It is not easy keeping your emotions in check when someone dear to you is dying, but that is what I did, for five long weeks while my mother was robbed of her life. I kept myself in check because that is what we do in my family. First, there was the anxiety and confusion, which I had no trouble expressing. What followed, however, was the sadness, which crept over me like flannel as the reality of her death began to sink in. I allowed myself to feel sad in the privacy of my room and with my sister. Only once did I cry with my mother. I may have cried with my father, but only briefly, until we could get ahold of ourselves and turn away. At times, I felt an out of step happiness, being with my family again; out of step because it felt shameful to feel any joy at all while Mom was dying. But there you go. We laughed a lot. I did not see the anger then, anger being an emotion that we don’t talk about or acknowledge or recognize as normal. I see it now.
It has been two years since I sat with my Mom while she was dying. Until now, I’ve not been able to accept that I was angry. Not all of the time, but often enough, and not at Mom, or God, or whatever ill fate had given her cancer. I was angry, primarily, with myself for feeling lost, for not being able to figure things out in a crisis and, when I could figure things out, I was angry at my bumbling and my fear, the missteps and my desperate need for help when no one else was there. Help arrived eventually, but I wanted rescue mid-crisis, not later, after I’d managed to put out the fire. I was angry for feeling incompetent when what I needed was to be strong hearted and capable.
I might have tried to be a bit more compassionate with myself. I had never been through anything like this after all, the long journey toward death with my mother. How was I to know what to do? I might have tried to find compassion for myself but it was all I could do to hold my balance in the face of the day to day indignities of dying.
I see it now, the anger. Hard, raw, self-pitying, ugly. Anger with myself and anger with hospice for uneven, irregular assistance in our care of Mom. I had heard only positive reports about hospice care from friends who’d lost parents, husbands, partners, so I was not expecting to feel let down. It turns out that hospice is not there all of the time. It turns out that hospice care is done by human beings, some of whom are flawed. They do the work of angels, but some of them make mistakes. And some are not able to be there when you need them most. Worst of all, they can neither stop the progress of death, nor can they hasten it when you are bone tired, down to your last shred of patience, and unable to take another hour of this.
I see it now, the dragon I tried to wrestle to the ground, that raw, self-pitying anger at my helpmate in the caretaking of Mom. This is the hardest to acknowledge. It feels like a betrayal, since we were in this together, there to support one another, and my anger is not all of it. I feel gratitude that she was there and the most profound love for her. But there was anger, rock spitting anger, that I did not allow myself at the time, because I could not risk my balance in the boat. The problem was this: I was afraid. I needed her there in the boat with me. I needed her there all the time. In case there was a crisis. In case I couldn’t handle things. In. Case. Mom. Died. I didn’t want to be alone in the caretaking, I didn’t want to be blamed for messing up. I didn’t want to be the only one there when she died. I was alone a lot. I’ll leave it at that.
This is how it was for me: I was afraid, and lonely, and angry and now I am told that it is normal to feel all of this when someone you love is dying. I am being given permission. Has it helped to know that anger is normal? No, not especially.
There wasn’t a lot of tolerance for anger in my family when I was growing up. When I got mad, which was often, I was sent to my room and told to “think about it.” It was never clear what exactly I was supposed to think about, but it was understood that I was to reflect on my bad behavior, feel ashamed of myself, and not return to the family fold until I could “behave.” Though I am now an adult, I still find it hard to allow myself to feel anger, to acknowledge that it was normal then and is normal now. My impulse is to stop the feeling as it rises; I banish myself to a place apart from people until I have calmed down, talked myself out of the feelings, managed to push them down. Until I can “behave.” I wish that I had been shown how to talk about my feelings in a way that was constructive, not hurtful, but it was not how we did things in the 50s and 60s. Not in my family.
Here is my truth. I am writing a memoir about this journey with my mother. I have been looking for a way around what made me angry, a way to gloss over it, or a way to leave it out altogether. I know now that I cannot leave my anger out of the story any more than I can leave my grief, my confusion, or my joy out of it. To do so would be dishonest. I need to tell the truth. If I am not willing to write this journey as I experienced it, then what is the point of writing at all?
So many times I felt incompetent and helpless in the face of my mother’s illness. I was not incompetent, nor was I helpless, but that is how I felt. Though everyone had faith in me, I had little faith in myself. Those of us who write from personal experience do so in order to make sense of our lives, to meet ourselves face to face, to find compassion and understanding, for ourselves as well as for others. I was angry. And because anger is part of the story, along with the anxiety, the love, the resentment, the relief, and the joy, I write about all of it. I write, and discover that I am strong hearted and capable, after all.