Bittersweet Spring

April 19, 1988, at Ohio State was one of those stunningly sunny days, one of the first truly warm days of the year. Everyone was feeling buoyant and you could see it in the ways the students swaggered through campus. I distinctly remember sitting in some business class before lunch on the first floor of Hagerty Hall. The windows were flung open, brilliant sunshine pouring in accompanied by a warm breeze wafting throughout the room.

Hagerty was among the least glamorous buildings on campus and it had no air conditioning just to punctuate that fact. I wore a lightweight sweater and brand new floral jeans that morning…so by 11am it was way too warm for the surprise heat but I was nevertheless sporting some pretty funky clothes for me, an accounting major.

Yes, it was the kind of day that heralded an early summer in Columbus. Undergrads whipped out the shorts for the first time in months, laid out on the Oval, threw frisbees, and tolerated the fake, crazy preacher-dude who frequently admonished the masses who gathered around to listen. Just a typical spring day on campus, really. I was a junior and mid-terms were upon us.

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The rest of the day was a blur but by evening, I was sitting in a random room somewhere else on campus tutoring students in Accounting 101. Ohio State’s campus was huge, and we weren’t anywhere near the business school for this tutoring class. I don’t think I had even been in that building before. I didn’t tutor very often; a group of us honors accounting students took turns, and so I reported for duty in the evening of the 19th, and was helping someone work through the debits and credits of a fixed asset sale.

I heard a familiar, stern, but out-of-place voice call out from the hall:  “Denise,” he said in his clipped way. “We’ve got to go. Now.”

I looked up to find my brother in the doorway. My face fell.

My brother and I don’t exactly get along. We were barely on speaking terms back then, and not much has changed all these years later, sad to say. So for me to see him in the doorway of a random room on OSU’s campus at 7pm that evening was a life-changing event.

My brother is six years older than me. He lived in Columbus at the time, but he barely knew where I lived on campus or that much about me for that matter. There I was, doing the instant mental math of calculating what it must have taken for him to track me down on that huge campus before cell phones, email, and personal computers. The answer was staggering. I mean, even my roommate Lora didn’t know where I was tutoring; she only knew that I was tutoring. Well, brotherly duty and all, he managed somehow to track me down to the room. I knew it had to be something serious.

My heart raced as I joined him in the hallway for some privacy. He explained, “They think mom had a heart attack. She’s in the hospital and it doesn’t look good. Kathy said to pack good clothes for the trip home.”

Kathy is our sister. Home is a two-hour car ride east to the border of Ohio with West Virginia, where my mom was in the hospital.

I don’t remember much after that. We stopped at my campus apartment, I packed for what sounded like a pending funeral, and he and I drove the two hours home in near total silence. I’m sure we went straight to Wheeling Hospital on arrival in the Ohio Valley, home. It had to be 10pm by then.

Our two sisters and their husbands were already there. Kathy looked at me, and cried, “What are we going to do without our Mom?” She ushered me to join Dad and our other sister as we walked into my mother’s hospital room. I saw someone in the bed but turned, thinking we entered a stranger’s room by mistake.

Kathy stopped me. “No, Denise. This is Mom.”

Utter shock consumed me and I stopped breathing to take in the scene, something my 20 year old eyes had never encountered before. I didn’t recognize that woman in the bed, tubes inserted and a loud machine helping her lungs breathe, IVs dripping, the beep of the EKG monitor…  That woman’s face was covered with a mask. She was completely unconscious and very swollen, her skin color was strange, her hair wild with significant gray roots overtaking her light brown hair, not exactly well groomed. That’s…..Mom???

A curtain of unfamiliarity had fallen to separate us.

None of us slept that evening….we all just laid in bed barely breathing, staring at our old bedroom ceilings in our parents’ house, silently trying to piece together the day’s events….trying to make sense of what on earth happened…trying to prepare for what was about to happen…and how life was suddenly, drastically different.


At same time I sat in a warm sunny classroom reflecting on the gorgeous day, back in my hometown Dad told Mom he was headed to buy groceries and that he’d be gone maybe 20 minutes, in and out.

After Dad left, Mom picked up the phone to call a former high school teacher of mine. She saw the teacher’s picture in the paper that earlier that week, and remembered her as the advisor for one of my senior activities. Mom was concerned that she had come across as meddlesome to the teacher and her advisory work three years earlier, when the teacher was pregnant with her first child. Mom regretted the idea that she may have dampened this woman’s efforts… and knew how heightened a woman’s sensitivity is when pregnant. Now that she had some time to reflect on it and was reminded of the teacher from the paper, she thought she would call to apologize for being troublesome, bring closure to the whole episode, and thank the teacher for her work. The advisory activities were volunteer work on the part of the teacher, after all.

So there was Mom, on the kitchen phone with my former advisor gabbing and laughing like she did hundreds and hundreds of days before, when she suddenly exclaimed how she had “such a bad headache”.  She immediately dropped to the ground and down the phone came with her.

My advisor had no idea what just happened. These were the days before 911. All she could think to do was hang up and then reach for the phone book. She had no idea which entry in the phone book was ours or IF she’d find an entry for my family. Luckily there were only three entries for my family name in the phone book. Gotta love a small town! She dialed my Uncle George’s house first and Aunt Josie answered. My aunt immediately called the local volunteer paramedics who were two minutes away by car.

Dad walked in the door of our house to find Mom on the kitchen floor and the paramedics arrived two minutes after him. Aunt Josie arrived immediately after that.

They revived Mom on the spot, apparently…but for all intents and purposes…she was gone. Massive stroke, cerebral hemmorhage…we don’t really know what it was officially but based on what we know about our family, I’m going with an aneurysm. The maternal grandmother I never met had one as did a cousin, so chances are excellent that’s what it was. Mom didn’t want “investigative” work in the form of an autopsy, so we’ll never really know.


After our sleepless night our immediate family trekked back to Wheeling Hospital to sit with Mom all day, then watch as they carted her off for EEG testing and return. Whoever the hell her doctor was had not one ounce of compassion. When the tests were done, he  blew through the doorway and coldly announced to all of us, “Mr. Silon, the results of the EEG show that Katherine has no brain activity. Would you like to shut off the life support machine?”

Just like that. Just.like.freaking.that.

Something about the doctor’s tone implied we didn’t have – correction – Dad didn’t have time to decide. The doc wanted an answer. Now. Dad could barely choke out his answer, but he did.

“Y…es…”

And just like that…click…they shut off her breathing device and it wheezed to a stop.

I distinctly remember thinking how the doctor’s report was not a surprise but it still hurt like hell to hear him say it. And how it was not my position as the youngest daughter to intervene in the events taking place before my eyes, but I couldn’t believe how this was spiraling downward before me so rapidly. There I was, absolutely mute. Inside, I was screaming. I do that a lot, scream internally while desperately trying and failing to find composed words to say so I don’t sound like a madwoman.

Doesn’t the man get a moment to think about it privately? Doesn’t the man get a moment to say goodbye to his spouse of four decades, alone, or with us kids if he so chooses? Are you demanding an answer right this very second? OMG, that’s exactly what you want. It’s like you need to turn the hospital room for someone else…like you’re the maitre ‘d turning tables at a popular restaurant. What the hell is wrong with you?

But in that same split second, you realize you’re wasting your energy and witnessing one of the most sacred events you’ll ever experience.

My Dad’s bottom lip trembled, and tears streamed down his face as he leaned over to kiss Mom on the forehead as she took her last forced breath: “Thank you, for 41 wonderful years.” Of course my Dad knew exactly how many years they had been married…he was a very good and faithful husband that way. He really was a tender-heart for as much as people assumed he was Mr. Tough.

My sisters, brother, Dad and I were gathered around her bed, at least that’s all I can remember in my mind. I may or may not have held her right hand. I really can’t remember other than picturing my Dad and those damn machines, and knowing we were all there as witnesses.

It was, however, some time before Mom’s heart stopped beating on its own, or so it seemed….We sat in silence as it happened. And when it was all over, Kathy whimpered, “See?  She had a strong heart…”

 

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It’s all I can do to remember the last hug between my Mom and me – in the middle of our living room two Sundays before she died, on Easter, or Pascha as we Orthodox call it, 1988. It was the biggest bear hug. I felt a little more grown up that Spring. The adolescent-menopausal bickering that had consumed our relationship for the prior, oh, seven years was finally starting to melt. It felt hopeful, that hug. Maybe my relationship with my mother was finally on the mend. It was not a good one, and it hadn’t been for years.

She called me the following Sunday after Easter when I was trying to study for my mid-terms. By the time she rang around 7pm in the evening, I had already spent the entire day trying to study but allowed myself to be interrupted by a half dozen friends wanting to talk. By the time she called, I was getting a little panicked about my lack of studying so I was short, impatient, with her.

She sounded really down on the phone. Sad and lonely. She just wanted to talk, and I knew it. But I explained that I really, really had to study at the point and hung up the phone. I distinctly remember hanging over the edge of the bed with the phone dropped to the ground before me. It was the kind of hardwired phone that didn’t need a cradle. As long as you laid it on a flat surface, it was dormant. I stared down at that phone on the floor.

“Ah….Denise…she just wanted to talk…you could have taken a few minutes to talk like you did for EVERYONE else today…and you didn’t even tell her you loved her!

Eh….next time!”

And I rolled over, and threw open my book finally to study.

It was the last time I ever spoke with my mom.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Most of the rest of those days after she passed are a blur.  All these years later, I reflect on April 19 and 20 as the days my mother died. Sure, the obituary says April 20. But when I walked into that hospital room that evening…that wasn’t my Mom. I firmly believe she was gone from this world.

All these years later, I still don’t know “where” she was while she laid on that hospital bed. Was she in the room? Was she in her body? Was her spirit free to roam where she wanted? Was she already in heaven? Was she trapped? It’s agonizing to have no answers. 20-year-old me wanted answers. 50-year-old me hasn’t moved beyond wanting those answers. It’s like I’m still stuck there, with my 20-year-old mind and its questions.

It makes me truly wonder what happens to us upon our passing…since hers was prolonged and yet not. I am still really confused by this. Is it painful for the soul to be in that state of limbo? I wish I knew…or maybe I don’t. I just hope she wasn’t scared… wherever she was….if the soul has feelings at that point or is disoriented away from its body. It is really, really confusing for me.

In my heart, I know that I’ll see her again. With the freakishly fast passage of time, I realize it really won’t be that much longer before I do.


Mom’s adored kid brother Louis was born on the first day of spring, which for most people is a happy, promising day. But for her? She cried every year because she missed him so much. He died as a handsome 28-year-old several years before I was born.

Spring was always bittersweet for her, just as it is for me now. Just when the sun starts shining, the flowers are blooming, and the breeze feels warmer, I blink my eyes and find myself sitting in that first floor room at Hagerty Hall. I relive this crazy way I lost my Mom – where it happened in a flash yet took another 24 hours. How it ended with a click, a kiss, and the slowing pace of an EKG machine down to its final beep.

Spring is always bittersweet.

 

To Share or Not To Share

My mother died nearly 30 years ago. The anniversary of her death and the brief series of events frozen in time leading up to that moment haunts me every year. Her passing was a sudden and total surprise that confronted me one warm spring evening when I was 20 and away at college.

10 years ago I wrote an essay about that day and what I felt. I never shared it.

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The huge age gap between my mother and me was always evident. She had me at 45. I always knew she was much older than the other moms – I’m sure that would bother her if she knew I felt that – but not so old that she would die before I was fully grown and on my own. Don’t ask me for a definition of grown. I had assumed she would be around for my wedding and the birth of my kids and pass on at a ripe old age when I myself was much older. My being grown up and her dying was so far off in the distance, it never once crossed my mind. So her sudden death was shocking, yet it really shouldn’t have been. Many of her siblings had already died young. I should have thought about the odds, the risk of it happening, but I suppose that’s the ignorance of youth…

Over time I subsequently came to learn it’s a major shock to the system for pretty much everyone when their mother dies, no matter the circumstances, no matter the age of the parent or child. There are few relationships as monumental as that, of parent and child. So my story isn’t all that special, really. It’s just part of my life story.

I don’t know, I guess I thought my circumstances were different. Mom was so much older than me, and my older siblings were of another generation altogether. I was the baby of the family by far, my parents’ 20th anniversary surprise: along for the ride for many years, but not a highly contributing or significant member of the family. My family of origin didn’t converse much, certainly not parent to child and I suppose due to our age differences, not really sibling to sibling either, at least that was my experience growing up. We never talked about feelings.

No, the communication dynamic in my family growing up was pragmatic and direct. You were scolded if you said or did something wrong, and that was mostly it. You quickly learned that keeping quiet was better than saying anything. Because of this I had some difficulty communicating and connecting with my feelings as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. I kept to myself and became a deep thinker.

To make matters worse, Mom and I had a difficult relationship when I was a teenager. Our generational differences felt extreme. My parents were very conservative, and actually so was I but they didn’t see me that way. I didn’t really fight with anyone in life but I fought with Mom daily for the better part of seven years. Only in the last six months of our lives together did the ice begin to melt. I say “together” figuratively because being away at college seemed to help mend our relationship.

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Thanks to Aunt Nancy, I was given a diary as a young girl, so I kept a journal from about age 9 through my late twenties or so. It is so painful to read the early volumes now. Painful to read the stilted thoughts running through my head and the situations I was dealing with. Painful to know I didn’t have anyone to turn to to process any of it or that I should go find people or places to talk. My parents didn’t know they were fostering that kind of home or that it had real consequences on me. Don’t get me wrong: I know they did the best they could. It seems their beliefs were not unusual for their generation, education and soci-economic class. Nevertheless, this the family I was born into and it was a very tough time growing up.

Through the years and perhaps because my mother died, I slowly learned to connect with my emotions, process them, move beyond them. I did this all on my own, by reading my journals years later. Over years I learned words to describe my emotions. I learned to share them, say them out loud. And with this expression comes healing, a dialogue and perspective, something I crave to this day.

So I wrote this essay about my mother’s death 20 years after the fact, and for the longest time, I had a need to share it yet I never did.

At first I thought about posting it to this new online community called Facebook, since I had some friends on there at the time who were very good at connecting and commenting on my writing but two things held me back.

One, I feared that my sisters would freak out over me sharing intimate details about our family story. I don’t characterize anyone poorly in the essay, at least I don’t think I do, but what I wrote is most certainly intimate. My sisters are far more private individuals. Maybe they prefer to keep this memory to themselves or feel no need to share their feelings because they had a spouse to help them through it. Maybe they simply never felt the need as I do to sort through their feelings then or now. Maybe they strongly prefer to forget the events of the time. In the nearly 30 years since it happened, the subject of Mom’s death doesn’t come up, ever.

But me, at that time? I didn’t have a spouse or a boyfriend to talk to. I didn’t marry for another 14 years to come, even though I had a smattering of serious boyfriends up until then. Even my long-term roommate at the time was emotionally unavailable. And unless you want to scare people off, you just don’t randomly open up about this stuff with strangers. Therapy didn’t occur to me as an option because it wasn’t like I couldn’t function. I graduated school without missing a beat, held and thrived in a professional job.  I functioned just fine, I just wanted to be known. I needed to grieve. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to keep something like that bottled up for 20 years? This event, this monumentally life-changing event for me? Well…I wanted someone to know what it was like.

And mind you this is just one small example of the events that have shaped me.

So I put words to paper in an attempt to explain what it was like. Being unmarried, I didn’t understand the point of my life without sharing what it was like to lose my mom. You’ve heard the saying: if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If a life-altering event happens to someone but there is no one to witness it, did it happen at all?

That makes me sad. It makes me feel just as alone today as it did then.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve told the story to my husband, but for whatever reason that didn’t give me closure. It’s not his fault. It’s not his problem, it’s mine. He actually cares a great deal about me and can relate to this story quite well as he himself lost his father when he was young. But in the verbal retelling of my story to him, I may have glossed over details that are nevertheless important to me. It’s not like he knows those details well enough that he’ll retell it to our kids one day. No, me telling him that story was temporal. It was shared for the moment and nothing more.

That isn’t enough. It’s still as if I desperately want somebody to go back in time to April 1988 and stand with me while it was happening and to be there for the grieving that followed. I never had that.

I can’t help but think of other people who never had that either. It’s an endless, gaping, invisible wound that some of us walk around with.

The second thing holding me back from sharing was my husband’s opinion that my story was far too intimate and valuable for Facebook; sharing it there would be TMI and cheapen the event. I had to agree with him: nothing about my mother’s passing is cheap or sensational.

Yet I’m struggling with this idea that what I wrote could be too personal. Yes, people can and do share yucky, too-much-information detail that can be ugly and vicious….but that isn’t my story at all.  And it isn’t like I’m going to send my story to a magazine and get it published as that feels exploitive. Neither am I blogging for the sole purpose of sharing this one story. Facebook seemed like a logical forum several years ago because I knew that my close friends would comment and help me through it, and the possibility was that even an acquaintance might have just the right thing to say, some insight to share, and I would feel less alone.

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That essay I penned nearly 10 years ago is lost somewhere in my house, and life has gotten in the way since then. The need to share feels slightly less acute than it once did.

Never mind what was written: the actual story is really what is at stake. Will my kids ever know what it was like for me, will it resonate with them? They’re way too young to understand it now. Maybe when they’re in their 30s they’ll be old enough to recognize me at that time as just another human on this planet dealing with life the same as they do…when they recognize me to know no more or less than they do…when they realize we truly are peers in the big scheme of things. Maybe they will want to know my story then.

What if that day never comes? What if I don’t live long enough to tell it to them then? What if they never ask?

My husband recognizes that I have a need to share on a deep level that he simply doesn’t have, that most people don’t have. But when you dig deep into someone’s life, you discover their humanity, what makes them tick. That’s the stuff that intrigues me. I can’t handle small talk. I’d rather talk about deep, mystical, life-changing events.

But my husband the musician also told me years ago that you don’t choose your art – it chooses you. Your art is the stuff you are compelled to create….and it may not be all sunshine and flowers and butterflies. It may not be the things people love, but you just might find a small intersection of people with whom your art reverberates.

So here I am, sharing without really sharing. That’s about as satisfying as you might imagine for someone like me. I have a right to share my story. It’s mine, after all, and no one else’s.

And I still really want to tell the story of what it was like when my Mom died.  Whether I do, who knows?