My mom wrote a lot between November 1999 and April 2000, and much of what she wrote during that time was part of a larger effort to cope with what was happening to her. The certainty that death was on its way, the unknowability of how much longer it would take. Some days, the wish that it would come quicker. Other days, the fear of it coming too quickly or not quickly enough. The fear of how much more pain there would be before it was all over.
Yes, this is heavy stuff. But my friends, this is the holidays for me inside my head. This is what I need to think about and what I need to feel, because this is what I have of my mom to connect with: the writer who thought a lot about death and dying and tried to order her world through words and well-edited sentences. My mom was also a fun, funny, at times impulsive, at times unpredictable person, and she would have absolutely advocated on behalf of lightening up a little. I remember her and honor her, but what I have in front of me in black and white is the thoughtful, introspective version of her who felt a lot of very strong and often uncontrollable emotions, but who also tried very, very hard to learn from them and also to be there for her family even in the presence of them. This is the version of my mom who I know, or at least I hope, would be here for me when I feel like I am at the mercy of my emotions and tell me that it’s okay to feel this way, to not be okay for a little while.
Mom wrote an essay in April of 2000 called “Just No Getting It.” This was at the point where, after several months of tumor counts mysteriously decreasing, she was being told that they were on the move again, that “the disease [was] progressing.” It was a heavy time for us, and I remember it well myself. A time when sometimes, with no warning, I’d get picked up at school by a friend’s mother, who would tell me that I’d be spending the afternoon and possibly evening and night with at their house while my parents were at the hospital. In addition to her existential uncertainty (in a very literal sense), Mom was in a lot of physical pain during this time, and she was often at the mercy of whatever side effects her various treatments brought on. “Here’s the thing,” she wrote, “there is no getting it; no comprehending the way in which things like this occur – or why. There is only being with it.” No way of knowing why a certain course of chemo was no longer working, why the pain was getting worse in this area, what was coming next. Now that is a lot to be with. How is a person supposed to live in any kind of peace with something so huge and consequential and yet so totally opaque? “Being with it” all by itself seems like a lot to ask.
What impresses me about this essay is the clarity that she seemed to have about what was happening to her. And the lucidity she brought to the coping process. “I spent most of yesterday by myself - reclining, reading, daydreaming, dozing, worrying, wondering, crying - enjoying my solitude, or so I thought. Why then, as I looked back on the day before drifting off to sleep, did I find myself wondering if I hadn’t wasted my precious time, of which I feel I have so little. Shouldn’t I have focused more strictly on meditation; been more disciplined in my reflections? But why? And where did this criticism come from? Why would anything else have been better than what I actually did do? To whom would it have mattered? Who would I have impressed?” There was no Instagram in 2000, and yet the powerful forces of what pain, grieving, cancer, and coping should look like were inescapable. Mindfulness has now become a meme, a brand, a trendy lifestyle ideology, and I relate intensely to these feelings that Mom had that maybe she was doing [grief, anger, coping, slowly dying of cancer] wrong.
This had to have been hard work, but she did it every day. And because she wrote, she left us, her kids and her family and her friends, with this testament to the internal work she did every day. I can access, now, her willingness to be unsure and to go on living and feeling despite wanting at times to just turn off all the emotions, to take drugs to cover them up, to disappear and leave it all behind. Even Mom, who as far as I was concerned was tougher than anyone else I had ever met, felt rage and disappointment and constant internal and external criticism and fear, and she didn’t have a prescription for dealing with it. She truly felt like there was just no getting it. But she also felt the impulse to look critically at her expectations and everyone else’s, the “‘how-to’ prescriptions that pierce my consciousness at every corner,” as she put it, and, when she had the strength to do it, put them in their proper place.
The semi-annual onslaught of feelings, as I now think of it, used to lay me out every year. Once at Christmas, once again in May, the anniversary of Mom’s death, I would just lose myself in a funk that I was somehow not prepared for, even after ten or even fifteen years. Wanting everyone to just fuck off with their stupid problems, wanting my mom, hating the pointlessness of wanting my mom. Waking up from a dream in which she was right there, talking to me. In these dreams, I would be skeptical of her presence, but then I’d let myself sink into it and enjoy it and accept it, just moments before waking up. When will this end, I would think, and why must it come back to me with such powerful force every time? Why am I never any less vulnerable to it? I try to think of it now as a sort of visit, not from my mom herself but from all the feelings that I now know will be with me for the rest of my life. No one gets to tell me how I should receive them or cope with them (sometimes not even me). There is no getting them or solving them; there is just being with them.