I learned of death at a very young age. I was 11. My 7 year old cousin was dying of bone marrow cancer. Part of me was detached from this. She lived with her siblings and parents-my aunt and uncle-in Arizona. The entire family flew back to Rochester to be in a study at the U of R. My aunt had hope. The rest of the adults did not. I only knew of this through the hushed whispers of the adults as they solemnly drank coffee and ate Savoia’s cookies. I would catch bits and pieces of these words of doubt as I tried to sneak in another cookie. When they saw my small chubby hand go in for the kill to grab yet again another sesame cookie they all stopped talking. “it doesn’t look good”, they all would agree. “Such a shame”, and they would all shake their heads. I could see small glimpses of my cousin. She was so small and frail. Wisps of blonde hair still clung to her chemo ravaged head. I remember her crying and screaming in agony…her mother trying so desperately to quell the misery she was in. She would hold her daughter, like an infant, swaddled in a multi-colored crochet afghan. Honestly, I think this made the pain worse as she could not bare to have anything touching her.
She passed away just a few days later, still swaddled in that blanket, and the tears of her mother washing the misery away from her face.
At her funeral, I remember not knowing how to behave. No one prepares you for this. No one wants to. I recall approaching the open casket and thinking the form I was staring at was no longer human. It resembled something more like a zombie that I would see on the Saturday afternoon “Creacher Feature” television show. I was repulsed and at the same time couldn’t turn away. “Is this how all dead people looked like”, I asked myself. “Is this how I’M going to look when I die?’
I’ve been scared and fascinated with death ever since.
The years went by, and I lost both sets of grandparents and a couple of extended family members. I remember when my Aunt Rita died, I was working at GeVa theatre and I had nothing to wear. My friend Rachel came by my apartment, looked in my closet and picked out a red and black dress for me to wear.
“Realy?”. I asked
“You’ll be smashing”, she replied. “Everyone will always remember what you wore. It will be epic”.
I decided to wear it. I did get some comments, but I didn’t care. I was epic.
From then on, whenever anyone dies that we know, we always write to one another one small sentence:
“I’m wearing red”
Five years after that funeral, I had to prepare for another one: my mothers.
My mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer the spring of 1991. I was at R.I.T attending masters classes for “Food, Hotel, and Tourism”. Prior to the diagnoses we noticed odd behavior from my mother. She would forget what day of the week it was, she stopped talking mid sentence and forget her train of thought. She would go to work without wearing shoes, in the middle of February. We took her to the doctor and after a series of tests, a tumor the size of a grapefruit was seen wrapped around her optic nerve. Her neurologist wasted no time and scheduled her for surgery within the week. We were all scared, but we held it together for her.
After her surgery, while she lay in ICU, the doctor pulled us together and said that they could not get all of the tumor out, and yes it is malignant, and no it doesn’t appear to have metastisized. Good news. Bad news is that she will need extensive radiation therapy, and her recovery will be long and painful. She may never see out of the eye that the tumor was wrapped around.
We were told we could go in and see her-two at a time. What we saw was shocking. Her head was shaved save for one small curl on her forehead. The left side of her face was distorted to the point that she was unrecognizable. Worst still all though she was in a coma, her right eye was wide open. For the next part, you have to understand how irreverent is my family; we deflect when we come in contact with anything remotely emotional. My brother turns to me and says, “She looks like Sloth from the Goonies”. With tears streaming down my face, I had to concede that yes indeed she looked like Sloth. Later when she got a little better-about a year after- We rented “The Goonies” and showed her what she looked like. Again, coming from the perspective of a “normal minded” person, this may seem cruel. In our family,however, it was expected.
She and I moved to Boston as soon as she was well enough to travel for her radiation treatment. I took care of her as well as I could. We had radiation three times a week at Harvard University. We would walk to the Red line “T” and try to carry a conversation during that brief walk. We passed a pan handler everyday on our way to the “T” to get us to Cambridge where her treatments were. She would sit against a buidling on the corner of Charles and Massachusetts avenue playing her transister radio while she asked everyperson who passed by it they had 10 cents. She dressed rather well for a homeless person: clean enough jeans, white nike sneakers, and white button down shirt. The same dress every day. I soon found out her name was Tracy, and she proved to be very helpful later on.
The toughest days were when she was so drained from the constant radiation that I had to carry her from the “T” to our apartment in Beacon Hill. There were days that I couldn’t do this by myself, and I would ask Tracy to help me out. In the beginning, she expected payment. As the weeks went by, she would refuse it. The kindness of the human race, never ceased to amaze me.
Fast forward five years, and we received wonderful news: my mother was in remission. Two months later she started to complain of stomach problems. After many tests and surgery, we found out it was colon cancer, and this cancer did metastasize into the liver. She had six months to live.
We could not find anyway to deflect this. Our emotions flowed freely from them on.
My mother did not take her diagnoses well. She did not want to go gently into this goodnight. Throughout her illness, she fought. She did not want to die. She was depressed, and mad, and thoughtful, and loving all at the same time. Her nights were sleepless and if she did doze off, she would scream and yell, and fight death, flailing her hands wildy to keep him at bay. I would often try to catch a glimpse of him, especially at night. I was looking for image of death from countless movies I had seen: dark cloaked, tall and skeletal; bony fingers pointing to the direction where you were to go. No words. No sounds.
I did not see anything. Ever. But she did. And She wanted him to go away.
One thing she wanted to do before she left is make good with me. She and I had a contentious relationship. I think it’s because she and I are exactly alike. We are both articulate, intelligent, stubborn, hot tempered, worry warts. We both ran hot and cold. I was the kid she went to when she needed the sauce checked for seasoning and flavor, and I was the kid she went to when she needed to pick a fight to blow off steam. She went to me because she knew that I would never back down.
When she got sick the first time, our relationship changed. I became her rock. I helped her bathe and dress. I made her ice cream and peanut butter shakes(the only thing she would eat), and I didn’t allow her to give up.I wouldn’t give in to her whining and I made her fight.
The second time she got sick, I wasn’t there very much. I had a very demanding job at the time, and my sister and aunts took most of the shifts to care for her. We kept her at home until the end. That was her wish. She did not want to be in a hospital bed, but her own when she died.
I regret not being there that much. When she did want to have closure, my sister told me to come right home after work. Ma wanted to talk to me. This scared me. I’m not very good with emotional confrontation, and I knew what she wanted to talk about. When I got to the house, she was sleeping and thought I was off the hook. But she woke up, and lightly smiled. She called me to the bed. She was pretty weak by this time.
“Trish, are you ok?, she asked. “I’m thinking you’re not taking this whole thing very well. I worry about you. You’re not around much”.
“Ma, you know I work a lot of hours at the restaurant”, I said.
“Yeah I know. But I still think you and I have to talk things over. You think I never loved you.”
“No, Ma. I didn’t”
“Don’t lie to me”
“I’m not lying”
“I just thought you never LIKED me”
“You’re right. There were times when I didn’t like you. You drove me nuts. But out of all of my kids, I knew that you could handle anything life hit you with. You’re a fighter. Like me. I don’t want to die thinking you resented me.”
“It’s ok, Ma. It’s ok. I love you. Now go back to sleep”.
“ I love you too, Trish”
A few day later-Black Friday to be exact-she lapsed into a coma. I went to work that monday. I had to. Inventory was due. As I’m counting the frozen fries, I am pulled out of the freezer by a coworker who says my brother David is on the phone, and I am to leave work immediately. I don’t have a brother David, but I knew it was my brother’s best friend. As I’m walking out of the freezer, the rest of the staff had all of my things ready for me, and one of the servers put my coat on for me and drove me home, Someone else followed with my car.
As I walked in my childhood home, I could smell disinfectant, and jergens cream. I heard the “whiff, whiff” of the oxygen machine as it pumped into my mother’s nostress. I went to her and she was so still. I could barely see her breath. I looked at her, and thought she was awake, but it really was that the same eye that stared at me over five years ago while she was in ICU, staring at me again. This time, the white was gradually turning black-like a film was covering them. The first thing that popped into my head was”It looks like the black alien oil from the X-files has taken over her body”. I mentioned this to my cousin who was standing next me, and she just started to laugh
Like i said before, don’t judge. My family likes to deflect.
My mother stayed like that for 8 hours. During that time, family came and went. We made food. Talked and even laughed. By 10:45 p.m. or so my sister and I had just had enough of the oxygen. It wasn’t doing any good anyway, and the nurse said it was ok to shut it off. She had just given her another large dose of morphine, so it wasn’t going to be long. We argued a bit as to which one of us was to be the one to turn of the machine. I finally went over, hit the off button. And that was it. It was up to the angels now. By this time all of us had left the room and were mingling in the kitchen. We were talking, exchanging stories of my mother and laughing a bit.
That’s when she died: December 1, 1997 at 11:05 p.m. I think she held out until she was all alone, but could hear her family carrying on: talking, laughing, and living.
She knew we were going to be ok.
The next day I sent an e-mail to my friend Rachel, who had moved to England by this time. There was only one sentence:
“I’m wearing Red”
In reality we really weren’t ok. After my mother’s passing we learned so much about her. We learned how strong she was; how she kept the family together financially. As kids we always thought she was just cheap; we also admonished her for being so hard on my father-especially when it came to money. After all had settled after she died, we discovered my fathers compulsive spending. So often one or all of us could be seen looking up to the sky and saying, “Ma, I’m so sorry.” Here we thought she was just being harsh on him and controlling. The whole time she was just trying to keep the family in the red.
The three of us have not fared well since her passing. We have all had emotional problems, coupled with financial and legal problems. I’d like to think if my mother had lived, none of this would have happened to us.
The passing of my mother had a profound effect on all of us-including my father. We were never the same, and will never be the same.
My father lived for another 8 years, and passed away from an unexpected heart tumor. He went into the hospital on Halloween 2005. While in the hospital he decided to treat his entire floor to pizza-$300 worth of pizza. My sister was beside herself. He didn’t care. Like he always said, “Can’t take it with ya”. They found the mass in the lining of his aorta and went into surgery two weeks later. His surgery was on Friday, November 11 and died November 13, 2005. He never left the ICU.
After the funeral we had a dozen pizzas sent to the ICU. The card we sent with it just read, “From Ange”
I realize that this is a lengthy report. I honestly tried to cut it down, but it didn’t convey the detail I think I needed to explain what has happened to me, in particular since my parent’s passing.
In dealing with my mother’s death, I threw myself into work. My other coping mechanism was food. I had gained 100 pounds in the year after my mother’s death. When my father died, I gained another 60. I also suffered with severe anxiety and what I called “functional depression”. In reality I was steadily headed toward a major breakdown. It took 17 years, but it happened. I think I couldn’t cope because I could never reconcile my past with my mother. Most importantly, I never really had complete closure with her. I told her I loved her, but I wasn’t honest about the resentment.
As for my father, I struggle with the father I thought I knew and the man who we found out he was. He was flawed and I have problems embracing that.
With therapy and taking this course I think I can start to forgive them and also forgive myself.
I think about both almost everyday. Sometimes a song or a movie will come on and I find myself bursting into tears. The first time I read “Tuesdays with Morrie” was very difficult as it was so soon after my mother’s passing. He passed much like my mother. Alone in a room, listening to his family carry on in life.
Like Morrie said, “In order to know how to live, you have to know how to die.”
I’m still learning both.