Featured on Nailed Magazine – Deathwish

Nailed Magazine is rich with raw, edgy, breathtaking art and writing.  I’m honored to find myself in such superb company.  Below is a short excerpt…click the “read more” link to visit the site and readJennifer Phelps on Nailed the entire (short) piece:

By the time I arrive, my mother’s body is already cooling in the bed, transitioning from animate to inanimate.  Her forehead is now the temperature of window glass on a late spring morning.  Read more on Nailed….

Conversations on Death

When the subject comes up and I tell people my mom died in the recent past, I watch them, watching me. They always look uncomfortable, like I’m about to burden them with some embarrassing display of emotion they won’t know how to respond to. The assumption seems to be that I’m sad, even though I’ve said nothing about being sad. They act like we’ve stumbled on an awkward subject that I don’t want to talk about, but nothing could be further from the truth.

conversations on deathOur vocabulary for grief and our experiences around death and dying is dismally limited. Losing my mom when she was 60 was/is a big deal, but I’m not “sad,” exactly, and I’m continually frustrated that I can’t have more meaningful conversations about my experiences around my mother’s death.

Most of my exchanges on the subject are like having an iPod that came with one song on it, and not being able to download more. I put on that same fucking song whenever I feel like music, but that song almost never matches the mood I’m in. I get up and dance to it anyway, because I want to dance and I don’t know what else to do. It’s pointless, boring, unsatisfying.  Continue reading

The Language of Death (or, Why Can’t We Talk About What Actually Happens?)

Since my mom died, I’ve noticed a phenomenon: people avoid the word “death” and all its conjugates.  They pull on latex gloves of language and hide behind germ filter masks of syntax, treating the subject as if it were contagious, substituting cumbersome IMG_20130404_165651_005euphemisms like “passed away,” “passed,” or the clinically sterile preference of health care practitioners, “expired.”

These people who recoil when I say “my mother died” are probably the same ones (and I’m assuming here, because I’ve never broached the subject with them) who regard the funeral practices of yesteryear as morbid.  I admit even I find it a little distasteful to think of a deceased (dead) relative lying in state in a flower-bedecked parlor for the days leading up to the funeral, allowing family members to bear eyewitness to the various stages of decay and putrefaction that naturally commence postmortem.  But aren’t we modern-day mourners truly the more morbid, so afraid are we of the eventuality of death that we cannot even speak of it directly? Continue reading

Happiness is Overrated?

What if it’s true? What if happiness is overrated?  No, I mean it.  Think about it.  We think we want to “be happy,” spend a lot of time, energy, and money trying to get happy. But does it work?  What is happiness, really? An elusive moment, wafting by like smoke. We might be in it for a moment, but we certainly can’t hold on to it.

sunlight and shadeWhat if we were happy all the time, like we think we want to be? It might turn out to be incredibly boring. What would we talk about, each of us wandering around in a blissful daze?  There would be few opportunities to grow. We cut our teeth on the sharp edges of things. Without those edges, life would be…well…dull.

Maybe we should get used to the idea that we walk in the shadows as well as in the sunshine, should stop trying to be so happy and appreciate each moment for what it is: part of the acute, often uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and fleetingly pleasurable act of living.

Why I Write About My Mother Dying (and Other Imponderables)

Someone once remarked to me that my topics here on the Naked Notebook could be considered “depressing.”  Frankly, this observation surprised me.  Exploring themes of grief and loss, as I have been doing lately since the death of my mother, has never seemed depressing to me at all.

But the comment got me wondering: why do I write on these topics?  What compels me, Where earth meets sky and in betweenwhen I take pen in hand, to tell of my mother’s death?  To write of how, in dying, she was somehow larger than when she was living?

Then I remembered.  I don’t really write my posts at all.  They write themselves.  That’s how I know the notebook is truly “naked.”  My posts are the truth.  Maybe not the whole truth, but nothing but the truth, all the same.  It’s like I’m a windchime, and words are the wind.  I make a pretty sound from time to time, but it’s really the wind that’s doing it.  I’m just hanging there, waiting.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the whole “depressing” thing, anyway.  It’s entirely likely that my subject matter is not responsible for that perception at all.  The Naked Notebook’s monochromatic color scheme alone could be to blame.  I didn’t choose it to be funereal and macabre.  It’s just that I’ve always been drawn to darkness.  When I was 5, black was my favorite color.  I even insisted on black gravel in my fish bowl.   A photo in black and white, to me, instantly looks at least 20 percent more artistic than its color counterpart.  That’s just how I am.

Blacks, grays, they’re edgy.  I’ve always loved edginess.  In music, in art, and in people.  Things that walk the line between dark and light.  Because that’s what we’re all doing, every day.

Anyway, enough of this pseudo-philosophical crap.  I’m talking about my blog.  Specifically, whether the Dead Mother Posts, as I so irreverently refer to them, are depressing.  I certainly don’t think so.  I’m not feeling depressed when I write them.  I may be feeling acute, maybe even melancholy at times.  But that’s the richness of life, isn’t it?  Deep feelings, both good and bad.  It’s not all sunshine and roses, in case you hadn’t noticed.  Yeah.  I figured you had.

I would never have believed I’d be quoting reality TV’s Dr. Drew Pinsky, but he said something on an episode of Celebrity Rehab (everyone needs a guilty pleasure, right?) that stuck with me.  He said that he’d always considered people who were capable of deep emotion to be strong, not weak.  (He was talking to Heidi Fleiss at the time, so he was, no doubt, really reaching deep into his proverbial bag of tricks.)

Never mind the source; I love the sentiment.  I, too, admire people who do not shy away from the difficult, the poignant, the acute.  I don’t mean wallowing…I mean possessing a willingness to go there, to learn the lessons, to be with the experience.  Whatever that experience may be.  It’s not negative – that’s a value judgment.  It just is.

So here I am, mining the depths, holding my breath, diving down.  Coming back up to the surface, humbled but stronger.

My readers, you get it.  You have been supportive, receptive, empathetic.  You don’t flinch in the face of deep emotion.  You, too, are strong in all the ways that matter.  And I appreciate you more than you know.

My husband, who does not consider himself a writer, said it better than anyone:  A death is as astonishing as a birth, he said.  How very, very true that is.  Astonishing.  I’ve witnessed an astonishing experience.  And I’m writing about it.

My mom herself explored these ideas.  She devoted much of her adult life to the study of grief and loss.  As a Marriage and Family Therapist, her emphasis was complicated grief.  I feel I am honoring her by learning all I can from her illness and death.  My grief isn’t complicated – at least I don’t think it is – but it’s mine.

That I ruminate on those experiences isn’t an expression of sadness…it’s an appreciation for the complexity of being human.  It’s not about having a happy life or a sad life.  It’s about having a full life.

So if there is a reason for the Dead Mother Posts, I suppose it is one of self-discovery, of honoring the moment.  I haven’t written these posts to depress my readers or to marinate in misery and self-pity.  An eternal optimist, I’ve never been good at any of those things.  But I am a contemplative person, and I want to give this time in my life its due.

After years of rejecting the idea, lately I’ve come to embrace the fact that I am, at least in part, my mother’s daughter.  She would be pleased that I’m taking the time – and making the space, here in the Naked Notebook – to work through things in my own way.  She’d like the Dead Mother Posts.  I’m just sure of it.

Sometimes It’s Better To Be Feral

Morphine made Mom psychotic.  We didn’t know that, but she did.  She refused to take an adequate therapeutic dose, a decision which left her screaming and writhing in pain for a good part of the last 6 months of her life.  It was frustrating (to say the least), but it was her choice.  Mom would take control any way she could.  Control was always of paramount importance to her.

wolf - national park serviceI shrugged off her complaints about the morphine.  She said it made her “feel crazy,” but she always had a litany of complaints about medications.  Her list of “allergies” was long and earned her frowns of skepticism from most healthcare providers. I would roll my eyes right along with them.  “They’re not ‘allergies,’ Mom.  They’re sensitivities.  Side effects.  Whatever.  Not allergies.”

When she was admitted for inpatient chemotherapy last February, it seemed the perfect opportunity to get her pain under control for once and for all.  She was given intravenous morphine.  She said she felt better.  I didn’t say, “I told you so,” but I thought it.  I hoped this would help her see that she should follow the recommendations of her oncologists, who are quite adept at managing cancer pain for most patients.

Then she went berserk. You see, Mom wasn’t like “most patients.”  She was more like a wild animal, the kind that would chew its foot off to escape a trap.  The narcotic-induced psychosis caused her to do all kinds of strange and unadvisable things.  She got out of bed against orders in the middle of the night and fell in the bathroom, where the nurses found her.  She yanked out her PICC line (which delivers chemotherapy into the superior vena cava, its tip residing very near the heart).  Eventually, her psychotic state deepened and she became restless, nonverbal, eyes rolling back in her head, unable to focus.  Still, she relentlessly tried to remove her clothing and groped for the IV poles.

“Don’t touch those, Mama,” I admonished.  “There’s medicine in there that can hurt people if it spills.”  At these words, she would draw back momentarily, then begin again.  She had to be relocated to the room across from the nursing station.  A “sitter” was assigned to stay at her bedside at all times.

Of course this dismayed me, but since I work in the medical community, for some of the very same doctors who were caring for Mom, I was also a little embarrassed.  I wondered, Why can’t Mom behave herself?  Why can’t she be a “normal” patient?  I knew she couldn’t help it, but still.  She was causing everyone so much trouble.

With reversal of the narcotics, my mother returned to lucidity and could be informed of what we, the family, already knew: the one scan she’d held still enough to complete showed her cancer had literally “exploded,” now occupying the vast majority of her left thorax.  There was disease in the contralateral lung and both adrenals, not to mention her ribs and spine.  Chemo was pointless.  The orange drip was disconnected.  Without the whirr and beep of the pumps, the hospital room was quiet.  She would be discharged on hospice.

“They’re sending me home to die,” mom said tearfully in one of the few instances when she gave in to despair.  She was right.  They were.  It was the prudent thing to do.

I try to be gentle with myself.  After all, it wasn’t my fault I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of her situation.  Even seasoned oncologists were shocked that her tumor had regrown to the staggering size of 18 cm in the three short months following her extensive surgery, during which time interval she was actively undergoing therapy with radiation.  Neither was I to blame for my failure, after a lifetime of hearing her gripe about medications, to appreciate just how severe her reaction to the morphine had been for all the months she refused to take enough of it to control her pain.  As it turned out, it really did make her “feel crazy.”  Go figure.

Five weeks after her homecoming, Mom was gone.  When I think of her behavior now, I smile.  Embarassment has given way to a kind of pride.  In the bigger context of her illness and where she was headed, I’m glad Mom fought like a wild animal.  I’m glad she refused to negotiate with her illness, the drugs, all of it.

She didn’t want to be a cancer patient, a cancer survivor, a cancer anything.  She just wanted to be.

Good for you, Mom, I think. Give ’em hell.  Whatever else I’m glad or sorry about, I’m glad she wasn’t well behaved at the end.  I’m glad she was feral.  Because that was the real her.  Narcotic-induced psychosis or not, that was Mom.  She wasn’t the lie-down-and-accept-it type.  She wasn’t the be-nice-and-don’t-make-waves type.

They say people die the way they live.  She died fighting.  For her, it was the honest thing – the only thing – to do.

Magic in Mirrors

More things of Mom’s keep finding their way into my home.  Just the other day, Dad brought me some odds and ends of hers, including her old stapler.  Apparently, it was something she had before they were married.  Dad loves staplers, so either he was being quite unselfish by passing it on to me, or he feels that he has entirely too much stuff since Mom died and he consolidated two households.

Another item he didn’t have room for, or didn’t want, was her full-length mirror.

“Do you want that mirror?” he asked when he called.

You bet I want it.  I knew exactly which mirror he meant.  Mom always spoke of mirrorwanting a full-length mirror, and she finally ordered this one from Pottery Barn.  I’m glad she got to have it…one small dream realized in a lifetime far too short to grant all her wishes.  But aren’t all lifetimes too short for that?

“Where will it go?” my husband worried.  After eight months of assimilating countless books, an impressive array of heirloom furniture pieces, and an extensive collection of decorative throw pillows, it was a fair question.  The mirror is tall and rectangular with an espresso-colored wood frame: simple, modern, elegant, and timeless. (Do you think Pottery Barn should hire me to write copy for their catalog?)  And it is large.

“In the corner, I guess,” I replied.

The mirror was placed in the corner, where it stands, working its magic.  I love mirrors.  They add depth, light, and mystery to a room.  They show us new angles of ourselves, but they are also enigmatic by nature.  Somehow, they seem to represent an answer and a question, all at the same time.  In this way, mirrors both frighten and reassure me.  There I am, but then again, there I am not.

As I look in this mirror, I imagine Mom standing before it, elegant and willowy, giving herself a sharp, appraising look.  Now that it is in my house, I shuffle past it wearing the new fleece monkey pajamas I received as a Christmas gift.  The beveled glass has been anointed with dog slobber.  My elegance, I suppose, is more sutble than hers.

Still, I’m glad the mirror is here.

Why we look, and what we hope to find

This morning I am walking the dogs.  I take a different route, just a small deviation from my regular lopsided figure eight, a short trip down a side street.  I want to walk past the house where the murder took place last week.

We’re all rubber neckers, I think as I wind my way down the mossy sidewalk beside the pink and white oleanders that bloom in front of the house.  These are actually their oleanders, trimmed before it happened. There is a crime scene inside, and outside the grass is cut and the sprinklers are going on timers. As if its inhabitants went to the store, or to the lake for a day of boating.

I question my own motives – why do I detour down the street to see the quiet house where something awful happened?  Will someone notice me strolling by, a way I usually don’t go? People might think I have an unnatural interest in the misfortune of others.  Do I?

I don’t think so. I think I’m like everyone else, wanting to catch of glimpse of that place.  It is the place where what we think we know and what we believe we understand meets the unknown, the unfamiliar. It’s the departure point, the place where the ocean meets the sand. There’s some overlap in that moment when the surf slides up the beach, some commingling. A little sand gets caught up in the ocean; a little salt water sinks into the sand. But then the ocean retracts, pulls back into itself. The beach is still there, but it’s different. It looks the same, but microscopically it’s changed.

That’s how it is with a murder, or a car accident, or someone who has fallen grievously ill. They are on that shore, touching that deep unknown. It’s lapping at their feet, or maybe they’re already deep in it, caught in the undertow. And we want to see it, as if witnessing their struggle, their transition could help us understand.

It doesn’t. What we are left with are only our perceptions, which defy understanding and utterly confound us when we try to express them with language. The house looks the same, but it isn’t. How can that be?  We are left saying absurd, typical things like, “I just can’t believe it,” and, “How can things like that happen to such nice people?” As if there is some moral balance sheet in the universe; I have decided that if there is, it doesn’t follow our logic.

My mom recently died. I feel the urge to attenuate that statement because it seems to shock people. They want to hear softer terms, like “she passed away,” or my least favorite, “she passed.” The truth, to me, is better, however stark it sounds. She died.  She was alive, and now she isn’t.

The first thing I wanted after my mother’s death was the shirt she was wearing when she died, soft and worn like only an old T-shirt can be.  It had been washed along with the bedclothes.  I found it and brought it home.  First I put it on, but that didn’t feel right, either.  I just wanted to be close to where she is now, wherever that is.  The shirt held her body as she made that transition.  Maybe somewhere in that shirt, I felt, was the answer.  That place we want to witness.  That empty house with blooming oleanders, sprinklers ticking in the yard.

Mom’s shirt hangs in my closet.  I don’t want to wear it, but I do want to see it.  “Mom died in that shirt,” I tell myself when I look at it.  It’s still just a shirt, just like the murder house is still just a house.  I could give that shirt to someone and they could wear it, never knowing it held her last breaths, never knowing that shirt is my shore, beyond it the ocean, never knowing that is the shirt that bore her out on heaving waves.

I don’t know where she is, but I know where she departed from. I guess that’ll have to be enough.

A Newly Grieving Person

A NEWLY GRIEVING PERSON (April 2012)

My mind feels splintered like a pencil I chewed on because I was nervous.  Now I can taste the graphite, and there’s yellow paint between my teeth.  I understand this is how it is for a newly grieving person.  Anxiety, irritability, distractibility.  It’s all part of the game.

I’ve done okay so far.  Everybody keeps telling me how well I’m “handling it.”  Like each day without a nervous breakdown is some notch in my belt.  Buying into this, I’ve even become a little cocky, proud of my highly evolved coping skills.  “Watch and learn,” I think to myself.  “You, too, will be tested in this way.  Your time will come.”

People are undone by the fact that my 60-year-old mother has died.  Because of my familiarity with oncology, I’m not.  Cancer doesn’t honor our chosen timelines or expectations of a long life.  Cancer doesn’t give a shit what anybody wants.  It doesn’t care that you exercised every day and ate cottage cheese instead of French fries.  It just grows and grows.  The rhabdomyosarcoma Mom had was particularly relentless.

I won’t get too puffed up with pride at everyone’s admiration of how I’m getting through this.  It’s just how I’m built.  I thrive in the face of crisis, though I don’t go looking for it and would do my best to avert it.  When the crisis is unavoidable, I am in my element.

With Mom’s illness, there were decisions to be made, medical situations to be managed.  I could do those things.   Superficiality went out the window.  I was comfortable with the unflinching emotional intensity.  I was diplomatic but firm.  I was confident, thorough, tireless.

But now it’s over.  All that stimulation is gone; my sense of purpose has evaporated.

My mom died three weeks ago.  I cry sometimes, usually in the presence of strangers, which is awkward but somehow makes sense.  I don’t need to be strong for people I don’t know.  Most often, though, I don’t cry.  I walk through my days in a state of hollow expectation.  Mom was dying, and it was such a profound process.  It can’t just be over.  I want it to be, but I don’t want it to be.

I don’t really want to do anything.  I want to sleep, eat, and go shopping.  These are the only things preoccupying enough to be “fun.”  With the rest, I’m just going through the motions.

I’ll be glad I did when I feel better, though.  I’ll be glad I “handled it well.”

Processing Grief: Acceptance

(June 17, 2012)  It is nearly the summer solstice.  I love these summer evenings when the sky glows almost unnaturally into the late hours as if lit by a neon city glow just beyond the horizon.  When the temperature outside feels the same as my skin, I seem to be melting, dissolving into the warm night air.

This year, though, I greet the passage of time a little reluctantly.  Each day takes me further from my mother.  When the weather is almost exactly like a day when I remember seeing her, speaking to her, I can imagine we have just been together.

But now summer is here.  Mom is gone, and the days don’t even resemble the days that she was in.  I can’t imagine us together now.  I am writing a new history, and although she is in it, her role is quite different.  She is not mother, tyrant.  She is not mother, supporter.  She is not mother, I-wish-she-would-be-less-self-centered-and-place-more-emphasis-on-family.  She is a mother of memories, of tearfully discovered pictures, of family members’ sometimes tiresome monologues.  Mom, gone.  What is that?  I am finding out, day by day.

It’s not like when I was little, and I would think about my mother dying and cry and cry.  Just the thought of her being gone registered in my body, a terrible hopeless ache that I couldn’t bear.  The reality of her death is a different kind of sadness, one that is at once awful and bearable.

Even when she was sick, I knew I could bear this.  I was almost certain I would be asked to.  I applauded her efforts at wellness – she never gave up, and I never gave up on her.  But intuitively I did not believe she could be well again in this life.  I believed she would succumb to the cancer.  I don’t feel guilty about this.  My thoughts did not make it so, just like many prayed for her and those prayers did not change the outcome, either.

Cancer is a process that does not care one whit about our wishes or our dreams.  It is simply a biologic sequence of events that, once taken hold, is extremely difficult to eradicate.  Is this tragic, wrong?  It seems that way when it is happening, but no.  It just is.  I have no blame, no anger.  Just the sort of acceptance that is needed to face things I cannot change.