It’s your birthday. Just a few days before Mother’s Day. You would have been 69 this year.
It has been nine months since you passed.
Seven months since I asked for a divorce.
Four months since I left the courtroom, an unmarried woman again, trying to hold in my tears as I walked from the courthouse to the parking garage–and failing.
Your grave has a headstone now. I took the kids to visit you a few weeks ago. When I was taking pictures of your headstone, Henry walked into the frame and did this.
Felicity walked the cemetery’s pavement while Henry sat in the grass with me on your grave.
“Do you miss Grandma?” he asked.
“I miss her every day, Henners. You know why?”
“Because you loved her.”
“Yes. And because she was my mom.”
A moment passed and then he said, without any irony at all,
“Wow, you were really lucky.”
“I was,” I said. “I really was.”
After you passed, a few hopeful souls assured me that your spirit would visit me, in some way, in the following months.
There have been no apparitions.
But I did have a dream about you.
I was standing inside Sam’s Club (who can say why?) and you were just walking in, the large sliding doors opening to reveal your dark outline etched against the brightest of sunshine. I recognized you immediately. You raised your hand to wave at me, a huge grin on your face, as if you were telling me, I am having the time of my life. Or whatever this is now.
The thoughts came one by one.
Mom. You’re dead. I am dreaming.
And I just knew.
I wasn’t going to be able to reach you before this dream ended or before you disappeared or before I was transported somewhere else.
I just knew.
I would need to launch myself across the space between us. I would need to summon an unfathomable amount of psychic energy, just to come close.
And then I woke up.
My new life is full of moments like this, when I feel my heart stretching all the way back into my past, grasping at the years when everything was woven together, over and under and through. So safely and securely. I’m reaching back for the time when my life had parents. When my husband apologized when he hurt me. When I was one-half of a beloved couple among our friends.
I’m still grasping. I hate that I’m still grasping at the past. It yields nothing but longing and pain. And yet I do it. Even as my feet keep stepping forward through this life, even as I continue to build new walls and establish new rhythms, I am still Lot’s Wife, looking back at the city being destroyed by God’s wrath, daring the Divine to turn me to salt.
Why salt? Was it the salt of her tears? Were her tears so numerous, her grief so strong that she was consumed by it?
No, not consumed. She was frozen. That’s the difference. Her grief, her longing for her past life didn’t erase her. It transformed her into something else. All the soft, pliable cells in her flesh–capable of repair and regeneration–grew rigid and fixed in place.
This is what happens when your gaze becomes fixed on the past.
You become your tears.
You knew how to forgive, Mom. You knew how to let it go when people hurt you. You were an absolute master of this. You forgave even when everyone else believed that you shouldn’t have. But you forgave.
Forgiveness was so important to you that you even wrote it in the journal that I gave you for Mother’s Day in 1999.
It amazes me how strongly you believed in these words. You didn’t just say them. You lived them. I saw the healing that forgiveness brought to your life. You have shown me the wisdom of these words–that forgiveness is not only for the other person.
Forgiveness is for you.
It is your freedom from the past. Forgiveness is the force that uncoils the thick ropes that anchor your heart to the shore of your past, so you can set sail into your future.
I’ve restarted this next part over and over again, trying to explain what I’m struggling to forgive my ex-husband for. I tried brutally honest. Then, compassionate. Then, detached. Then, reflective. Each time I’ve written it, I’ve told the truth.
But in the end, whether it’s true is only a small part of this story that I’m now living.
Is it kind? Is it helpful? Is this healing me?
And then I’m staring at my mother’s words.
“Never remember details of a fight with a loved one.”
So I erased the words.
I don’t regret writing them. They needed to leave my head.
After 16 years of marriage and 20 years of being together…
Can you imagine it?
Walk with me for a moment.
Sharing a life with someone for that long–millions of moments that span the range of all human emotion–and then, in a matter of months, all that sharing now reduced to the barest of exchanges via text?
Because that’s all your heart and mind can handle.
You can’t share meals together with friends.
You can’t go to the same parties.
You just can’t.
Even though it means withdrawing from social events that have been the rhythm of your life for more than a decade.
You just can’t.
You are not strong enough yet to share the space with all of the ghosts of your years together, swirling in every single interaction, whispering in your ear.
You first feel these ghosts when you fight back tears as you sign over the house during the refinance.
The loan officer says, “Just sign here. And here.“
And holding that pen, a coldness courses through your body. You almost place the feeling as panic, but it’s devoid of frenzy. It’s more like a hollow echo, the puff of breath when you step into the cold.
And then the memory erupts.
You remember sitting in the hospital, holding your husband’s hand as the drowsiness of anesthesia set in, just before an emergency appendectomy. What did he say?
He said, I want you to have a nice house.
He was talking about the house that you had just toured. You both walked its stairs and examined its kitchen, even as he was ignoring a growing pain in his side, which would turn into an emergency just hours later. You didn’t know that house would become your family’s home.
And then, you’re back in the present, staring a shiny conference table for twelve, even though there are just three people in the room. It’s bright, but it’s cold outside. January. Just three months since you left.
You chastise yourself. Get a hold of yourself. Hang in there. Nothing is happening. Push it down.
The loan officer pushes a piece of paper toward your husband.
“This is the amount of the new loan and the payments,” the loan officer says to him.
You are presented with a different paper.
“This is the amount of the payout,” the loan officer says.
The iciness returns and you grip the pen hard.
It always moves like this. First, the emotion. Then, the memory.
You’re back at the moment when he playfully carried you over the threshold, as the moving truck pulled away. And then you’re standing in the doorway, watching him using heavy machinery to grind the stump of the tree that had to be removed in the front yard. And then you’re opening the door hundreds of times for your friends to walk in and share breakfast.
“Which box do I check?” your husband asks. His voice is jarring and it grounds you back in current reality, here, in front of these papers.
This is the truth now. That is over.
“Married?” he asks. “We’re getting divorced.”
“You’re married now, so…” the loan officer says. “Married.”
You press your pen to the paper.
But you’re still at the front door, watching your kids jumping in the puddles that gathered on the paver stones. And then you’re pulling weeds from between those stones, hearing your husband saying, You got to get the whole root. And then you’re waving good-bye to your mother, that very last time her car pulled away, before she was unable to visit anymore.
The brightness of these memories, now tinged with shadows and hollowed of their meaning.
“That should be the last one”, the loan officer says to you.
You scrawl your married name.
The pain of it. The pain of it. The pain of it.
Your children will not be able to walk down the hall to wake you with their nightmares in any given week. In fact, you’ve just walked out of half of their childhood. From now on, your motherhood will look very different, with weeks of empty beds and empty chairs. Every time they return to you, they will have gained height and weight. They will lose teeth without you knowing for weeks because everything becomes old news as soon as a new day begins.
In a matter of months, all traces of you have been removed from the walls, from the fridge, from the closets, and the cupboards.
Once again, the place that you called home is no longer your home.
It happens so quickly that you even begin to question how much this place was ever truly yours.
And then another ghost whispers in your ear.
You’re the heart of our family, he said after you returned from a week-long conference. This place isn’t the same without you.
And then another ghost.
You’ve felt it too, he said in one of your heated arguments after you left. How different it’s been.
You were pacing outside in the dark, trying to keep the conversation from the kids.
Different better or worse?, you asked.
Different better, he said. A lot better.
You wanted to believe he didn’t mean it. The pain of those words was so sharp. The force of it, so crushing. Your knees started to shake. To accept his words as truth was too much.
But just like everything he said before, you took him at his word.
And right there, in the damp earth, you fell to your knees.
This is how it goes for you for months.
Whispers of ghosts, all competing for their Truth.
It was wonderful.
It was awful.
It was my fault.
It was his fault.
We were just stuck.
It meant nothing.
It meant everything.
We weren’t right for each other.
We were exactly what we each other needed for years and years.
Can it all be True? At the same time?
I am still asking this question.
As if there is an answer.
There never is.
And now, what remains of our marriage?
There are only two things that I recognize with certainty.
Our traditions. Our jokes. Our shared stories. Our banter. Our interactions. Our support. Our advocacy for each other. Our theories and ponderings. Our recollections of how we got through a decade of pregnancy, babies, bottles, diapers, and clothes that never stayed in their drawers longer than three months.
Those hours when I labored with our children and he watched me rise above pain to bring forth life.
They remain only in our memories now. The possibility that they are relived and replayed later on, grows smaller and less likely every day. What could have become an oral legacy of Us for our children will now rarely, if ever be acknowledged, leaving our children to scratch their heads about how we ever thought we would be good for each other and concluding that we must have been crazy for 20 years before we finally came to our senses.
How terrifying it is that all that you built between the two of you can disappear like that when you both walk away. All that living history, once held so close to our hearts, a cherished story of how we found each other and came to be, no longer spoken on either of our lips.
Silenced. Possibly forever, if neither of us speak of it.
But I will continue to repeat the story in my heart. To remind myself that, yes, it did exist.
We existed in this Life together.
What we had mattered.
As painful as it is to admit that, as fierce as my tears are as I write this, I will continue to write this story on my heart. Even though it hurts me to admit it. It hurts to know that what we had, for years and years, was beautiful and strong and loving.
Until it wasn’t.
But I’d rather feel the pain of that than deny that it existed.
So I’ll say it.
What we had mattered.
It brought two amazing human beings into this world.
And the world is a little bit better with them inside of it.
I want our children to know that they were born from friends who loved each other more than they each loved themselves.
Even if we can no longer be friends anymore.
Once upon a time, we were the best of friends.
We absolutely were.
And our children owe their existence to that fact.
Sacrifice was our love language, the individual acts of it invoked as evidence of our love for each other. It must be love because we stuck with each other through X, Y, and Z. But this is also the reason that our family unraveled. Years and years of putting each other first and abandoning ourselves stressed our relationship to the point of complete and irreparable rupture.
Before I faced the inevitability of the end of my marriage, I believed that divorces happened because of poor decision-making.
To be clear, this wasn’t a belief that I expressed out loud and certainly never to someone who had been through one. But quietly, in my own inner life, I reasoned that there must have been something that went awry between falling in love and making the decision to build a life together. Someone had not carefully considered the best course of action. Someone had been too blind or foolhardy.
Or perhaps they weren’t as committed to relationships as I knew that I was. Maybe they were less resilient than me. I knew that I was capable of withstanding anything that Life threw at me. And so I had nothing to worry about. Not only did I make good decisions, but I was resilient.
But what I never considered was that you can make the best decision, over and over again, and it could still lead you to a point in your marriage when the best decision is, finally, to end the marriage.
All that good decision-making may ultimately lead you to a crossroads in your marriage when the next best decision is to leave.
After all the arguing, all the tears, and all the hurt, I was still willing to stay. Because I had made a promise. And a promise meant something to both of us. My promise to him was the reason I kept trying months and months after I felt it was healthy for me to keep trying.
But I also stayed because I don’t give up. I am not a quitter. I am a committer. I am the last one to hold onto the rope, over and over again, even when the winds are whipping you senseless.
So what changed?
After that very last fight, I didn’t cry.
Because you can’t cry when you’re numb.
But what I thought was, “Is this the marriage that I would want for our daughter?”
Fuck no, it wasn’t.
And then the decision was made. Clear and simple, as painful as it was to admit. I didn’t know how I was going to say it, nor how it was going to completely upend our lives, nor if he and I could ever be friends again.
I just knew that I could no longer stay.
My next thought was, “How would Mom feel about me leaving?”
Even though she had passed away two months earlier, I still cared tremendously about whether or not she would approve. Maybe that sounds silly to you. But the women who raised me never left. My mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, the women of my church. None of them left. They soldiered on, regardless of whatever trials or tribulations came their way, even if they were caused by their spouses.
Sometimes, men left their wives for other women. It happened.
But a good woman, a good mother, a good wife never broke up her family.
I had no examples of women who left their marriages for their own mental health.
I had only examples of women who prioritized the needs of their spouses and children over their own. And boy, did I ever learn that lesson. That lesson was etched into my very DNA and carved into the bones that carry me through this life.
Countless moments of my mother’s lips pressed into a thin line, the slightest frown on her face, drawing her forehead into an expression of concern, followed usually by silence, and on a rare occasion, an, “Okay, then.” Countless moments like these that guided the formation of thousands of neural pathways, all encouraging me to de-center myself, empathize with my loved ones, and sacrifice to show my devotion. And so it felt natural for me to abandon myself. Over and over again.
Because that was what I trained for. That was the example I was shown.
But I could not follow their example anymore. Because it was unraveling me from the inside out.
I needed to be able to show my daughter that if she found herself in a marriage that was full of tears and arguments and tension, she would have more than my approval to leave.
She would have the lived example that it could be done.
And she would be able to survive it.
I would be the one to set a new example for the generations to come.
One in which women seek out relationships that nurture them.
I want for the women who come after me to know that if they start withering where they are planted, they can take their roots with them and find new soil.
My purse knocks against my thighs as I sprint toward the bright red ER sign of the hospital.
It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.
My mind flashes to a scene in Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is on the verge of being launched into space in an extraterrestrial aircraft. When the spaceship begins shaking as it ignites, through her fear, Ellie continues to utter, I’m okay to go.
Even though she doesn’t know what awaits her on the other side, she continues to say these words.
It’s okay to go, Mom. You don’t have to wait for me, is my prayer.
But I’m still running.
I’m running because none of her children are there.
Because my father died alone, without anyone who loved him to hold his hand.
I’m running because my heart is screaming for just one more moment to be with her before she escapes to places where I cannot follow.
And I will expend every last ounce of my energy to help someone I love.
The ER sign grows larger in my sight and I am breathless already because I’m so anemic. But I keep running, my heart pounding in my chest, fighting the lightheadedness, my lungs seizing.
And part of me wonders if my heart has known for years that this is how it would all unfold.
If my body was simply following the rhythms of my heart.
And now those early morning runs, my feet pounding the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., have prepared me for this very moment.
To run to my mother at this very hour, when she needs me the most.
Perhaps my heart has felt this moment approaching for years.
I haven’t really slept in days.
(It always seems like it’s dark when these things happen.)
My dreams aren’t dreams right now. They are instant replays of the last three days, holding my mother’s hand, watching her heart rate tick up, up, up as her face loses its color, its tone. Her eyes struggling to remain open.
(Labor and Birth.)
The image had been replaying in my mind for hours and hours.
It’s both too early. And too late.
(Dying and Death.)
I burst through the doors to the ER and slow to purposeful walk until I reach a set of double doors. I jiggle them. Locked.
A voice comes on over the intercom.
“Can I help you?”
“I need to get in. My mother is dying.”
“Do you need help getting there?”
“No,” I say. Then I repeat the number of the hospital room.
The door unlocks.
And I’m hustling now to the end of the hallway toward the first set of elevators. I need to go to the seventh floor. The buttons read 1, 2, and 3. I press 3, going as high as I can go. I ask for more directions, someone at a nurse’s station, a security guard, a custodian.
Every person stops what they are doing and guides me.
Down this hall, to the left.
What floor? Down that hall, take a second left. You’ll find the elevators to theseventh floor.
What room? Those rooms are in the west wing. Hang a right at the Exit sign.
I’m hurrying down the hallway when I see Doug come out of the room, flagging me down. He hugs me tightly.
“She stabilized again,” he says.
I gaze into the room and see that my mother’s bed has been lowered nearly to the floor. Warren is seated on her left, holding her left hand, the softer, unbroken one.
This room at the top of the hospital is dim, barely lit at all. The brightness and bustle of yesterday’s ICU room proclaimed plans and interventions. Real hospital work. But this room lacks any of that. Instead, it has been emptied, drained of all the light and equipment and interruptions. I wade into its stillness, as if it were a pond, the water barely rippling around my movements as I press forward.
She breathes heavily through her mouth. Says nothing.
There aren’t as many tubes and wires connected to her anymore. Just enough to monitor her heart and oxygen. An IV port for medication. Warren tenderly holds her arm where her last IV was threaded by Maria, an excellent nurse on the fourth floor who took the time to warm my mother’s arm with compresses to thread the IV on the first try into her tiny veins. The tape over the IV still bears the nurse’s initials and the date, MR, 8/11.
The monitor shows her vitals in bright green numbers and letters.
“Her heart rate is 155?” I ask Doug.
155 is my heart rate when I’ve been running for 30 minutes.
“She’s been holding at that for hours. Until just before I called you. Her vitals started dropping, but she rebounded.”
He pauses and his voice breaks.
“I think she’s waiting for you.”
I look at her chest rising and falling rapidly, how she is still fighting, even here at this late hour.
We could be here for hours, waiting for her body to surrender.
But I am resolved.
I will bear this moment for her. I will be here for her, no matter how long it takes. No matter how hard this gets.
“Mom, it’s Sharon,” I say. “I’m here.”
She breathes heavily, the cool washcloth still folded over her brow. Her eyes are closed.
I have no plan for this moment. I wasn’t committed to being in the room with her when she passed. I’ve allowed myself to accept whatever fate would have for the end of my mother’s life.
Whatever was bound to happen would unfold just as it should be. And it did not need to involve me.
But here I am.
In this room.
And I know that Death is here.
I feel it thick and still in the air around me. It doesn’t spin around us, like a vortex pulling my mother into some other dimension. It drifts and floats, like dust in the air when the light shines through a window. Only there’s nothing to see. You can only feel it, seeping like thick syrup, settling heavily into your ears, your mouth, your nose. So heavy is Death in this room that simply uttering words takes a concentrated effort, not to mention anything meaningful or heartfelt.
I open my mouth to speak and, at first, I choke, the sob caught in my throat.
I push it down and remember.
I will bear it for her.
“I’m going to play some music for you, okay, Mom?” I say calmly, searching for the live version of Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, just recently performed at the Newport Folk Festival less than a month ago. “I’ll start with the one that you said you loved last night. Remember that? I played it for you and you said, ‘I love it.’ It was a little hard to hear you, but I know you said it. Here it is.”
I let the song play without interruption and we all listen to Joni sing to my mother with her haunting, soulful voice. I hold my mother’s right hand, rubbing her knuckles, her fingers. I say nothing.
But now they only block the sun They rain and they snow on everyone So many things I would have done But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now From up and down and still somehow It’s cloud illusions I recall I really don’t know clouds at all
“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
More tears fall and I wipe them with the back of my hand.
I can tell how loved she is, the ICU nurse on the second floor, Regina, had said as she administered morphine the night before, into the IV that Maria had placed. Two amazing human beings who treated my mother with such compassion.
So many people here with her. You’d be surprised how many people leave this world alone in these rooms.
Have more heart-breaking words ever been said?
The song finishes and soon we are listening to troubles melting like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, rainbows stretching off into the distance, leading my mother to an unknown land.
I want that so much for her.
Even as my heart cries out for her to stay.
I want for her to wander into a land of rest and peace, where her memories of broken hips and legs and arms and necks, of cancer, of diabetes, of untreatable, chronic pain… Where all these memories become nothing but distant moments in time through which she has persevered. Where she has no need for morphine or demerol or toradol or fentanyl or hydrocodone or any of the other medications that only cut the pain in half.
Tears and more tears. I pull her hand to my wet cheek. Just two days ago, when she could still utter words, I asked her if she was in any pain. She fought to simply whisper the words, “They can never make it pain-free.”
I wish I could have born some of this pain for her.
But I know her better.
She would never have allowed that.
Just as I would never allow my children to bear my pain.
The song finishes again and I look over my shoulder at the heart monitor.
156. 154. 155.
The fog of Death that surrounds us is growing. Why is it getting heavier?
Doug is seated behind me, his head rested against my mid-back, as if literally supporting me so I don’t fall over. Every now and then, I feel him turn to look at the monitors. Warren is gripping my mother’s hand, sometimes pressing it to his face, sometimes lowering to the bed and bending forward over it.
It’s so hard to remain upright. I’m not sure how I could explain to anyone else why, in this moment, simply sitting up and speaking takes unimaginable strength.
But it does.
How many moments has my mother faced that were as heavy as this? What would she do?
And then I know what to play.
The soft notes of the song begin and I’m transported back to those final minutes, laboring with Henry, this song soothing my ears while my screams filled the air and my hips lit on fire. Those last moments just before I hemorrhaged and nearly bled to death on the bed, only minutes after I finally pushed Henry free from me.
“I played this song when I was in labor with Henry,” I say. I pray that she can understand. That she feels my intention. Because I cannot find my words to articulate it in this moment.
What I want to express is that I’ve been here before, in this most sacred of spaces. More sacred than any cathedral or altar. I’ve been here before–But never on this side.
There is a stillness in the air when Life enters this world that I cannot explain to anyone who has not been present for it.
Now, I know that there is also an unexplainable stillness when Life leaves this world.
We all want to bear witness to the beginning of Life. We believe that it is good and holy and pure.
But who wants to bear witness to the end of Life? Even though it is just as sacred?
I will bear it for her, I tell myself.
“Mom,” I hold my voice steady. “I want to tell you that it’s okay to go. You don’t have to stay here for us. We’re all going to be okay.”
I pause and consider what to say next. Doug and Warren are both bent forward, their heads bowed, reverently as I speak, my head lifted, my back straight.
Now, I understand. Why Death is so thick, so heavy.
This room is not empty.
It’s overflowing with everyone waiting for her.
My father. My mother’s mother. My mother’s father. And on and on. The generations have poured into this room, surrounding her and holding her, just as They held me when I cried out for help in laboring with Henry.
They have returned, these People of my Blood.
My heart almost cannot stand it.
I know what to say now. I close my eyes and I speak without any hesitation.
“And Mom…everyone is here with you. It’s not just me and Warren and Doug. Everyone is here. Anna is here. Nate and Lisa are here. Holly and Corey here. Dominic is here. Felicity and Henry are here.”
The words are spilling forth from me, as if she’s relinquished her sword to me and allowing me to fight this last battle for her.
So I will not stop.
I will do this for her.
I will help her over to the Other Side.
I keep listing all our family, as many as I can remember, all her brothers and sisters, their spouses, their children, her cousins, her friends. My shoulders hurt now, physically ache, simply from the action of sitting upright. I can almost feel my mother transferring her burdens, her cares, her wishes, her regrets, her Love, all to my own shoulders.
Perhaps that’s what Death really is.
A great transfer of all the emotions and cares that one person has carried to those they leave behind.
I will bear it for her.
The hospital door opens, but I don’t look at who it is. Words are still pouring out of my mouth, names, reassurances that we’re going to be okay.
“It’s okay to go, Mom. We will all be okay. You can go. Dad is waiting. Your mom is waiting. Your dad is waiting.”
“It’s okay to go, Mom.”
“It’s okay to go.”
I repeat this over and over, my last reassurance to my mother.
That if she would be courageous enough to press on toward the unknown, I would also be courageous and press on here in her place.
I choose to carry this pain of losing her. For the rest of my life.
Because it will free her.
“You gotta go, Sweetie,” Warren says, his voice as broken as his heart. He clutches her hand to his lips and kisses it, his tears freely falling. “I’ll see you there.”
“Mom,” my voice shakes. “There’s not a single person who loves you who can’t be here for you right now. We are all here and we love you so much.”
Doug taps me, but I keep going.
“But we’re going to be okay, Mom. I promise you. It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.”
I say it over and over again.
Doug taps me again, but I keep going.
“And the last thing I’ll say, Mom, before you go…” I take a breath. “I just want to thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches.”
Warren reaches across the bed, over my mother’s body, and grasps my hand.
“She’s gone, Sharon.”
It’s true what they say about how a person changes in that first minute after death. In that first minute after death, I surrender to the wave of grief crashing over me and weep over my mother’s arm and hand until I feel her go cold.
But that coldness is all it takes for me to know wholly and thoroughly that the thing that made my mother who she was–a spirit, a soul, an essence–was not her body. She was not just skin and organs and fluids. She was so much more than this body that is now left, apart from her.
I’m the first to stand up.
It’s surprisingly easy to do.
To get to my feet and walk out of this room, knowing that I’m stepping into the shoes that my mother is leaving behind. She would be the one to say the hardest words to the people who need to know.
I feel it already, the passing on of matriarchy.
I will be the Keeper of Family Memory from now on. The one to memorialize what we’ve lost. The one to keep her memory alive by baking her recipes. The one to be a mother to all of us left behind.
And it starts now. With this walk down the hallway, where I will say the hardest words to say in this moment. I will say it.
At the nurse’s station, a young woman is eating what looks like her lunch, a large bowl of noodles, something that requires her to anchor her head over the bowl to not make a mess. 4:30 a.m. I suppose it is lunch for the night nurses.
She sees me and puts down her spoon.
I point to the room behind me.
“She just passed.”
The nurse’s face goes solemn.
“I’ll let the doctor know right away.”
I shake my head.
“There’s no rush.”
Dawn is breaking by the time I arrive back at the hotel.
I meet my sister in the lobby of the hotel. She is sitting on a bench, tears already running down her red cheeks. I lean down, hold her by the back of her head, and kiss her forehead. She stands to hug me.
Then, I tell her everything, as much as I have the words for. There is too much that I don’t have words for yet, that I don’t fully understand yet, that I will need time to make sense of, that I will need to find the language for. But I say as much as I can and promise to myself that someday I’ll sit down and commit the sacredness of this morning to human memory, that it may never be lost.
But in this moment, what I say over and over again is this:
“I told her we were all there. And we were. We were.”
“She’s out of isolation, so you don’t need to bother with a gown or gloves. Whatever it is, it’s not COVID,” the ICU nurse says. I glance at the whiteboard. Nurse: Megan.
Through the window, I see my mother reclined on the hospital bed, her eyes closed, her chest rapidly rising and falling. This labored breathing has been ongoing for days now, her heart rate increasing steadily over the days. 90. 100. 110. 125. 130.
It holds at 140 now.
140 is my heart rate when I’m jogging or doing kickboxing. And there, she lies, reclined on the hospital bed, her body racing as if accelerating toward some unknown destination in the distance. Does she know where she’s going? And when will she arrive?
What’s causing her high heart rate? I had asked the doctor.
It’s the body’s stress response.
We don’t know.
There would be nothing else to say until more tests were done. More and more tests.
I look at my mother through the door.
She is dying. Surely, they can see that.
I slide the door of the ICU room open and step inside and rest my eyes on my mother. And the reality of the situation washes over me again, a horrible reminder. Oh, right. It really is as bad as the last time that I was here, just hours ago.
But then, I realize. No.
It’s not as bad as last time.
It’s actually worse.
I want to tell every nurse and doctor and hospital worker, This isn’t what she looks like. She’s really not like this.
In a week, she has transformed from a robust 68-year-old woman into a woman who looks to be in her 80s. Frail.
I place my cup of coffee on the floor beside the chair next to her bed and sit beside her. The welts that have emerged on her face and arms are starting to crust over. The doctors guess that it’s a reaction to antibiotics to treat a UTI, but it’s just a guess.
I slide my hand under hers. It’s not as hot as yesterday, when her fever was 102, but it’s still so warm. Her fingers are swollen. From what? I don’t know. Why is she breathing like this? There are new masses in her lungs, ones that have grown rapidly at some time in the last month, but is that what’s causing her body to run like its out of control?
Her spinal tap is clear. There’s no infection. Her brain is fine. Her heart is fine. Carcinoid cancer is strange. We don’t know everything about it.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “It’s Sharon.”
I open a document on my phone. It’s a letter that I’ve written to her. I was going to read it at her funeral, but she deserves to hear it while she’s alive. My eyes skate over the first line that I’ve written to steel myself to read it, but I can’t see through the blurry curtain of my tears. They drop freely onto my dress.
That looks so nice on you! she had said, not two months ago. Stitch Fix? I’ve never heard of it!
I look around the room for a box of tissues and see nothing. There are never enough tissues in these rooms. I wipe my face with the back of my free hand as I hold my mother’s hand. Then, I pull a used paper towel from the dispenser in her last hospital room and dab at my face again.
I close the app with the letter to my mother and navigate to a song. Something that has comforted me in the past.
See me someday sleeping softly Flowers draped across my knees Hear the cries of friends and family Missing me Press on
She’s not gone yet, but I miss her already.
I look down at my mother’s hand.
Just two weeks ago, she responded to my touch. One week ago, she could still acknowledge that I was in the room. Yesterday, with effort, she could say a few words–if they were important. I fed her a small piece of strawberry, and with great effort, she chewed it. Now, when she is aware, her communication has reduced to groans and a look from behind glassy eyes.
In this moment, her eyes are closed. I could almost convince myself that she was sleeping, if she weren’t breathing like she were running a race.
My head drops to her hand and I press it to my cheek, where my tears are now sliding over her knuckles and down her wrists. I turn my head and look up the side of her arm, upward at her as she is reclined in the bed and suddenly she seems as large as she was to me when I was a child. Authoritative. Grand. Only now, silent and suffering.
I want to wake her up, shake her out of this nightmare. I want to curl up in her arms. She was not a mother who would say something like, “Everything’s going to be okay, Sweetie.” Instead, she would say something simpler, like, “Hey, now. What’s wrong?”
Her hand is slick underneath my cheeks, my tears still spilling forth. There is Life there, inside of her, as strong as it has ever been. But not for long. Soon, her hand will turn cold and there will be no warming it up with peach tea or coffee with cream. I can still see the steam rising from her mug as she laughed about my ridiculous guesses for unscrambling words in a puzzle book.
The sadness settling over me is so heavy I cannot even hold myself up and soon, I’m collapsed over the rail of the hospital bed. I’m crawling up the side of the bed now, my face and neck pressed against her arm and hand, gazing up at her. I want her to snap out of this. For her breathing to slow. For her to look over at me and say, “I had the weirdest dream.”
But her face is so thin now. Her face has never been this pale, this thin, this drained of life.
I want to go back. To my beginning. When I was the Protected, and she, the Protector. When it was her tears of joy covering me at my birth, not my tears of sorrow covering her just before her death. How short the years were between those two turning points in our universe. I didn’t always take those years for granted. I cherished them more each time she told us the cancer was back. But how many years had the cancer slept–and I lost sight of my gratitude?
Moments with someone you love become so much more precious when you’re threatened with losing them forever. You find yourself making frequent trips to see them. Cherishing every word they say. Not throwing away their cards. Taking more pictures. More videos.
My mind drifts and I think of the woman who wept upon Jesus’s feet and then wiped away her tears with her hair, just before pouring expensive perfume over his feet.
Why was she crying? Jesus and his disciples believed that it was because she was “a sinful woman” and was plagued with regret.
But no one asked her. They just assumed that she was sad about her “sinful life.”
But now I wonder if she knew, in the way that I know now, that Death is at the doorstep. I wonder if she felt the same tight tug at her heart when she looked at Jesus, the tightness that I’m feeling now as I gaze at my mother in these final hours, as if she is being pulled into a thick fog while I am anchored here. Unable to follow, even at a distance.
Even though there was a time when we were so connected that the echoes of our heartbeats rippled throughout the same body. My hiccups were her hiccups, and hers were mine.
Wasn’t there a verse in Isaiah (Was it Isaiah?) that said, Death where is thy sting?
I know where it is. It’s here, in this room. I feel it needling me every time a monitor beeps, announcing some new threshold that my mother has fallen too far below or risen too far above.
The nurse, Megan, quietly enters the room and I don’t even try to hide my tears. What’s the point?
“Here,” she says softly, handing me a hospital washcloth. “This is better.”
I nod, unable to even thank her properly. I push the stiff, paper towels into my purse.
She doesn’t say anything.
There is nothing to say.
Life is filled with bitter music Breeze that whistles like a song Death gets swept down like an eagle Snatch us with our shoes still on
Behind me, I can hear the soft conversations of nurses in the hallway. I can’t hear the content, but the tone tells me that whatever they’re talking about weighs infinitely less than what is happening in this room.
Do they know? Can they tell what’s happening? Is it obvious to them too?
When do we start using that word, dying? Is it too soon? It doesn’t seem too soon.
Instead, it seems too late for someone to be notifying me. Instead, it seems that I was meant to figure this out on my own. It seems that we are in the wrong place here. ICUs are meant for people to get better. Why is she here anyway? Shouldn’t we be in hospice? Why are we pumping high-flow oxygen into her nostrils and administering potassium?
Why did we do a biopsy? Will the results read as clearly as a pregnancy test? Dying or Not Dying? When are the results supposed to come back? After she’s dead? Why are we still testing?
The sobs overwhelm me and I find myself praying not only to God, but also my father. My grandmother. Any ancestors who will hear me.
Please. She needs someone to guide her. She needs help to find her way forward. I cannot stand to watch her suffer like this another day.
I love her too much to allow this to go on.
There is a doctor’s knock at the door. They all knock the same–an interrupting, quick signal that you are next in line. But I cannot even lift myself to acknowledge the sound. If this doctor’s time is money, they’ll need to pay the price for now. And I will come away from this moment knowing that I owe them nothing. I will not shield them from my pain or my grief. They should know the weight of what is happening here, how the gravity of this moment warps time, slows it down, so that every moment is lived painfully and with the greatest effort imaginable.
They should feel it, if even to a small degree, in the way that I’m feeling it now.
My mother is dying.
Whoever is about to sit with me and talk with me already knows that, too.
He’s very kind, this doctor in his late 30s. He uses phrases like, “How are you feeling about her condition?” And “Yes, I agree that it’s time to modify her goals.”
When I ask if we can help her pass without suffering, he says, “We absolutely can.”
Then, a new flood of tears arrives as phrases that should be uttered twenty years from now are spoken today.
We can move her to a private, quiet room. Make her comfortable. Give her morphine for pain. Give her anti-anxiety medication.
How long will it take, we ask as a family.
Could be 30 minutes. A few hours. Or days.
I’m hoping for a few hours. Time to say what we want to say to her. To pray. To read to her.
But the thought of wandering for days in this Space Between Worlds…
The thought is crushing.
But I know that I will bear it, no matter how long.
I will bear it for her.
The night nurse comes, Regina. I believe she is the Holy Spirit, the Great Comforter, incarnate. She can’t be older than 35, but she speaks as someone who has traveled this road of Death many times. She props her hands on her hips like she’s telling us the specials on tonight’s menu.
“I want to be clear about what we’re doing tonight. We’re going to do a terminal wean. We’ll do everything to make her comfortable and relieve her pain.”
It’s not insensitive the way that she says any of this. Instead, it instantly puts me at peace. What we are doing is not unusual or awful. We are only getting out of the way of Death. We are simply fulfilling my mother’s wishes, even though it means that she’s leaving us behind.
We read last minute messages from friends and family who want to say goodbye. We hold the phone up to her ear to allow family who can’t make it to talk to her. My mother says nothing. She cannot talk. All she can do now is groan, and only when absolutely necessary. She breathes heavily through her nose and mouth, which quickly dries out her lips. The tone in her jaw is gone. She cannot keep her mouth closed. Every time Warren carefully applies Chapstick to her lips, tears sting my eyes.
Can she still hear? I wonder. While half of me is glad that we are talking to my mother as if she can still hear us, the other half of me remains skeptical and wonders if this is all a show to make ourselves feel better.
Her brain is fine, the doctors had said.
As I sit on my mom’s left, my daughter, Felicity, walks in, tears slowly careening down her nine-year-old cheeks. She has been pinballing between entering the ICU room and remaining in the hallway.
Anything you want to do is fine, I assured her. Only do what you want to do.
She sits on my lap, facing away from me. She’s too tall for me to hold her like a baby anymore, so I do the next best thing and bear-hug her from behind.
Felicity gazes over at her grandmother and places her hand on top of hers.
My mother groans.
My chest tightens and I swallow.
“She can hear you, baby girl. She knows it’s you.”
Felicity leaves her hand there as her little body shakes in my lap. I know in this moment, my mother hates that she’s making Felicity sad. She hates that she can no longer mask the fact that she’s dying. She wouldn’t want to scare Felicity. She would despise the fact that the only sound she could make to comfort Felicity was a monotone groan. She would encourage Felicity to not let her condition make her sad. She might even tell Felicity what she had said so many times before, “I’m getting better and better every day, Felicity. Don’t worry about me.”
Without warning, Felicity jumps to her feet and moves to the other side of the bed.
“Can I hug her?” she asks.
“Yes. As tightly as you want.”
She leans across the bed and rests upon my mother and pushes out her shaky words.
“I love you, Grandma.”
Warren helps Regina remove my mother’s neck brace, which had been supporting her nearly healed neck after her most recent fall.
They remove the arm brace, which had been keeping her broken right arm in place.
Regina pulls away the tubing that forces high-flow oxygen from my mother’s nostrils.
A lump rises in my throat as a thought occurs to me.
We are removing all her armor now, letting it fall away, leaving her vulnerable. We all understand that she can’t be any more broken than she is now. Nor, are we are protecting her anymore. We’ve wandered off the road to recovery long ago. Now, we’re on a different path, each of us recognizing it at different times, as if we are each acquiring a new language at different speeds. I’ve been able to read the signposts for weeks, but I know that others have only been able to read them for days.
We are handing Mom over to a Thing that we have all feared, no matter what our faith teaches us. No matter how many cheery faces have told us confidently that there’s Heaven waiting for us on the other side, none of us have seen this destination, nor have we traveled there. Perhaps someday I will find comfort in the thought of Heaven. But not today. Because my mother’s path to get there is covered in thorns, ripping at her mercilessly even as she barrels blindly forward.
She will travel this last path alone, exhausting every weapon and tool that she used in this life. She will do this alone, just as she did when she gave birth four times. Just as she did when she fought through unbearable pain when she broke her back in 2007–and all the years of pain that followed. Just as she has fought this cancer for 24 years.
Like every other time before, she would do this last battle all by herself.
No man has ever come close to demonstrating the strength that my mother has.
Not even close.
She is the only person I’ve known who has chosen over and over again to walk into the shadows of Pain and Loss.
And still found the Light inside of it.
And then held that Light up for all to see.
Warrior isn’t the title that she has earned.
She is the Hero.
Maybe that’s why her body is still wielding its sword, slashing at shadows.
We can’t tell her to stop fighting.
But at least we can take away her pain while she fights.
You know on New Year’s Eve, when we sing “Auld Lang Syne” and imagine that most of our troubles (certainly, not all–let’s not be greedy) are far behind us… And in the back of your mind, you’re kind of already rehearsing tragedy. Preparing what you cannot imagine is coming next.
That’s a good way to describe the feeling that I had on New Year’s Eve this year.
Sure, this year is going to be better. I toast my glass of water (because age has made me incapable of processing alcohol… Like, at all).
I suppose it’s a small feat to have managed to have made it to nearly two years into the pandemic before contracting the virus.
But that all came to an end this past month.
Mark it down: January 2022 will go down in my memory as one of the least enjoyable times of my life.
Wednesday, January 5th
After two days of remote work, I drop four-year-old Henry at daycare and drive in to work for an in-person work day. Because now, we have two different kinds of work days: 1) remote and 2) in-person. I park my car and head toward the COVID testing site, which is a free service offered by my university. The line–normally minimal over the last few months–is 30-people deep. Not a good sign. I don’t have symptoms of COVID, but I figure I’ll get tested since we plan to have people over on Saturday, January 8th for breakfast. And this Omicron strain is going around.
While I’m waiting in line–NOT KIDDING–I get a call from the daycare.
Henry has been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID. He needs to be picked up within the hour. He can return if he tests negative on a COVID test five days from exposure. Or he can quarantine for 10 days.
I hang up and start looking for a COVID test appointment on Sunday, January 9th, but nothing is available in the nearest 50 miles until Monday, January 10th.
As best I can, I try to adopt a neutral attitude about being home with him January 5th-10th. I encourage Doug to stay at work while I stay with Henry. I let Henry paint and use Play-Doh. We use tangrams and crayons, building blocks and Legos. I break out Tablet Time as a last resort. We get through it.
Monday, January 10th
Rapid-test appointment for Henry at a local CVS. We take his backpack and coat because I’m going to drop him off as soon as I get the negative test result.
However, it might be a few hours to process the results because of the backlog.
No problem, I think. I’ll take him to a park even though it’s 15 degrees. He has energy to burn off.
Henry runs from me to different trees in a field, over and over again while I stand there in the cold, refreshing my phone, waiting for the test result to come in.
New Test Result Received.
I clicked on the link.
POSITIVE, it reads in giant red letters, as if to tell me, NO, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
My first thought? Honestly?
F***. How many more days of quarantine NOW?
I do not think, Oh no! I don’t want to get COVID!
Instead, I think, Sweet Jesus. How many more days of full-time parenting do I need to survive? I am not cut out for this.
Henry has no symptoms. I feel fine. I’ve been around him for five days. I’m vaccinated AND boosted. I decide that we are going to skate past this plague because we are prepared.
I call the daycare with the update.
Well… now that he’s tested positive, he can return 10 days after his positive test result.
SAY WHAT NOW?
So that means… the daycare director shuffles papers on her desk. He can return Friday, January 21st.
10 more days? Seriously? Should I NOT have tested him?
Gone is my positive attitude. I’m going to be home, working, with this energetic preschooler for the next 10 days. Doug cancels his travel to a conference in Las Vegas and says that he will work from home and help. This helps, but my mood is still in the toilet.
I miss My Life.
Tuesday, January 11th
Doug develops a fever. Muscle aches, pains, weakness. He can’t move. It’s up to me now to take care of Henry, work, check on Doug, and keep the household going. Henry still has no symptoms. We wonder if it could be COVID, but we have our doubts. We are vaccinated AND boosted. Probably the flu.
We do not play with tangrams or building blocks. We don’t paint or play with Play-Doh. When Henry isn’t sitting with Doug in the TV room, he takes his tablet and crawls underneath the desk where I work and curls up in his “cave.” Using his finger, he “colors” in pixels of a unicorn with a flowing mane for hours upon hours. It’s now Endless Tablet Time and I have zero Mom guilt.
Every now and then, Henry taps on my leg to let me know that he’s ready for me to tap the last pixel of the picture that he’s working on. Together, we watch as the single tap sets the picture into an animated replay of his coloring. His face lights up and in moments like that, it’s hard to be upset that he is home.
But then, I remember all the times I’ve yelled, Listen to me!
And it all comes rushing back.
Wednesday, January 12th
Doug gets a doctor’s order to get tested for COVID and flu. By the end of the day, I’m wondering if I am feeling rundown from carrying the load of the whole family… or if it is something worse. I go ahead and look to schedule a COVID test. The first one available at a CVS in the nearest 50 miles to my house is Sunday, January 16th.
Thursday, January 13th
I skip my exercise, which if you know me, is kind of a big deal. I don’t do that unless something is really wrong. I’m feeling… off. I don’t know how to describe it. Hazy? Slight fever. Some body aches. But I cope. Doug’s test results are in: Negative for flu and positive for COVID.
Okay, then, I think. Here we go.
Doug is still hurting, so I keep everything going. We send the kids to bed early and I embark on a 13-hour sleep trek that I haven’t treated myself too in… Ever? I cannot remember the last time that I slept longer than 12 hours. Was it before kids? I spent years of my life just trying to get 7.5 hours of solid sleep. Remember all those times, waking up to a screaming baby and trying to figure out what kind of scream it was? My God… How many hours of sleep did we lose?
I fall asleep before I can figure it out.
Friday, January 14th
Doug is feeling better. He is able to work and do household chores. I definitely don’t feel well, but it isn’t enough to keep me from doing the things that I need to do.
Sunday, January 16th
I get tested for COVID.
Monday, January 17th
I’m sick. The kind of sick that makes you want to curl into a ball and forget about the world. It feels like every cell in my body is turned down to 30% energy. For the duration of my illness, fatigue is the biggest symptom that I have. Utter fatigue. Hard-to-climb-the-stairs fatigue. Feeling as tired as I did at the end of a long day while being eight months pregnant. That kind of fatigue.
Tuesday, January 18th – Friday, January 21st
My test results come in at 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning and with bleary eyes I see the word that I’m expecting:
And all I can think is how NEGATIVE that word feels in my life right now.
I’m POSITIVE that this is going push me to the absolute edge.
What happens during these days? I call in sick to work and lie on the couch while Henry watches Encanto, Raya and the Last Dragon, Sword and the Stone, and Robin Hood on an infinite and unpredictable loop. Henry creates The Triangle, the space between my bent knees and the couch, where he shoves his little body so he’s nice and snug while I drift into and out of consciousness to the music of We don’t talk about Bruno… I sleep 13 hours a night. I sweat in my sleep and don’t remember peeling all my clothes off. I develop a brain fog that leaves me feeling completely stupid and helpless.
I MISS MY LIFE. I LONG for Henry to return to daycare so I can finally be left alone to recover. On one day, Felicity complains of a headache at school and the school nurse firmly recommends that we pick her up since she has been exposed to COVID at home.
Sure, I think. Why not have everyone home while I’m trying to get better?
I envy all those people sick with COVID who don’t have to care for children or houses while they are sick. Those people who can walk away from their responsibilities, turn on Netflix, and check out of Reality until they feel better.
But hey, listen, I KNOW.
At least I was employed at a job were I could take sick leave. At this point in the pandemic, that’s not guaranteed anymore. At least I have a partner. At least I have the money to pay for my health care. At least I have a car to pick up contactless groceries for the family. At least I was vaccinated and was able to recover in two weeks. At least I have a house and food.
I was looking back at this blog and thinking of the giant hole that is missing in this chronicle of my life from 2020 to 2022. I have been writing, but not here. Maybe because I don’t know what to say here other than this:
We have been holding on.
For two years, we have been holding on. Waiting for it to get better. And finding over and over again that… Maybe this is it.
We have been navigating…
remote learning at home (worst idea ever)
remote learning at daycare (a paid version of worst idea ever)
mask policies–official and unofficial
teleworking policies (1 day per week in person? 2 days? Actually, stay home now. Okay, come back. Actually 2 days per week in person was probably enough. We think?)
our own level of risk as a family
a revolving door of quarantines (seven–YES, SEVEN–so far)
quarantine flowcharts (does the unexposed sibling need to stay home?)
the New Social Normal
missing our friends
But now I’m really wondering…
What if this is as good as it gets? (At least for the foreseeable future)
What if this is as good as it gets?
I have recovered from COVID. The last symptom that I’m still getting over is catching my breath while I’m exercising.
I am grateful for vaccines and modern medicine. I wish more people used them.
In the back of my mind, I’m wondering if/when I’ll contract COVID again. It’s entirely possible. Or perhaps I have gained this “super immunity” that researchers are starting to report.
In looking at pictures from the last two years, I’ve seen my children grow from 3 and 6 years old to 5 and 8 years old. I see them with masks on at the apple orchard, masks hanging from their ears while they are in the car, pulled below Felicity’s chin while we’re touring Chicago. Their childhood will forever by marked by the presence of masks. There’s nothing to be done about that. I don’t hate masks and I don’t love them.
I’m pro whatever-keeps-my-children-in-school-and-daycare. Just tell me what to do AND I WILL DO IT.
I’m simply doing everything I can to move us all forward.
My son was born four years ago, just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration. My life turned both inside-out and upside-down. Inside-out, as I struggled once again with bringing the life inside me into the outer world. Upside-down, as events that would once grab headlines for days, if not weeks, were now coming every few hours. The It’s-Not-a-Muslim-Ban Travel Ban. Michael Flynn. Betsy DeVos. I would put my son down for a nap, fall into a half-sleep for an hour, and then wake up to a new horrible reality of Things that Were Now Possible in the U.S..
I knew there was a reason that when I entered my classroom on the day after the 2016 election that I could barely keep from crying in front of my international students. My heart knew what was coming, even if they didn’t know it yet. I felt somewhere deep in my heart that the life that I had built teaching English and fostering intercultural understanding was now dangerously at risk of disappearing altogether.
It turns out my worry was completely founded and warranted. Because two years later, international student enrollment plummeted where I was teaching, just as it was everywhere else in the United States. I grieved the fact that I needed to seriously reconsider my career choice. It was a path that I pursued tirelessly just to be employed full-time.
Now here we are, four years later. I have left teaching, but I have managed to stay in the field of education. There are things that I miss about teaching (advising students, talking with families, joking before class, sharing snippets of American culture) and things I’m wholeheartedly grateful that I never have to do again (grade essays, sit in a faculty meeting that could have been an email, eat like a wolf at my desk while answering emails, just to name a few).
And miracle of miracles, we are saying good-bye to legitimately the Worst President in American History. I don’t feel that those words are too strong to use. And because I believe in supporting my opinions with reasons, here are just a few:
“They’re rapists. They’re murders. And some, I assume, are good people.” On the campaign trail, 2015
“There were fine people on both sides.” About the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, 2017
Separating children from their parents at the border. 2018.
“I would like you to do us a favor.” Asking the Ukrainian president for non-existent incriminating information about Biden, 2019
“No one saw this coming.” About the COVID-19 pandemic, March 2020.
Suggesting that “disinfecting” the lungs by injection may help with treating coronavirus, 2020
There is so, so, so much more.
Before the pandemic, at some point in 2019, I remember talking with friends about how concerned I was about the end of this presidency. I believed that if Trump lost in 2020 and we were following his playbook, he would say the elected was rigged, that voting fraud was rampant, and he would refuse to concede. I really wondered if he would have to be dragged from the White House. We talked about at length about the limitations of what Trump could do to hold onto power. My friends reassured me that the military swears an oath to the Constitution, not to the President.
Some of those words were comforting.
And then January 6th came.
Just. What. The. Fuck.
I’m not exuberant about Biden being sworn into office. I’m hopeful. But honestly, at this point, I’m drained. Not only by the division between Americans that is visible at the national level, but also by the division between Americans in my own community.
One of our neighbors STILL has a yard full of Trump-related campaign signs decorating her lawn. All Lives Matter. Back the Blue. Lock Her Up (a fav from 2016). God Bless America. And then to string the whole mess together in a frightening display of cognitive dissonance, a “patriotic” Christian cross, lit with red, white, and blue lights.
In January, the Trump flags are still flying.
This is deeply unsettling to me.
I drove through a middle-class neighborhood a few weeks ago and everything about it felt familiar and cozy. American flags hung from the porch or next to the mailbox or from the awning of the house.
Then I saw something new.
How can I explain to you how this made me feel? To see this bizarre twist on an American flag, flying as high and next to American flags?
I had a stone in my stomach just looking at it.
I felt disbelief, anger, and frustration.
I felt cold.
What are we? What is the United States when we cannot even agree about which flag deserves to represent what we hold most dear? Are we really so divided that we’re putting aside the flag that brings us together and pledging allegiance to something else?
It’s not just a flag. People fly flags to identify themselves. And if you choose to fly a Blue Lives Matter flag in your front yard–especially when it’s the ONLY flag in your yard–you are making a bold statement about what principles you follow and what values you hold.
That thin blue line on that flag is a clear divider.
The question stands: Who does it divide?
Who is on either side of that line? Is it police on one side? Community on the other? If it is, then I really don’t understand. Because I thought that the jobs of police officers were facilitated by working with the community, not fighting against it.
Or perhaps the flag is finally saying what we’ve all known to be true for a long time. I grew up on Cops. The theme of the show is very hard to miss. Poor people–almost always black–are criminals. Police keep us safe from them. I don’t recall a single episode where a tax evader or embezzler was dragged from his corporate office for defrauding a company for millions. But a coked-out dude running from the police? Every episode.
But we now live in a world where militarizing police departments is common in the U.S., so perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked that this is where we are, debating on the meaning of flying the Blue Lives Matter flag in your front yard. My reflective self wonders if we are just on a slow slide into a police state. My gloom-and-doom self cries out that we’re already there. But my hopeful self remembers that we are not there. Yet.
Still from 2:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
And there is a theme that I keep circling in different ways through different characters.
It’s this idea that people understand and anticipate things going wrong or falling apart or people failing them. Perhaps we prepare ourselves for this inevitability because we know that people are flawed and the world is imperfect. Whatever it is, we have created rituals and systems to deal with these imperfections. We have all kinds of rituals and systems set up to deal with tiny infractions (being caught in a lie) as well as with huge transgressions (sexual assault, murder).
But we are not prepared for grace.
These things are too much for the mind to accept–because we can be so married to the idea of our own unworthiness. Or perhaps we distrust the ability for others to be altruistic. Perhaps the framework that we’ve created for our world is such a meritocracy that conceiving of grace is impossible.
What I’m saying is that when healing or forgiveness or grace is extended, it’s not uncommon for the recipient to view it with mistrust–all the way to the point of refusing to accept it.
I see parallels in this time of pandemic. This idea that even if there were a vaccine that were 100% effective, today, not everyone would take it–simply because of a lack of trust.
Healing, forgiveness, and grace can be freely given. But they don’t have to be accepted.
In January 2016, I had a great idea for a novel. I had some momentum and a lot of dynamite scenes that compelled me to sit down for a time and give it space to come to life.
But then I got pregnant. I had a baby. And then the Hamster Wheel of Life spun on ceaselessly for three years.
My inspiration and motivation drained as the questions that I had about the characters and the plot were so overwhelming that I boxed myself into a corner, unable to figure out how to get out of it.
Yes, it was a great idea. But quite frankly, it was not the right time. I worked a job that drained my creativity. My supervisors sucked my joy dry. I had diapers to change. A baby to feed. A kindergartner with a broken elbow. A toddler to follow all weekend long. A preschooler with poop in his underwear. Again.
I said so sorry to the idea and moved on.
But this past January, four years later, the idea floated to the forefront again.
It really was a great idea.
I sat on it more. I asked the questions. I thought of answers. I asked more questions. I wrote ideas down in a notebook. Some of the questions, I left unanswered. But this time, I had more answers. I had been thinking about the story on and off for the last four years, but now, things were starting to make sense.
Fuck it, I thought. Here we go.
I mean, really, what’s the worst that could happen?
Here’s the worst that could happen: I could waste my time writing a book that no one wants to read but that I care deeply about.
I’m fine with that.
I didn’t sell thousands of copies of my last book.
And I’m fine with that. It is a success because I created something out of nothing and it moved people.
That’s success to me.
For me, it really is about the process. The fact that I feel better doing the work. The fact that writing these thoughts teaches me things about myself.
It heals me.
Last month, I took a casual online writing class. One of exercises that we did was creating a voice of our Inner Critic. Then, we were tasked with defacing our Inner Critic in whatever way we wanted. Here’s what I ended up with.
So, what is the book about?
This is not something I’ll be openly talking about online until much further on, especially since I know that it’s not just one book that I’m working on. This will likely be a four to five book series.
So for now, just know that I am filling notebooks with pieces of characters and plots. I am thinking of symbols and themes, lines of dialogue that won’t go away. I’m plotting them in tables and writing summaries. I’m crafting a Shitty First Draft, that is actually isn’t too shitty. And, People of the World, I am actually now nearly to the end of the Shitty First Draft phase and prepare to dig into my favorite part–the Revision Stage.
Creating makes me excited. It energizes me in a way that nothing else does.