I haven’t read a grief memoir in a while. Perhaps nine months or so. Just like every life stage, grief stages are acute and then they are not. Then there are acute moments within periods of relative peace. There is nostalgia. There is sadness. There is hope. There are scars.
I recently finished When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Though not technically a grief memoir, it reads like one because you know it is one by default, written by the subject of the grief. You experience life and death with him. It is the story of a 35-year-old neurosurgeon with a deep love of literature who finds out he has stage IV lung cancer. He searches for meaning in the MRIs and in human relationality. He volleys his interest in the two and seems to settle on the idea that each provide a perspective, but never a whole interpretation of the life-to-illness-to-death experience. His medical explanations and jargon keep the relationship with the author clinical, and then bursts of poetry, scripture, and humanity leap off the page and into your throat, creating that sore lump of emotion that prefaces tears. His ability to sit with the discomfort and his displays of love and courage are profound.
In the new year and post-holiday season, I settle back into the daily life of a mom of three young children, a fledgling academic, in a town that now is no longer so new. There are friends and a life developed and developing. Yet there are new revelations, still. As I reflect on just how hobbled I have been by the loss of my mother just over 18 months ago, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps I will never spend as much time with any one person in my life as I spent with my mother. As an only child with a mom who was not employed outside of our home, I spent every moment with her prior to entering school. Every afternoon once in school. Every summer day. Of course, there were friends to play with and activities. But otherwise it was me and her. This was the 80s, before kids spent summers at day camps and playdates. There were no siblings to snag her attention. We went to the grocery store, to the pool, to the mall, to visit my Dad’s office for lunch many summer days. I recall fetching the bread on the bread aisle because she hated the smell of it. (It had made (and continued to make) her nauseated when she was pregnant with me.) I remember bringing meals to elderly people weekly with her and being forced to make small talk in spite of my discomfort with their conditions. I recall sweet iced tea by the pool, Little House on the Prairie on the TV at 3pm, and the cool feeling of our blue leather couch on my legs at the end of the night when I sat next to her while she read the newspaper and watched the news. I am not saying I miss my mother more than someone else might because I am an only child. I am simply saying that despite having lived my adult life in different cities than her for the last 18 years, I still think she’s the person with whom I have had the most one-on-one facetime in my life. And perhaps ever will have.
When you have a baby, you measure the age in weeks, then months, then years. Somewhere around two or three years of age, you start describing the child as a two-year-old as opposed to a something-month-old. So much happens in each of those early weeks and months. You must divide the time into smaller increments in order to mark the march of time and all that it entails. With death it is the same. It was days, then weeks, then months. Every month on the “5th of...” there would be a wave of emotion to anticipate, to sit through, and then to mark. It’s not markers of development like with the littles, instead it’s markers of things no more. She’ll never see my kids ride bikes or hang upside down in trees. I can imagine her laughing at the way my daughter says “bootiful” or the way my youngest son gives slobbery kisses. Sometimes when I laugh at the sweet things they do, I hear her in my own laugh.
When I read a book about someone dying of a horrible lung disease like she did, I recall the facetime I didn’t have with her at doctor’s appointments, enduring painful treatments, reliving favorite moments. I was busy a few states away counting the giggles and steps and months of life with little ones, while she lay dying. Like Kalanithi, I sit with this discomfort. It is a painful knowledge with which there is no reckoning. There is no answer and there is no chart explaining it; it is an emotional terminality with which I imagine I will always struggle. It is the messiness of life and death, the cycle of parenting and raising children, but the far other side we don’t think about when changing diapers and dropping off kids at preschool.