Sunday, June 28, 2015

On the other side of grief

Remembering with more clarity (and feeling?) than I have in a long time about what happened on this day 25 years ago. I’ve got a tightness in my chest, like the events are unfolding right now in some parallel universe. On this day, 25 years ago, Mom was taking her final breaths in an ICU bed at George Washington Memorial Hospital in D.C. She was 44.

Dad was by her side. My sister and I had gone back to Mom’s house in Old Town, Alexandria, to shower and try to nap. We had been pretty much living in the ICU waiting room for the past two weeks. I’m suddenly recalling a nice woman from Bethesda, Maryland. Dark hair and a kind smile. She would look after us when Dad had to step away for a bit. We were 16 and 19, my sister and me.

The phone rang while we were at Mom’s. Dad’s voice was on the line. We needed to get back to the hospital quickly. Her blood pressure had dropped in half. It wouldn’t be long now.

When we got to the hospital, I remember passing through the ICU doors and entering the hallway where Mom’s room was. Dad was sitting on a stool outside the door. I thought, Why aren’t you inside with her? but then I saw the look on his face.

Cold shock runs through me. My life becomes a movie.

See the young girl walking toward her dad. See the doctor, with soft, sympathetic eyes, asking the young girl, “Do you want to see her? You can go inside if you want.” See the young girl nod and walk toward the door, because … shouldn’t she want to see her mother? But the young girl is terrified to see her mother dead.

See the door swing open as the young girl, with her sister following behind, enters the room. Hear the hiss of the detached breathing apparatus as it blows mist into the air. See the girls’ mother lying below the cloud of mist, eyes closed, lips parted. Hear the young girl blurt out almost tersely, “OK, that’s enough” as she turns around, taking her sister by the arm (does she cover her sister’s eyes too?) and hustles them both out of the room.

No tears. No tears as the young girl sits at a table in a laboratory (or was it a meeting room?) down the hall with her father. A doctor inquires civilly whether the family wants to order an autopsy (“the acute progression of her disease was very rare”). Official forms, signatures, next steps. The girl has power of attorney over her mom because her parents divorced years ago. The hospital’s legal department isn’t interested in what the ex-husband has to say. She participates in the conversation, answers their questions, looks to her father for guidance. She is acutely aware that she is not crying and this amazes her. Not a tear. Shouldn’t she be crying? But the truth is, she is afraid if she starts, she will never stop.

She is unaware, in this moment, of the rewiring taking place in her heart, and how it will affect the way she lives and loves for the rest of her life. It will take years for her to understand that this grief will always be inside her, that it will change over time, disappear indefinitely and then show up unexpectedly in conversations, in personal relationships, in quieter moments, in a stranger’s face.

But this grief will provide fertile soil for her growth as a woman, as a human being. It will fuel her desire to explore, to take chances, to seek beyond what’s in front of her, to push forward when she’s afraid, to follow her heart’s work, to appreciate the sanctity of life.

She couldn't possibly imagine it yet, but one day, when she is 44 years old and spending time in the Colorado mountains (a place her mother loved so dearly), she will realize with bittersweet certainty that her mother’s death is what taught her to really live. 

Bonnie Lu Ford, June 29, 1945 – June 28, 1990