Thursday, February 20, 2014


It’s coming up on the anniversary of my mom’s death and, as always happens with such milestones, I’ve been thinking about the past.  In particular, I find myself thinking of all of the times when I wished I’d said what I was thinking at the time when things were happening.

During my mom’s illness, I was dating someone. Around the time that my mom died, that particular dating situation unraveled as well. So, from now on, I’ll always think of the two things as intertwined.

I remember that, on the night my mom died, I arrived home at around 10:00.  I was alone with my mom when she died. I remember that one of the nurses on duty that night was very young—so young, in fact, that she reminded me of my students.

She was very sweet. I could tell it bothered her, witnessing this.

I remember how this very young nurse stood, in her down jacket, in the doorway of my mom’s room. Her shift had ended. She stopped by to ask me if there was anyone she could call for me. Anything she could do for me.

She knew my mom was going to die that night. We both knew it.

I remember thinking that she was very sweet and so kind, that she couldn't leave her shift without stopping in to try to make things better for us. I told her, gently, “No. Thank you.  There’s no one.”

She looked so sad that I felt like I had to say something to make her feel better. So I finally just said, “Sometimes, this is just how it is.”

It was a strange moment. She wanted to take care of me, and instead, I ended up trying to take care of her. When she left, I remember thinking, “She’s going to go home and call her mom tonight.”

Two hours later, my mom died.

I remember that I came home, I sat with my cat for a while, I called some friends, and then I went to bed, sometime around midnight. 

I remember that, the morning after my mom died, at 5:00 a.m., my phone rang.  I remember that I was in the middle of a strange dream, and I woke up thinking, “What's happening?”

It was the hospital. They wanted to know whether I would be willing to donate my mom’s organs.

I remember that I got really angry. I’m not sure, but I think I kind of yelled at the woman on the phone. I told her that my mom had died 8 hours earlier, that I didn’t really need her calling me and waking me up at 5:00 in the morning to talk about my mom’s organs, and that I had a hard time imagining who they intended to give those organs to.

I told her, “My mom died of a massive bone infection. She had MERSA. I don’t think you want her organs.”

The woman on the phone said, “Yes, that’s true. We don’t want her organs. But you could donate her corneas.  That’s why we’re calling, because we have to remove them within 24 hours, so if you could just...”

I think I said, “I’m not interested in donating my mom’s corneas,” and hung up on her.

I remember that, a few hours later, at 9:00 a.m., the sister of the person I was dating called to say how sorry she was to hear the news about my mom. She told me, “I’ll be around all day. Call anytime. If you need to talk. Whatever. Just call. I’m here.”

So when the guy I was dating wrote an email to me that night and said, “I’ve been trying to get your number from my sister all day… I’ve been meaning to call…” I knew immediately that he was, in fact, lying.

And I remember thinking: “You can’t date the kind of guy who has no qualms about lying to you on the day your mom dies. This isn’t a good man.”

I distinctly remember thinking that, less than 24 hours after my mom died, all he was worried about was “covering his own ass” and "pretending he was a nice guy."  I remember thinking those exact phrases, when I read his email.

But I just didn’t want to deal with it at the time.

I should have dealt with it.  When he called later that evening and announced that his phone wasn’t fully charged and might die at any moment, I didn’t want to deal with that either.  He spent the entire conversation talking about the movie he was watching.  And then his phone died.

I remember just turning my phone off and going to bed. I just didn’t want to deal with him or with any of it.  I remember thinking, "Who cares?  This is so silly.  This thing with him---it doesn’t even matter, really.  It's so stupid.”

When I look back now, I marvel at how naive I was, and how determined I was to try to find a way to insist to myself that really, there was no reason we couldn't have some kind of friendship.

Looking back, I realize that, the day my mom died, I stopped believing he was a genuinely good person.  I just didn't have the energy or the courage to act on that belief at that time.  

If I had it all to do over, I would have simply stopped contacting him. I wouldn't have bothered with a big "conversation" and I wouldn't have tried to communicate with him about any of it, because it was clear he wasn't listening anyway.

He was too busy worrying about himself and thinking that he "knew" me and "knew" what I was thinking and feeling. I should have simply shrugged my shoulders and walked away.

I think that, when you experience a significant loss, you go through a period when you just don’t want… more loss. So you cling to whatever you have, even though you know you’re just deferring the inevitable.  At the time, it feels like it should be "easier" to do it that way.  But it isn't. 

In my own case, it was a mistake, because the man involved clearly thought that I was in love with him.  In retrospect, it is clear to me that nothing I could have said or done would have led him or his sister or their friends to think otherwise.  They had decided what they thought of me, and nothing would change that.

So I should have saved myself time and energy and just stopped it all cold.

When I look back now, I feel grateful that I came out of it unscathed, despite the bad memories.

And oddly enough, the bad memories don't really trouble me as much as I thought they would.  I have good memories of my time spent with him and my former friendship with his sister, and in the end, these are the things I find myself returning to--although they're now bittersweet, because I know that I'll never be that naive again.

And when I think about the day my mom died, I marvel at what odd oscillations it contained: absolute kindness from a stranger, total insensitivity from a friend.

In the end, I accepted all of the losses that day contained. 

Most importantly, looking back, I realize that I learned two lessons. I learned that sometimes, life will force you to decide: will you be kind to other people, or will you be kind to yourself?

Be kind to yourself. Always. If the other people in your life are truly kind, they’ll understand and support your decision.

And I learned that loss is sometimes unavoidable. We can only choose how we will accept and respond to it.  And then, hit "send."


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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."