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….

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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

Acknowledging the Darkness

In the wake of multiple losses, I haven’t had a choice. The darkness clings to me like a fog, like vapor. The shadow is that space between what I thought I wanted – between the life I would design, were I the intentional architect of my own destiny – and what is.

trees in fogDisappointment is the result of expectations. We all have them; our minds work overtime devising the best possible future for ourselves. We will find fulfillment in our careers and our relationships, we tell ourselves. We will live to a ripe old age and die peacefully in our sleep, hands clasped, a faint smile playing about our lips. Those we love will enjoy similar longevity. They certainly will not suffer, and neither will I.

Then something happens that clashes with this optimism. Our rose-colored glasses are rudely torn from our faces, and we squint, disbelieving, in the glare of reality. Someone gets sick. Someone gets hurt. A job, even an entire career, evaporates. We throw up our hands and rage at the heavens. “Why me?” we demand. “I don’t deserve this.”

Maybe not, but the universe doesn’t operate on some moral balance sheet, doling out challenges and tragedies only to those who are deserving or feel able to “handle it” at the moment. These things that help us grow – that make us resilient, compassionate, and deep – they hurt like hell and we’d never sign on for them willingly. We are much more content to doze in the back row of the classroom of life.

Ben Franklin said, “No pain, no gain.” To that I reply, “No shit.” Experience tells me he was absolutely right.

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.

Chicken and a Walker

I was cleaning out my car the other day when an old sticky note clogged the vacuum nozzle, sucked up from the crevice between the seats.  On the paper were written two words:   chicken and walker.

Finding this, I had to laugh at my discovery.  Just as my messy car represented the way I’d had to prioritize my time away from taking care of myself while my mom was dying, this short shopping list stood for something else: the way life goes on, even in difficult times.

The particular day on which I wrote that list doesn’t stand out in my mind, but I remember well the tricky high-wire act of balancing my mom’s needs and my regular busy family life during her illness.

Clearly, on that day, I needed to get Mom a walker, and I needed to decide what was for dinner.  Participating in everyday activities was a challenge during Mom’s illness.  I didn’t have time for everything I wanted to get done, but at least attempting to do ordinary things kept me sane.  Instead of being consumed by the crisis, I had an excuse to dip back into normal.  Even when it was inconvenient and there were more pressing needs over at Mom’s house, it felt good to momentarily surround myself with the mundane treasures of everyday existence.

When I located a walker and brought it to my mother, she gave it dirty looks like she was trying to set it on fire using pyrokinesis.  The rest of us were glad she had it.  She had grown quite unsteady.

Watching Mom lose the ability to do even the simplest things (at one point she fervently told me she would rather be scrubbing toilets) helped me appreciate “the little things in life.”  Sometimes even vacuuming is a luxury.  Or cooking chicken.

I don’t specifically remember making chicken that day, though I’m sure I did. People had to eat.  At times I felt surprised and even a little guilty to find myself hungry, like my desire for food meant I had lost sight of the more important things going on at the time.  But food is important, too.

My dad and I quickly discovered that as caregivers, we couldn’t give much unless we took care of ourselves.  There were a few encounters with the bedside commode that extinguished our appetites, but for the most part we ate.  We drank.  Sometimes we ate too little.  Sometimes we drank too much. But sometimes we were even a little merry.

It was a poignant time.  Caring for someone in such an intimate way is a profound privilege – and an enormous responsibility.  There we were, my original nuclear family – my mom, my dad, and myself – together, making it work one last time.  I cooked the chicken at home and brought my mom the walker she needed.   Nobody starved, and nobody fell.  I did the best I possibly could.  And I think it was enough.

My Mother’s Shoes

My mother’s high heels were way too big when, at four years old, I put them on and clumped down the hallway, lurching dangerously, trying to look big.  There is an old photo of me wearing them, smiling at myself in a full-length mirror.

When Mom wore her shoes, they made a grown-up click-click sound on the pavement as we crossed Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa.  Even in my own well-fitting shoes, my short legs had to hurry to keep up.

There is a reason why Mom always wore sophisticated “click-click” shoes.  When she was about four, doctors pronounced her pigeon-toed and prescribed orthopedic shoes. My mother started kindergarten wearing unfortunate white lace-ups to the offense of pint-sized fashion police everywhere.  She was, of course, the most offended of all, so when given the choice she filled her closet with everything but practical.  As an adult, Mom didn’t own a pair of athletic shoes save for one pair of black Reeboks, a reluctant concession in the name of walking for exercise.

Later, when my mom worked as a marriage and family therapist, she was attacked and nearly killed in her office.  Her shoes were found in her car although she lay inside, unconscious; just one more puzzling detail in an unfathomable crime.  But to me it wasn’t that weird: Mom routinely liked to drive barefoot, so her high-heeled shoes on the floor of her car weren’t really that mysterious.  She had thought she was going to drive somewhere, that was all.  She didn’t end up driving for another two months.

After recovering from a subdural hematoma, multiple fractures, and a couple of surgeries, Mom was doing pretty well except for numbness in her right foot.  Due to this, she wore shoes even less often than before.  There is a humorous story about Mom driving to work to facilitate a group and discovering that she had not brought any shoes at all.  She had to borrow some from a colleague.

Even with the residual balance and proprioception difficulties stemming from her injury, Mom still refused to wear practical shoes.  High heels, pointy toes, treacherous slip-ons – her shoes weren’t purchased for comfort or ease of wear.  They were purchased to look good, and look good they did.  She didn’t shop the sale racks, either.  Mom wore nice shoes.  Always.

I sold my mother’s shoes at a garage sale about two months ago.  My dad and I had the job of cleaning out her house after a rare cancer caused her to suffer in ways we’d never conceived of, then took her life on April 2nd.  She was 60.

My mom’s fabulous shoes never did fit me.  She was taller than I am, with bigger feet.  Alone in her closet shortly after she died, I slid a couple pairs on for old time’s sake.  They were still too big.  I glanced in the mirror and for all the world looked like a kid trying on her mother’s shoes.  I guess some things never change.

I could see the excitement in the eyes of the women at our garage sale when they discovered Mom’s shoes were their size.  Some of the pairs had hardly any wear; none were even approaching worn out.

I don’t feel too badly about letting Mom’s shoes go for only $3.00 a pair.  She certainly doesn’t need them anymore, and I can’t use them.  As the months go by, though, and I settle more deeply into the ample armchair of grief, I wonder: should I have kept a pair?

No, I conclude.  They’re just shoes.  The feet they were molded to are gone.  I’ll always be my mother’s daughter, but I’m not a little girl anymore.  It’s time for me to step into my own shoes and walk on.