I’m receiving spam from my mother’s email. Someone’s hacked into my dead mother’s email account and is using it to send spam to me and everyone else in her contact list. There are worse things, I know, but. Gee. Zus. The shock of seeing her name in my inbox. Three times so far today.
Tonight Vincent and I had a disagreement about cleaning up, the upshot of which was that he (unintentionally) hit me in the head with a toy. Instead of getting angry, I cried. And then I sobbed. My grief is ever-present, not even under the skin, more like a sheen of sweat you could mistake for rain on the skin, ready to bead and flow at any moment. Camouflaged. But tonight I let loose and wailed.
Aidan was with me at 6:30 in the morning when my mother died. He was so unnerved by my grief then that he cried too, a mournful lowing that called me back to myself and to him.
Tonight, he patted my head and cried silently next to me. The kind of tears you cry in witness to another’s pain. Not afraid, just sorrowful. Then Vincent climbed into my lap and held me.
How much they understand, who really knows. I purposefully didn’t hide anything from them, especially those last days. They saw Mum ill, and bald, and yes, even dead. Newly so, at home, and then at the wake. I didn’t want her to just disappear. I wanted them to be able to say goodbye.
Aidan’s too young to truly get what’s happened, but Vincent knows. He comments on it sometimes, how his grammy died; the permanence of it has finally sunk in. At first, he was waiting. A few hours after she died, she was still at the house due to a hospice flub (not a big deal, not their fault, and actually a comfort to me, having her there as long as we could). Vincent said, “What’s taking Grammy so long?” “What do you mean, sweetheart? So long for what?” “What’s taking Grammy so long to be alive again?” Brought me up sharply and reminded me that for all his big boy talk, he’s still little.
Her death eight weeks ago is already a lifetime for them. They don’t connect my sobs with anything beyond a boo-boo. But the compassion contained in those little hearts — how gentle and accommodating they were for the rest of the night — brushed teeth and in bed, on time and without protest, asleep almost immediately.
They so readily accepted my tears, my really over-the-top keening, as just and right and natural.
*”…the little kite that you sent flying on a sunny afternoon. Made of something light as nothing. Made of joy, that matters, too. How the little dreams we dream are all we can really do.” “Kite Song” by Patty Griffin. (You can only listen to the song in its entirety once at this link. But it’s still better than the videos of it available on Youtube. Seriously.)
But first: The Massachusetts Poetry Festival begins tomorrow! The poetry world will descend on Salem and it will be awesome. (Aside: I was researching parking etc on Google, and, as I began to note the many paranormal/witchy shops, wondered, What’s up with that? Yeah, that’s me, just a little slow on the uptake.) Saturday is the small press fair, my favorite event of all. If you’re planning on being there, be sure to stop by and visit me at the Tupelo table!
I read The Emperor of All Maladies in the fall, but never talked about it after, though I meant to. It’s a perfect counterpoint to The Long Goodbye. The first is a fat compendium of all things cancer — the history of its discovery, the evolution of our understanding of it as a varied disease, the progress and perils of cancer research, as well as the stories of researchers, doctors, and patients themselves. The second is a memoir of love and loss of a mother to cancer, intimate, exquisite, and painful. Both are essential reading.
Cancer is a topic you’re only allowed to discuss within a certain framework. You must be positive, talk about fighting it, be plucky. What we don’t consider by blithely subscribing to this terminology is how doing so proscribes a value judgment on the way patients handle their diseases. Every cancer is different, and while being optimistic may be a good way to get through a shitty day, it’s not the liminal factor in survival. A patient who receives his diagnosis with depression and despair isn’t weak, just realistic. My mother was cheerful and determined, but that didn’t keep her alive; her handling of cancer was an extension of who she’d always been, and we should accept that of whoever is dealing with illness, not demand that a life-threatening diagnosis suddenly effect a personality transplant, and then blame the patient when that doesn’t happen. Folks are dying, the last thing they need is our expectations, or worse, directions, on how that should proceed.
One of the things I love about The Long Goodbye is how honest M O’R is about her and her family’s flaws as they fumbled through her mother’s illness. The mistakes, the flares of pettiness or just plain selfishness. Because we can’t always be our best selves in the best of times never mind the worst of the worst. Illness is hard work, caregiving is hard work. Brutally elementary and elemental. This is life, this is death, and while there are moments of amazing transcendence, losing your mother is permanent, final, and nothing less than awful.
Raina Wallens has a piece over at The Rumpus that wonders why 5 grief memoirs in a few years is considered so notable. For those of us in its grip, these memoirs of grief are vital:
Ask anyone in mourning and they will tell you how alone and isolated they feel. They will have countless stories about inane and insensitive remarks, or other peoples’ avoidance of them altogether – the death cooties. Too often, people in mourning are made to feel like they must worry about appearing too sad so as to make others uncomfortable. You always need to be pressing on, firmly in one of the designated grief stages. And if you haven’t “gotten over it” in a year, well, what’s wrong with you?
Live long enough, or not! — death touches us all. And, statistically speaking, cancer as well. The Long Goodbye hurts to read. It should, the story it tells is deeply human. But it’s funny, too, and anyway, isn’t reading about opening ourselves to the wider experience of what it means to be human? M O’R marshaled her inner resources to tell this story, and in the telling, honors her mother’s memory. To read it is to lose her mother with her, and your own as well, the emotion is that palpable. But what a mother she was, and how glad I am to have met her, even though that meeting was in the pages of a book. And the conversation M O’R has started about grief is long overdue.
The nature of cancer is as protean as the nature of grief. If you take only one thing away from The Emperor of All Maladies (though there’s so much more), it should be that there can be no cure-all. This is a critical shift we need to make in our thinking about cancer — we’re so obsessed with magic bullets. But cancer is wiggly, and adaptive, and endlessly varied. Cancer isn’t even cancer, but cancers. The most we can hope for is cancer as something we live with, but don’t die of. Cancers as chronic diseases, akin to diabetes, or COPD. Not curable, progressive even, but treatable, not immediately fatal. Not any more of a death sentence than life itself.
I’m not afraid to remember my mother as she was at the end of her life, weakened and frail. She wasn’t less just because she was sick. Any moment more was precious. Her smile still lit her careworn face.
I mention this because many people said to us that they were sorry they hadn’t visited my mother as she became ill, but they couldn’t bear to see her “that way.” I understand, but.
They lost out. They lost their chance to be with her and be there for her.
And I want to urge you (all three of my readers): if you’re ever in that position, go. Go often. You’ll be needed, in a thousand little ways, and you’ll be making memories, memories you’ll draw on in a thousand little ways later, after.
As I’ve said, critical illness has a way of burning away the inessentials. Visiting someone you love, someone who’s dying…really, what could be easier?
…I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I was born to a great mother, that I loved her and told her so all the time. That I was able to be there for her and that she let me care for her was a real blessing. A critical illness has a way of burning away all the inessentials. The pain I’m in now is because I love her so much — my grief is the best tribute I can offer.
I’m lucky that I have so many sweet and thoughtful friends who thought of me and how difficult Sunday would be for me, and reached out with comfort. I know there will be many such hard days ahead, but I confess I didn’t handle this one very well.
And I’m lucky I have these boys, and their patient father, all of whom look stricken every time I go out “for poetry,” but let me go nonetheless. The poetry is returning — a new poem last week, another brewing — but nothing could happen if they didn’t give me a little space to maneuver.
And I like to think they’re discovering the exhilaration of creating for themselves…
Thursday, May 5, 2011, at 7:00 pm, poets D M Gordon and Leslie Harrison will read as part of the fourth season of the Collected Poets Series. Mocha Maya’s Coffee House, 47 Bridge St, Shelburne Falls, MA. ($2-5 suggested donation) D M Gordon’s poems and stories have been published widely. Prizes include The Betsy Colquitt Award from descant, The Editor’s Cho … Read More
Thanks so much again to Kelli Russell Agodon for putting this whole shebang together, and thanks to everyone who participated. National Poetry Month is one of my favorite times of the year, but this year I’ve been otherwise occupied. Thanks all of you for coming on by and helping me keep my head on straight.
And now, what you’ve been waiting for. Remember, if you don’t win, that lit journal subscriptions are the most affordable ways to sample a wide array of poetry. The winners, as chosen by the Random Number Generator (and you’ll note that the numbers run from 1 to 45 — while there are 47 comments, 2 are trackbacks):