Grief experts will tell you that with time, eventually you’ll get to a place where the memory of a lost loved one will make you smile and think of happy times, rather than dwell on the pain of the loss. How long this takes is, understandably, unique to the situation, and to the person who has suffered the loss.
It has been a year and a half since I lost the most significant person in my life, my Mom, and I’m not there yet. The passage of time has helped – the nightmares that used to come frequently now occur only once every so often and they’re less wrenching and raw than they used to be, and certain triggers like a photograph or a song or a movie don’t affect me as much as they used to. But there’s still that ever-present ache that tugs at my insides whenever I think of her. And I’m never not thinking of her. I keep myself busy and distracted so that for a time, I can forget. But, like a shark that has to keep swimming in order to breathe, I have to keep moving, or I will drown.
Unlike other loved ones that I’ve lost, there’s very little peace to be found around my Mom’s death. She haunts me like a wounded ghost, crying out for my help. Help that I wasn’t able to give her when she so desperately needed it. No matter how many people, especially those with intimate knowledge of the situation, tell me that I shouldn’t feel guilty or hold myself responsible for her death, I can’t help but think what if? She was closer to me than anyone else in the world. She trusted me; she told me secrets that she never told anyone else, secrets that I, in turn, will never tell. In many ways, from a very young age, I was often the parent, and she was the child. She took care of me, but I took care of her too.
But for the last year or so before she died, and in particular, the four months between my Dad’s cancer diagnosis and her death, I didn’t understand her behavior. It was crazy, it was irrational, and it scared me. She would send me emails at 3 a.m., rambling on about one nonsensical thing or another, she wouldn’t shower for days, she refused to eat and her body became rail thin, and worst of all, she barely seemed to know who I was. The most terrifying thing of all was the blank stare, as though she was looking through me, (me, her person) and I didn’t exist. Then the phone calls came, hysterical. ‘Mom,’ I said, ‘I think you’re having a nervous breakdown. I’m worried. I think you need to talk to a professional.’
I put the resources in her hands but I didn’t make the calls. I left it up to her, and of course (I can see now), she didn’t and couldn’t do it. She told me that she had found someone, a psychiatrist, but when I looked up the doctor’s name online and couldn’t find any record of her, Mom said that she was ‘really new,’ to her practice. I knew she was telling me lies; that she’d made up an imaginary doctor to get me off her back, but what could I do? What should I have done?
It’s those questions and those relentless what ifs that will drive a person crazy. I was my Mom’s best friend and she was mine. She leaned on me so much throughout her life, but when she needed me the most, she pushed me away, and slammed the door in my face. And even worse, I let her do it. Was she suffering so much that she didn’t want me to intervene, and she just wanted the pain to be over? Or did she desperately want my help but was trying to protect me, and she just needed me to push harder and to be tougher and to not take no for an answer? These are the questions in which my nightmares take root.
Recently, I was in New Orleans to celebrate my sister Marion’s birthday, and we had our palms and tarot cards read by a lady named Miss Irene. Miss Irene is 86 years old and has been reading cards since she was 16, a total of 70 years. She looked at some lines on my palm and told me that I’d lost a lot of people that I loved and that they were now my angels watching over me. Be skeptical if you want to be – I am – but I’m telling you, this lady was no joke.
I wonder: when will the ghost that’s haunting me become the angel watching over me? When will the good memories of my Mom – of which there are so, so many – replace all the pain and the guilt and the terrible, relentless what ifs? We were so very different in so many ways and yet, we were the same. No matter how much I’m my own person, for the rest of my life, she’s in me. I am her and she is me. There isn’t a moment in the last year and a half that she’s been gone where I haven’t wondered, ‘What would Mom do?’ or ‘What would Mom think about this?’ There are times when I’ve done exactly what she would have wanted, to honor her, and times when I’ve deliberately acted out and done something she would have hated, like a rebellious teenager out to assert my independence. No matter. She is always, always top of mind. Being as kind, as compassionate, and as lovely as she was is my greatest aim, and avoiding her pitfalls is my greatest challenge.
For better or for worse, my Mother – the way she lived and the way she died – is the ghost that I am living with. Pain aside, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be haunted. At least, as a ghost, I won’t forget her. She is always, always with me. She is the thing that pushes me to be better. She is the thing that threatens to destroy me. She is the thing that I will never stop chasing, and the reason I will never stop striving. The source of the ever-present ache is this: no matter what I do, it’s impossible to make a ghost proud of you. It’s impossible to make a ghost happy. I know that. But I can’t, and I won’t, stop trying.
Until next time, friends.