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Mom 09-11-2015

posted Sep 11, 2015, 12:14 PM by Michael Conrad

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 I was in a room watching my mother die. There was a television mounted in the corner of the room showing the towers collapse on repeat, masses running in terror from the debris that flooded the streets in their wake. Talking heads waxed poetic about the attack, while my mother laid in bed, one leg missing, slowly letting go.

I was conscious of the television, but it didn’t occur to me to ask for it to be turned off. All of my focus was on apologizing and controlling the spasm of grief ripping through my chest. I had been a terrible son, the last time I had seen my mother those building still decorated the New York skyline.

My mother played a lot of Farmville. On Facebook I had given her some shit for constantly asking that I water her crops, or lend her a chicken. This was the bulk of our communication over the last year of her life, until something happened to her foot. She said she had stubbed her toe, but now it had turned serious and she might need to have her leg amputated. This seemed absurd to me, so when I spoke to her I even made jokes about how she would be the hottest peg-leg in Florida. About a week after that phone call I spoke to her and she had in fact lost the leg.

On the phone she seemed doped up, out of it, like a drunk. I asked her about the medication she was on, and reminded her that painkillers can be dangerous. She responded lazily that she was being careful and not to worry. I raised my voice to her a bit and commanded that she take it seriously, dressing up the end with “I love you, ok?” She told me she loved me too in a very lucid manner, something about it sounding more sincere than anything she had ever said to me in my life. A week later I was contacted by my grandmother. She said mom wasn’t eating and was depressed. She wasn’t leaving her room, and that they believed she was going to kill herself. They had my mother taken in for a 72 hour commitment to a facility, a week later she was dead.

I got the call at work, Barry, her long time friend had found my number. He told me I needed to get to Florida because it was unlikely my mother would last through the next few days. I ran home and before I knew it my fiance had booked us our flight to my least favorite place in the United States.

On the way to the airport I found myself scouring my mother’s social media with an attention to detail I had never given it before. I even opened up a gallery of Farmville pics. There were three, there was a note saying “People have asked me who lives in the homes on my game...” Each picture was of a house, each house was labeled with the name of one of her sons and their respective partners. The houses were adorned with decorations indicating a deep knowledge of who we were at the time, no doubt gleaned from paying attention to what we shared with the world at large via the internet. I wept.

When we landed I was greeted by my older brother, who up until that point had been kind of a mystery. After years away at school in Europe, and the Peace Corps in Africa we knew little of the men we had become. He greeted me with a strong embrace, both of us rolling uncommon tears, he said “This is gonna be hard bro.”

When we got to my mother for all intents and purposes she was already gone. She was on a powerful morphine drip and seemingly unaware of what was going on around her. They had found “dark spots” on an X-Ray of her stomach, I never asked what was killing her, but the obvious culprit was cancer.

I told her stories, fond memories, uncomfortable in the silence. I tried to explain why I had been so distant, and expressed how regretful I was about being such a deadbeat son. I didn’t bring up any of the “real good reasons” I had for not speaking to her, knowing that they were no longer valid. I would never get a chance to make up for it, and she would never have a chance to explain.

At some point the others left the room, I took the opportunity to invite mom to visit me after she passed. I whispered frantically that I wouldn’t be afraid, that she could come to me in dreams. I don’t think she has taken me up on the offer yet, which is consistent with her character. She was not the kind of person who would burden her child with such a thing.

My father called, he didn’t have a clear idea of what was happening. I broke the news to him that his wife of 25+ years and the mother of his children was dying. The phone went dead for a moment, his voice crying, asking for answers I didn’t have. He seemed to want me to know that he had regret too, he seemed to wish for me to know that he somehow felt responsible for this. A part of him was dying too.

That night we got drunk. We hung out with my uncle who I hadn’t seen since my early childhood. Earlier that day I had found a piece of writing my mother did about him, and how in many ways he was her first child. She wrote professionally, but this piece had a different color to it. It read like the memoir of someone very old who knew there was little time left to capture these thoughts. Mom was in her early 50’s.

We laughed a few times as the alcohol settled in, but tears flavored ever sip until we finally called it a night. I was flying back to California the following day, and I had intentions of getting up early for a final goodbye. As I laid down I prayed that she would pass before I left. It seemed gross to go home before the story ended. My brother woke us up very early, mom was gone, he was crying, I was relieved.

In effort to not seem like a heartless prick I faked some tears, the real ones coming only when I was left alone for a moment to dress. We went back to the hospice and we were invited to view her body, I declined. My fiance briefly encouraged me to do so, for closure, but I explained that she was no longer there. Her body was a car abandoned on the side of the road, she had left on foot. This didn’t stop me from asking my atheist brother to pray over her body.

They returned shortly, my brother explained that he had covered the bases with prayers of the three Abrahamic faiths. He said she looked peaceful, which brought me little comfort.

Barry had been there when she passed, I think he preferred to spend that time with her alone, maybe to ask her to visit him as well. His face was worn from the experience. Barry was a much shorter man than myself, and he looked so tiny walking away, alone. He had loved her, and I don’t know that my mother had ever truly acknowledged this.

Back at my mother’s house we quickly packed and grabbed a few things. I took a rosary from her rearview mirror. I placed it around my neck and vowed to wear it until it fell off. Among her other things we found a small pistol, loaded, with a bullet chambered. My grandmother told us that mom had planned on taking her life with that gun. When I went to unload it I found that the slide was jammed and it was unlikely that it would discharge without some work from a gunsmith.

Later my brother told me he believed that my mother knew she was dying all along. She had made some cryptic allusion to her own mortality and let him know about a small amount of money she had squirrelled away. He has done as I would have and told her to blow it on something fun, or to put it toward her dreams, he had no way of knowing that she had moved beyond dreaming and was on to the grim planning. That’s the kind of woman she was, stoic and more willing to face fear and suffering in private. Since her death I have made real effort to rediscover my emotional side knowing that quietly suffering can cause those you leave behind even more pain.

I would have loved to have spoken with my mother about her terminal condition. I would have filled her with hope, I would have been able to know that in spite of my absence from her life for all that time that I still loved her. I would have been there with her before it was too late. I would have noticed her tribute on that bullshit farm game. I would have read more of her writing, and let her know that her work has inspired me to write as well. I would have given back to her as much as I could in those final days in hopes of letting her know how much her sacrifice has meant to me. I would have let her know she was forgiven.

When September 11 rolls around I look at the memorial display with a cold dispassion. It’s not that my sympathies are not with those who suffered loss on that loathsome day, but I can’t help but think of the replay on the television in the room where I said my goodbyes to the woman who gave birth to me.

I love you mom.

Michael W Conrad