I have been working on this post since last August. If you have lost a parent, you will be able to relate and if you haven’t, you won’t. I am not normally so decisive in my thoughts, but this feels like an absolute truth to me. Losing a parent is like having a child, there is before, and there is after. It changes your perspective on everything.
There really are no perfect families, are there? Families are good, they are bad, and sometimes they are even ugly. But they are family. The ties that bind. The people that connect you to the past, and to the future.
For me, until I was an adult, my family really consisted of my Mom, my Grandma, and myself. Ninety percent of my memories are made up of these two ladies.
In 2018, I lost my Mom, my dog, and my Grandma within 90 days. On the one hand, all of these things are to be expected, and it is the natural order of how life is supposed to progress. It did however, severely impact my reality. I went from being the 3rd generation of my family to being the 1st. And, even though my daughters left for college in 2012 and 2015, my “nest” never felt empty until my dog died.
It wasn’t just the losses, however. There was trauma in the years prior to their deaths that I am still coming to terms with. I’m not just talking about the ravages of cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, and all that goes along with it. There was another dark cloud hanging over all of us. My mom and my grandma’s relationship over the last 6 years of their lives became so awful that even now I have flashbacks to memories that I would like to erase from the data bank of my mind.
The truth of the matter is that it had become an impossible situation that could not be understood, let alone explained. Even if I could find adequate words, I wouldn’t have. It was dark and it was ugly. It was also really hard for me because my life was shaped and molded by these 2 women and I felt stuck in the middle, trying to fix what couldn’t be fixed.
It started in September of 2011, with a house fire. My Mom and Grandma lived in a “double” which is kind of like a duplex but up and down, rather than side by side. I never saw an official cause of the fire, but it would be written in the history of our family that my 88 year old Grandma left a cigarette burning in her bedroom and went outside to feed her stray cat, Jack. The two of them would be displaced into temporary housing for 10 months. During this time, my Mom would be diagnosed with Stage IV bladder cancer, undergo a 12 hour, life altering operation, begin chemotherapy and manage all of the insurance and reconstruction issues of her house and her body. Add to that mix an aging mother, who never did learn to drive who is in better health than you, but still requires you to drive her everywhere, handle her medical appointments, banking, etc. It was just too much.
And I understood that, but it was incredibly hard for me to bear witness to a situation that I was unable to make better. Especially between the 2 women I loved most in this world.
I did as much as I could for the both of them, and when there were arguments and ranting or venting, I was the person that they could vent to. If I was there, I would take one or the other out for lunch, or a drive, or a spin through Target. When I wasn’t there I would listen to the screaming, the foul words, the tears. I tried to get my Grandma to come live with me – or even visit for a couple of weeks, but I couldn’t convince either one of them to even give that try.
I began a 6 year cycle of running back and forth between Ohio and Georgia. A trip that once always brought me joy, became a series of chemo treatments, Neulasta shots, hydration treatments, oncology results, and playing peacemaker. What started as a “just keep swimming” mentality turned into a frenzied attempt to keep so busy that I didn’t have time to think. I would take on a full time, and part time job, study and pass a professional certification test, start this blog, become an event organizer for a local MeetUp, and (not by choice) rehab my own year long knee reconstruction. Unfortunately this type of coping mechanism results in a certain level of “checking out.” And the constant discord also resulted in a certain level of desensitizing – I began to accept this reality as normal.
The worse the situation between my Mom and Grandma became, the more delightful my Mom became in every other aspect of her life, all you had to do was get my Grandma out of the picture. When it came to battling her disease, she had a positive attitude, handled chemo like a champ, and was the self appointed ray of sunshine at doctor appointments and in the chemo chair. Despite this happy face that she projected outward, I believe that she, of course, was overwhelmed, frustrated, sad, scared, and angry. All of these negative emotions she took out on my Grandma. In the end, my Mom’s negativity towards my Grandma became like a psychosis. You couldn’t reason with her on the subject.
We eventually moved my Grandma to assisted living in February of 2017 which ended up being a true blessing for my Grandma. She had always been resistant to the idea but once she got settled in, she told me it was really nice, no one was yelling at her. It didn’t really help my Mom though. Inconceivably, my Grandma was still the bane of her existence, if anything my Mom’s state of mind with regard to my Grandma only got worse.
One day, during a new round of chemotherapy which always triggers a visit from an oncology social worker, I would hear my Mom tell the social worker that my Grandma was a prima donna, who never lifted a finger in her perfect life. My Mom said it was her own fault, that she blamed no one but herself for creating this monster, by taking such good care of her, and spoiling her over the years. When it came to my Grandma, my Mom had a perception of reality that no one was going to sway. I thought that perhaps the years of chemo had taken a toll on her thought process – how could they not? That years of having too much on her plate had just pushed her over the edge – completely understandable. I even worried that the cancer had reached her brain.
I wondered these things, not because my Grandma was an angelic ray of sunshine, she wasn’t. But rather because, another version of reality is that my Grandmother was removed from her home as a small child (along with 9 siblings) during the Great Depression and made a ward of the state. She grew up in foster care, ran away at 17, got pregnant at 23, and moved into a home for unwed mothers.
If there is a fairy tale part of this, it is that my Grandpa tracked her down at the Florence Crittenden Home for Unwed Mothers, and he married her. They would have 2 more children and remain married until he died in 1978. During the last few years of her life, she would tell me she was ready to go, and she prayed every night that she could just go to sleep and not wake up. There were many reasons for this – all of her friends had died, the siblings she reconnected with had also died. One of her children had already died. The daughter she had been close to her all of her life had become her greatest source of sadness. She eventually became wheelchair dependent. The one and only grandchild she really knew lived 750 miles away and was really very little help to her.
It wasn’t until I started going through my Mom’s pictures after she passed, that I was thankfully reminded of 43 years I knew these 2 women prior to the fire and the cancer. The years between September of 2011 and May 2018 were too hard. Seeing pictures of earlier years reminded me that this wasn’t always the way things were, and I needed to be reminded, because I had forgotten.
When my Mom passed away, I was at times overwhelmed with the tasks at hand. She never did remarry after divorcing my Dad, and I was her only child. The responsibilities that fell on me alone, allowed me to continue to stay busy on her behalf, which in many ways delayed my grief. As long as I had something to do for her, it felt like she was till here. Emptying her home of her every possession was hard. Going through her pocketbook and the pockets of her coats was beyond soul crushing. Here is one thing I can tell you. My Mom had a pen, a pair of nail clippers, tweezers and a nail file within reach at all times. Every coat pocket had a tissue, a toothpick and at least one Hall’s cough drop. Even now, these are the things that reduce to me sobs.
In the middle of emptying my Mom’s house and settling her estate, my Grandma would take a serious fall that resulted in an inoperable brain bleed. She passed away on August 18th, the day before her 95th birthday, and 2 days before my 50th. .
I think, deep down inside, I always hoped things would go back to normal – that my Mom would actually become healthy, and that maybe her and my Grandma could co-exist with some semblance of a loving relationship. They never did, and that is another aspect to grieve, those last 6 years were it. As bad as they were, they were as good as things were ever going to be.
After nearly two years, I feel like I am starting to find my way into a new normal. After years of just coping with life, rather than living it, I realize the protective numbness worked for not only the bad stuff but the good stuff. In hindsight, I disengaged from everyone. I was not as engaged with my daughters as I should’ve been. They were teenagers and I really couldn’t deal with anymore discourse in my life so I glossed over everything. God graced me, because they were wonderful girls, that aside from some pretty epic attitude, never gave us any grief. Regardless, they are smart and perceptive, and I’m sure my state of being didn’t have a positive impact.
The circle of life is a funny thing. None of us are perfect. We all try our best, but none of us ever get through life without bringing both joy and pain to others. Trials and tribulations make us stronger – unless they kill you, which they sometimes do.
I am trying to figure out a new normal. I am trying to heal. I am able to see life more clearly now, without the filter of all that constant discord. It still feels strange. Like I’ve taken off a pair of roller skates after having had them on all this time.
This quote resonated with me. I didn’t realize what a huge weight I was carrying with me. My Mom and my Grandma will always be my roots, but the cancer, the dysfunction, the things I can’t unhear or unsee, those tethers have thankfully been cut.
Trying to find words to purge all of this trauma out of my head, and off of my soul, while still telling a story that allows my Mom and my Grandma to be seen for all that they were, not just those last 6 years has been hard.
On more than one occasion, I had said to my husband “I’m not going to miss this.” And I don’t. I don’t miss hearing my Mom say awful things to, and and about, my Grandma. I don’t miss feeling helpless to change the situation. I don’t miss seeing my Mom absolutely overwhelmed and distraught. I don’t miss seeing my Grandma feel the same way.
But I do miss them.
The foundations of my life are no longer here, walking the Earth with me. It still, at times, shakes me to my core. With the passing of time, and the healing of both grief and the situation, I have begun to think of them in nearly every move I make. I see them every time I look in the mirror. There is nothing that I am, that can’t be attributed to one or both of them. Their absence, has indeed gone through me like a thread through a needle, and everything I do is stitched with its color.