When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.
But, oh hell, you keep trying.
— Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye
I’m back to stories again; they’re inescapable. The thing is, more than ways of making sense of your life, they can be companions, ones who’ve been there before you. Maybe they can’t show you the path through the dark woods — because there is no one true path, is there — but they can keep you company as you go. It’s an unspeakable help.
I was lucky enough to receive in today’s mail an advanced reader’s copy of The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke. I will write about it when I finish — I’m 40 pages in and find it painful and exquisite and necessary. Reading about her parents’ courtship reminded me of the story I learned from my mother just a few years ago —
At 21, my mother went on a double date with her best friend, Estelle, and her beau. This was in Georgia. Dad was a yankee, only there because he’d joined the Navy and was in training at Fort Benning. My dad was a mate of this beau, and he had a car. They chose my mom’s date, my dad, because he had a car.
They hit it off: engaged in 4 weeks, married in 6. Can you imagine?
How our lives can be hinged on the most random details.
One of my brothers tells me that they had a rough patch in the 1970s, but I don’t remember that. I remember him giving her a kiss every day before he left for work — actually, it was more like a series of kisses — their goodbyes were always long.
But his leaving was abrupt. A massive heart attack at 49. It never occurred to me that my mother would remarry. Some do. But I knew — he was her all. She’s never stopped missing him.
A critical illness brings you up short any number of ways. Points a finger at you and asks, What do you believe, anyway?
I was brought up Catholic, but aside from various ceremonies haven’t been in a church in a decade. I think of myself as agnostic/borderline atheist. I might allow that there might be creators up there, but if so they’re much too busy to bother with us and our insignificant lives.
And yet it appears somehow I’ve harbored the hazy half-formed belief that the universe owes me for taking my father so soon. As if the universe has ever been an entity that bargained. Or apologized.
My mother’s universe is shrinking to the size of two rooms.
She sleeps in a recliner, and has for months — stairs are simply insurmountable. Neuropathy in her hands and feet cause her hands to shake so much that she needs her meals cut for her, can only drink from cups with handles.
The bathroom is but a few feet from her chair, but it’s still too far these days. She has a walker, but her every movement takes an infinite amount of energy, leaves her depleted and exhausted.
She’s sleeping much more than she was just two weeks ago. She’s not as alert as she was, becomes confused easily. Her pain meds haven’t significantly changed. This isn’t morphine brain. This is cancer, on the march.
Among other things, she’s on oxygen, fentanyl patch, oxycodone, several steroids, and a diuretic — her feet have swollen to the point where the skin has cracked and become infected. No more chemo until it heals.
And she didn’t have chemo last week because her platelets were low. Chemo was interrupted earlier to try radiation on the metastasis in her spine. And during these necessary interims between chemo her cancer counts have sky-rocketed.
Her legs are weak. Tomorrow she’s having an MRI to see where else the cancer’s traveled.
But she still wants chemo. She may be dying, but she’s not ready to stop trying to live.
I may never be ready to live in a world without my mother, but it feels like some sort of grace that we’re being given this long goodbye.
(Who’s doing the giving? Don’t expect consistency from this quarter.)
And in the grand and small scheme of things, it’s not about me. Because with or without her, I’ll get to keep on living.