Losing the Ones We Love

Everything in this world is temporary.  Given a far enough timeline, all life must eventually come to an end.  In its finite nature, there is beauty.  For it is all the more important to treasure the things which we know can’t last forever.

I know this in my heart and in my mind.

But what your brain knows cannot unbreak your heart. And no matter how inevitable it is that we lose the ones we love, it never takes the overwhelming sense of loss away. Some things, once lost, can never be recovered.

The phone call which started it all is as clear to me as the sunny skies on the day on which it was received.

“I’m on my way Hartford Hospital. Mom was sent there by Lifestar. It’s pretty bad. They think it’s a stroke.”  My father’s voice, level as always.  The world comes crashing down.

Panic.

The first few moments are surreal.  Heart racing.  I feel dizzy.  Sick.  Confused.  I think I’m supposed to be in a meeting in 5 minutes.  What the fuck do I say?

I call my sister.  There’s no way she’s okay.  She’s the closest to Mom (well except Dad, of course).  It takes a few tries but I get her.  She’s sobbing.  My brain starts to break it down rational, digestible segments.  Sort of.

Does she need a ride?  Is she coming in from New Haven?  Am I supposed to pretend to work?  No, she has a ride.  So I’m on my own.

The drive to the hospital is a dream.  Nothing feels concrete.  How fast am I driving?  Does it even matter?  The thoughts race through a million miles a second.  I start thinking the worst.  I try to talk myself down, but it’s hard.

When I arrive, my father and brother are in the ER waiting room.  My brother sits in stunned silence, fidgeting with his phone.  My father offers the little information he’s been given.  A doctor gives me technical information I don’t understand and I can only think one thing to ask.

“Is she going to die?”

The doctor say people rarely die of strokes.  But I can tell from her discomfort that it’s bad.  And she just doesn’t know.  I don’t blame her.  I wouldn’t want to make empty promises either.  They’re working on it.  We consent to treatment. Blood-thinning drugs.  It’s risky, but they think it’s for the best.

Everything’s murky and we’re swimming in a sea of uncertainty.  Nobody ever tells you how to handle these situations.  Probably because you can’t.

The Long Wait

Hours and hours go by.  The doctors come and go.

My sister and her boyfriend show up.  She’s crying as she hugs me.  I don’t even remember the last time we hugged.  I try to fill her in on everything we know so far… but it isn’t much.  And it’s ugly, but this is no time for empty lies.  Some damage is permanent.  Best case.  But they don’t know.

There are complications.  It’s not a typical clot. They need to do surgery.  More time slips away.  I wish I had shorts on.

How fucking stupid is that?  My mother lies in a coma, unable to reach out to the world, and it occurs to me that I wish I wasn’t wearing my work pants.  Come on, brain, keep it together.

We wait and we wait.  Time slips away.  The doctors come again.  They want to speak in private, but there’s nowhere to go.  So we just speak quietly.  I feel like my chest is going to cave in.  I can’t breathe.  It’s not good when they want to speak privately.  I’m not stupid.

They couldn’t save part of her brain.  It’s the dominant side hemisphere.  It’ll affect the right side of her body.  And it’s right in the language center of her brain.  If she can’t understand or communicate with the outside world, her rehabilitation prospects aren’t good.  But we don’t know.  Not yet.

The doctor raises the cold specter of reality as sensitively as he can.

“But you might start to think about quality of life.”

Quality of Life.

You don’t even know what you’re rooting for.  They say maybe she’ll be… “okay.”  Not okay okay.  But “life worth living” okay.  Will she ever walk again?  Speak again?  Will she even understand speech?

Nobody knows.  They know it’s agonizing but they can’t predict.  It’s just a waiting game.  A week?  A month?  When will we know?  What will it look like? Will we ever know?

You tell your friends and family.  They ask questions but you don’t have answers.  Have I already had the last conversation with my mother?  Is she going to look weird with half of her face paralyzed?  When will we know?  A week?  A month?  Tomorrow?

More Darkness.

I’m trying to stay distracted.  Playing poker with friends.  Going through the motions.  It’s hard to feel anything resembling pleasure or happiness but I’m trying.  Breathing.  Living.

You almost feel guilty any time you laugh.  Am I supposed to enjoy life still?  How many times a week should I be visiting?  Does she even know I’m there?  There aren’t any answers.  Just question after question.  I think you have to forgive yourself at some point.  Nobody’s strong enough to be everything to everyone in these times.

My phone rings.  It’s my father.  My heart sinks.

Brain swelling.  Emergency surgery.  She might not survive the night.

Back in the hospital.  My brother and sister are trying to keep it together but it’s impossible.  They both break down.  I hate awkward silences but even I have nothing to say.  We just wait, staring impatiently at the clock.  My tears haven’t come.  Yet.  I prefer to be the stoic one.  Like my father.

He walks over and rubs my sister’s back, a sign of comfort I’ve never seen.  It’s alien to me.  As if I’m just dreaming.

Hours go by.  Is it 2 am?  Later?  Does it matter?

A doctor finally arrives and say she’s survived.  For now.  But he says it’s grim.

Grim.

He talks about quality of life.  About what she’d want.  There’s more tears.  Not mine.  Not yet, anyway.  I’m still in denial I guess.  Or shock.  I don’t know.

But it’s late.  We’re exhausted.  We have to sleep.  It never comes easy these days.  But eventually, it comes.

Time Passes Slowly.

The days pass by.  The swelling is ugly.  It’s hard to see your mother hooked up to machines.  She doesn’t even look like herself.  Her arm has to be restrained because she’ll pull out her breathing tube.  You want to comfort her.  To hold her.  To tell her it’ll be alright.

But it feels like a lie even as it slips through your lips.  My sister has optimism I can’t seem to share.  But I don’t discourage her.  I just feel empty.

It doesn’t feel like it’s going to be alright at all.

Days go by.  The swelling goes down.  The CAT scans come in.  The damage is… comprehensive.  The language centers… the dominant side movement.  Even the other side during the swelling.  The doctors  say things like “anything is possible, but… ”

They trail off.  I know what it means.

Sometimes Hope is Poison.

People wish you the best.  They tell you to keep hope.  They say your mom is a fighter (she is).  They pray for you.  They send positive wishes and vibes and feelings your way.

Days go by.

And then you’re standing there, alone, in a hospital, crying.  You hold her hand.  She looks at you and there’s no glimmer of recognition.  No sign of the love she has held for me her entire life.  No understanding of what’s happened.

She looks at me.  She looks away.  She stares vacantly at her fingernails and bites them absentmindedly.  I may as well be a nurse or a stranger in that room.  I’m alone.

I tell her I miss her and I love her.

I want to hope for her.  But I don’t.  I can’t.

Whoever she was… whoever she has ever been.  She’s not there now.

She’s gone.

My friends tell me to keep hope.  But at some point… hope is poison.  It infects you.  It lies to you.  It makes empty promises.  And you know the truth.  Because it’s staring at you.

I want to throw up.

Dark Choices.

Every day that passes is a slow march towards the inevitable.  My dad says we have choices, but I don’t see any choice here.

She doesn’t know who we are.  She can’t communicate with the outside world. At all.

There’s no hand squeezing, no glimmer of recognition.  She can’t swallow.  This isn’t life.  This is…

… the end, I guess.

My sister and father meet with the hospice doctors to pursue palliative (end of life) care.  I know.  I’ve known for awhile.  But when you get the call that we’re going to stop intervening, we’re going to stop keeping her alive on a machine.  That we’re just going to…

… nothing’s ever easy.

A Brief Respite.

We take my father out for Father’s Day.  He thinks we should skip it but I refuse, uncharacteristically, adamantly pro-family.  Now, more than ever, we need to stick together.  To take some small solace in each other.  To enjoy what we have left.

Mom would’ve wanted that, I think.

We reminisce about our vacation to Puerto Rico.  And how Mom struggled mightily at the hiking she wasn’t physically ready for.  She was so mad at me.  So frustrated.  But I was proud of her. I always found new and exciting ways to irritate her I suppose.  I’m an innovator in that sense.

You laugh.  You have a few drinks.  You try to forget.

But like a shadow, it’s always there.  Always shading every experience.  Darkening every chuckle.  Corrupting every smile.

Despair and Anger

Before, the waiting was awful because it was filled with anxiety and uncertainty and fear.  The unknown.

Now we know.  And we wait.

You just want it to be over.  You want peace.  You want anything in the whole fucking world but to be sitting in a hospital room watching this.

This woman who brought me into the world and all she’s ever been.  Her ferocity, her intellect, her pride, her stubborn nature, her love, her sense of family, her sense of justice, her passion, her projects, her dreams, her entire nature.

And you just watch it all deteriorate.  Every second.  Every minute.  Every hour.  Every day.

I know it’s misdirected, but it only fuels my hatred of people who would stop me from giving peace to my mother.  Who think this is less cruel than just ending it now.  I don’t understand.  It fills me with an anger which feels foreign to me.

I know it’s stupid, but… sometimes it’s easier to be angry than accept that there’s no villain.  No reason.  No fairness or meaning to it.  It’s just… the way it is.  Nothing can change it.

But you can’t hold onto it.  The anger, the rage, the frustration.  It changes nothing.  Still, you are powerless.  Still, you can only sit.  And watch.  And wait.

Time passes.  The inevitable comes, always.

Even in Darkness, Love Matters

If there’s something to be gained in all this, it’s the knowledge that I have a pretty terrific group of people who love me and look after me, even when I can’t look after myself.

My stoic father, always presenting a face of quiet strength and acceptance.  Always there for us.  Always there for Mom.  Good ol’ reliable Dad.  I quietly hope this will bring us closer than ever.

My “little” brother, who has tried so hard to be strong, but who was filled with such love and forgiveness for my mother and all of her foibles.  I know he has struggled, even as his girlfriend has gone through something like this before.  His goofy demeanor hides his sensitive, loving nature.

My little sister, who adored my mother to the ends of the Earth.  This has been especially hard on her.  Mom was her best friend and confidant.  She, too, has a great person by her side, and I am grateful for it.  I know she’s struggling, but I’m glad to be there for her.  It makes me feel I’m providing some solace in this world.

The endless amounts of friends I have managed to surround myself.  I feel totally unworthy of their affection and am humbled by their constant support.  They are my family, too.  And I am eternally grateful for every unrequested offer for help.  Every hug.  Every knowing nod and distracting joke.  I love you all, even when I can’t show it.

I miss you, Mom.

I know we didn’t always get along, Mom.  I surely didn’t make it easy on you.  If there was a rule, I broke it. I’m sure you imagined a much more well-behaved, respectful child.  My bad.

We were birds of very different feathers.  But you were still my Mom.

You were the one who made me stubborn and proud.  Who made me stick up for myself no matter what.  Who gave me a sense of self and pride.  Who made me feel that I could do anything.  Who always encouraged me no matter how dark it got (and let’s face it, it got pretty dark).

I miss you.  Every day.

I miss talking about UConn.  And buying a house.  (Don’t rush me, Mom, gosh!) And talking about my job.  And girls.  And life.  And politics.  And the world.

I miss your guidance and your encouragement.

I miss the way you unconditionally loved us.  And our father.  Even if you were gave him a hard time sometimes (come on, Mom, you know it’s true, just give Dad a break, he’s driving fiiiine).

I won’t lie and pretend that we’ll meet on the other side, Mom.  You know I don’t believe that stuff, even if you did.

But I’ll carry you with me.  Your pride and stubborn qualities.  Your ferocious passion for sports (Go UConn!).  Your sweet math skills.  Your love of family.  Your pride and sense of right and wrong.

And someday I hope I’ll be able to tell my kids about the woman who helped raise me.  Who shaped me.  And in that way, you will live on.  In that way, you’ll always be with us.

Love you, Mom.

Always.

My Mom

Nancy-Jean Levinson
1954 – 2013
(Cute selfie, Mom.)

  1. Beautifully written. We are so sorry for your loss.

  2. A beautiful tribute to your mom’s memory. She would be very proud of your courageous writing.

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