what I can’t outrun
I bought a house! Even though the Asheville market was red hot, and I heard other hopeful buyers bonding over their bidding war horror stories, even though they said it couldn’t happen quickly or easily, it did. I worked with a masterful realtor, and we found an adorable spot almost immediately. The sellers accepted my offer. The inspections went well. All that was left was to close. It was a high-water mark in a life that lately is flooded with goodness. Then, just three days before closing, my mom died.
Two boulder-sized milestones – stacked on top of one another, heaped on top of me. The kind of life-altering moments that can exhaust your emotional faculties so completely that you need a few weeks of alternating deep tissue massages and tear-soaked therapy sessions just to get back to baseline. And I got a twofer over one long weekend as Mom’s passing punctuated my pinnacle with an unthinkable depth of sadness and stress.
Her death was sudden, and it wasn’t.
2021 was the final episode in a multi-year saga that left my powerful and vital mother an unfocused and sedentary shell. The illness was mysterious and deteriorative – diagnosed at various points as Lyme, leukemia, polymyalgia, and depression. Over a few short years, this woman who rose to corporate glory as a highly-skilled HR executive could barely hold a conversation. Her sharp wit and strong opinions gave way to sluggishness. She was checked out and unmoved, though her eyes lit up at the prospect of ice cream. She spent every night entranced by the saccharine, formulaic love stories on the Hallmark channel. She became childlike.
Early on, it was weird and annoying. The decline was subtle enough that she may have just been leaning way too hard into retirement. All she wanted to do was relax. After decades of carrying our family on her back, she had more than earned the privilege. She slipped further into dullness and we started to panic. We tried to re-engage her, get her up and fighting for the health and vitality she had hoped to achieve in her retirement.
She was supposed to be living it up, but she just wanted to sit it out.
Her case confounded every doctor; neither allopath nor naturopath could find anything wrong. Her blood work was fine. Nevermind the pharmacy of prescriptions on the counter, never mind the fact that she spent her last few Halloweens in the hospital, suffering from vague and devastating symptoms. One year she was haunted by ghosts – falling hard, pulled downward by unseen forces. The next year she suffered a zombie affliction. I drove home through throngs of trick or treaters to find her where I left her days before, on the couch in her pajamas, conscious but unable to form a coherent sentence. Last year of course it was plague. She got hit by that famous respiratory illness. Despite cumulative weeks spent in hospitals, submitting to batteries of tests like a human lab rat, we always left with more prescriptions and fewer answers.
In January, unsure of what else to do, Dad planned a vacation. Sunshine would help, he figured. She barely made it. She fell, like the first domino, down the escalator at the airport. She got up and said she was fine, despite a bruised wrist and achy back. They made it to Florida where the intensifying pain in her back was discovered to be a fractured vertebra. She was put on bed rest to watch the waves crash from her hotel room. The hotel had the Hallmark Channel, she disappeared back into her cave, until Dad found her unresponsive a few days later. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where she remained through Memorial Day. (Factually speaking, she bounced from one hospital to the next as dad fought for a higher quality of care, but for the sake of this narrative, it’s only important that she was essentially medically imprisoned for four months.)
I went to visit her in a sparkling, multibillion dollar high-rise hospital in Orlando. She was intubated and non-verbal, but her eyes sparkled when you talked to her. Her nurses were alert and engaged, chatting with her and keeping up with her vitals, and getting her ready for more tests and procedures. They knew her name and her case. They let dad hang out all day and graciously accepted his peace offerings of baked goods and snacks. Meanwhile, the doctors scooted around evasively on wheely laptop desks, avoiding our eyes and questions. They offered sparse detail, opting for monosyllabic explanations and lofty language. She seemed to be a series of numbers on a spreadsheet to them. It wasn’t strokes. It wasn’t seizures. No cancer. Infectious disease was in play, although they’ll have to run some tests to know for sure. It was the same every day. More data. Less clarity.
Dad and I went for a walk at the botanical gardens and vented our frustration. If those motherfucking doctors gave a shit about her health, they’d bring her to a place like this where she could feel the sunshine on her face. They’d let her be outside and they’d feed her real food with some color in it. There was no way that fluorescent lights and beeping machines and fake brown sludge in her feeding tube were doing anything but making her sicker.
Eventually, she was discharged into a rehab center and then a nursing home, and finally, some eighteen weeks after she fell at the airport, dad arranged for medical transport back home to Wisconsin. He paid for it out of pocket after fighting with insurance, who denied her claims because her case was not complex enough to warrant the level of care. But her tracheotomy made her case too complex for most facilities in Wisconsin. In sickness limbo, she landed at the only skilled nursing home that would take her, a prison-like structure on the bleakest street in Milwaukee.
She spent June and July there like some nightmare summer camp, marinating in the groans and putrid smells of a ward otherwise populated by the vegetative. For her part, she got better. Dad brought her things from home, cards and flowers from friends, ice cream from Culver’s. People came to visit and filled her room with flowers and pictures from her days in the drum corps. Dad sent videos from her physical therapy sessions that showed her almost standing up. Her voice got stronger, and we actually talked on the phone about the house I was buying and the man I was in love with. She expressed her excitement to get home, and almost sounded like herself. Dad was fighting to arrange in-home care. It seemed promising. There was light.
She made it home after almost eight months gone. Dad moaned about adjusting to living with the caretaker but finally felt some relief after so many fights with overworked nurses, belligerent doctors, uncaring insurance companies, and a nasty stress-induced skin infection. Mom’s voice bubbled with joy – she was happy to be back in her home with her dog, looking out the windows over her big backyard.
A week later, she was gone.
Wake up calls
My phone rang at 5:09 on a Friday morning. Dad said, “Morning!” like it was normal, then he said, “Mom died.” I remember because he spit the words out through his teeth, and they got lodged in my mind like an axe in a stump. Tersely, he said how it happened – something about blood oxygen. He said her tongue lolled out of her mouth, and that he kissed her, and then she was gone. No screaming, no struggling, no pleading with God. We were on the phone for three minutes and he hung up because the medical examiner was at the door. I sat in shock in the dark.
The world was still and black in the pre-dawn, and silent past the blood pounding in my ears. I wanted to pray, but when I clasped my hands and tried, I couldn’t sit still. My mind was a buoy on an angry ocean, sloshing about on the surface, unsure what I was supposed to do.
I went outside, feeling the same impulse as a little kid who rushes into the yard on Christmas Eve to watch the sky for Santa’s sleigh. Maybe I thought I could catch her on her way out. It wasn’t Christmas, though, it was muggy and pitch black except for the misty halos from the streetlights. The sky over the mountains flashed silently in a late summer storm. I stood in the stillness and shook, shivering as mist clung to my skin.
In my restlessness, I got dressed and lit a candle with the Virgin Mary on it. Maybe I could light her way out a little. I stared at the flame but still couldn’t sink in to pray although I wanted to. I craved some connection, but my mind raced through shallow thoughts about driving home or catching a flight and what to do about the house closing on Monday. I felt conflicted. Do I continue with my ongoing commitments as if nothing happened, consult with the painters and let the cleaners in, and work at the vintage pop-up over the weekend? Or do I shut everything down, cover my face with a veil, and just moan for a week straight? It felt truly insane to do normal things like brushing my teeth and making coffee like the world was the same as it was yesterday.
At 5:26, I called my boss.
After a decade of working together, I knew that Amy was the kind of weirdo that woke up at painful hours to get a jump start on her day. She answered because she is an angel. I told her what happened, pushing the words out through gravel in my throat. I heard her gasp and express her first condolences and that’s when it finally sunk in. The shock levy broke and the loss wave surged upward and out through my face. I sobbed. Amy listened. The crying made me self-conscious, I heard Mom’s voice in my head saying, “Get a grip, Whit.” I took a deep breath, composed myself. Amy asked about her. She asked where she was from and if she had any siblings, how she met my dad, and what I admired most about her. She asked which inherited traits were my favorite. She sat on the phone with me for two hours while I processed, reflected, and discovered things about my mom that I never realized. Being seen while I rode those first major waves of grief rivaled thousands of dollars worth of therapy.
As the world woke up and the news spread, my phone kept ringing. I had a dozen similar conversations with a dozen different people. I accepted condolences and shared how I was feeling. The first few minutes always hurt the most. That’s when we confronted the harsh reality of the situation; when my throat closed up and my voice shook. As the conversation continued, I could rationalize and reframe and self-soothe until we were talking about the odd comfort in grief, how there is peace in knowing that she’s free from pain. I added those silver linings, hoping that if they think I’m okay, they’ll feel better, too. By the time we wrapped up I did feel better. Then the next person called and I returned to the crest of the pain wave to begin processing once again.
There’s nothing quite like hearing “I’m so sorry” to turn your steely resolve to mush.
Talking to her friends and family was nice, too. I heard from people I hadn’t talked to in years, and it reminded me of who she was before she got sick. At her peak, she was a queen.
She shone like a supernova in her career, and I use that word intentionally. She worked too much, traveled too much. It scared me and I sometimes resented her for choosing work over being home with us.
Even while spending so much time on the road, though, she prioritized making her house a beautiful, comfortable shrine to return to. It was her sanctuary, and we got to live there and co-create it with her. Some Saturday mornings she would get a gleam in her eye and propose a redesign of some room in the house. We went for coffee at Borders (remember Borders?!) and thumbed through magazines for ideas. Then we set out to garage sales and HomeGoods to bring the vision to life. She had a great eye and could evoke a luxe magazine spread with stuff she found on clearance.
We hunted and gathered until we were exhausted. Back at home, we threw a frozen pizza into the oven and put our changes into place while it heated up. The culminating moment was always switching on the classy lamps, settling into comfy chairs, and burning our tongues on scorching pizza to admire our hard work.
In my fairy dust optimism, I like to think that she left when she did on purpose. She left knowing that I had a house to love and would be fine. She knew I would spend my weekends running errands like we used to.
After all the rushing about, though, there is the moment of sitting down, switching on the pretty lamps, and soaking it in. That’s when it catches up. When I sit still, I get pounded by the waves of emotion that I tried to outrun. If I don’t let myself feel it, I’ll just find myself weeping over a French Press that warped and cracked in the move, heartbroken that coffee is leaking all over the counter, and that I will never see my mom again.
It’s a process
Grieving is different than I expected, wider-reaching and insidious like a mycelium network of sadness. I expected to think of her in fond memories, to remember moments of sweet connection between us and be moved to graceful tears by the solemn knowing that we’d never share another. That happens sometimes – I cry when I think of the specifics like her handwriting or how her closet smelled. How she said the word ‘Christmas’ like a little kid because she loved the holiday that was so joyful, wholesome, and full of sweet things.
If I’ve gone too long without crying, I’ll listen to old voicemails. She never said anything particularly profound or heartfelt, but I like to hear her voice.
“Hey Cakes, wondering when you’ll be home so I can start the chicken. Call me back.”
It occurs to me that voicemails won’t degrade. They won’t warp from use as the edges of a photograph held by tear-soaked fingers. We can’t use the state of our digital media to measure the distance from grief, like when we saw pictures start to fade and crack. They will be perfect forever, even as the edges of our memories blur.
When I think of her legacy, I think of a great dinner party. She was warm and nourishing and brought people together. It’s no surprise that she threw incredible get-togethers, from intimate dinners to Christmas open houses that attracted hundreds of guests. She planned them for weeks in advance, building thoughtful menus, laying in supplies, and recruiting us to prep the house. I set out crystal dishes of mixed nuts while she blasted the Doobie Brothers and taste-tested her cranberry wine sauce. There was a feeling of excitement that built to the climax of the first ring of the doorbell. When the guests left, and the CD changer reached the end of its rotation, and candle wax dripped on the tablecloth, the excitement gave way to calm accomplishment. She would sip a glass of scotch in the living room and reflect on a successful evening.
She used to tell me she wasn’t creative, which always made me angry. Her homes and those parties were her art, and she was a master. I was her apprentice. Toward the end of her life, she stopped cooking. In the pie chart that represents my grieving emotions, between the slice of loss and the big hunk of grief, there is a portion of relief. It’s another way that grieving is surprising, and shines light on feelings I didn’t know were there.
If grieving was straightforward, I could just have a neat little mourning practice, but it’s not. The sharpness of the first few days dissolved into sadness sludge that seeps into everything. Her death’s blast left little emotional land mines for me to stumble upon. My heart pounds when a phone rings. Rogue pains in my body set me to fear the worst. I lash out at loved ones and cry when someone is mean in traffic. The resilience and confidence that she raised me to possess are out of reach while I mourn her. There is no bias-for-action in grieving, I just sit here and feel it.
The insanity of optimism
The day she died, I worked at a bubbly vintage pop-up in downtown Asheville. I knew the tears would still be there after a few hours of distraction. I didn’t tell anyone. I figured they would think I was insane. The truth is, I had been mourning the loss of my mother for years. That mystery ailment that attacked her nerves and locked her mind in a cage stole her from me. She was checked out, unresponsive, uninterested. Her eyes were glazed over. The woman I knew already left. That life was already over. Now we were simply mourning the loss of her physical form. There is comfort in the inevitability of death. In a world where everything feels so uncertain most of the time, it’s nice to know there’s at least one thing we can count on.
There is peace knowing that she’s free from the body that imprisoned her. There is relief knowing she died at home, where she was happy. I picture God tapping her on the shoulder and asking if she ready to go, and her eyes lit up and she went because she knew everyone that she was here to care for was going to be fine. I feel asense of freedom for her, next to the deep grief of realizing that she won’t see me get married, won’t see my house, won’t meet my kids.
Behind all the shallow rationalizations and comforting feelings of relief, there is still a chasm of deep loss. All I need to do is remember my dad’s words – “Mom died” – and I feel the hole that she left. She birthed me and raised me to be strong. She gave me priceless gifts like business sense and a built-in abundance mindset. I got her textured hair and champagne taste.
This week, in a state of petulance, I declared a War on Grief™️ to address the emotions that kept bubbling up out of nowhere and derailing my day. Bouts of anger, frustration, and sadness snuck up on me like a weepy game of whack-a-mole, and I was OVER IT. My grin-and-bear-it strategy was not going to cut it in this uniquely life-altering moment.
I know that declaring war on something so ubiquitous as grief is a blunder on par with fighting a land war in Asia. The real work is going to be learning to ride the waves so I don’t get swallowed by them. A few days in, I enlisted the support of professionals to help me work with the surging emotions before they calcify into a tumor. I tapped people who are professionals and also friends, because I love exclusivity and the murky grey area of propriety. They can show me my blind spots and give me permission to go to pieces. In particular, dear homey and professional grief guide Rebekah Freedom gave me the shoulder shake to remember to FEEL, DAMMIT.
More than anything, I am getting used to the fact that this is going to be messy. My life is changed. It wasn’t just some sick lady who died, it was my whole mom. She took part of me with her. It hurts.
A legacy of excellence (obviously)
She put five separate people through college. That’s one of my favorite facts about her, and why we’re exploring the idea of setting up a scholarship in her name.
It’s fitting for the woman who dedicated her life to helping others succeed. She cared deeply about potential and expressed very little patience when it went unrealized. Being raised by someone with those high standards was a very mixed blessing. I did not have the option to bring home a mediocre report card, because she knew that I was capable of better. To pull anything less than straight A’s was to betray her understanding of my abilities, and it simply would not do. She instilled an attitude of excellence and achievement in me. It was never questioned that I would go to and graduate college and follow in her footsteps with some “good” job. It was a foregone conclusion that I would follow her path and do so with some degree of success. It was our family business.
We hosted the after-party for her memorial service at the sprawling house she bought with the specific intent to entertain her family and friends in her retirement. In her absence, people looked to me for answers, as if I had ascended her throne. I was unprepared. I lacked her decades of experience that helped her know how many napkins to set out and how much ice to buy. I used to think those things were trivial, now that I had to answer to the hungry, I understood.
Her legacy was about tasteful entertaining, and it was about service, community, family, booming laughter, great food, and spreading warmth via time well-spent. I will remember her parties like the final scenes of a Hallmark movie. While snow falls gently outside, a happy family gathers in a gentle-lit Christmas scene. Two lovers share a kiss under the mistletoe while a golden retriever puppy snoozes by the fire.
In the end
Several Fridays have passed.
The house is coming together, thanks to many days of manic rushing about, gathering items like end tables and dish towels like a hummingbird on adderall. I still sometimes work myself into a frothy mania trying to outrun the grief that sits like a concrete slab in my heart. Most of the time, when I turn onto my new road toward my new house, the thought occurs to me to call her. So, I do. I take a deep breath and say “hi, mom” and I talk to her for a while. It’s something. At least it keeps my eyes lubricated.
Her life – and her death – are reminders that we can run all we like. We can climb the corporate ladder, chase that golden ring, move a hundred times. Life will catch up. Unfelt pain will catch up. Her illness and early death (she was 70!) showed what happens when we don’t stop to rest.
Her lesson: don’t save it for the end. The end might not wait for you to be ready.
In her honor, I will raise a glass (hers might have been scotch, mine is North Carolina spring water) and drink in the moment.