Today. Today I am in Argentina after 12 days in Chile. I would love to be writing about all of the things I have learned so far on my travels, or what it is like to navigate oneself in a world where you barely speak the language. But most of you reading this already know that there is only one appropriate thing for me to write about today.
I am not one to write about my “feelings” on the internet. I don’t need my entire facebook community to know every time I have a hangnail. Nor do I intend to treat this blog like a diary. I’m not the girl from “Wild”, despite our similarities (not that I can bring myself to read it or see the movie).
But last year my entire life changed, and that is no secret. So to honor my mother, and even more so, to honor myself for what I’ve gone through, today’s post is a tribute to my personal hell.
I don’t for a moment think of myself as special for having lost someone so close to me. If we live long enough, we all lose loved ones. And it’s always going to be horrible. But I really don’t know very many people who have lived through quite the same level of hell that I did last year. Maybe if I write about it, I’ll find some solace? Probably not. Maybe someone else going through hell might though.
It started when I quit my job. I hated the job and needed to do things a bit differently. When my mom told me she believed in me, I had the courage to quit. And when I doubted myself later, she said “We’re going to figure this out”. Not you, she said we. She was telling me “I’m on you’re team”. She wasn’t about to let me feel alone at this confusing juncture in my life. Little did she know.
And then she came to New York. She didn’t want to be home alone on the 1 year anniversary of the loss of her loved one. Irony. So it was off to New York for girl time with her sister and me for a distraction. But she got way more of distraction than she bargained for. Her 5 day escape turned into 5 weeks at NYU hospital.
The most intense moment of my life was probably that Christmas morning. There I was, in the hospital, sitting with my mom and Leigh Ann. Waiting. Waiting for anything. To hear she had pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, anything to explain why my mom was feeling so ill. My mom. The one who worked out with a personal trainer twice a week and ate more healthy than just about anyone ever could. Nothing can prepare you for the bad “Holy Shit” moment. The moment when the ER doctor comes in and says “We found a mass about the size of an orange in your left ventricle”. The moment when you’re heart actually travels from your chest to your feet and then stays on the floor. Just stays there. You can physically feel it happen. And then… if you’re anything like me, the panic sets in.
From that point on I lived in complete and constant terror. Living the hospital circuit – sleeping on the floor of the intensive care unit’s waiting room before her surgery. So many ups and downs. The surgery was successful. Relief. Post-surgery they can’t stabilize her and we aren’t allowed to see her. Terror. She is stabilized and initial testing shows the tumor was benign. Relief. I help her home to Michigan weeks later to find that the initial results were “possibly inconclusive”. Terror. The doctor telling us bluntly “We will try with chemo, but it’s not likely you will make it through the year”. Terror terror terror terror.
Absolutely nothing mattered anymore. Figuring out my career was insignificant. Figuring out why my boyfriend whom I loved and lived with for two years (and talked marriage with) was distancing himself and avoiding me was insignificant. All that mattered was getting her better. Nothing is stronger than my mom. Nothing. Of course she will beat this. So there are only, what, 14 documented cases of this cancer in the last 11 years? Like, 3 of them survived… of course my mom would beat this. There was no other option. The unbreakable can’t be broken, there is just no way.
A few weeks later, she was gone. 1 year ago today.
Two weeks later, my sweetheart of a boyfriend tells me he doesn’t love me – and that’s that. Now all at once I am jobless, boyfriendless, and worst of all, motherless.
I’m not strong like my mom. I couldn’t just persevere and soldier through my pain like she could. I tried going back to work a little bit. But most days I couldn’t even get out of bed, and when I did, I had panic attacks… several times a day. I’d lost everything. I didn’t recognize my own life anymore. Who am I? Where am I going? And how the hell did I get here? These questions became too overwhelming to face in lieu of all that I had lost.
People have called me strong and brave throughout the year. Losing my mom makes me neither of those things. Strong would be more like my mom. Facing things head on and not letting them stop me from living my life. Brave would be taking my fears and conquering them. I did neither. I cried. A lot. I slept. A lot. I called my dad in panic mode. A lot.
People also kept telling me “It get’s easier”. In most ways this appears to be true. The intense, acute and constant pain subsides. You begin (at whatever your pace is) to figure out how to get through daily life again. Some days, you find you don’t cry. And those teary panic filled days get fewer and farther between. But in some ways, I don’t think it will ever get easier. In some ways my life will always be a little bit worse, just because she isn’t in it anymore.
Now that the most intense pain has subsided, the reality of living without her has to set in. She will never see what I accomplish from here on. She won’t be at my fictional wedding, or meet her fictional grandchildren. She isn’t here to give me her advice and opinions. She never will be again. That is never going to be ok with me. And I know I won’t ever stop needing her.
She has no idea that I have traveled to 10 countries so far this year. My god, I would love her thoughts on that. My mom had the strongest work ethic of anyone I’ve ever known. I don’t think she would initially be so approving of my decision to avoid my career for a while and travel the world. But I do think she would slowly come to understand it. She would recognize that her needs and mine are different – and I know she would be impressed at my courage to do this solo. She would also be a nervous wreck and make me contact her at least twice a day.
So as much as I hate to admit it, some positive things inevitably had to come out of my tragic time. One of my favorite bumper stickers says “Oh no, not another life lesson”. This may be one of my new life mottos. And let me be the first to say, I am done. I am wise enough. Whatever level of naïve I am at, I would like to stay at. Whatever amount of self-knowledge I have left to uncover – can be left to the wind. No more. The price I had to pay for my newfound wisdom wasn’t worth it. They say ignorance is bliss, and I have to agree.
So the good things that came out of my hell… I am a far less stressed person today than I was before. Frankly, it’s damn near impossible for me to “sweat the small stuff” after having the rug pulled out from under me. Little things just don’t matter anymore. My other new life motto is “Only a handful of things in life really matter. Love them dearly and stop worrying about the rest.”
I was always impressed by my mom’s social network (the real one, not some stupid internet site). My mom was close friends with so many really genuine and wonderful people. At times I may have even envied her for it. But in the past year, I’ve come to realize that I have become like her in that way. I have, in fact, created for myself an amazing support system. I have wonderful, loyal friends whom I love dearly. I would do anything for them, and they have shown me this year that they will do the same for me. In my time of need my friends have really stepped up to the plate. I feel emotionally closer to my friends and family then ever before. It took me months to see it – but I didn’t actually lose everything. I still have a lot of wonderful riches in my life, and now I appreciate them on an even deeper level than ever before.
If you knew my mom, you knew she was special. She was always crusading to make other people’s lives better. She never talked about herself. She was an intelligent, hard worker, but also the life of any party. But she was human. She wasn’t a saint, despite common belief. She could go off into a daydream while twirling her hair in the middle of a conversation and get lost. At times she made decisions that seemed incredibly selfish, decisions that hurt me and other people. She drank too much, and every once in blue moon would admit it. She ate too little, and every once in a blue moon would admit that too. Nobody on this earth could ever have the ability to anger me as much as she could. I’m talking about evoking really rageful fury. She is the only one who will ever bring that out in me.
But on the contrary, she is also the only one who could ever make me feel as confident, and as loved. Relationships between mother’s and daughters are so complicated.
Despite her irritating qualities (that it seems like only I got to see) – I miss her every day. At least once a day, I feel overcome by the knowledge that she isn’t here anymore. If only for a moment it takes over my body and mind, and makes me sad and angry all at once. She was my greatest teacher and role model. Nobody will ever come close to that. And no matter how many times she would say that she was “my mom and not my best friend”, she was both. I will never be the same person without her.
I wasn’t looking to reinvent myself. I didn’t want to ‘soul search’ at this point in my life. But life doesn’t always give us that choice. And as much as this past year has been a tragedy, I can’t help but see the opportunity in it. Most people never make drastic changes in their lives, even if it means they are losing out on their dreams. I have made drastic changes. I’m single, and proud to be. I am not worrying about anyone but me anymore (though I do, of course, worry about all of my loved ones, always). I feel empowered now in a way I never did before. Somehow recognizing that I have very little control over the course of my life has been extremely liberating. And now I realize that I can do whatever the fuck I want. And more importantly, I should do whatever the fuck I want. Because anything can happen. I can be hit by a bus and die tomorrow. And if I am lying on my death bed, I don’t want to be thinking “Man, I never got to do…..”
So I’m traveling now. And I am trying to do everything and anything that will make my life feel fulfilling. Now I am measuring my life in experiences. When a new opportunity presents itself to me I ask myself “Is this an experience that will make my life feel richer?”. If the answer is yes, I do it and don’t think twice. I suppose that I always had that in me somewhere, but it took surviving hell and facing mortality to live this way.
I also accept now, that maybe I will always be a little sad. My goal for so long was to figure out how to ‘be happy’. Someone important to me told me this year that “happiness is not a plateau we reach”. He’s right. Happiness comes and goes, and when it comes it’s always fleeting. But If I can somehow be satisfied with how I spend my life and my time… then even when I am sad, I’ll be ok. My mom also once suggested that sadness may just be a part of me – and something I should accept about myself. I completely rejected this notion until recently.
With that said, I like to think of myself as a ‘little ray of sunshine’, and I believe deep down that I am. I think I was born happy, and that happiness is at my core. Life has just tried it’s hardest to put out my light. And sometimes, often times in fact, it works. But I get that light from my mom – and when I’m at my best I think I have the ability to spread a little sunshine to others, much like she could.
I need to thank all of the people in my life. My family for loving and supporting each other, and coming together when we need each other most. My friends for being there for me, for filling my apartment with flowers, for forcing me out of bed and out of my apartment, for talking me through so much, and for being willing to be the one’s I lean on when I am needy. I don’t know how I could have possibly gotten through this past year without all of you. You’ve all played a different, but important role in my life this year. Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. You are appreciated, and loved.
I am still on my “road to recovery”. But I am getting there. Thanks for reading, if you got this far. The world is still turning, somehow, and I am living life. For better or worse, in some ways more than ever.
5 thoughts on “Surviving Hell”
What a beautiful tribute to your mom, yourself and your circle of people who love you. You wrote a touching and real love letter. Lynn
Sent from my iPhone
Hi rachel, Your mom is there with you every step of the way. She is sharing in every step, bruise and hangnail. I love you, Susie
Date: Sat, 14 Mar 2015 18:55:58 +0000 To: email@example.com
I just want to say that you do bring sunshine to peoples lives and you truly brighten up a room. I’m sure your mom would be proud of you for being true to yourself in these tough times and choosing such a fulfilling journey to help heal yourself in whatever ways possible. You are a true inspiration! Sending good vibes your way. <3
Christine! Thank you so much for the sweet words. It really does mean a lot to hear. :o)