A Year Without You: A Memoir

A Year Without You: A Memoir

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us.Paul, The Bible

“There’s nothing we can do,” the doctor says. “I’m going to recommend that we take her off the meds that are keeping her alive, give her morphine, and make her comfortable.”

I look at her through wet eyes. My mind doesn’t comprehend what she’s saying.

My dad looks at me and asks my opinion. I say that she wouldn’t want to be kept alive just to suffer. That maybe this is the most humane thing. He agrees.

*****

I’m sitting in her room. She’s breathing heavy. Her chest heaves, and her whole body moves with each breath. She is snoring, but one eye is slightly open. My heart breaks seeing her like this.

My aunt and uncle (from my dad’s side) are talking to us. I’m trying to listen, but my mind is a million miles away. All I can think about is the sound of her breathing and how each breath might be her last. This woman, the woman I knew to be so full of energy, laughter, and fun, is dying in front of me.

I focus back in on the conversation, and my uncle is talking about how people on the edge of death act like they are waiting for something. The irony of that statement is about to become very real.

The princesses show up. The princesses are her high school friends, friends she’s kept in touch with throughout her life. For a brief moment, I think about how lucky she is to have friends like that. They are here to pay their last respects, and I feel like I should give them some privacy. I go out to the waiting room for a while.

*****

I notice immediately, upon re-entering her room, that her breathing is so much slower. She’s barely moving. More and more time happens between each breath. 

I think about my uncle’s words, and I realize that this is it. She was waiting for a final goodbye from her friends. There’s no one else to wait for. Everyone has seen her. Everyone has said their goodbyes.

My aunt, her sister, tells her that it’s okay to go. She’s on one side of the bed holding her hand. My dad moves to the other side. My kids are sitting in chairs around the room. I’m at the foot of her bed. I put my hand on her foot and tell her that I love her.

She breathes her last breath. A lone tear has trickled down her face. My tears spring forth like a fountain. Normally, I would be embarrassed to cry in front of people, but there’s no holding these tears back. She is gone, and she is never coming back. My mother is dead and I am crying and my dad is crying and my kids are crying and I don’t know what to do.

*****

I’m sitting with my dad at the funeral home. We are making plans. My dad, the man that I’ve seen cry maybe a half dozen times in my life, breaks down and cries every time I see him now. I watch him cry as he talks to the funeral director.

The pain on his face and in his eyes is almost as hard to watch as it is to accept that my mother is gone. I watched my mom and dad have some pretty epic fights through the years, especially when I was a kid (before they started going back to church). I remember watching them fight so often that I wondered if they even liked each other.

As the years passed and they got closer to God, the fights became less serious. I always laughed at the stupid things they fought about. I still wondered, however, if they even liked each other.

Now I am sitting across from a man who is totally broken. I can feel his pain, and it breaks my heart. He’s been amazing to her. I used to wonder if they even liked each other, and now I can see that nobody has ever loved anybody as much as my dad loved my mom. I see that in the pain in his eyes. I see that in the tears on his face. And it absolutely breaks my heart.

*****

We are in the funeral home, and people just keep coming. I am in a complete and total haze. I haven’t truly and fundamentally accepted what has happened. I put on the best face I can, and I talk to and hug hundreds of people.

When I first entered the workforce, I was fortunate enough to be hired at the same place that my dad worked. I got to see a different side of my dad through that experience, and knowing how much the people he worked with respected him and liked him completely changed how I saw him. I think of that as I stand here, and I realize that I never got to see my mother in that light…until now.

Hundreds of people show up. The viewing is four hours long and new people file into the funeral home pretty much the whole time. I get to see people I haven’t seen in years. I get to see people from many different eras of her life. People are coming to pay their respects, and I get to see for the first time just how loved my mother truly is.

*****

I am sitting in my classroom. I am entering year seven as a teacher, and, for the first time, I have missed the first week of school. I think about the timing of her death, and I realize that she would want me to think of her every year around this time. I know she’d want me to remember that the people I am about to teach are living, breathing, human beings and that I should always remember that. I don’t know what is going on in their lives. So be kind. Always. 

It’s Labor Day, and I get to meet my new students tomorrow. I’m sitting at my computer and I’m working on the intro lesson that I do every year. It feels really good to be back at work. It feels good to have something to do because all that’s left to do is to move on, and there’s no damn way I’m ready to do that. So, the distraction is nice.

I’m making my plans, and suddenly I am overwhelmed. I’ve been through this PowerPoint six times a year, every year, for the past six years. That’s 36 times I’ve gone through the same song and dance. I should be a pro by now.

But I feel lost. I feel completely and totally lost. I have no idea how I am going to get through this school year.

*****

I’m standing in front of my students, and, for the first time in my teaching career, I truly don’t want to be there. I don’t care who these new students are. I know that sounds harsh, but I can’t bring myself to be or do anything other than go through the motions.

I’m standing in front of my students, and I can feel the tears well up, but I refuse to cry in front of my classes. So I push it down inside of me. I suck it up, and I keep going.

The days gel together. I’m in a haze and I am going through the motions and I don’t give a rat’s ass what my students’ names are this year. I feel so disconnected from them. That is definitely a first for me. I’m showing up, and I am phoning it in. I’m going through the motions, and I wonder if they can tell that I’m doing that. I know they deserve better.

*****

It’s January. It’s cold. I am working at Papa John’s. And you better believe that, if I don’t give a rat’s ass about my day job, I could care even less about this one. But I need the money. I won’t be doing evening high school this spring, so I have to open my availability and start working more than one day a week.

The place is a shit show. People come and go as they please. They do what they want and nothing happens. People quit. New people are hired. 

It’s a busy night and my back is hurting. I’ve been fighting sciatica and lower back pain for a year and a half, and I haven’t felt much like doing my stretches. We are busy and the bags can get heavy, and I am hauling them to my car.

I’m on a delivery. I’m on the interstate, and my back spasms. Unbelievably painful cramps under my shoulder blades. Someone has called off and we are busy and I am trying to keep up but my back is failing.

I’m in my car and I am driving and I am crying and my back is hurting. A car cuts me off and I lose it. I absolutely lose it. I’m screaming in my car. I am screaming loudly in my car. Not words, just screams. I lift my face to the sky and beg God to just cut me a break. I just need a break.

If my life were a movie, this would be the scene where you hear the character scream in pain and then the sound of the scream would be drowned out by the ominous music. The camera would pan away, and you’d hear nothing but ominous music and see nothing but me pounding my steering wheel and rocking back and forth.

*****

I am watching a TV show. The show is called This is Us, and it’s the saddest damn show I’ve ever seen. It’s become a bit of a habit for me to watch this show around February, ever since the winter of 2017. That was the year I had a premonition.

I was lying in bed a few days after new years, and I lost all control of my emotions. Depression darker than anything I had ever felt swept over me. The catalyst? I suddenly started to realize that my kids were growing up (and don’t need me as much anymore) and that my parents are getting old and that I don’t have much time left with them.

Yes, a year before my mother was diagnosed with leukemia, I had a premonition in the form of the greatest depression I’ve ever known. It drove me to spend more time with her. I began staying with them on the weekends again, and, for several months, things were great.

During that time, I started watching this show. And the next year, in 2018, I watched it again around the same time. It’s 2019 and the third season is over halfway done and it’s time for me to watch it again. I know it’s going to be harder this time, but I start it anyway.

Each episode hits me deep. I think of my parents. The show juxtaposes between the present and the past, which just so happens to be the era in which I grew up. So, seeing that era from an adult perspective gives me a new appreciation for the sorts of struggles and sacrifices that I know that my parents made for me growing up. It’s basically a big old bowl of nostalgia.

I am watching the show and thinking about all of this and then the scene from which the show gets its namesake comes on. Kevin is describing a painting. It’s a painting with many layers. He looks at the painting and he’s describing it. He’s talking about how this painting is a representation of us…of humans…of the human race.

He’s talking about how, with each generation, a new layer is added to the painting. The old generation fades, and the new generation comes to life. And then he says something that I will never forget for as long as I live. He says that just because you can’t see the old layer of the painting; just because the old generation’s mark has faded, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t still in the painting.

And it hits me. My mom is still in the painting. I watched her take her last breath. I stood and hugged all her friends and family at her funeral. I watched them put her coffin in the ground. I put flowers on her grave for her birthday. My mother is dead and she is never coming back. But she’s still in the painting.

I think back to the speech I gave at her funeral. I think about the children that she helped and the examples of her generosity. I think of all the children that have come and gone over the years. The countless people she’s helped. My mother was and always will be the most generous person I know.

I think about all of those lives she touched. I think about the random strangers, the two little boys who were in the hospital at Christmas. I think about the trash-bags full of gifts she brought them because she felt bad for them. I see their faces light up in in what must’ve been a defining moment in their life.

And in that moment, for the first time in my life, I want to be more like my mom. I want to touch people in the way that she touched them. I want to stop going through the motions and start really, truly helping them.

I think about the sign along McMullen Highway. PLEASE PRAY FOR LEWIS. I remember driving past that sign for a year. I remember that every time we did, she would say a prayer for Lewis. 

Who the hell is Lewis? I would think. And why should we care?

I remember my mother standing up and testifying church about that sign. About how, every time she passed that sign, she would say a prayer for Lewis. And then I remember the second sign: THANKS FOR YOUR PRAYERS. LEWIS HAS BEEN HEALED. I remember her beaming about that in church in her testimony, and I want to be more like her. I want to have faith in the same way she had faith.

It’s February and it’s cold and I’ve cried every day of my life for the past five months. I’m crying now because my mother is still in the painting. Her faith and her generosity is smeared all across the pages of the lives she touched. Those people carry that layer of paint inside of them and touch others. My mother is gone and I am crying, but I am happy just knowing that she is still in the painting.

*****

It’s March and I finally feel like I can breathe again. She’s been gone seven months, and I’ve cried every day. I’ve thought of her every day.

I’m in my car again, but this time I am much calmer. I hear a song: Rita Ora’s Grateful. The lyrics hit me. They talk about being thankful for the pain, because it teaches you the true beauty of the happy moments. It talks about being grateful for the wrong people who have come into your life because they teach you how great the right ones can be.

I’m in my car and I am crying for the zillionth time, but this time there’s a little flicker of light. A little sense of gratitude. For the first time since she died, I talk to my mother.

I look up to the sky and I tell her that I am sorry. I feel guilty, but I know I have to move forward again. I know I have to pick up and go on without her. And the guilt of that eats me to the core. I love my mom more than anyone in the world, but she is gone and I have to move on and I am feeling guilty for even thinking that.

So, I tell her that. I tell her that I am sorry, but I can’t keep crying every day for her. My heart can’t take it. I am broken inside and the brokenness is too much for me to carry. I tell her that I love her, and that I’ll always love her, but I can’t think of her all the time anymore. I need to make some room in my life to live. I promise to always honor her memory.

My mother is gone and she is never coming back. And while the very thought of that breaks my heart every time I think of it, I know it’s time to move forward. In that moment, I take a step forward for the first time in months.

*****

I can breathe again. I enjoy my job again. Actually, I kind of enjoy both of my jobs. I know why I have the second job now. The second job was sent to me as a distraction, a way to keep busy so that I didn’t fall back into the pit of depression. I know my time at this job is coming to an end.

I feel connected to my students again. The sense of rapport that I strive to create is there again. I look back over the past seven months, and I can’t remember much about it. I’ve walked around in a haze for so long. I’ve gone through the motions for a long time.

I am standing in front of my classes, and I care again. I care about their names. I care about their progress in my class. I want to know them better, so I allow myself to really listen to them. It feels good to be back.

*****

I’m reading a book. My life has been a shit show. Yes, I finally took a step forward. Yes, I can finally breathe again. But the chaos of life has been throwing curve ball after curve ball. I told a coworker at my day job exactly what I thought of her (not something I have ever done at that job), and I quit summer school.

And then I told another coworker what I thought of him…at my other job. I watched my words hurt him, and I saw the anger and the pain in his face and I know that I went too far. But I can’t help myself. I don’t have the patience for this shit anymore.

And then the straw breaks and I get into it with ANOTHER coworker. This time I feel completely out of control. I go off on her. And then I go off on the owner, and I tell him what I think. I feel myself fly into a rage. I am on the edge of just walking out the door and never coming back. I think this surprises everyone there. But I can’t help it. I am really surprised he doesn’t fire me.

In this moment I realize that I have work to do on myself. I know that there is more grieving to do. It’s funny how we know grief when it shows up in our lives as tears and sadness and depression. But we never truly see it in our anger. The anger is boiling over, and I am taking it out on people who don’t really deserve it.

I decide that it’s time to start flooding myself with as much positive stuff as I can. I listen to podcasts and read books about grief and healing. I am reading a book written by a Buddhist named Lama Surya Das. The book is about letting go of the person you used to be.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Be mindful of your surroundings. Feel the fleeting nature of the moment and realize that you can’t grasp it. You can’t hold onto it. As a moment arises, it moves past us and we are helpless to capture it. We can’t go back. We can’t even go forward. All there is is now, and all there ever will be is one big perpetual now.

So embrace the moment. Be in the moment. Notice your surroundings. What you do you feel? Hear? See? Taste? Touch?

And in this moment I know that I can never go back. I will honor the memory of my mother for the rest of my life. I think about her every day. I love her, and I will always love her. But I can’t go back to the person I was when she was here. I am not that person anymore.

The grief of the loss is a part of me now. It’s a layer of WHO I AM in the same way that each coat of paint still exists in the painting, despite the surface of the painting constantly being changed by life and by each new generation. 

My time is now, but it is slowly slipping into the past. My kids are positioning themselves to take over. One day they will face what I have faced, just as I remember my mother grieving her own mother. I remember her pain, even though I was a teenager and completely oblivious to it at the time. Her pain changed her just as it has changed me.

She’s still in the painting, and I am honoring her memory. I have a long way to go, but I choose to focus on where I am in this moment. In this now. For that is all I really have. I’ve vowed to see the world in the way that she saw the world. I’m trying to build my faith in the way that she built her faith. 

But right now there is darkness to conquer. And sometimes you have to conquer the darkness within before you can light up the world around you. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For I know you are with me. She will always be with me.

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