Now that I have some time, and a little bit of time to think, I feel like I can finally say this:
Tomorrow marks exactly one month since my mother passed away. July 23 will always be a day to remember, but for all the wrong reasons. For those who don’t know exactly what happened, she had some breathing issues that night, and was able to call the ambulance on her own. By the time that the paramedics arrived, however, she had stopped breathing. Her heart had been slightly enlarged; she had gained some weight, and for as long as I could remember, was a smoker. They found at least one pulmonary embolism on her lungs, and perhaps more. I guess in the end, her heart wasn’t strong enough anymore.
Her heart shouldn’t have been so heavy to begin with.
She had lost her own mother when she was twelve years old; her mother died in a car accident. To lose a parent at that age must be tough, especially with the upcoming teenage years being an unpredictable roller coaster. My own teen years were rough- growing up with Asperger’s, or depression, or PTSD, or whatever other physical or emotional conditions is already tough enough. I know people mean well, but it’s something you can’t really explain from an outsider’s perspective. You can imagine it, but it always annoyed me when they said, “I know what it’s like.” I think they’re half-right: they know what it’s like to feel pain, but they don’t know why you feel that pain. They also don’t know why it doesn’t go away right away. It’s not impossible to overcome, but to say it’s easier than they give themselves credit for is an insult to everybody involved.
As far as my own relationship with my mom, I remember two versions of her. The first version is the pre-AS diagnosis version, which lasted up until I was ten. My mom wasn’t necessarily happy, but she was able to survive. She gave birth to two boys, who hopefully have grown up into men of honor and integrity. On her sad days, relatives would make sure I didn’t have to see her sad. They would help her to bed. I remember being six years old, giving my mom a glass of water, and my aunt saying that it was a very nice thing that I did. When my mom woke up the next morning, she hugged me and told me that it helped her feel better. Until the summer of 1997, everything seemed easier.
When I was diagnosed that summer, it’s like everything changed. No matter what issues my parents faced on their own, I still felt somewhat responsible. There will always be a part of me that wonders if they could have stayed together if I hadn’t been diagnosed. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, although it could have delayed the result. That’s something that, for better or for worse, although I should know better, I will still blame myself for.
After my parents began divorce proceedings in 1998, the other mom I knew emerged- the post-AS diagnosis mom. Her relatives tried to protect her, doing everything they could, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t accept their help. For the next decade, she survived, but didn’t necessarily thrive. Things in my family were still tough- my brother and I grew up, went to high school, and had to face the world for the first time. Basically, our innocence was lost.
For the last five or six years, from 2008 until this July, I saw my mom collapse into herself. She fell apart, both because of a loss of income, and a loss of confidence. She was angry at the world. Sometimes, I felt like it was legitimate, other times I felt like she could have tried a little harder. Sometimes, you can’t tell with these things. I did all I could, even paying her rent for a few months during the final year I lived with her.
When I moved into my apartment in August 2012, she was upset that I hadn’t told her that I had done it. Instead of being able to show her around, she dropped me off, burst into tears, and went off on a tirade about how the world was against her. It’s not that I didn’t want to tell her, but everything happened so fast that it got lost in translation. I still feel like a bad son to this day for doing that.
I tried to help her out as much as I could in her past few years, but as time wore on, I found it harder and harder to see her. It wasn’t her inside her body- at least not the woman who had given birth to me. I wanted to care, but sometimes, I got angry. I wanted her to get better, but I couldn’t do everything for her. She had to help herself.
Finally, after yet another tirade and outburst, I finally asked her that whatever issues she had with the divorce, not to let me know about them. I didn’t want to have to choose sides. Maybe that’s what they meant when they use the expression “ignorance is bliss.” Unfortunately, she couldn’t do this for me.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t love my mom, but at some point, I couldn’t be the lifeline that she needed me to be. This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way myself- take the help when you can get it, but don’t be afraid to help yourself. My mom couldn’t take the help- my aunt offered to let her move in with her, but she said she didn’t want to go live in the South. For me, it may not have been ideal, but if someone was offering it to me, I would take it, and do my best to meet their generosity.
But, I can also remember my mom at her best- a woman who earned a Master’s degree from a Big Ten university; one who loved her two sons with all her heart; one who was devoted to passionate causes, and although we may have been reluctant to go, she showed us how far activism can carry you. I also remember her amazing music collection, from R.E.M. to Lucinda Williams to Van Morrison to The Beatles. It’s as if that would help her spirit, if only temporarily.
She gave me two gifts that I hold very sacred. First, obviously, she gave me life. Just to have that is something I take for granted from time to time. Second, she gave me the inspiration to try writing. She told me something that I’ve never forgotten:
“Don’t be afraid to tell your story. Tell your own story. Even if it isn’t the best written, even if there isn’t a happy ending, even if you have to scream it from the highest building, tell your story. The fact that you have a story to tell in the first place means you’ve done something valuable.”
When 12 Angry Jurors wrapped on July 26, it had only been three days since her passing. She would hopefully have been at the show that week. One last time, I let her down- since her relationship with my dad was so toxic, I told her that they were coming the same night she was planning to come. She changed her mind, planning to come the following week. If I had known what would happen, I would have asked her to come anyway. I don’t know if she got to see the show or not from wherever she is now, but I’d like to think she’d be clapping and telling the person next to her, “That’s my baby boy.” Even one day after the event, I went to pickup rehearsal. I didn’t know where else to go. I needed to be there for my own healing. I also went to closing night, and paid tribute the best way I knew how- a kiss to the heavens. Hopefully, in whatever realm she is now in, she is safe, in the arms of somebody comforting. Hopefully, she doesn’t have to suffer anymore. That would be too much for anybody to handle, I think.
Perhaps this didn’t quite offer the closure I hoped for. I’m still figuring out how and when to grieve. But perhaps this is a good start. The fact that I can tell this part of her story, and mine, illustrates that a story never dies if you tell enough people to keep it alive.
I lover you, Mom, wherever you went. Know that your two boys are going to be okay. It may take a while, but somehow, we’ll get through. That’s all we can do at this stage. Thank you for making us into good men, ones who do their best under the worst circumstances, and encouraging us to keep going when we couldn’t.
Here’s hoping you’re able to tell your story.