It was a very hard time when my Mom was sick. There were a lot of very difficult things that needed to be done, and only me to do them. I was in my early twenties and my family and friends had bailed on me.
I wasn’t prepared for any of this. My Mom wasn’t supposed to die at 53. I didn’t know how to deal with chest tubes or administering medicine every four hours for months at at a time. Just because I’m a daughter doesn’t mean I’m a competent caregiver.
So I separated myself. I believe it is called dissociation. I was there, sort of. I did all the stuff that had to be done, but I didn’t think about it. My mind wasn’t there. It was too hard to deal with but I couldn’t run away from it like my brother and father did. So I ran away in my mind. It was kind of being like an escape artist, like Houdini. I smoked a little pot to take the edge off. Years later when I had the time I went a little crazy because I’d not had the ability or time to grieve. There is nothing like learning how to deal with grief like being in a mental hospital.
There isn’t any training for this. It is hard enough to watch your mother die. It is hard to be a caregiver for someone who is dying. It is impossible when the dying person is your Mom.
It is very intimate caring for someone who is dying. It is very intimate to be with them in the middle of the night when they start freaking out about all the things they haven’t done, or about the afterlife. It is very intimate dealing with bodily fluids and pain.
In a way it was my gift to her. She gave birth to me. I helped her die. There is a strange balance here.
She didn’t die well. She had spent most of her life avoiding thinking about the future or anything really important. She didn’t plan ahead. She had no retirement fund. She didn’t take care of her health. She never got any education past high school. As for her soul, she ended up getting her religious education from me.
It is very weird being your mother’s teacher. I had read quite a bit about religious matters in the previous years, and had returned to church at 20. It was the same church where she was married, but hadn’t gone to since. The minister I found for her was from the Episcopal student ministry I was part of. He didn’t know much about how to prepare someone for death, so I got to do it. Something was better than nothing. At one point I gave her a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s “The Gospel According to Jesus.” The priest thought it was watered down. He didn’t approve of that translation. He wanted her to read the Bible. I pointed out that she didn’t have time to read the original. Sometimes you aren’t able to eat big meals, and all you can handle is baby food. This was the Gospel in a distilled version, just the words of Jesus. Easy to digest. Baby food. It got the point across in a way she could handle.
But there was nobody there to train me. There was nobody around to tell me how to deal with the heaviness of my Mom dying and the heaviness of dealing with the strangeness of dealing with the very real and very gross nature of dealing with someone who is terminally ill. I prayed a lot. God helped.
One “friend” wrote to me to tell me how sad she was that my mother was dying. Her advice to me was to “let Jesus into my heart”. I can’t stand Christians sometimes, and I am Christian. I was really angry when I read that letter. She didn’t know that I’d gotten confirmed years earlier. She didn’t know that I went to church every week on my own. She didn’t know that I’d helped create the Episcopal student ministry. She didn’t know because she didn’t ask. She’d been a friend in high school but we’d grown apart. She assumed that the answer to my problem was Jesus, not knowing that I was already a Christian. She would have taught me more about Jesus if she had shown up and helped. “Letting Jesus into my heart” didn’t get the laundry done or the groceries bought. “Letting Jesus into my heart” didn’t help when my Mom needed more pain medicine or a Valium at four in the morning.
Houdini died from being punched in the stomach. He had a trick that he did where you could punch him in the stomach as hard as you wanted and he wouldn’t be hurt. The deal was that he had to prepare for it first. He had to know it was coming. The person who punched him the last time didn’t know about that and just hit him.
We are like this. We need time to prepare for heavy things. We can handle quite a bit if we have some warning and training. But when we get blindsided, we can get really hurt.
This experience didn’t kill me, but it did teach me a lot. It taught me about my own strength. It taught me that there were a lot of people I couldn’t depend on. It made me grow up fast, a little faster than I was ready for.