Goodbye at Last

I was not prepared for all of the people in my life—close friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers—who rest a hand on my shoulder or pull me into a sometimes awkward embrace and ask, “So how are you doing?”

“Good,” I say in public.  “Sad but good.”  I smile.  Like everyone, I have public and private faces.

To those closest to me I say, “I am exhausted.”  My grief wears me down.  I sleep twelve hours on Friday night, and I could still take a nap on Saturday afternoon.  I learned from my parents to “buck up” in any situation and do whatever needs to be done.  Some days I come home from work and lay under a blanket on my couch.  My husband makes me dinner.  I eat a bowl of Special K and go to bed.  My grief is ineffable.  I ache.  I don’t want to talk about it.  What else is there but, “My mom died.”

Sometimes I say to acquaintances, “Her death was expected but still sad.”  It’s not an invitation to hug me.  Still, I am hugged in the women’s restroom, in the classroom, in a University Senate meeting, on the campus mall.

Anyone who has lost a parent realizes the melancholy that comes from feeling “lost.”  I get good advice: “For every sad thought replace it with a happy one.   It doesn’t hurt to cry, either.”   Sounds like something that might be found on a gift shop refrigerator magnet, but it truly comforts me.

I crave time to sit and look out the window.  Time to lay on the couch with a book.  I buck up.  I put one foot in front of the other.  A friend warns me that grief is like walking through a swamp.  I might add with cement shoes. Everything is heavy, as if I’m carrying another body on my back.

Some days, all I can think about are the times I was mean to my mom.  This is irrational, I know.  I realize I had to separate from my mother in order to build my own identity.  The more she disapproved of me, the more I avoided her.

When I was a little girl, Mom called me her “reporter” because I told her everything about anything I witnessed, from play-by-play details of my long days at school to evenings with my brothers and sisters when my parents were away.  I feel terrible now about the years —twenty?!—that I said so little to her.  I know, intellectually, that we had a fabulous third act: I took care of her these past seven years.  But when I consider my teens till I was about thirty-five, I see that I did not value her.  Did she notice?  I was one of eight children, so there’s a chance that my lack of interest in her didn’t show in such a crowd.  Or perhaps she knew I would eventually come around.

Mom and me on her last birthday, her 82nd. April, 2012.

A month after her death, I awaken early in the morning and contemplate how Mom and I fell in love with each other twice: once when I was born and again after she got sick.  Alzheimer’s took away her memory, but even when she didn’t recognize me she looked into my face and I was sure she knew what we meant to each other.  Her groggy last days, I believe she felt my presence.

I wasn’t always the daughter I could have been; my mother was often critical.  This is an ancient and intricate story.   Perhaps it was a defense mechanism on my part that for all of those years she was sick, I didn’t allow myself to think about what my mom used to be like.  For nine years, I simply embraced who she became with Alzheimer’s: like a frightened then goofy then helpless child in need of constant care.  I never mourned who she was before her illness.  Through her death I have been released to contemplate her huge, huge heart and her sharp, sharp tongue.

Now I am a daughter without a mother and therefore without an anchor.  I feel lost, but I also realize that for the first time in my life I am free to float wherever I choose.

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About Our Long Goodbye

I am a college teacher, tutor program coordinator, kidney donor, and dumpster diver / recycler extraordinaire. My stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Salon Magazine, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Journal of Developmental Education, The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Southwest Review, HipMama, Inside HigherEd, as well as other magazines and anthologies. I am the co-author (with Bruce Taylor) of Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College, 3rd edition (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011) and a poetry collection, Love’s Bluff (Plainview Press, 2006). You can reach me at seepk@uwec.edu.
This entry was posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Caregiving, Death and dying, Family, Generation X, Mothers and daughters, Sandwich Generation, Terminal Illness. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Goodbye at Last

  1. Sara Bryan says:

    Beautiful, and touches some of my experiences, too. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Charlie Bass says:

    Patti, I’ve treasured reading these blogs, and seeing and learning how much you are your mothers daughter yet knowing the strong, beautiful and wondrous person you are. I love seeing you move through the grief, finding your peace and this more wonderfully anchorless women. Much love, Charlie

  3. Golilith says:

    Universal lessons for us all. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. tersiaburger says:

    Poignantly beautiful as always. I love “falling in love twice” as I experienced it with my beautiful Dad. One morning when I woke him he said “You must love me very much. I see it in your eyes”….Thank you for sharing.

  5. Thanks. I love the story about your dad.

  6. bellaverita says:

    I am so sorry for your loss, Patti. “Alzheimer’s took away her memory, but even when she didn’t recognize me she looked into my face and I was sure she knew what we meant to each other.” – I feel the same way about my mother. Praying for you for comfort & healing.

  7. Patti, there is a Zulu word, Sanbonani, that friends say to one another. It is a version of “How are you doing?” but is only used between friends. Roughly translated it means instead, “I see you.” Rather than asking how the person is doing, the friend instead says, “I see your pain.” or “I see your struggle”. How beautiful that word has been to me, and how I wish there was an English equivalent in common usage. The obligatory “how are you?” poses so many layers of difficulty for those of us who grieve, suffer and wait for better days.

    I also blog, about my cancer journey and where it’s taken me emotionally and spiritually, at http://TurquoiseGates.com. I was delighted to find yours!
    Genevieve Thul
    Assistant Professor, CONHS, UWEC

  8. Mary O', Sue Z & Diane N's sister says:

    Patti, how are you? How is your Dad doing? We are still struggling with Mom/dementia, loss of our Dad last March…. So many, many times I come home from visiting Mom & still look at your site & wonder… So I thought I’d check and see. God bless you for your site & the strength we’ve gotten to carry on – each in our own way.

  9. Thanks much. My dad is doing great. Christmas was difficult, but we got through it. Thanks for continuing to check my site. I appreciate all of your comments and kind words. Best to you and your family.

  10. yorknow says:

    When my mother died in 1992, one of the gestures I remember most was from a woman at work, a volunteer, who just put her hand on my arm very briefly. She didn’t subject me to a hug when I was trying my best to keep it together in public. I have remembered that for 20 years, and emulate it when it’s appropriate.

  11. Molly says:

    When my father-in-law’s doctor told us a couple of weeks ago that there were no more medication changes available to try to “hold onto” him for a bit longer, that we are now at the beginning of constant downward progress of his Alzheimer’s journey, I cried. Then I searched for “good goodbyes with Alzheimer’s”, and found your blog. Thank you for sharing your journey. I feel a bit more prepared now, a little more ready to soldier on through all of these painful battles of unknowns.

    Praying this year has brought your family much healing and peace.

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