A year ago, my mother died.
It’s blunt and disarming, but that’s the thing about death. It just happens. One moment your loved one is there, and the next moment they aren’t.
Yes, the medical personnel were able to revive her at home, but when the EMT (who I’ve known my entire life) asked me who was responsible for end of life decisions and a police officer told me there was no need to for me to rush to the hospital, I spent that drive to the hospital contemplating how the world would be different without Anita (don’t all adult children use their parent’s name as a term of endearment?)
If you think those dimly lit, poorly furnished grieving rooms only exist in “Grey’s Anatomy,” you are very, very wrong. They are real, and they aren’t only reserved for anxiety-ridden family members. They are also the spaces where hospital staffers and random people charge their cell phones. So, no, when the door opens, it’s not always Patrick Dempsey coming in to share devastating news with his perfect hair and cobalt blue eyes. It may be some rando extra who doesn’t even warrant their name in the end credits coming in to charge their phone because its battery is at 5 percent.
I’ll always remember returning to my dark, quiet childhood home and realizing that my mother, before she had gone to sleep that night, had programmed the coffee maker to make my coffee the next morning, as she had always done. And she wouldn’t be there to have a cup herself. Bitter brew, indeed.
In retrospect, I don’t think a lot of people knew how that night played out. As much as people know me as an excitable person, and I’m quick to share my positive feelings I’m also someone who isn’t overtly emotional when it comes to telling others when I’m struggling (except the time I cried at the cafeteria when Susan Damaschke spoiled the So You Think You Can Dance Season 6 finale).
As a natural empath, I observe. I don’t speak. And when I do, it’s usually quite intentional. However, my emotions a year ago were hidden under a pall of “Thank yous,” “I appreciate you for comings,” “I’ll be fines,” and “Yes, I’ll be moving out once we sell the house. There’s so much to do, but I’ve got handled!”
I’ve always connected my value to my utility. So rather than spending the next day speaking out about my emotions, telling my closest friends that I watched my mother’s death play out in front of me, I got to work.
I was always the practical child. Good, old pragmatic Eric began months and months of sorting paperwork, paying bills, and getting the house on Sussex ready for sale. I was quite proud of myself when less than 24 hours after Mom’s death, I had sorted out all her bills, mapped out the next three months of payments, and figured out the majority of her account passwords.
So as my one sister took a nosedive right off the proverbial wagon and my other sister navigated another loss in our family (our immediate family has been cut in half) through the fog of a multitude of mental health issues, I did what was always expected of me—I took care of it.
Somehow, I was accountable for everything, yet not given credit for anything. And rather than complain or get lost in my emotions, I just kept toiling. I didn’t explore or share how I was feeling, and my lack of displaying emotion became a weakness, rather than a strength. But what good would it do me to share every emotion on Facebook? Because the minute I did that, I would find myself down a blackhole that would leave me unable to actually make progress on the things that just needed to be done.
My relatives, family, and friends unabashedly suggested that before I move out, I should get the pipes fixed, the rooms painted, and the furniture cleaned out—and in the exact way everyone else demanded it done. I didn’t have or give myself the space or the time to share every emotional reaction I had on Facebook.
And when I did express emotion, I tried to be positive, express my needs, or plan for the future. In general, those same demanding voices ignored my posts. Because someone else’s emotions have always been more important. My feelings were only valid if it meant I was sharing in the morbid misery of those around me.
I wanted to move out of the home where I held my dying mother. That’s where I was, emotionally. But people in my life had their own opinions on what “the right thing to do was,” and they had no trouble suggesting I get the pipes fixed, the rooms painted, and furniture cleaned out before taking care of my own emotional state. And, fool that I am, I just kept working harder, thinking it would solve all the problems.
I didn’t want to share my grief on Facebook. Not just because it didn’t feel productive or practical, but because that’s not how I grieve. My relatives were far more public about their sadness and received an outpouring of love and empathy in reaction to their posts. In my social media posts, I tried to be positive, express my needs, or plan for the future. Perhaps because my posts weren’t drafted with sweeping emotions, people assumed I was fine. Because my posts never asked for comfort, I never received it.
But that sent me into a sad place, believing something that I didn’t want to believe: that others’ emotions were more important than my own. That my feelings were only valid if it meant I was sharing in the morbid misery of those around me.
My therapist had been saying it for months. I was held to a higher standard, and it became evident on a dark November morning. I was expected to be everything to everyone, and even that wasn’t good enough.
The weight of others’ expectations are incredibly heavy while going through grief caused by the loss of a parent.
So, I can’t be sure I ever truly processed my emotions because those in my orbit carried theirs around like a beacon and expressed them easily and often. My subtler approach to navigating grief wasn’t welcome. I didn’t rend my clothes, gnash my teeth, or agonize from a mountain top that I had lost my mother.
It’s been a year. And I have still not fully processed losing my mother, but I’m beginning to reckon with other feelings of loss and pain that I experienced from navigating complex relationships with my relatives. Death, the gift that keeps taking.
I still feel hurt and misunderstood. Because grappling with losing my mother wasn’t easy for me, just like sharing my feelings also wasn’t easy for me. But to be clear, JUST BECAUSE I DIDN’T CONSISTENTLY TALK ABOUT HOW I WAS FEELING DOESN’T MEAN I WASN’T FEELING SOMETHING.
I just knew how to hide the feelings or to compartmentalize to get through the day. I keep thinking about how I attended a mandatory CPR training session two weeks after my mom died of a heart attack, sitting there stone-faced as I learned the methods I could’ve employed to potentially save her. It was legally required for me to attend the class and keep my part-time job, so I did it. I dealt with the emotions later.
I am both a loner and an introvert, so I am okay with processing emotions on my own time. And since quarantine has left me with plenty of alone time, I’ve noticed countless things that have really given me the feels.
So, with hopefully a bit more heart and humor, I present to you the incomplete and growing list of things that remind me of my mom (and apparently make me weep uncontrollably)…
First off, these things are delicious. If you have a goal to lose weight during COVID-19, don’t have these in your house. I heard when Oregon legalized all drugs this year, Starburst jelly beans were included on the list.
Once these hit the shelves around Easter, my mom and I would always pick up bags for each other. It was one of those unspoken languages we had, just like when both knew when the other was craving Chinese or Domino’s, and we would wait for the other to suggest it.
So, in February of 2020, if you saw a 38 year-old man openly weeping by the jelly bean display in the Clifton Target, it was me.
I had been walking around, minding my own business, apartment shopping, when I saw them. It felt like all these emotions that I had been keeping bottled up inside decided to come and smash me like a wave. In Target. Because of jelly beans.
The hours Anita and I spent on rainy weekends, watching the same episodes over and over again. We could predict when Olivia Benson was going to tell a victim that she was a child of rape. Any time Cragen put his reputation on the line for one of the squad, we would wonder if we’d seen the episode before. And we wouldn’t be surprised when Stabler lost his cool, putting a case in jeopardy. It was how we spent our time together.
While some people watch cartoons for comfort, I opted to watch SVU from season 1 to help me relax during COVID lockdowns and quarantine. And one night, the end credits rolled, and I was back in my childhood bed, hearing the theme in my room while my Mom watched one of her favorite shows downstairs.
And that’s the thing. Grief isn’t an event. It’s a series of small moments that bring you back to the moments where the person you lost was still there.
I know, how highly specific. And yes, that show is still on, although any new seasons have been put on hold due to the ‘rona.
So, there’s still hope that Jeff Probst can’t stop thinking about my audition video and is just waiting for production to restart to invite me to play.
Side note: I got fired for calling my boss a dick in Survivor audition video.
When I had moved home, there were three reality shows we watched together: Face/Off, Ink Master and Survivor. Anita was the queen of hate-watching, especially Face/Off and Ink Master, where season after season, you would know what contestants she hated because she reminded you every commercial break. And she had only superficial reasons for hating contestants, like “I hate her voice.” But, it was fun and it was something we could do together.
The hilarious thing about Survivor was that I had to explain the season’s twist to her week after week, and I don’t think she ever truly understood what Redemption Island, Ghost Island, or Edge of Extinction and the million idols actually were. As we went through season after season, she would always ask, “How does someone win?” and I would go off on a thesis about how it varies from season after season. Is one of the Final 3 a returning player? Is the jury bitter? Will they vote for the person they like or for the best player?
So on and so forth until she would just go back to playing “Candy Crush.”
My point is, when someone dies, you replay some of the conversations you had with them on the day and weeks before they died.
A few weeks before she had died, Mom and I had gotten into some intense discussions and outright arguments. So, I wouldn’t watch Survivor with her in a form of silent protest. As episodes stacked up on the DVR, I wanted to extend an olive branch.
So, before leaving the house one day, I told I hadn’t watched the recorded episodes, but it would be cool if we could watch the merge episode together, so she could get caught up before we watched.
She died before we could watch the merge together. But as it turns out, she had snuck onto the DVR and watched it without me. When I finally sat down to watch, it was ALMOST as if she was there. It was the final episode we would “watch” together, I suppose.
Yep, John Parr’s “Man In Motion.” It was her favorite movie.
On her birthday this year, I started Pandora and this was the first song to play.
Thanks, Mom. How do I make it look like I wasn’t openly weeping on my first Zoom call of the day?!
You may not believe in signs. But this was a big damn neon one.
Speaking of signs, here is a sign that you are getting old: when the songs you used to beg your parents not to play in the car tape deck on long road trips are now your “go-to” tunes.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, and Carole Kane (come through, Yacht Rock!), but in grief, it’s music that can make you smile but is tinged with a bit of melancholy.
So, next thing you know, you’re weeping… again… and can’t stop.
HOW DARE YOU, James Taylor. I trusted you and your velvet voice.
Everyone has seen “A Christmas Story” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but have you seen this classic (and hard to find) Jim Henson production?
If you haven’t, I encourage you to find it. I’ve always felt that Christmas and its related movies, sitcom episodes, and specials always come with a touch of melancholy. This Emmett Otter rarity, especially so. Looking back, perhaps Anita related to Emmett’s mother (well, not the puppet part), a woman who would do anything she could and sacrifice her own comfort to give her children the Christmas they wanted. And maybe one day she hoped we would do everything we could to return the favor.
Things that normally made you sad, now make you feel deeper sadness, whether they are related to someone’s death or not. You know the reunion scene in A League of Their Own, when old Dottie walks onto the field to Carol Kane’s “Now and Forever”? Admit it, it gets you. I weep EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. And since I’m disclosing my emotional fragility, I also get emotional when Shirley Baker can’t read her own name on the player list. And while we’re at this pit stop – did Dottie intentionally drop the ball or not?
But, if I were to watch that movie now? Game over, man. Game over.
When you experience such profound grief and an ever-present gaping hole in your life, everything that elicits genuine emotion seems to be edged with some of that grief, and only works to tear the hole just a little wider.
I ask this, not in self-pity. But because I know there are so many people experiencing complicated grief right now. Many of us, feeling more alone and isolated than ever before. Many of us without access to our friends, family, or any support network. It’s brutal.
But, in some ways, we have all been brought together in our collective grief and resilience, and there is some peace in that. The time we have been able to spend with each other, even if from six feet, in masks, or through a computer screen, has been made all the more cherished and valuable. So, yes, I am still coping with the loss of my mother, but sometimes I float above it with the support of those around me, because we’ve all lost a little (or big) something since March, and in that, we’re connected, and it makes the anxiety, the anger, the fear and the tears a little easier to bear. And although I would trade anything to have my mother back, this experience has helped me be the beacon for those who have been forced to embark on their long journey into grief.
And the worst thing about all of this (*looks around*), is sometimes there isn’t a trigger for my sadness and my tears. I’ve been driving home, and all of a sudden, I’m overcome with shuddering sobs because I just miss her so much. Or there are days when I almost forget she’s gone, because I go to call her about something in my apartment, and I remember that she isn’t there to call. She won’t be making me one of those diamond paintings (god, she spent hours on those, and I still find pieces in some of my things) to prominently display in the living room.
Tomorrow, I could go food shopping and an orange may make me have a breakdown in the produce aisle, snot all over my mask. And I may not even be able to explain why.
Just this morning, Alexa decided to play some 80s contempo pop while I got dressed, and Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” started playing. Yep, the water works. It’s a love song for pete’s sake, and here I am thinking of my dead mother.
And while we’re here, a few other things that remind me of my mom (and natch, make we weep uncontrollably) –
I’ve always been a better writer than a speaker, mainly because whenever I stand up for myself or speak from my heart, it always sounds like I’m on the verge of tears (I swear, I do not live my life in a perpetual state of weepiness.) When you are expected to just do/act/work, and not given the space to speak to your feelings, clearly articulating how you feel always comes with a certain level of risk.
What if I fail?
But, darling, what if you fly?
No, no, no… I’m going to fail. So, I’m just not going to say anything, cool?
I’m not necessarily sure it does. I think my feelings just… evolve. Some days, when it’s gray and rainy, I guess I just miss my mom. Other days, I get out of bed and I’m not immediately hit by a wave of crippling sadness. I’ve convinced myself that the family of blue jays and cardinals that have taken up residence outside my apartment (nature is healing, we are the virus) are signs of my family joining me for my morning coffee on the stoop.
I think my mom is joyful that I’m not burdened by financial stress and that I signed my lease for a second year. Deep down, I think she always wanted me to have a life and place of my own, even if she liked having me around.
That’s a gift from her. And in spite of how the pandemic took away all the parties, get-togethers, and trips that would have brought me joy—and in spite of the dull and sharp, searing pain of loss—I’ve genuinely smiled this year. I’ve laughed from deep down in my gut. I’ve glowed with happiness. I’ve relaxed my shoulders in peace and acceptance. I got drunk on a boat.
It hasn’t been great, but some of it’s been good.