Yesterday, April 21, was my 18 year anniversary of marriage to my wonderfully patient husband. Today, April 22, marks two years since (I can’t say anniversary in this context, it just doesn’t sound right) my mother’s passing.
In my eulogy, I talked about being untethered, cast adrift, floundering to find a new structure in my life now that my central support was gone. I’m taking time today to reflect on my new tethers, and the shores I’ve been exploring over the last two years.
I still have a surprising amount of anger: at myself, for what I perceive as my failure to stay by mom’s side right up to the end, despite my vow to do just that; despite my thorough preparations to do just that. At the end, I burned out, bailed out, and left my sister in charge of mom’s final months. I’m so angry at myself over that. It’s hard to remember that I was in a massive amount of emotional pain at the time, and that burnout is a hideous, mind-warping experience that literally makes functioning impossible past a certain point. I remind myself that I made sure that everything was handled before I left, and that everyone understood, and that I have no reason to be angry at myself for being human.
Still, that anger is a tether. A familiar tether: I’ve been angry about so many things over the years that it’s a reliable skeleton on which to base my strength. I welcome the anger, most days, because I have one iron clad rule: don’t dump it off on someone who doesn’t deserve it. I can be screamingly angry and still present outward composure, because the people around me don’t need to have that shit splashed their way.
My husband and I used to have yelling, slamming doors, driving away fast in the middle of the night fights. After eighteen years, we’ve figured out a more rational pattern, and sturdy patience has taken the place of anger as a tether in our relationship. Humor is a tether; we routinely send one another goofy pictures and jokes. Working together as team on projects around the house, working together on sales tables for my bookstore, that’s another strong tether.
I think that without my husband, I would have completely crumbled and destroyed myself in the wake of my mother’s passing. It was touch and go for a while, even so. I slowly wrapped my whole life around my mom and her needs in the three years before her passing.
I realized recently that this is the first time in almost fifteen years that nobody needs me. The kids and grandkids are muddling along without daily crises; my husband’s health is reasonably good; my parents are both gone, and other older relatives I’ve been close to have either passed or are handling their own decline without needing me to hurl myself into helping. I still do a lot of listening and working through problems with various friends and family, but the pressure of being the one with the weight on my shoulders is entirely gone. It’s a bizarre feeling, at once an exhilarating high and an unbalanced vacuum.
For a while, over the last couple of years, I started engaging in fights on social media. Lost a couple of friends, raised my blood pressure, accomplished nothing. That tether didn’t take. I’m currently off Facebook entirely, and while I’m active on Twitter, I do a lot of cheerful posts and refuse to get into fights. I also found Shuffle, which is a really good site for community, discussions without static, and diverse interests. I’d say I’ve developed a more conscious tether to a broader, calmer community base than I’ve ever had before. That’s a big change.
My youngest daughter’s mother-in-law was just diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that has developed and progressed with lightning speed: over two weeks, she went from her normal cheerful self to hallucinations, muddled memories, and gross physical instability. It’s absolutely terrifying to me, and there’s nothing I can do except share what I learned from my own experience with my mother, and keep telling my daughter that she can do this. Last night, talking about her plans to go help her in-laws with the crisis, she said to me: “I can do this, because I have to. I don’t have a choice.” That resonated with me like a struck gong, because it’s exactly the attitude I had as a shield and a staff during the three years of helping my own mom prepare for her death.
I still carry that tether, that determination and surety that I can conquer anything if my back is to the wall, because I’ve done it before. I try not to lean on that one, because it’s a dangerous thread to hit: too much and I’ll be back in burnout. But it’s there, and that’s comforting.
I give myself a lot of buffer room these days. I know I’m still grieving: I can feel the black pit deep in my chest, that endless scream of I want my mommy. At the same time, strangely, I have tremendous difficulty actually crying. I manage a few sobs, and then my mind changes tracks to something less painful, and I get up and move on to something productive.
I’m not sure if I should be pushing through that or not. I’m not a fan of being in intense, bone-crushing emotional pain. Even writing this blog post, I’ve had damp eyes a few times, and more than one spike of intense emotion, but that’s as far as it goes. I think I’m okay with that. I think that trusting myself more and more completely is another tether I’ve developed: that without the pressure and the structure that parents inevitably impose on our self-image, I’m more free to be myself than I’ve ever been before. Like the not-being-needed, that’s both wonderful and terrifying.
Sitting in the moment between conflicting emotions is another new tether. Letting myself just sit, watch my thoughts, not engaging with the chaos in my head, has been a difficult trick to develop. I’ve been working at it for probably twenty years now and I’m only just starting to get the hang of it on a routine basis. I’m leaning more and more towards Buddhist practices, mixed with splashes of Jewish and pagan philosophies. I’m finding a great deal of peace on that path, and it’s a fascinating challenge to test that mixture against my political beliefs and see where they line up and where they clash. Lots of adjustments, research, and contemplation!
I’ve started developing new interests: for example, I’m beginning to learn woodworking. So far I’ve only made one raised bed from landscape timbers, but I have sites bookmarked and there’s a local place that offers DIY lessons.
I’m pushing myself to learn German through Duolingo. Still about at the basic level on that, but what I do know, I solidly know. So that’s another tether. Mom always used to tell me that keeping busy was better than brooding, that I thought too much. I’m finding that she’s right. I get more breakthroughs on tough problems by putting them to the back burner and getting on with achievable tasks.
Overall, the last two years have been soul-shreddingly difficult, but I’ve also grown in new directions, developed new strengths, and developed a calmer, more thorough appreciation of the world I’m moving through each day.
My mantra continues to be: I’m a Wisoker. I’m a lion. Fuck you, I won’t stay down. Keep up or get out of the way! 😀