September 24th, 2014
Since our boy’s been in full-time school, we’re all getting used to a new routine. Lunches away from home, half-eaten, yoghurt spilled all over his lunchbag–I never thought we’d need more than one. We (and by “we” I mean “I”) bought a fancy “bento”-style container-thingy to go in said lunchbag without really thinking about it. The issue? He can’t open it. So, not really going to work when it comes down to sending it to school with him. My husband is working these next couple weeks, and our lives sort of grind to a halt–there’s simply never enough time to do anything, and September is a sad month anyway. For all the new beginnings, I’m constantly reminded of endings as well, of the simple punctuation of life itself, and how we are tethered to one another by these invisible forces, family as gravity. It’s a metaphor I’ve been thinking about for a while of how untethered I felt after I lost my mother the first time.
Trying to explain it to myself, or to understand it, I kept coming back to the idea of an astronaut in space–left adrift to float until they run out of oxygen without gravity to hold them in place. And that’s what it’s like when you lose your mother. You’re adrift without any context of yourself in the world. Or, at least I was, because I had a wonderful childhood with two parents who loved me, who loved each other, and an extended family that worked hard to bring us up as one big unit. And then our lives began to be punctuated by tragedy, we are not alone in unexpected deaths–but, at the time, it felt like we were cursed. My uncle died in a car accident, a drunk driver hit he and my aunt. Two of my grandparents died while I was in middle grade. And then my mother’s car accident that left her hospitalized with a serious brain injury for decades. And when her body had finally had enough of the appalling life it was subjected to in a long-term care facility, she died on a beautiful September day. It’s not often that people go through losing their mother twice–once to an injury she would never recover from, and the second time as a release from the burden of life. Each time was different, but still, the feeling of being adrift resounded through me.
For years I’ve contemplated how to write or what to say about my mother. How to remember her. What I remember of her, her life, and of who she might have been. I have stories, but memory is a funny–I will remember some incident, a flutter in my mind, and talk to my brother, who’ll have no recollection of that day, that event. Stories cannot cobble together a life that was meant to be lived. They are paved stones in a giant field placed too far apart to truly make any sense. There it comes again, that thought, the idea of my life being that astronaut in space–set adrift when gravity fails to hold me down. The moment my mother had her accident, I lost all context for my life, and I am a person who needs context and clarity.
In the photo attached, we were at a wedding. The youngest son of the family that owned the cottage next to ours was getting married. We drove to Pennsylvania for the wedding. I was thirteen so my mother must be thirty-four in this photograph. She made what she’s wearing, and she made my dress too. My mother inherited my grandmother’s ability as a seamstress. It came naturally to her, from what my aunt has told me–she sewed from a young age and I can appreciate the skill, seeing as it wasn’t necessarily passed down to me. The ring she’s wearing, an amethyst, is too small for my fingers, even though I still wear it sometimes–it fits on my right ring finger, just barely. She’s wearing a gold chain with an Aquarius symbol on it, it’s the one you can’t really see–she wore it all the time. I wear it all the time, too, when I need to feel lucky. The blue eyeshadow she’s wearing is actually from an eye pencil. I watched her apply it time and time again sitting on the toilet in the bathroom as she did her makeup. Watching, as girls do, their mothers get ready to go out to party. In the weeks before the accident, the pencil, called Robin’s Egg Blue, ran out, and when my mother threw it into the garbage she said, “Well what am I going to do now?”
Her laughter was huge, roiling over like a pot at full boil, I can still hear it if I concentrate hard enough. She wore a musky perfume that I still recognize. A woman, years ago when I first started working in Toronto walked by me wearing it, and I followed her for blocks trying to get up the nerve to ask her what it was, because I don’t remember the bottle, only the smell. These fragments aren’t enough to pull me back down to earth. All those years my mother spent in the hospital, her life was unbearable–as much to her as it was for us, bed-ridden for the most part, her short-term memory eradicated, her body bashed up and never to recover. She faded and faded and faded, and even as I grew older, she never failed to recognize me, or my brother. We were tethered to her, as were her siblings, her mother, while she was alive, my father. And the guilt crushed me. And when she died, it was as if that floated away in the most positive sense.
All of this is surfacing today because I drove by the intersection of the hospital on Saturday for the first time since she died. I didn’t even realize, really, where I was going until I was there and saw the signs. I was on my way out of the city to drop my son off at his grandfather’s. A friend and I were going to Guelph junk shopping for the afternoon. The sun was shining. The weather was perfect for a day of hunting for treasures. And as I drove by the sign for the hospital, I said, “Oh, that’s the hospital where my mother died.” We did a quick u-turn (traffic) and sped off in another direction, and it wasn’t until we were stuck in another traffic jam (it was that kind of day) where I got to thinking about the fact that it was September, and my mother had died in September, and I hadn’t been back up to the hospital where she died or the hospital where she lived since then.
There are concrete places: she died at Humber River Hospital. There are concrete dates: she died on September 8th, 2008. But the rest is a blur. I remember when the hospital called to tell me that my mother had a serious infection, and that she had been transported from West Park to the closest hospital. My husband and I went to see her the day they called, and spent the next few days watching and waiting as she grew progressively worse, her lungs wet, her breath, raspy, until the very last moments when her body started to shut down, her limbs turning waxy, and in the very moment when she died, how she opened her beautiful, beautiful, beautiful eyes up wide and looked at us–in that moment, she was herself for the first time in decades. As if she knew it was time, and we would be okay, and it was okay for her to pass on–I will never forget the haunting wonder of that moment. I will never forget that moment–it was a gift of clarity for the years and years she was trapped by her injuries. It was a moment of freedom, when being set adrift was more then just the loss it represented, it was an end. Of course, there’s a finality to death. There’s an explanation and an understanding that’s easier to put words around. For years, I would say that I “lost” my mother when I was fourteen. Because I did. The accident happened two weeks before I was about to start high school, and while my brother and I were both away at different camps. But when my mother died in September 2008, the loss was different. We had been living with her dying for over two decades at that point. We had come to a sort of anxious peace about the state of her life, and where ours needed to continue. We visited the hospital as often as we could. Those days were unbearably hard. It’s an immediately sad and overwhelmingly clinical place–and I’d be reeling, in tears, for days around any visit depending on how she was. Nothing of how I felt could come close to what my mother must have been going through in that stale room day after day, what she knew, or how time passed for her. And still, she laughed, it wasn’t the same laughter, but she still laughed at times, at jokes, and she adored my husband, even though she wasn’t quite sure who he was.
Six years have passed. And in that time, I’ve had a child, moved forward in my career, written, read, travelled, loved, and been cocooned by my own family unit. Still, there’s an urge to roam through the memories of my aunt, her sister, of my father, her husband. For a while now, I’ve wanted to sit down and record everything that they might remember. Hope that it’ll give me a fuller picture of who my mother was out of context of our relationship. The space she occupied in my life is undefinable–I understand that now after having my own child. He’s his own person, but there’s not much space between he and I, especially now because he’s still so small. And after all these years, I’ve finally found some context outside of being the girl who lost her mother so tragically. Yes, that loss defines me in ways that I find hard to articulate. But I have also gained so much: a strength and understanding about tragedy and what it does to your brain; an appreciation for the family my husband and I have created; how I value loyalty, and how much I held on to my husband on those days when we visited the hospital; and how lucky I was to have my mother for those fourteen years. She raised me well in that time. She raised me into the person I am, and that is concrete–I have my feet on the ground, pulled down by her gravity, and there’s something to be said for that kind of invisible strength.