I’ve gone back over that weekend in my head so many times, trying to pinpoint the exact moment the year began. I’ve decided it was the car accident that happened in front of me. The guy didn’t see the car turning into him. I saw it. The weird thing is I saw it before it happened, in slow motion. Why did I see it in slow motion when he didn’t see it coming at all?
I pulled over. Instantly the scene became a flurry of ambulance lights and gawkers coming out of the woodwork from all around. The acrid smell of motor oil, gasoline, and hot pavement filled the air. Nervously I gave my account of what I saw to the police officer as I watched the guy being tended to on the side of the road. His car beside him was a twisted pile of metal. I couldn’t tell if he was even conscious.
Disturbed, I decided not to continue on in my errands that evening. I turned around and went back home. That’s when I got the text from my father. “Mom in the hospital. Will let you know when I know more.”
Then again, maybe the year began a few days earlier, when my mom told me she wasn’t feeling well on the phone. I told her to get rest and drink lots of fluids before I changed the subject back to general chit-chat. And yet the conversation stayed with me uncomfortably after we hung up. There was something in her voice. I’ve gone over this moment so many times, but I can never tell if I saw it coming in slow motion or never saw it at all.
They say the first year is the hardest. Each day you realize you aren’t going to see your mom today. And it won’t be tomorrow. Or the day after that. Or the day after that. Your body is designed to move forward, to labor through day after day. The brain, on the other hand, realizes this is going to be a very long time. The rest of your life.
It takes the brain a long time to catch up to what the gut knows. Your mom is dead. In fact, your brain finds that out anew and fresh, every single day.
The brain decides to stay back. The first year is all about staying. Why move forward when there’s no place to go? The day after that. And the day after that. Don’t you see this is nowhere? All of these days lead to nothing. Your mother is not waiting for you at the end of any of them. The day after that! The day after that!
Life begins to feel like a mirror maze. One of my favorite things at the beach growing up were the amusements at the end of the boardwalk. My favorite was the mirror maze, which my sister and I always gladly paid the steep admission of three tickets a piece. With each turn we’d take, we’d barge and bang into the mirrors, sometimes head first. I can hear my dad laughing, swearing that our heads must be hollow.
Indeed, our hollow heads bumping into the mirrors would echo and bounce throughout the maze. And I can see the carnie attendant cringing and yelling for us to walk with our hands out in front of us. In fact, I’m pretty sure we were the sole reason that the next season they put up a sign that said WALK WITH YOUR HANDS OUT.
GONG. Another mirror! BAP. Another mirror!
And the day after that. And the day after that.
The worst is not the death itself. The death itself is a relief in ways. Being completely gutted is a relief in ways. Your stomach has been in knots for so long, desperately trying to plug itself up and keep all of your internal organs inside. That initial puncture is a great relief.
The hospital experience still haunts me. Grief is one thing to deal with, the hospital experience is another. Grief is a guest that sits down beside you, goes on walks with you, quietly reflects with you. The hospital is a thief that breaks into your house, smashes your windows, takes a sledgehammer to your furniture, and robs you blind.
Some days, it’s the faces. One of those faces is that of my mother, and I notice she isn’t looking at me, but through me. Most of the time, it’s all of the other faces of the doctors and staff.
In the past year, I’ve gone back and studied every face, and I see it in their eyes. Every single one of those bastards. Every single one knew. I see their avoidance, their sorrow, their boredom, their empathy, and their complete inability to look fully at me. They all saw it coming in slow motion. I saw nothing at all.
You know, I get it. Your mother has septic shock, her organs are gradually shutting down one by one, and this is a textbook case; we see it twice a week here in the ol’ ICU! The mortality rate is 60%, and right now your mom is batting well above that with the most recent shutdown of the lungs and gallbladder!
Make yourself at home here on that creaky, wiry fold-out chair! Plus there’s a coffee machine in the waiting area, where we supply no cups, water, cream, sugar, or actual coffee! Only the best in comfort for you! MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME. WE MEAN IT. Because it takes another two agonizing weeks for the brain and heart to fully die!
I get that’s probably not what they want to say to the families. Yet they said nothing. And perhaps we heard nothing, too deafened by raging denial and hope and the idiotic small talk you pass the time with in hospitals.
Two weeks. Sometimes the entire year occurs in just those two weeks. At first it was just a high white blood cell count. Then it was a personality change. Then it was kidney failure. Liver failure. Gall bladder failure. Then there was the delirium. Then there was the coma.
Then there was the decision we made to amputate her leg. We were desperate. We could all see the angry hornet of an infection, flaming red hot, crawling up her leg. We practically begged the surgeon to do it, who was hesitant and aloof.
My wife is a social worker. I remember her grumbling at one point that the hospital should provide us with a social worker to help us work through this traumatic experience.
Are you kidding me? This place can’t even provide us with coffee!
Then there was the lung failure. The blood pressure bottoming out.
The jaundice. The gangrene. The pneumonia. The stroke.
Oh, and then there was the wife, who found out she was pregnant one morning. And later that day when they told us my mom would pass within the hour. I told my mother she was a grandmother for the first time, thinking those would be my last words to her.
Yet she didn’t die that night. My dad stayed up the entire night, begging her to hang on for just another hour. Just one more hour. So she did.
Then there is the denial. The anger. The bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. It’s kind of like a parlor game to guess which stage you’re in at any given moment.
Then there was the brain death. And finally the heart was the last to go.
Make yourself at home! Two people can sit on the fold-out chair and a third can sit on the toilet! Just make sure you leave room for the eight-foot-tall, four-foot-wide dialysis machine. And the massive breathing machine console. Oh, you’ll get used to them, they’re like old friends in no time.
Sit down, stay awhile, amputate a limb or two, find out you’re having a kid! The coffee machine is in the lobby! There is no coffee in there. The hospital chapel is in the basement. There is no God in there.
The brain, for all its marvels, has a clunky filing system. Memories you’d like to savor forever get promptly archived, so make sure you take lots of pictures to help you remember your vacations. Hospital memories don’t get filed away automatically. You’ve got to do it manually, one by one. This isn’t me writing. This is me filing.
I have filed away so much, and yet there is always something new to see, some unexamined angle. There are some things I cannot file away. They are those sentences I’ve written several times in this space and erased. Because I don’t need to tell you everything. Because I don’t know where the line is that says too much. Because my inner critic says I’m a terrible writer that should quit while I’m ahead.
Yet mostly because it’s the parts that stick to you the worst are too hard to explain. They’re the tiny regrets — the replaying of some idiot thing you said over and over. Or they’re the stuffed animal in the room, a plush dog, purchased from the hospital gift shop. Sometimes that fucking stuffed animal bothers me more than my mom missing out on being a grandmother.
Where do you even file that in the brain’s grief archives? It’s like having a junk drawer full of the random objects that you can’t quite get rid of, but can’t put anywhere else. The stuffed animal, the tear drop, the doughnut, the man in the elevator, the week-old newspaper that sits on the end table day after day.
All of it is so vivid. Yet everything that comes after is a blur. There are the arrangements, the funeral, and the next twelve months. A year.
I’m not broken, yet my life is filled with tiny hairline fractures, caused by the unbearable weight of losing someone. I find the fractures in unsurprising places. I find them in shocking places. Do they heal? They do not heal. Will they strengthen? Yes, but give them oxygen. The fresh air is good for everything.