A couple of days ago, my dear friend Ellen directed me to an astrology site where I could put in my sign and that of my partner and see if we were a match–and it turns out that we are. But I did not need this site to tell me (though it was reassuring that it did) that he is the love of my life, as this is the one thing that I know for sure.
The other sign that the site thought would match up with was Pisces. And when I read that, I thought, Yes. Of course. That makes sense because Mum was a Pisces. And she was the other love of my life.
Of course, these loves are different: one romantic and the other the love of mother for child, child for mother and then some. I would have killed for my mother. Indeed, had my stepfather not died when I was sixteen–when the hatred within him manifested itself into a killing disease–I would likely have ended up killing him. In fact, for many years I feared that I might have done just that–I was anguished over the memory that when I heard his diagnosis, that I prayed it would kill him.
And so I felt my words, my prayers, had killed for her. And this is who I am: I will love you fiercely or I will not love you at all.
All this is to say that when my mother died five years ago in April after a short fight with lung cancer, I fell the fuck apart. I had been falling the whole time she was sick but when she was gone, so was I. And I could not breathe.
At work, a job I had loved, I felt burdened. People’s problems irritated me. On my first day back after the funeral, a friend broke down in tears over lunch because she felt fat. I wanted to slap her. Do you not understand that my beloved is gone?
And then a few weeks later when I stood in front of the large group (of around 50) of people I had worked most closely with and tried to speak to them about something to do with our work and the future, I lost control. It was my first time ever with stage fright. My throat closed. I could not look at eyes. The room seemed hot.
I was humiliated, broken. I felt weak, when everyone else was strong. Look at that fellow whose wife is dying. He can hold it together, why can’t I?
So we said: We’ll quit our jobs. We’ll travel the country. We will pretend that there is no tomorrow.
And when I told people, some worried about me, questioned my decision, wanted to make sure I was okay: Are you sick? Are you dying? Do you have an incurable disease and you’re not telling us?
I wanted to say: Yes, I am sick. Yes, I am dying. Yes, I have an incurable disease. But they would not have understood that this disease was grief.
A few weeks before I left, when I might have still changed my mind, a fellow whose father had died right around the same time my mother did, took me aside in a conference room to talk. He told me about how he had always found comfort in work. How it’s what his dad would have wanted. Something like that. At the time I hadn’t thought much of it but in retrospect I wondered if I was being judged.
Here I was making a spectacle of myself. I should have been able to buck up. I should have soldiered on. Thrown myself into work. I should have not made people know that I was feeling this way. The truth was that I had already judged myself in this way. I felt I was being weak.
My mother was not the first death I’d known, after all. My father when I was ten. My grandmother. My stepfather. Aunts, uncles, a young cousin from a brain tumor. Young friends here and there. Old friends. Men I might have loved. Men I might have hated.
She was not my first death, but she was the one I loved the most.
And when we left we headed west. I wanted to be in the rockies, the sierra. I wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. And we saw these landscapes that Ansel Adams shows you so spectacularly through his work. Fitting then, to see his photos again yesterday. To be stirred once again by those same emotions: elation, joy at the beauty of this world, and desperation in my search. I was looking for my mother.
And where I found her was in Death Valley. At Badwater–the lowest spot in the Eastern Hemisphere. There I walked out on the salt flat in the heat of the day and felt for the first time that she was truly gone.
This October was a sad month, with two deaths in the family–one expected and one unexpected one, both leaving me bereft. Leaving me once again with that hole–that desire to search, to find a reason, a meaning. And that clinging fear.
I have thought about death–my own, that of someone I love–nearly every day of my life since my father died. It has been my own constant companion. And it is the fear of grief–the gaping hole–that keeps it near by.
But I will tell you this: when I was reading The Year of Magical Thinking, it was perhaps the only time I have felt entirely normal in the past five years.
I am not different or sick or hysterical because someone I love has died and I have been grieving; I am human.