Where I Was

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.

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50 thoughts on “Where I Was

  1. Mir says:

    Heartbreaking, Laura. In a good way, though… it sounds like you’re journeying this path with a huge amount of grace (probably sounds ridiculous to you, as nothing about grieving feels graceful, but I have the luxury of an outside view). I’m so sorry for your loss, but I thank you for sharing this with us.

  2. diane says:

    Oh gosh, this was moving (and so well-written — I love your first-person voice). I’m so sorry for what you went through but I’m glad you had some kind of resolution towards the end (although I’m sure it didn’t diminish the pain).

    I don’t know if anything I can say is of any comfort at all, but you have my empathy. And I hope one day you feel able to write that book about your family, because I feel sure many people will relate. x

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Thanks for reading and leaving me this comment, Diane, and especially for saying that nice thing about writing my book. Someday I will. Grateful for your words of support.

  3. Caroline says:

    Oh how my heart aches for you. I lost my grandmother, to whom I was extremely close to – to the same disease. She hid it from us until about a month before she died, when hiding it was not possible anymore. A painful painful way to go. I know you have re-entered the life you left 6 months ago and are a little at loose ends, but consider this: you are not the same person you were 6 months ago, and there is no going back to her. In some ways – this is an opportunity in other ways it’s like you lost not only your mother, but also your sense of self. It took me years to discover who I was after my grandmother died, and quite honestly I like this me much better. I may be projecting my circumstances onto your situation – but if the world seems a little off or foreign to you – consider that you may be what is different, and try to discover who you are now, not what the old Laura would do or feel or say – be honest with the new Laura and what she feels and says. I’m betting you are going to like her.

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Thanks for this, Caroline. So so sorry to hear about your grandmother, and so appreciative of your advice to embrace my new world, whatever it holds. Hopeful words at a time when I need them most.

  4. Becky says:

    I have no words Laura. You said everything.
    I love you as much as anyone I’ve never met. 🙂

  5. Lisa Adams says:

    Thank you for sharing your words with those of us who watched, helpless, as you and your family suffered through this loss. I remember vividly the day– weeks after my mother-in-law died– that I put makeup on for the first time, finally thinking I might possibly get through a day without crying incessantly. We who still feel helpess to assist you will be waiting here to warmly welcome you back… always.

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Lisa — this is your territory; you write about loss and grief with such ease and grace that the rest of us can only try to come close. Thanks for all your emails and DMs and kind words as I was in the midst of it all; you always seemed to know the right thing to say. Hope we meet someday soon. xo

  6. gesine says:

    Beautiful.

  7. K. says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I lost my Dad to brain cancer last year, and am still processing all the emotions. I, too, found relief in documenting the process for myself w/ photos.

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Thanks for your comment and I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I would love to see some of your photos if you’ve posted them anywhere, or if you have a blog — share the link here if you want. Sending you good thoughts as you continue to process your loss.

  8. Jamie says:

    Beautiful post. I completely understand and feel for you. I lost my mom 4 years ago on Friday to brain cancer and getting that moment that we were told that she had it was just a moment that I will never forget. I would be lying if I said it gets easier…I think you just become better at dealing with that loss. I feel like it has given me a more clear way to live. I want to honor my mothers legacy and become all the things she hoped that I would. I feel like it is so cliche but I will believe it until the day I die..everything happens for a reason. I would never want her to pass away but I’ve learned to be at peace with it and realize that I didn’t go through it for no reason. I’ve been dating my boyfriend for 3 1/2 years and he never met my mom. About a year and a half ago his dad was diagnosed with ALS. He passed away in March. I know that I would have never been able to be there for him in the way I was if I had not gone through that (not that I wanted to be able to relate)..but I feel like I could be his rock and be that voice that truly understood when everything was crumbling around him. I know that being able to be there for him in the capacity that I was made all the difference and it makes me know that there was a reason for it all. I will be praying for you and keeping you in my thoughts.

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Wow, Jamie, what an amazing story. And I completely understand what you mean about how your sad experience with your mom gave you the ability to be there for your fiance when his father was dying. He was lucky to have you — someone who knew the devastating awfulness of what was happening. Here’s hoping that only good things are in your future. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

  9. […] this morning, I came across this beautiful essay, written by Laura Zigman, author of Animal Husbandry, about the last days of her mother’s […]

  10. jessica handler says:

    I will be where you are, and have been there already with others not my mom. Beautifully written, and so hard to do.

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Sorry to hear you’ve been here before and are headed there again. For lack of a more elegant way of putting it, it sure does suck. Thanks for the kind words and I wish you strength on your next journey.

  11. Jane Heller says:

    Hi, Laura. We’ve never met – can’t believe we’ve never been on an author panel together, and I was out of publishing by the time you arrived – but I had to say how moved I was by this post. I’ve had my own experiences with dying parents, as have many who’ve commented here, but never written about the subject so eloquently. I wish you and your family well. Best, Jane Heller

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Thank you so much for this, Jane — I, too, am amazed we’ve never met, given our parallel paths through publishing. Thanks, too, for such kind words. Hope to meet you someday soon.

  12. Jennifer says:

    Exquisite. I love you.

  13. Kim says:

    Thank you. I’ve always wanted to write about how I felt when my mom was diagnosed and eventually died from complications from breast cancer, but nothing but tears came.
    Beautiful words. I felt every one of them.

  14. Gwen says:

    I’ll just say that I loved reading your words, every one. I could feel the experience with you. You may remember I was my mother’s caregiver the last 5 weeks of her life, but I had a good relationship with her. Must have been so gut wrenching, trying to resolve a lifetime of issues under those circumstances. You captured it so beautifully, and it seems as though peace came for both of you. You’re a brilliant communicator.

  15. […] “Where I Was,” a blog entry from Laura Zigman on HearLauraBrant.com (via @susanorlean). 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. […]

  16. Sharon Miro says:

    I loss my Mother slowly, inexorably to Alzheimers. We didn’t notice it at first, chalking up her moody behavior to an always moody personality. Now, when we look at pictures, the first question is always “Is she there?”. I thought I had made peace with her loss until the day she died:April 28 2008; and agian until today. Your words, lovely, loving words reminded me that I cannot ever fill that space in my heart.

    • Laura Zigman says:

      So sorry to hear about your loss, too, Sharon. I’ve heard losing someone to Alzheimer’s is it’s own special hell. Few things are worse than having the mind disappear first. Thanks for commenting and posting here.

  17. Trish Ryan says:

    Laura, this is amazing and so beautiful. I’m raw after reading it. Thanks for being you and sharing this, and showing us all how ASTOUNDINGLY well you write non-fiction. Much love to you…xo.

  18. Janet says:

    Thank you for this post.

    We got an almost identical phone call a few weeks ago. Pancreatic cancer. My mother-in-law. She was so healthy and vibrant until that unexplainable weight loss that started a year ago.

    I just returned from a week in Paris where she’s living, and she starts chemo on Friday. My heart aches. I don’t know if I’ll see her again. She is not the mother-in-law of jokes but the mother-in-law that’s like a mother. And I am so sad.

    This is the first time I’ve dropped by, Laura, but I will be back. Thank you for allowing me share your thoughts, as mine are just so jumbled up right now.

  19. Chizeck says:

    My heart goes out to you. I wish I had something moving or profound to say, but I think you already took care of that.

    It’s good to have you back.

  20. Sarah says:

    This is the first time I’ve visited your blog but I feel absolutely compelled to comment, and say just how much I admire your bravery and honesty in talking about this to the world at large.

    My Father passed away from rectal cancer three years ago, and to be honest, it’s only now that I can even start to talk about it without shaking, fighting back tears and a high pitched squeak in my voice. If it helps to know at all, I didn’t always have an easy relationship with my Dad either (I don’t think many of us do) and it was only sheer bloody mindedness and gut searing honesty that found us being friends as well as Father and Daughter when he died.

    Every day I walk down the street and see or hear things that I know would have made him chuckle and it has me wanting to well up at the sheer UNFAIRNESS that I’ll never be able to share any of those things with him. I hope that one day those self same things will simply remind me of him and make me smile.

    I don’t think that sense of loss ever quite leaves, just maybe it stops feeling so bloody acute after a while.

    My thoughts are with you.

  21. Laura Rossi says:

    Laura,
    Thank you for writing this. Thank you for sharing.
    I’ve missed your lovely voice.
    It’s nice to know you are out there.
    Lots of love,
    The Other Laura

  22. K says:

    Beautifully written. My daughter died almost 3 years ago. I hope to be able to write about it as eloquently one day.

  23. Allison Winn Scotch says:

    Laura –
    I’m so heartbroken and yet inspired by you and your words. What grace and loveliness you’ve shown here. All of my love goes out to you and your family, and I hope that you continue to heal as time moves forward.
    Lots of love,
    Allison

  24. BlackAddler says:

    I’ve been dreading this moment. I knew it would come, and I knew you would feel the need to explain it to us, and I knew it would be hard for you, almost a reliving of the past six months. I am moved by the comments from your friends. Friends share more than laughter together; they share pain, too. You have good friends. And, lastly, I’m glad that you and your mother had moments of closure together…you both were faced with the realization of how important you were to each other. That’s all I’ll say…I wish I could reach over and pull you into a big hug right now. Love you, Laura.

  25. juliemangano says:

    Your poignant, heartfelt words nearly broke my heart and remind me of the unfathomable loss I will feel when I lose my own mother. Your words have captured the essence of the shock, grief and unbearable pain you felt, creating a blueprint for those of us still waiting for the loss of a parent to invade our comfortable lives. Your days are still difficult, I’m sure, but sharing your eloquent, honest writing with us all shows your healing process has already begun. Love to you and your family during this very difficult time.

  26. mizbabygirl4 says:

    Thank you so much for articulating your experience. I have a similarly “complicated” relationship with my mother, and experienced the early stages of loss last year, when she developed double pneumonia and refused treatment, saying she wanted to die. I felt my life fork in exactly the way you describe–but we finally convinced her to accept treatment, and I spent several weeks nursing her back to some semblance of health. I still have her, but I know what I’m going to lose one of these days–at least some days I know, most of the rest of the time I’m in denial. But enough about me. I hope you will write at more length about caring for your mother, who is vividly alive in you.

  27. Heike Sellers says:

    Thank you for sharing, for putting something into words like only you can. I’ve lost my dear Oma (grandma) to cancer, only could be there for her from afar while she disappeared, this strong woman, who was always a second mom to me. I was over here, my first year in the USA, and often wonder if I would have an easier time with the loss of her if I’d actually been there.
    Wishing you well as you find your way with the new you.

  28. Maggie says:

    Laura, I am absolutely floored by the beauty and courage of this post. I keep reading and re-reading it. My heart goes out to you and your family, and I wish you clarity and strength as you find your way in your “after” world.

    I’ve been struggling with how to write about helping my dad die (not in the assisted-suicide sense!) from end-stage liver disease while awaiting a liver and kidney transplant that never came, and how disconnected and unimportant my life and job felt afterward.

    I also struggle with how to write about a life filled with illness and death. I took care of my grandmother as she died from mouth cancer, helped my aunt manage life with lung cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, and was caretaker to my mother, who is paralized by MS and is now in a skilled nursing facility. My relationship with these women and my father was/is so very complicted — a certain kind of complicated that comes with serious illness, assuming the role of a parent, and a need for approval.

    I wish for even half the eloquence and grace as yours with this post. I am inspired and deeply touched. Bless you and thank you.

  29. Dani H says:

    You touched my heart in this post, and in the Twitter DM conversation we had a while back. I’m glad that you and your mother had that transformation in your relationship before she died. My condolences to all the family. Please don’t hesitate to DM if you want to talk. *Gentle Hugs* Dani @ddh77

  30. Catherine says:

    Laura,

    I just read your post on Ann Leary’s Blog and popped over to your site to read “Where I Was.” You’re quite brave to put pen to paper and talk about this so soon. I really admire what you wrote and what all of the lovely people above have written in response. I am someone who has been aware of that upcoming “brutal abyss of loss” since I was old enough to understand mortality. I have lived in fear of losing my mother my whole life and somehow, stupidly, tried to prepare for it (big topic in therapy for me). Now, as she is entering the sunset of her life, and the reality that I really will lose her sooner (now that I’m in my 40’s) rather than later (when I was in my 20’s), I realize I cannot prepare. I can only hope I have just some of your grace, strength and courage when the time comes. You’re a beautiful writer and this piece moved me so much. I, too, hope someday you are able to write that book about your family. It will be remarkable. Thank you.

  31. Rose Ward says:

    Please accept my deepest condolences. What you wrote was beautiful.

  32. […] followed a link from Twitter the other day to an evocative blog by a young woman who had recently lost her Mother to Alzheimers.You can tell from the way she writes that it has been an immensely painful process for her, and the […]

  33. Tara Flanagan says:

    Sorry that you were going through all this. It has been months since I read your blog because sadly my father passed away two weeks ago. I took care of him for months with many of the mixed emotions you describe. I felt like I was unravelling. I had spent so long putting together a life as a functioning mother of twp. Trying at all costs to leave behind my childhood and see the best in folks, until the call came and soon my childhood was rearing it’s ugly face again. Hopefully we will see each other again at SOR soon. The only blessing for me was seeing Owen and Ally looking at my Dad, knowing how much they would miss him as a grandpa. Made me realize that although he wasn’t always there for me, my kids adored him and saw him in a light I only wish I had known as a child. Know you are not alone.

    • Laura Zigman says:

      Tara, please tell me I emailed you directly. I have a feeling I didn’t. An email to you follows later tonight or tomorrow. So sorry to hear you went through such a similar ordeal this year too. xo

  34. […] honestly, as nakedly as they know how. In 2010, Laura Zigman, a writer I follow (and adore) online, wrote a post to explain her months-long absence from her blog. While she’d been gone, her mother had been […]

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