Death Begins in the Middle

K. S. Anthony

© Copyright 2005 by K. S. Anthony


The journey begins in the middle: in the here; in the now; in the absolute present. Not that the timeline matters: it is convoluted, confused, chaos compartmentalized. There was the Shoreham hotel in Manhattan before, when I found out that mom was sick and waiting on test results and I might think about coming home. There was the trip home after It became Ovarian Cancer and Ovarian Cancer became Metastasized. There were the few precious days before she went to the hospital and then the days in the hospital, some of which I was there for, but most of which I was not, mea culpa mea culpa mea culpa. She needed her prayer beads there. She had given my girlfriend some as well. She’d hold them and rub them in her fingers: sandalwood beads that she had bought on some trip, somewhere, that helped her sleep when she could not, though while she was there she slept and slept often, through the morphine, the chemo, the tube down her throat which she protested against and even the sepsis brought on by a dirty needle. There were the phone calls, each bringing a certain sense of dread or a stressed out voice or someone’s opinion or need for reassurance or cancer marker counts. Sometimes they brought her voice, hoarse and weak, but always strong enough to at least whisper I Love You. And then one night, a phone call for me to say whatever it was I had to say to her as she lay somewhere in between shallow breathing and last breath. And then a plane trip back home and a funeral delayed for two weeks and more details, some as excruciatingly vivid as seeing her body in a sheet on a stainless steel table and wondering where, exactly, my mom had gone and why, exactly, was I standing in a room with a gray body that looked something like someone I had known all my life, but could barely recognize or the fact that I could barely contain either my laughter as the Filipino Priest murdered the sermon at the burial service or the urge to make off with the ashes and bury them myself. Closure? It brought none. Curiosity? It didn’t satisfy any. Respect? My mother would have noted the occasion as somber and important to the living left behind, but in the grand scheme of things, absurd from point of view of the dead person, if in fact, dead people have points of view. Diagnosis, hospitalization, death, funeral. All of that can be nicely wrapped up into then. Convenient. Time to move on. Feel your feelings. Breathe. Talk about it. Someone even told me to “cheer up” just weeks afterwards.

The land of were and was. That was Then, yes.

This is Now.

 It could be anything that cuts short my breath and fills my eyes, but it’s usually the little things that get me thinking about my mother. A post-it note with her handwriting tucked away in some old book that I had forgotten she had sent me. Seeing a pint of Haagen-Dazs Coffee ice cream in the freezer section of the supermarket. Some article online from long ago when I compulsively run her name through the search engines. Making breakfast in the morning and remembering some little detail: the time she made me Spam and eggs the last time I was home; how she made me chocolate cake and fudge the last time we spent my birthday together; how she always answered “Hi sweetheart” when I called her. That phrase rings true now for everything: the last time. Too many of those words bringing a pain that is at once old and dull and searingly new. It comes in seeing Mother’s Day cards in the drug store or marking a calendar and seeing it in aching black typeface. I do not remember the last time I bought her a mother’s day card. The last time. Sometimes it is just the silence that comes with living alone: the inner quiet that can be as empty and lonely as the world outside. It comes and it comes often and there is little to do but ride it out. Cry, and ask the unanswerable whys. Fall apart and then, every day, put myself back together and try to figure out what I am going to do without her phone calls, her cards, her emails and letters. Try to figure out what memory belongs where and how I can piece any of it back into something resembling my life. Try to put away the hardness in my throat and the headaches and the regret.

 She hasn’t been dead a year; it was not long ago that I spoke of her in present tense. I still do sometimes. I almost never correct myself. Most people around me don’t know about any of it. The cancer. The six weeks she was in the hospital. How I knew that, when I walked out of her hospital room, I would never see her alive again. She called me her baby and I held hands that I had never seen so frail before and I gutted out the leaving and the goodbye because she told me to be strong for her. She did not want me to see her so weak and I had to, at the very least, allow her that dignity. I was her stalwart to the end, not a tear shed in public until long after I left; until the funerals were over and the eulogies were read and her ashes placed on my grandma and grandpa’s grave. I held her then too: in a delicately carved wooden bowl bearing her name. It was smooth and soft and it sat in the kitchen of the house before we took it, and her ashes, to the cemetery. I slept on the couch in the kitchen with that bowl being the only thing I found comfort in. The only time I cried while I was there was a couple of nights before the funeral. I woke up, feeling groggy and sick and dizzy and realized that my face was flooded. No black dream. No nightmare. No sound. Just a body seeking relief and a soul battered by rage and sorrow and silence trying to find some cathartic outlet. Now I cry. Not often, but often enough. And I do not talk about it. I do not talk about it anymore.

People grow tired of hearing of other people’s grief. And the grieving grow tired of feeling like a burden to those who listen with feigned patience and well meant comments. Even shared grief is wearisome, so now I keep mine to myself, in my apartment, away from the well-meaning and the tired-of-listening-to-it. Away from the gentle words and the cold shoulders and the uneasy silences and the wishing I had said nothing at all. When I do make mention of it, it is invariably to my regret and the cost is paid in bitterness.

I can no longer share my little victories with her. I came home from my driving test, having finally learned to drive at thirty years old after putting it off for years, knowing how proud she would have been. She had given up driving long before she got sick. It was our shared thing: an ongoing joke between the vehicularly challenged. I could not tell her. She had been gone two months and two days when I got my license. I was made a Mason, like my great-grandfather whose lapel pin my mother had given me. The one person who would know how much that meant to me was gone. Secret victories, hidden joys. Significant only to myself. Refurnishing the rooms of my heart in quiet solitude.

 Just in case anyone starts thinking me too pathetic, my girlfriend was there for me throughout the then and remains with me throughout the now. But death demands that everyone walk its road alone and if that isn't the stupidest cliche about it ever committed to paper, I don't know what is.

 Idle self-pity. Angry thoughts. Guilt. Droughts of human contact. Joys gone unspoken of. What-ifs and whys. The books she read; the poems she loved. The movies she liked; the music she listened to in the hospital. The cards and notes from birthdays and boys days and bad days and good days. All of them piling up like missing pages from a book that I cannot, no matter how hard I look, find.

We discussed my fears of her dying long before she was diagnosed. As a child, developed a nearly crippling separation anxiety when she was gone. I would catastrophize scenarios where she would die horribly and awfully and without my being able to say goodbye or save her or stop the speeding bullet. I would never let her get off the phone without telling her I loved her and to be safe. When she traveled, I insisted that she call me when she got home, even after I had moved out, married and divorced. These carried over into my adult relationships. Panic attacks so severe that I thought I was going crazy. Someone not calling when they said they were going to would nearly double my heart’s tempo. When cancer came knocking--a first in our family--I was, at the very least, somewhat prepared. We had discussed it. I knew I had no say in it. I had grown so used to the deaths in my head that the reality of her dying had, unbeknownst to me, become a cornerstone in the way I saw her. My message to her was always clear and impossible; simple and childish: don’t ever leave me.And, to her credit or discredit, she said she wouldn’t.

 I knew it while I spent those precious few days with her before she went into the hospital and in the days immediately after her failed surgery. I knew that the person before me would, at least one day, not be there anymore. I knew that there would be no more phone calls on my birthday, no more late mother’s day cards, no more bringing girlfriends home, no home, period. To me, mom was home, or at least as close as I could get to understanding a feeling of it. There would not be spaghetti or corned beef and rice there. Only absence. An empty place called used-to-be where the things that used to fit simply no longer existed. I remember watching her in a green dress, moving slowly, trying to do the things that were routine to her and the fear and frustration in her eyes when she could not do them. How can someone suddenly be gone? How is it that, one day, we find that we are orphaned in the world? Suddenly there won’t be any more philosophical talks or books shared or jokes told. Suddenly, the map changes and we are lost, trying to orient ourselves to the vastness of absence without any guide, save that of instinct. It is the second oldest thing in the world, death. Life, of course, is the oldest.

 The year ended with revelations and pain, further loneliness and despair. More glimpses of hope that proved to be cruel mirages. I responded to the new map of reality by making my journey a physical one. I traveled. To Chicago. To Canada. To the Carolinas. To New Orleans. To Washington. To anyplace that offered me the sweet gift of self-forgetting. Hotel rooms and restaurants. Airports. Strangers. Friends. Whiskey fogged nights and hard mornings dulled to quiet with aspirin and valium. I took up running and the severest martial arts. I’d disappear for a few days and come back refreshed, covered with bruises from fighting. I finally stopped traveling. I had planned a trip to Missouri to train with some associates when I was seized by a major anxiety attack about going. I waited until an hour before I was set to leave for the airport and then cancelled it entirely. The panic was unbearable and the strain was too much. I have not set foot on a plane since and the thought of it terrifies me. I got a job, then quit. It made me more miserable. I wondered what mom would say.

And here’s the thing: I hate writing this. I hate writing it because it seems like a cry for help or a plea for understanding or another my-mother-died story. There’s no help: she’s dead. There’s no understanding until you have been through it and I’m not interested in group catharsis or well-wishing strangers. I don’t need to be made to feel any more pathetic and weak than I already am. Misery may love company, but melancholy prefers to be alone. And whether I like it or not: this is just another my-mother-died story. You know what the club for people who have lost someone they loved is called? Humanity. There’s nothing new about mothers dying or cancer or grief or people buying you books on The Grieving Process which reduce everything to clichés and stories like this. But since she has died, I cannot, for the life of me--pun intended--think of anything else to write.

This is now.

 I worry that I’ll push away my girlfriend because I very often wrap myself in my grief. I wonder if I am somehow responsible: the organs that gave me life killed her. Was it my fault? I can't make pancakes or french toast without thinking of mom. I taunt myself; harass myself endlessly. I am weak. I am angered to murderous thoughts about people who I recall behaving badly towards her: with none, not even myself, being spared my wrath. I wonder if people will ever stop fucking telling me that my mom is in Heaven with God and his Angels because they're looking for a chance to feel better about themselves; to walk away with hearts swollen with self-righteous piety and vanity cloaked in crosses and WWJD stickers.There are a million pieces of it and they all form this mosaic of grief and loss; pointless self-pity and angry self-loathing; and above all, loneliness. Unlike other grief, this has not brought me closer to the suffering of others, though I know they suffer too. It is too universal to unite the world. It lacks the specifics of tragedy or random accident that bring strangers close. There is no deliverance here; no “cheering up,” no great life lesson to be learned besides this one: people die. I will die.

 If I were interested in any kind of cute, clean, reader-friendly end to this, I might have added “and others live” to that last sentence or something equally shallow or trite or condescending. I might try to find some way to dilute the sheer toxicity of this vulgar self-indulgence so that anyone reading this might be able to walk away feeling better or that I might walk away “feeling better.” I don’t have a point. I don’t have an answer. If you want to argue semantics, you might say that this is more of an essay on pain than a story. I don't have an answer for that either. I don’t have anything except another short my-mother-died story and the strength to finally say that, having written this damned thing:

 That was Then.

 This is Now.

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