This post is archived on The Grieving Time.
It’s now been just over six weeks since our dad died, on August 26th, and of course, the remaining nine of us (Mom, and eight sibs) are going through our own processes, each of which, I imagine, is very different, depending.
For me, what I noticed and what I couldn’t seem to shake off, was a sense of being down under, inside Mom; that I was in communion with her, sharing her desolation and bewilderment. This went on for weeks.
(Hmmm. I wonder if the “break” of my right wrist was necessary to break me from that communion? And I wonder if my recognition that I feel, that because Perry was walking next to me, and I didn’t want to hurt her, just like I didn’t want to hurt Mom — I “took the fall” instead — was that the final straw? The final time I would inappropriately sacrifice my own welfare?)
It “stands to reason,” that I would experience my own grief in this convoluted way, since it repeated the nightmarish ordeal that Mom and I shared when Dad left for World War II and I was only nine months old. Alone with Mom. Alone with her suffering, her desolation, bewilderment. Me, the kid, trying to mother her. Trying to mother her so she could mother me.
Then, when he returned, two years later, the shutdown. How this big stern German man whom I did not know, and who called himself my father, and who took my mother away from me, squelched me, squelched the life out of me. Made me good. A good little obedient German daughter of the patriarchy.
Fast forward to when I was 26 and woke up. Not because I “saw the light,” but because the light saw me, apparently, found me, shook me up in the form of a very loud booming male voice that filled the hospital room in which I had just been told that they had done everything they could for me. That the doctor didn’t know; that I might die.
The doctor left the room. Left me alone in that room with needles poking every pore and stomach the size of a six-month pregnancy, thanks to generalized abdominal peritonitis, which had stopped responding to the long list of antibiotics that had been dripped into me for seven days.
The voice boomed. LIVE OR DIE. IT’S YOUR CHOICE.
Though I don’t remember actually making a decision, I do know that the next morning, when I woke up, I had slept all night for the first time since my admission, that I was no longer delerious with fever, that my stomach was flat, and that, when I got up to use the bathroom for the first time, the planes of my face had been rearranged.
I’ve told this story before. I bring it up again now because I’m looking at a painting that sister Marnie sent. Our 94-year-old Mom did painted it a few weeks ago, and I’m rejoicing. Her happy frog(?) now graces the bulletin board in the hallway that she and her friends scoot down with their walkers on the way to the cafeteria.
Live or die. It’s your choice! And she chose to live. Apparently. She did not die within weeks of Dad as she had told me she wanted to. I had replied that if she didn’t, it was because her soul had another lesson for her in this life, and perhaps it had to do with learning how to live on her own.
Instead of following him right away, instead of interrupting whatever process he’s now in (three of us siblings, independently, have each seen him excited, studying, learning, exploring), 94-year-old Renee (Re-nee, the very name means “reborn”!) is finding her way solo, for the very first time in her life, making her way around that wonderful, loving “institution” that how shelters her, Mount St. Vincent, learning the habits of her neighbors, sitting with other widows for meals, participating various activities, including art classes.
Wow! I just remembered that a few weeks ago I bought a frog for the garden. Did our frogs come on the same day? Frog: symbol of transformation, rebirth, fertility . . .
And I tell my “live or die” story again because I realize that the sinking feeling of underground communion with Mom has now dissipated. I feel whole, separate, occupying my own space. Alive.
As long as I was in communion with her, I felt a deep, buried, relentless fury against my father. Fury that she had to wait so long — had to wait until he died, forgodsakes! — to find her own way. Fury that he took up so much energy in the room, always did. Not that he meant to. He just did. He was an entitled patriarch, and she was his wife, the one who helped smooth the way for his gruff personality in social situations, and who had to bury parts of herself in order to modulate her being enough to walk by his side.
Is the fury I was feeling (and that I felt, and consciously acted out, for decades, after my wakeup call at 26) hers?
Is Jung right? — that the child lives out the unconscious of the parent?
All those years in the latter decades of their common life with Fox News on, louder and louder as his deafness increased. More and more she had simply checked out. We called it dementia. Was it really? Or was it her way of hibernating, maintaining just a core of vital functions in anticipation of this time now, when she would, at long last, and finally, gracefully slip off the garment of wife and discover the parts of herself that had gone underground for so long. Even if her new life lasts just a little while, she will have met and integrated its challenge. She’s well on her way already. I’m so proud of my mom.
As long as she had her territory, house and home with eight children to care for, she was fully present. But then we all left. And she gradually drifted into another world, becoming more and more dependent on him, more and more needy. It was hard for him, but he bore this burden that his wife had become like a trooper. He ended up being the one in charge of the house and home, of meals and making sure she got dressed and undressed, and changed her depends.
Until the end. Until about a year ago, when sister Kristin insisted that they move out of their retirement village to Mount Saint Vincent, close to where Kris lives and works, and enjoy “assisted living” now that they were in the mid-90s and Dad was beginning the kidney deterioration that ultimately took him out.
Of course he fought it. Proud German patriarchs do not take help easily. Except from their families. During this past summer, when his long long journey into the night had commenced, more and more he did lean on us, all of us, whoever was around, alternately gruff and grateful, depending on how much pain he was in.
And all those months Mom sat there, next to him, mute, unnoticed, barely there. His increasing infirmity was now taking up even more of whatever oxygen had been leftover for her. And when the end came, and he did let go, his last breath while she was kissing his cheek, it took a while for her to know that he was gone. Even now, she is surprised when she must realize it again and again, over and over, and the wave of sorrow crashes through her like a tsunami.
But now, in early October, each time she leaves her wonderful little studio apartment that we moved her into only one week after he died, she says good-bye to Ben, who sits on her nightside table, looking out lovingly, meeting her eyes. Mom has transformed her grieving into ritual, while slowly making her way out the door, into the hallway, and on to her many activities.
Last weekend, brother Mark visited, spent a whole day with her. She insisted that he sing and play the guitar for her friends, the other widows, in the common room. Finally, he relented. I imagine him singing the song he composed for her, “Lady Renee.” I’m sure they all loved it.