When I was nine, hilarity ensued in the 15 months after my mom died. As my father prioritized his family over medical bills accrued during a fight lost to lymphoma cancer, we moved from an affluent suburb to a dilapidated rural farmhouse. One of my two dogs escaped a homemade fence and was hit by a car. Just a few nights before Christmas, I woke up to my neighbor pounding on the screen door because our garage was engulfed in flames 30 feet tall. I went to school smelling like a chain-smoker and spent Christmas at a Residence Inn. Oh, and by the way, my other dog happened to be sleeping in the garage that night and I helped bury it’s charred body in the backyard. It’s a little bit funny, right? It reached a point where it had to be and oddly enough, those other traumas seemed so trivial after losing a parent.
When my mom died at that age, the artificial world parents work so hard to create – where nothing bad can happen and the pain of life is held at bay as long as possible – suddenly and permanently came to an end.
In an instant, death is no longer an abstract idea that maybe happens to other people or pets. It is real, it is close, and it has access to everyone you love.
I didn’t know my mom was going to die. I knew she was sick, of course, since the day we gathered for a rare family meeting in the dining room we rarely used. After a few months of chemo and radiation, I knew she was sick in the hospital but I was wholly unprepared to be picked up from school early and taken to the hospital for what would be the last time I’d see her.
A few days before, I heard her voice for the last time. She was deliriously begging for help as a team of doctors and nurses urgently wheeled her into the ICU to combat the effects of a high fever and a blood infection. I wondered – with the overwhelming sense of helplessness that only comes when someone you love is in pain – if her fever was dangerously high, why didn’t they just cool her down with ice packs? The world seemed so simple to my nine year-old mind.
My mom never said goodbye to me and I never said goodbye to her. On the day I was picked up from school early – September 11th, 1993 – I knew it was really bad. I don’t remember what I was told that morning, but I found myself alone in her hospital room with the impression that I was supposed to say goodbye. She was unconscious and the thick silence of the room was only broken by the chilling combination of respirator and heart monitor. In the most private and intimate moment I ever had with my mother, I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. All I could do was repeat, “I love you” between sobs, unsure whether her puffy, jaundiced body could hear me.
That afternoon, I was home, in the basement, playing Jeopardy on original Nintendo with my brother. I don’t remember what my dad said when he stopped halfway down the stairs, but I remember his defeated tone and posture. My mom had died that afternoon. I started randomly pressing buttons – buzzing in and incorrectly answering digital Trebek’s questions over and over. In hindsight, I’m sure that beeping was super annoying and my then 19 year-old brother made sure I knew it. I didn’t care, though, because I’d just learned that there could always be another game, but I’d never have my mom again.
I romantically wonder whether this process would have been easier to accept if I knew it was coming. My family didn’t tell me my mom was going to die because they loved me, because they wanted to spare me that pain just a little longer, or maybe because they needed to spare themselves that pain until it was absolutely necessary. We’ll never know if that was the best decision, because life is messy and we only get one shot at it. All we can do is make the best of what we think we know.
In the back room of a funeral home a few days later, I didn’t cry when I saw her grotesque, gray-blue skin or the steel plate covering the holes they’d drilled in her skull to relieve fluid pressure. Her body was cremated and her urn sat on the mantle during the next few blurry months of casseroles and sympathy cards. I did eventually cry, but I never stopped pressuring myself to move on, because life just keeps going. Because dogs die, and houses burn down, and you don’t ever get the break you sometimes so desperately need.
In the years that followed, I secretly wished that my mom had written me a letter on her deathbed and it was being saved for me until I was old enough to understand it. I gave up on that hope when it didn’t materialize by my 18th birthday. In this imagined letter, my mom would have told me everything I needed to know to be an adult. And she would have said goodbye.
It’s probably for the best that we humans aren’t permitted to make life and death bargains. Because if I could trade in the rest of my life for an hour of conversation with Sandi Pilat, I probably would. She’d be so happy to hear who I’ve become and what I’ve accomplished with my life. I’d apologize for that one time I tore up a drawing I’d given her and I’d apologize that my memories of her death overshadow my memories of her life. I’d tell her that even though she never wrote the letter I always wanted, her life and her death taught me what it means to be an adult.
Happy Mothers’ Day, mom.