cancer · family · grief · loss · mother · new beginnings

An Eternity and a Blink

My sister and I finished cleaning out mom’s condo on Thanksgiving weekend. We thought we had taken care of most things on the previous visit, but as any of you who have ever moved know, there was way more to deal with than we originally anticipated. At the end of the weekend, we arranged to have junk haulers come and take away the final perfectly functional, perfectly sell-worthy pieces. We were simply too exhausted to continue dealing with flaky craigslist buyers (what’s up with that, by the way?) or taking any more trips to the local Goodwill. Now the condo is getting ready to be put on the market as early as the start of the new year. It might even be completely out of our hands by the first anniversary of mom’s death.

We wrestled with this decision all year. Mom’s condo was her Disneyland, and the only place we have left that smells like her and looks like her and feels like her (outside of a pink robe I have that miraculously and inexplicably manages to smell like both her AND my grandma). But as Lindsay and I are both lifelong renters and basically paycheck to paycheck livers, the whole owning-a-building-in-a-town-you-don’t-live-in thing never really made a lot of sense for either of us. This became achingly obvious when both of us ended up randomly leaving our jobs within a month of each other late summer/early fall.  Earlier in the year, we had started a joint bank account to cover the costs associated with hospice and the funeral and the condo, and the property taxes and mortgage payments have dwindled that account down to nearly half of what we started with in less than 10 months. Now that both of us have found ourselves unemployed, there seems to be far better uses for the remaining money, rather than spending it on property taxes for a place either of us visit no more than once every several weeks.

motherless-daughter-coverI had been reading a book called Motherless Daughters right around the time both my sister and I parted ways from our jobs. In it, writer Hope Edelman interviews 100s of women about the loss of their mothers. She talks very early on in the book about how losing her own mother wasn’t just a fact about her; it was at the core of her identity. She demonstrates this by sharing a passage from a column Anna Quindelm wrote in the Chicago Tribune:

 “For a long time, it was all you needed to know about me…A kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion: ‘Meet you in the lobby in 10 minutes — I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat and my mother died when I was 19.’” 

The book goes on to talk about how research has shown statistics are through the roof for women who make life-altering decisions in the close months and years after a mother’s death. Neither Lindsay or I found this information surprising. I had shared this passage with her before either of us left our jobs, during the summer when we spent a week on tour for the release of her newest album, and as we were both grieving even more recent losses of two of our male friends (one was murdered in a hit-and-run, one died of complications from heart issues).

“Not surprising,” Lindsay had said at the time. “Your tolerance for bullshit just goes way, way down.”

Lindsay gave a decade to her position as a marketing manager for an corporate events company. She never loved the position but stayed because of the pay, flexible hours, and job duties that were basically tailor-made to her strengths. Long story short, the company was sold and she was essentially forced out due to an ethical disagreement with the management.

For myself, too many of my friends still work with and at my former place of employment for me to go into great detail about all of my reasons for leaving.  I will say that if I’ve learned anything from mom’s sickness and subsequent passing, it’s that life is far too short to devote yourself to anyone or anything when you aren’t getting back what you put in.

In other words, your tolerance for bullshit just goes way, way down.

In many ways, the life changes seem like perfect timing and almost like mom had her hand in them (I quit on my birthday, Lindsay severed ties on the day she got back from tour). Mom had long chastised both of us for staying in positions that weren’t fully fulfilling. She had her own Jerry Maguire moment at her long-time administrative assistant job, which led her on a path to going back to grad school and eventually finding employment as a speech therapist, which she loved and hoped to one day get back to, even after she stopped chemo and lost her license and eyesight and everything else. I still can see her rocking in her recliner, eating vanilla ice cream and shaking her head, as I frantically made calls to find last minute props and costumes and actors and locations while visiting her at night. “Is this what you want to remember on your deathbed?” she’d ask. “I get to remember cute kids who say, ‘I wuv you, Miss Jackie!'”  Then she’d go back to digging her spoon into her too big bowl of ice cream, but not before planting a smug, knowing smirk on her face.

My sister and I are both well aware how lucky we are to even be in positions where we have the ability to take moral stands. I realized, after weeks of being angry at some of my former coworkers, that sometimes integrity itself is an advantage of the privileged. Although I know my sister and I well enough to know either of us would have made the same choices even without the comfort of our (meager) inheritance, the safety net has definitely made our choices easier and has kept any sneaking thoughts of regret to naught. It is one of several things that have come from our mother’s passing that have truly been a double-edged sword. Just discovering all the things to appreciate about mom- like her integrity and bravery and grace under fire- has been hard for me to reconcile against the many years I spent focused solely on her (legitimate) flaws. My sister says, “We are learning and appreciating the ways we are like our mom- through her tenacity and conviction and resilience- but we have to constantly take inventory of our convictions and our reasonings behind them because on the flip side, she also showed us how convictions can turn an ugly corner into stubborn and bitter and closed-minded territory.”

Kathleen Smith touches on this in her extraordinary Huffington Post blog post, “The Education of the Motherless Daughter”:

For a motherless daughter, grief is forever the unwelcome guest we ignore or usher
into our lives. We hate what it snatched from us, but we clutch what it gifted us with
equal ferocity. And we’re constantly knee-deep in that guilty question, “How can the
worst thing that ever happened to me also be the best thing about me?” The loss of my mother was a sieve, straining so many the coarser pieces of myself from the finer ones…   Grief changes you like an ominous Alice in Wonderland beverage. Big things grow bigger, and little things shrink from their former importance.”

I was discussing this with my friend Amy, as well as my general guilt for being so altered by such a natural thing as a parent’s death when there are vastly more terrible losses and injustices in the world and throughout human existence, and she shared this quote by Viktor E. Frankl from Man’s Search for Meaning with me. It’s a pretty amazing perspective:

“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a
certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely
fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great
or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

I gave two weeks’ notice at work, but my boss asked me to leave after one. This means, outside of various freelancing gigs, I have had over two months to grieve and unwind and process everything the entire care-taking experience and mom’s terrible, dragged out death week threw at me. Somehow, it still feels like it all happened yesterday. My resignation. Mom’s death. Mom’s diagnosis. Our reconciliation. Our estrangement. All of it.

However, I’ve recently had the time and energy and headspace to get back to my writing and my meditation. And visiting my grandma. And spending a long Thanksgiving weekend with my family at the coast. And taking care of my health. As 2017 ends and the condo goes on the market and I look forward to what comes next, I can’t help but feel one very important and exhausting chapter of my life ending and an exciting new one on the horizon. I’ve done a lot of weighing options and contemplating paths and I’ve finally decided what’s next. I plan to start an Interdisciplinary Arts graduate program in the spring. I say this even though I have yet to be accepted into the program. There is something in my gut that says this WILL be my path over the next couple years and everything that’s led up to this point has been in preparation for it. I feel mom, and the universe, and my own heart guiding me forward without hesitation. I may be wrong, but for the first time in a long time I am hopeful and enthusiastic. Even just the process of looking toward this goal has me feeling like I’m getting some sort of closure on what’s been the hardest few years of my life, and some sort of miraculous predestination for what’s to come next.

But first, applications and transcripts and financial aid.

And selling mom’s beloved condo.

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