This past week while working on my newsletter, I debated many times over the value of sharing something quite personal. I sometimes question the current culture of social media in which nothing is real until it is blogged about, tweeted or facebooked. But the events of my own life have been so thoroughly hijacked in recent weeks that to even attempt to write about anything else seems disingenuous, and well…faintly ridiculous.
On September 22nd, my mom, Sally Ann Mehl, died of cancer. She was 75. She died, irony of ironies, at home in our “living room”, propped up in a rented hospital bed. Since we all have parents, and this is something that sooner or later we all will face, I thought there might be some merit in reflecting briefly upon her passing.
There was very little warning. A fortnight before she died, my mom and I attended a birthday party for my Uncle Pete. We laughed with our relatives, ate eggplant parm and ice-cream cake (her favorite). In the two weeks that followed, we learned that my mother had cancer of the gall bladder, which had metastasized into her liver. What should have been a routine operation to remove troublesome gall stones turned into a ten-day hospital vigil of hushed conversations, hand-wringing, dwindling options – finally ending with that execrable phrase “take her home, make her comfortable.” Her only choice in the end was where she would die. Since she was not lucid, my siblings and I made that decision for her and took her back to our house in Roseland.
The facts of my mother’s life are as unremarkable as cancer. She was born, lived and died in New Jersey. She never went to college, wrote an autobiography, or took home an Oscar. She never appeared on television, traveled to Africa or won a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, she rarely ever won the raffle during the local church fundraising night. But she did take the prize in one category: mother. She excelled at it, and she cherished being a mom and grandmother. She took great pride in telling anyone who would listen, “I have 5 kids.” Or more specifically, “I’ve got 5 great kids.”
She was a woman who knew and accepted her own limitations. She didn’t have to be Wonder Woman like we all do now. When she didn’t know the answers, she’d buy Tell Me Why reference texts and encyclopedias to help us stretch our minds beyond her own understanding. She made flash cards for me when I struggled with the multiplication tables. She could whip up a mean Taylor ham and egg sandwich. My mom preserved our first grade book reports and school papers in a file cabinet like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Mrs. Mehl had a special knack for sewing and making meatball sandwiches for the students at Our Lady of Blessed Sacrament. Our Halloween costumes were always the most fabulous, and completely homemade.
The last few days while my mother was in the hospital, we spent the time talking and holding hands. We cried. She told me her stories, the same ones she has recited a thousand times over (she also had Alzheimer’s). She gave me kisses and winks. I thanked her for loving me.
While emotionally draining, the experience of walking with someone on the last leg of this journey is an absolute privilege. Being present to my mom in these moments taught me more about letting go, grace, patience and sacrifice than all of the meditation, running marathons, psychotherapy, and yoga that I’ve done in the last ten years combined.
That’s not to say I’m fine with it. I’m not. I’m still upset about it. Two weeks’ notice is simply not enough. Yes, I’m glad that my mom’s suffering is over; she had a lot of pain towards the end. And I’m glad that the dementia that slowly stripped away her memory and dignity over the last six years is now powerless against her. But I’m mad that she will never hold my children or attend my brother’s wedding next month. I feel cheated when I see others walking the planet who have given up on themselves while my mom wasn’t given another month to watch the leaves turning this fall. But this kind of thinking gets you nowhere.
I’ve noticed that people behave in the oddest ways when you are bereaved. That’s okay, most people don’t know what to do. And yet, kind words are a huge consolation. So if someone you know is grieving, utter something, even if it’s “I don’t know what to say…” It’s nice when someone stops by to drop off a prayer blanket in the mailbox outside, but far better to come inside and sit for a few minutes. Touch the person. Talk to them. Say nothing at all. Just be authentic about it.
And therein lies the rub: most of us are simply terrified of death, even more so of sickness. Seeing it, being near it, watching someone else go through it – it’s uncomfortable. But why? Isn’t this the one experience that unites us all in the end? This isn’t to be morbid about it, or to feel superior in my grief – you haven’t lived what I’ve gone through. But when you see the lengths to which people will go in order to avoid facing their own mortality, you realize just how silly it all is. Our time here is finite. And very short. The trick is to use that knowledge to your advantage. All that worry and guilt and anxiety that consumes you from day to day – guess what? It’s useless and doesn’t serve you. Wasted human energy. Norman Cousins said it best: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we are still living.”
If my mom showed me anything, it is the enduring value of friendships. The route to a meaningful life does not lie in the accumulation of “stuff” – but in the quality of the relationships you cultivate along the way. The outpouring of affection for her in the past few weeks has been consoling and beautiful. And she deserves all of it, because she gave so much of it herself. I’m reminded of that great Beatles line: “And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give.”
People tell you time heals all wounds. Letting go is never easy, but holding on is harder. And on and on. I know these quotes and use them myself from time to time. But the one I like most is: “Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. Realize its strength; move on.”
The funny thing is, you know very quickly when something like this happens whether you are going to be okay or not. And even in my initial shock at the hospital, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay. Yes, there will be sadness ahead, scar tissue, feelings of loss. But everything is going to be okay. I know that now. Everything is going to be okay. It already is.
Sally Ann Mehl 1935-2010 R.I.P