It’s weird. The last time I blogged — or branted — and yes, it’s “I” this time (and maybe this time only), not “Laura” — I’m in the mood for first person, not third person, today — was in December, a few weeks before I got a phone call that would change my life, and my family’s life, forever. Back then, I’d branted about doing a local pre-Christmas gift-book TV segment and about how impossibly shiny my hair was after being professionally colored and blown out. Shortly after that, right after Christmas and right before New Year’s, I’d checked into the lovely Charles Hotel in Harvard Square for a few nights, courtesy of my wonderful agent and some insurance money my husband generously shared with me after his father died, with the intention of finally making a start on my much-branted about first non-fiction project, Still Life With Braces. I left the hotel with 30 pages that sucked (more about that another time) and the understanding that writing about my family was going to be much harder than I thought.
Little did I know that writing about my family was about to become the least of my problems.
Everyone has had a phone call, or a moment, like that — one that divides the present and the future: who you’ve been and who you suddenly become. My phone call came on a cold quiet day in early January. It was from my mother telling me she’d gotten her CAT scan results back and that there was a growth on her pancreas. I didn’t listen to anything she said after that because I didn’t have to. I was up on my People magazine reading: I’d seen the obituaryphotos of famous pancreatic-cancer victims like Patrick Swayze and Randy Pausch; I knew she was already dying. One minute I was watching my son with his Peruvian hat on eat a gyro after school; the next minute I was about to become one of those people who didn’t have a mother anymore. The grainy photo at the top of this post is the one I took at the restaurant right before my phone vibrated. It’s a crappy picture taken with my crappy Blackberry camera but it’s a place keeper, the only thing I have that reminds me of hitting that fork in the road: where I was; where I was now headed. The late afternoon winter sun that day came through the window above Ben’s head in short sharp rays, and I remember it occurred to me then that when I was little I used to think that kind of refracted sunlight looked like God.
I won’t go into all the pancreatic cancer statistics and numbers and figures — they’re depressing and boring and hopefully you’ll never need to know them — but it’s essentially untreatable. Median survival time is four months from diagnosis. By the time they find it, it’s already too late. Surgery is possible only in a very few cases; chemo is optional, and merely palliative. Grim is the word that first popped into my head, and grim was the word that best described the dark months that followed. Grim and Grimmer. Becoming an instant expert on treatments and survival times; chasing down specialists for consultations and second opinions; making appointments for surgical biopsies and port-placements; picking up prescriptions for controlled substance-painkillers and becoming a passionate pusher of laxatives and stool softeners; managing medications and shopping for groceries and coaxing food into someone who had lost more weight than she’d ever be able to gain back and who had lost her appetite forever; spinning daily briefings to my sister who lived 3000 miles away so that they contained the least amount of devastating information; and feeling a fleeting sense of accomplishment when the yeoman’s task of caretaking for the day was done — when the pain meds were sorted out on the nightstand and the laxatives were swallowed and my ever-shrinking mother was finally in bed and asleep and pain free, at least for a short time. Exhausted, sad, but grateful to have been actively helping, I’d tiptoe out of her bedroom, say goodbye to my father, pack up my stuff, go down in the elevator, wave goodbye to whomever was on the desk in the lobby, and walk to my car in the bitter cold. I’d start crying the minute the desk guy wasn’t looking, and I’d cry all the way to my son’s school, stopping just in time to reach the front of the pick-up line and ask him how his day was.
I thought about a lot of things those five months she was sick: about how painful it must have been for my mother to know she was dying; about what my totally dependent father would do once she was gone; about how my deeply sensitive 9-year-old boy would handle his loss; about how bad the end would be when finally it came. I thought a lot, too, about my relationship with my mother — how complicated and, in so many ways, how disappointing it was — and how I would feel when it was finally all over and I’d have to face the fact that I’d never been able to fix it and make it work. Friends who’d been through similar situations told me to say everything I’d always wanted to say to — to hold back nothing — but the problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to say. Even worse was that I feared the reason I was holding back then and had always been holding back was because I didn’t have anything good to say.
I wasn’t the first child to help a parent die — my email box and Twitter stream and Facebook page filled up with notes and messages from people I knew and loved, and people I’d never met but would come to love — missives of unbelievable kindness and compassion, of empathy, of support. So many stories; so many loved ones lost to the ravages of a disease that takes no prisoners. Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers — all lost, all remembered, all still vividly alive in those still living without them. But I wondered if losing a parent you loved unequivocally and uncomplicatedly was easier or harder than what I was losing: a parent already buried under layers of confusion and ambivalence and perceived emotional injury. As I grieved for my mother while she was dying, I was also reliving my growing-up years, which meant the two versions of me, present and past, had to co-exist in a cramped little screening room. Alongside the sadness was rage, which felt unseemly and ugly and childish, and I couldn’t fucking believe that after a decade and a half of therapy, my issues were still completely unresolved and flourishing floridly, even under such circumstances.
Eventually it disappeared, burning off like a fog without warning or fanfare, just in time for The End which took place, mercifully, in a hospice home, a former brick estate on a secluded piece of property one town over from ours. And it was there, in those brief but long quiet days and hours, that I saw what the fog had been hiding all along: a clear and unobstructed view of the brutal abyss of loss. My mother was dying, quickly now, and there was nowhere to hide. There are no curtains in hospice, no teams of doctors and nurses rushing in and obscuring the view of death; no life-prolonging treatments to be administered; no covering up what little is left of the body at the end, just thin skin and sinew and bone. There’s nothing but the steady disappearance of the person you finally know you love, unequivocally and uncomplicatedly, just in time for them to know it, too. If I was lucky about anything it was the seismic shift that came right before she slipped away: heavily medicated and stripped of her toughness and her defenses — of everything that had made her who she was and so impossible to know — she was finally the mother I’d always wanted: the kind whose face lit up the moment she saw me.
And so, she’s gone. And I’m back in the world I left almost six months ago. I’m not quite sure what to do with myself as I re-enter it; not quite sure where I left off and what I’m supposed to do now, in between walking the dog and filling up each day of summer vacation and waiting to hear from Hollywood about a project my husband and I somehow managed to work on together and complete. I know I’m still numb from the shock of having had a front row seat to her death in hospice; I know I’m still processing a lifetime of thoughts and moments leading up to what happened this year. And I know I’m thinking, perhaps for the first time ever, about who my mother was and what I liked about her.
But I’ll save for another brant.