Today is the four-year anniversary of my mom’s death. It’s been four years of being alive and doing life things without a mom. Somehow, it’s still hard to believe she’s gone.
When I was a kid, I never thought it would feel so challenging to do things without my mom. Mainly because I spent most of my adolescence finagling ways to do anything I could without her (you know, like going to the mall, the movies, laser tag… all with her credit card, of course). But now that I don’t have a choice, it feels different.
One thing I’ve learned through my grieving process is that time really does heal. Or it at least desensitizes. After four years of being a motherless daughter, I now find it easier to cope with life without her. Because life without her is my reality; the reality of no longer having the unconditional love and support from my mom — someone who truly believed I was one of two of the most special people ever to walk Earth (the other being my sister). As upsetting as that reality is, it’s just the way it is. And I accept it. Because I have to.
But don’t get me wrong; I’m still grieving. And I don’t plan on ever not grieving. Losing a parent creates a void that will never be filled. But now, four years into it, instead of breaking down every single day whenever I feel an emotional trigger, my overwhelming moments of grief are now brief, and usually only happen a couple times a week.
When I’m alone and allow myself to remember her voice; her smell; her touch and her undying love for me — I feel her with me, and the feelings are all-consuming. During those moments of deep, intense grief, I don’t want the feelings to end. Because feeling those feelings are important in continuing to keep her at the forefront of my memories.
Even though she’s not physically here, she will always be a part of me. Except now, I have to condition myself to keep her accessible. It’s sort of like training for a marathon (something I’ve never done and never want to do, but the analogy works). The more you train, the stronger you’ll be. So the more I allow moments of grief to take over my emotions, the better I’ll be at accessing those feelings when I need them.
When you’ve lost someone, big life events are difficult and heavy on the heart, which, of course, isn’t at all surprising. But when you actually have to go through them, it sucks.
Falling in love for the first time without being able to tell my mom about it was super difficult; finally figuring out what I want to do for a living without her around to validate my decision was gut-wrenching; having my dream wedding without her being there or knowing the person I’ve chosen to spend my life with was even harder; and now growing my family without her comfort, love, support and advice is heartbreaking. But I’m okay, because both of my parents raised me to always be okay. I’m just sad without her, and I don’t ever expect not to be. Nor do I want that.
My dad is still alive and very much a part of my life, as he always has been. When one parent dies, the weight of parenting alone can become extremely heavy — even if the kids are adults. My dad always had a parenting partner (even though they were both happily remarried to other people). When my mom died, my dad was instantly thrown into my mom’s role. My sister and I naturally shifted the things we relied on my mom for over to my dad. And he had to quickly adjust to his new reality. Death affects everyone.
My mom had bladder cancer. She went through four months of chemo and needed to have bladder replacement surgery. She chose one of the best urologists in the country to perform the surgery. He was fantastic. What happened after was not fantastic.
During surgery, the doctor discovered that she was cancer free, which, of course, was exactly what we wanted to hear. When surgery was over, my mom was transferred to the recovery room where she was being attended to by an anesthesiology resident. The resident administered an epidural to keep her lower abdomen area numb, so when she woke up, she wouldn’t be in pain. Which totally makes sense. Or it would have, if the epidural hadn’t also numbed her lungs.
The resident took my mom’s breathing tube out too soon and didn’t notice she couldn’t breath. She also didn’t notice that none of her monitors were properly hooked up. She wheeled her over to the PACU (Post Anesthesia Care Unit) where right away a nurse noticed my mom wasn’t breathing.
They immediately bagged her and did everything they could to try to induce breathing. Once paged, it took four minutes for the attending anesthesiologist to arrive in the room. Once he arrived, he attempted to re-intubate her to get oxygen flowing. Instead of intubating her trachea, however, he intubated her esophagus, but didn’t realize his mistake for another two minutes.
Doctors say that within four to ten minutes without oxygen, a human will suffer irreversible, severe brain damage. My mom was without oxygen for 19 minutes. After ten days in the ICU and after numerous tests, we had to take her off life support.
It’s strange, but my mom knew she wasn’t going to make it out of surgery, even though there should have been absolutely no reason for her not to. The two of us went to Jamaica two weeks before her scheduled surgery. We went to celebrate her 58th birthday and to spend time together. She said she didn’t think she’d make it her next birthday. She didn’t know why she had that feeling, she just did. And she was right. Moms know things.
I often think about whether it’s easier to watch someone die slowly, but with the opportunity to say goodbye, or if a sudden death is more painless for loved ones.
But I can’t allow myself to be absorbed in those thoughts. The result is the same. My mom is gone. It’s no longer about how or why it happened, but about where to go from here. Both of my parents gave me the tools to make the most of my life, with or without them. I just didn’t realize it until now.
(Images via Jill Layton)