The Intersection of Grief and Gratitude

I’ve been working n a new novel. It started out as a way to deal with my grief. I guess it’s worked, because I’m down to the rare moment of melancholy. What I write today may seem painful, but I view it from a place of gratitude. I lost my Mom back in January. She had a three year battle with cancer and eventually her body gave up. I was fortunate enough to be her caregiver for the last two years of her life. For this, I am eternally grateful.

We were close, my Mom and I. Through the years, I had years where I was the seldom-seen kid, times when I moved back home, and other times where I was somewhere in between. When I moved back in with her for the last time, we became two peas in a pod. There was nothing that I wouldn’t do for her, and as time wore on, she became more and more dependent on me. I remember thinking, “This is what the next twenty years of my life is going to look like.” And I was fine with that.

This story is not about how Mom lived, but more about how I lived. To tell that story, I have to take you back a decade or so. Back to when I was “That Guy.” I was pretty much of a heathen when I was growing up, and that mentality carried forward into my working life. I was selfish, vain, drunk and irresponsible. Everything that happened to me was someone else’s fault. You all know someone who is “that guy.”

Anyhow, about ten years ago I finally escaped the service industry. I’d been running restaurants for the better part of fifteen years, and every career move was a step down on the food chain. I was a angry, burnt out mess. The escape pod picked me up at the right time. I got into a job that meant that I could give back some of what I had taken. The change was not without its growing pains.

At the beginning of 2012, my Mom had a houseful of invalids. In a three month period, my grandmother would almost die, my step-father would pass, and I would move 1300 miles away. Gram ended up in assisted living. Mom had the weight of the world on her shoulders. In this place of struggle, a ritual was born.

My grandmother was a demanding woman. She was sharp as a whip, pretty as a princess and always dressed to the nines. Even well into her 90s she was still doing her makeup and dressing every day. My mother was driving twenty-five miles each way almost every day to take care of all Gram’s needs, including some days stopping at Meijer AND Walmart to get the brands that Gram wanted. Mom might spend all day at the facility, but she still called Gram every night at six o’clock to say “Goodnight.”

I think I was still in Denver when I found out about this nightly call. I remember thinking, ‘why didn’t I think of that?” For the next six years, I called Mom every night at seven o’clock. Then, in the summer of 2016, just like any other night, I made the nightly call. I was in throes of the election season, and I was up to my neck in campaign work. She said, “Your brother says I have to tell you so I will. I have cancer.” I gutted the election out (that’s another story) and went home in early November to get her through the last six weeks of her chemo and radiation. Two months later, she got a clean bill of health and I got my marching orders to move to Philadelphia.

The next year was excruciating. They tell you that you’re cancer free. What they don’t tell you is that they’ve destroyed your immune system and some of your basic functions of life. Like swallowing, for example. We had our nightly calls. I would make the eight-hour drive home as often as time would allow. Finally in 2018, I got to move back to Columbus for good. We settled into a routine.

I’ve never been married, I don’t have any kids. I’ve had a few serious relationships in my time, but at no point have I ever had anyone who I was responsible for. Remember? My middle name is irresponsibility. I came home to a very fragile girl. I honestly don’t know how she stayed alive during the previous year.

My entire restaurant life had been spent snapping at people, belittling them, demanding more than they should have to give. My new job had changed me for the better, but I still was fairly uncivilized. It was almost like I had to train myself to be a human being again. I had to learn to manage my mood.

Mom was disabled, There is no better way to put it. They’d burned her vocal cords, so she could barely talk. She couldn’t swallow, so they put in a g-tube in her stomach. She had rheumatoid arthritis, so it was hard for her to use the syringe for her feedings or the grinder for her seventeen different medications. She could barely walk, let alone get up the stairs to her bed. I became her cook, her nurse, her maid, her driver, her bodyguard. Not only that, I became her window on the world. It was my job to make sure she had some sunshine in her life. It became my occupation.

One thing they don’t teach you in school is how to act when you’re around sick people, old people or little kids. There are some times in this world where you absolutely cannot wear your emotions on your sleeve. Dealing with someone who’s chronically ill is one of those time. Your frustration can wait until you walk out of the room. It was a learning process. I started doing things I never would have dreamed of.

Every time I walked into the room where she was sitting, I would say “Hi!” It would be upbeat, enthusiastic. I wanted her to know that she had my undivided attention. I might say it six or seven times a day, and that was fine. It was my thing. I would say “I Love You!” multiple times a day. I said “Good Night My Love!” every night and “Good Morning Sunshine!” every day. I tried to never bring her down. I never let her see me sweat.

Mom spent the last two months of her life in hospital rooms. I was there most of the time. I kept up all of my rituals. Even when she felt like shit, I could say “Hi!” and get her to smile. In the end, I think I kept her alive for a few weeks after she was ready to give up. I was selfish in that way. But I’m hoping that her mind was at ease when she slipped away.

If you take anything from this essay, I hope it’s this. In this crazy time of Covid-19, we have the ability to keep our loved ones going. It’s easy to get mired in “woe is me,” but it’s way more fulfilling to make someone smile, to ease their burden. Maybe in that simple act you can ease your own burden as well.

peace, my friends

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