time…I wish there was more time…but it would have been time for more of the same. I miss her terribly, but I have few regrets. This also meant I could play that conversation we would have had in my mind, which was somewhat of a comfort. It would have ended as it always did, with an “I love you mom” followed by her “I love you too, honey”. That makes my eyes tear up just thinking about it, because as I type I get a carbon copy her voice in my mind. It’s a good thing to have in there.

Obviously there are a million things more to talk about, but lest this post run out of control for now I’ll limit myself to just sharing how I’ve been feeling the last few days, which is something it’s harder to share in person. As I said, I always knew this was a possibility. Many times as she or I left to get on a plane the thought crossed my mind, “I wonder if this is the last time?” (Ironically enough that didn’t even occur to me the real last time.) When you think that, you feel a certain amount of what they call “anticipatory grief”. It’s this bittersweet welling of emotion that rises from your heart as you anticipate your eventual reaction to such news. The real reaction, for me at least, was nothing like that.

The pain of death isn’t a sharp, cutting pain, like someone sliced into you and clean blood is flowing. It's not even like you lost part of you like a limb that’s been separated now. It’s a dull, flat pain, like someone just swung at you with a wheelbarrow. You’re all there and you can’t identify a specific place where you hurt, but you’re kind of disoriented and there’s a near-subliminal ache emanating from places you didn’t know you had. You notice everything—walls, floor tiles, pictures, drapes—but it feels like everything has been moved an inch in some odd direction, like things are a little bit out of step in space and time. You look out the window and notice sunlight on the trees and the vivid colors of the leaves, but it looks somehow artificial, like wax fruit. Its definitiveness makes it all the more displaced. But the funny thing is that you know it hasn’t changed…you have. Or more precisely, one of your relationships has. Something connected to you has washed over you and turned your world inside out, like a river flooding down a gorge. And you know this has happened before in this relationship—that’s why it was so dear to you—but it was slowly, over months and years, and by degrees. As you grew into the relationship (and it into you) you couldn’t consciously identify all the ways it changed you, as they were so subtle. Now that is all thrown into stark relief all at once, like someone shined a bright spotlight on all those changes and how profoundly this relationship affected you, while at the same time you realize that something in the relationship is severed and won’t be put back the way it was this side of heaven. That sense of revelation and loss at the same time can be overwhelming…even a bit scary. It’s like you almost don’t want to notice what you’re seeing, but not to acknowledge it would deny the very things you’re trying to remember and hold onto. That’s the conundrum death leaves you. So you watch and think and remember and try to assimilate something that’s too big to assimilate all at once. Mostly you lose yourself in the details. (Wait…are they curse or blessing?) And it’s all too much to explain when someone asks how you’re doing, so you say, “I’m sad, but I’m doing OK.”

Truthfully all in all I’m not doing badly. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve remembered. In some ways I wish I could feel happier, in other ways sadder. It’s too early for either, though. I’m sure I will feel more of both as things progress.

I anticipate there will be more posts, as there are a hundred more things to write/think about concerning my mom, death, grieving, and the like. When something seems interesting or odd or meaningful I’ll probably write more. If you’d like to share your own thoughts and experiences in the comment section you’re more than welcome.


P.S. I chose this template because my mom would like the color.


  • At 8:24 AM, Blogger Goldstreet said…

    Dave, this is beautiful. Not so much in the things you are saying (although you've expressed your feelings so very well), but in the fact that you have this outlet and are using it. I'm a person who has a tendency to stuff things inside and I know that only produces anger and more pain. I'm learning to release my feelings now through simply picking up a guitar and noodling as I talk to God.

    Don't cut short the grieving. Let it have it's season...and in the meantime, let it flow, my friend. Let it flow.

  • At 9:48 AM, Blogger Ken said…

    Dave, I'm not sure if you are aware that I lost my mother last year. Note that your mom is mom and mine is mother.

    My mother was addicted to prescription drugs for about 40 years and had made a total mess of her life. At some point, I must have been about 25, I made the tough decision to cut her out of my life. For the next 20+ years I had very little contact with her. I kept hoping she would someday clean up her act, but she never did and it eventually was the main contributer in her death.

    When my sister called me with the news, my initial reaction was not overwhelming. How much can you miss someone you have spoken 10 sentences to in 20 years? I made arraingements that night to fly "home" for the funeral, mainly as a comfort for my sister and grandmother.

    The next morning, unaccountably, I lost it. I came to work early to finish up some things so I could leave and about an hour in, it hit me HARD.

    I went into my bathroom and cried for something like 20 minutes before I could finally come out again and face the world.

    The thing is, I never quit loving my mother. I simply couldn't support her sickness anymore and I couldn't let it affect my life anymore. Looking back, there are a couple of things I wish I had done differently. I wish my own daughters had gotten a chance to know their grandmother, for better or for worse. I made that decision for them and I was wrong. I wish that I had had the guts to tell my mother, "Look, I love you, this is why I have to pull away," but I never did.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda, I didn't.

    Here's what I take away now: My sister has three awesome sons who I am very proud of. I have two awesome daughters who I am very proud of. I look at my life, my sister's life and these five wonderful grandchildren (and three great-grandkids)and I think any woman who could leave a legacy that turned out this well... well, she must not have done everything wrong.

    You know what? I miss her. After all these years without her, I miss her.

  • At 10:46 AM, Blogger Dave said…

    Ken, I feel for you. And I've felt some of the same things. This is something that it's hard to understand even for us, let alone other people. That sense of separation and distance in a broken relationship doesn't change things. Having to create that distance in the first place (to keep yourself safe and sane) is like a little death. But it's not a down payment towards the real thing. You don't feel, "I've already dealt with 25% of this so when the big moment comes I only get the remaining 75%." Instead you get the whole 100% piled on top of the stuff you already felt.

    A wave in the ocean will roll relatively smoothly until it hits abberant ground on the ocean floor. Then it turns into a whitecap. It seems to me like waves of grief are the same way. Those former "rough spots" can make it crash harder.

    I'm sorry about your mother, my friend.


  • At 12:37 PM, Blogger BLAZER PROPHET said…

    The first thing I thought of when I saw this blog was, "now why is this pink?".

    As one who lost his mother unexpectedly when I was age 10 and my father to alchoholism when I was 19, I do understand the akwardness of death. It's as if your at a concert (of life) and suddenly the music stops. Very quiet, very reflective. Sometimes it brings pain and sometimes just sorrow.

    To be sure, there is a finality to death that exceeds all other areas of life. My hope is that you always remember your mother with the fondness of your heart.

  • At 1:34 PM, Blogger Scott R said…


    Your eloquence truly stuns me. I wish i had half the knack for putting my emotions and thoughts into words much the way you can.

    As i sat reading your post i couldn't help but tear up myself. I have not lost my mother thankfully, but i put myself in your shoes and just imagine how it may be. My mom and I were very, very, very close when i was in high school and before i got married. Now that i have a wife of my own i can't put as much into my relationship with Mom, and she has let me know as much several times. She is jealous, i'm sure, as most mothers are of the women their sons decide to marry. My wife and her have started to form a semblance of a relationship now which is really making things a lot better, but it is very hard for them to truly bond since I am in San Diego and Mom is in Portland.

    The thing that really, truly scares me to death is of her dying before my children (who are 7, 2, and 8 mos) really get to know her. We are lucky to make the 1000 mile journey "home" once a year to see them. I really don't want my children to miss all the good times that may be if something were to happen. I never got to know my grandmother (mom's mom) because she died when i was 8 and i had only seen her probably 5 times in my life since we were dirt poor and living in portland and grandma was in Sacramento. She was a chain smoker up to her very last breath and died very young. Now, my mother is the smoker, although not nearly as heavy as her mom, and i beg and plead with her to quit, but get nothing but excuses which really eats me up inside.

    well, i did originally have a path to which i was going with this. However, i've started getting a little on the emotional side here thinking about this very tough subject and have forget what i had planned on saying...maybe it will come later.

    I truly hope you are doing well right now, Dave. I hope you have the support group around you to help you through this tough time. I am very glad that you choose to use blogging as an outlet as you do. For every comment you receive back, you've probably had 10 more people who also read and were truly moved but just chose to not comment. Thank you for opening yourself up to the rest of us "strangers". It really shows your true character as a human being that you take the time to read, and respond, to all who "speak" to you.

    thank you, and from the deepest reaches of my soul, i offer you my condolences.


  • At 12:58 AM, Blogger Dave said…

    Thanks Scott,

    I hear what you're saying about your mom. Negotiating the mom-marriage thing can be tough, but you're taking the right tack in putting your responsibility to your wife and children first. It's all you can do, because they depend on you wholly. My wife and I have gone through this a little too, but it's more with her family than mine. Time and patience do help and it sounds like it's getting better for you. I hope that continues.

    I also dealt with living thousands of miles away from my mom. First she was in Oregon, then Hawaii, then Arizona, while I was in Minnesota, Iowa, and now Idaho. 1500 miles was about as close as we got, and yearly visits seemed frequent. We don't have children yet so they'll never know their grandma except through stories, but I like to think that they'll see a lot of her best parts in me. I can't imagine that it would hurt someday to tell them, "I got this neat characteristic from your grandma" or "When I was little your grandma used to do this for me just like I'm doing it for you". That way they know more about her...even more than they'd find out by meeting her personally in some ways. I hope your mom finds a way to be closer to your kids and you both in heart and in person. And please keep writing whatever you want. That's what the space is for, after all.



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