I want to talk about the day my mother died.
It was a Friday. It was supposed to be the weekend that ushered in a summer of fun. I started the day early at the passport office. I had all the paperwork together; I was prepared and then the lady let me know that I needed cashier checks. “Fuck” I thought. “I don’t have time for this”, I thought. I left the kids with their father while I powerwalked to the nearest spot that could provide me with a cashier check and waited for them to open at 8AM. They never opened.
“Well, fuck, is this really what we’re doing today?”, I thought after waiting ten minutes and then frantically Googling while powerwalking to my car.
On the third stop, I was able to get the checks, but I had to first take out cash. Ok, cool. Done and done. Then I raced back over, handed the lady my well-organized stack of papers again, signed what needed signing, and then put the children into the car to go back home. I was an hour behind where I wanted my day to be because I had to work a full eight hours and then work on a freelance project all of which would allow me to enjoy my Saturday with my friend and Fall Out Boy. That weekend was five months in the making. I had explained our Covid precautions to my friend and she had done the prep work on her end. I had laid the groundwork for my project so all I needed to do was plug in a few missing pieces and be done. The kitchen was stocked with food and the family had their “she’s gone, let’s game” plan all set.
Everything was right with the world.
And then a 330 number flashed on the dash of my minivan. It was Ohio and everything in me thought “fuck”, but I hit ignore because I didn’t want to have whatever conversation was waiting for me on the other end of that number while my children were in the car. I knew it wasn’t going to be good. Like a sixth sense, I felt it. The beginning of something terrible. I pushed it out of my mind and went home. I mentioned in passing to my husband as I clocked in that I had a call from Ohio that I would need to return at some point. Then I got a message from my cousin. The hospital was trying to reach me about my mother. “Fuck” I thought. I called the number. My mother was in the ICU. I confirmed she had a DNR order and was told that I needed to head to Ohio because she wasn’t going to make it through the day. “Fuck, why now?!” I muttered frustratedly while making a to-do list to get me and my brood out the door while doing my best to stave off the panic attack brewing under the surface.
The reality that she was dying didn’t sink in. There was only rage. Rage that the woman who had abandoned me had the sheer fucking audacity to be in the hospital on my weekend of win. Looking back, I know that rage was sadness because I knew what was coming. I had felt it for months, it was why I had written to her a few weeks before that fateful phone call. I could sense it in the air, the unsettledness, the abrupt change gathering momentum as I tried to live some sense of normalcy.
Looking back on that day, I could have said “Fuck it, let her die. I’ll be there on Monday”. No one in my life would have faulted me for choosing me first over her. That had been her standard operating procedure so I was well within my right to match her energy. But I couldn’t. I’ve spent years growing into someone who isn’t my parents, and in that moment had to lean hard into that person no matter how difficult it felt. So, instead of prolonging the inevitable, I let my job know that my mother was dying and I packed a giant bag of clothing. I stood in my closet and asked my husband, “What do you wear when your mother dies?”; we stared at each other in disbelief for a moment as we both realized that we had entered the ‘dead parents’ portion of adult life way sooner than we thought we would.
We left our home in a whirlwind of messy packed bags, scattered clothing, and half-finished dishes. This isn’t how we leave for trips normally. There’s always a plan. The house is prepped the night before and we come home to a tranquil clean sanctuary. This time we came home to the reminder of the chaos we had left in. But before we could get back to the chaos that waited for us, we had to get through the chaos that beckoned us. I drove. I had to. I wouldn’t let my husband take the wheel. I reassured him that I was fine and that he needed to keep working. This wasn’t in our plan so we had to maintain what we could. I had put on a nice pair of slacks and a blouse. I wanted to walk into the hospital put together. Looks matter and I wanted it to look like I was a responsible and mature adult. Not the estranged eldest daughter of an abusive addicted mother. I was more than that. I needed the people I would be dealing with to know that. So, I drove in well-put-together rage. “How could she do this now?!”, I yelled as Fall Out Boy blasted through the AUX. This wasn’t how my weekend was supposed to go and it was all her fault. I wasn’t aware then that I was in the anger stage of grief because grief is funny like that. You don’t know you’re moving through it until you stop and assess the situation. From the moment someone drops a life-changing bomb on you your mind is rapidly spinning its wheels trying to figure out how to help you survive the experience of being human.
Then the phone rang.
We were barely an hour and a half into our nine-hour drive. I think deep down I knew we wouldn’t make it, but I wanted to. I wanted to hold her hand. I wanted her to know that despite her never being there to hold my hand when I needed it the most, she wouldn’t have to leave this life alone. But she did.
She was alone and she was dead.
58 years on this earth and when she took her last breath there was no one she knew present to witness her final moment. I told the doctor “thank you” after he shared the news. I said thank you. It seems so silly now. My brain went into autopilot. I reacted as if he had told me the weather, “It’s a balmy 78 degrees here in Akron and your mother is dead please pick a funeral home to come collect her.” That wasn’t how he explained it, but my brain responded as if this was a standard conversation and not a life-altering canon event as my kids would say.
I hung up the phone and kept driving. Focusing on the road. My husband asked me to pull over. I refused. I wanted to will the moment away. If I could keep focused on the road. If I could keep going, I wouldn’t have to sit with everything that was bubbling up under the surface and begging to be let out. “Rayven, pull over”, my husband’s voice broke through the third play through of Heaven, Iowa. I told him I would pull into the next traveler center. He quickly pointed out the nearest one and I did as I had agreed to do, although I didn’t want to. Then I put the car in park. He asked me to get out. I refused. He said OK. And then I fell apart. I cried. I screamed. He ushered the children out of the car and into the center to use the bathroom and to give me some space. Then I stopped crying and my trauma responses kicked in.
She was dead.
They were going to move her to the morgue. She was going to be sitting in a cold morgue. I needed to get her. I didn’t have a to-do list titled “What to do when your mom dies”, I desperately needed one though. I made a mental note to write down a list for my kids so they knew what to do when my time came and then I messaged my cousin for funeral home names. He sent some and I went to Google. I didn’t pick any of the ones he sent. Instead, I found the one with a five-star Google rating. I opened their website and got a general idea of cost, business practices, and vibe, and then after composing myself, I called them. “I can do this”, I told myself. I had practiced for years on how I would react to my mother’s death. I wanted to be cool, calm, collected, and distant. That wasn’t what happened when I was finally faced with the reality of my mother’s death, though.
When the warm voice on the other end picked up, I said “Hi, my mom died.”, and then I cried.
I choked back sobs as I provided them with the hospital details so they could collect her body. They told me how they handled everything in-house so once my mother was in their care she wouldn’t leave until her urn was in my arms. All the reviews talked about how kind and professional they were. I wanted my mother’s last journey on this earth to be in the hands of kind professionals. I hung up the phone and called the hospital to let them know what funeral home I’d chosen, and they told me they and the funeral home would take it from there.
Then I hung up the phone and cried some more.
With each sob, the well-chosen blouse and slacks felt tighter. Suffocating. I was suffocating under the weight of who I thought I needed to be. I desperately wanted out of my clothes. I needed to remove the façade. My family returned to the car to find me rummaging through my bag looking for the shirt I had thrown in on a whim. I bought it the month before from the Pride section at Spencer’s. It was the epitome of how I felt at that moment. With my shirt, leggings, and shoes in hand, I headed inside to find a bathroom and change. My husband followed behind. Like my silent shadow waiting to catch me.
I changed, removing the clothing like they were twenty-pound weights of unasked-for expectations, and slipped into clothing that felt like me. I walked out of the stall and stared into the mirror. My eyes were already bloodshot. I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me. She was new. Much like the Doctor when they transform into a new version of themself. They know it’s them, but they don’t know that version of themself yet. I walked out of the bathroom to see my husband, he saw my shirt and inquired if that was the mood. I said yes. He said understood and outside we went. He stopped me halfway to the car and told me to say whatever it was I needed to say. All I could say was that my mom was dead, repeatedly. Then I cried. I completely broke down in a dirty travel center parking lot. I still remember staring at the scattered pieces of trash and filth through blurry eyes as I cried on my husband's shoulder. That wasn’t the only parking lot I broke down in over the next two weeks. There was the Target parking lot when I had to find something for her to wear for her cremation and nothing seemed good enough. There was the funeral home parking lot. So many tears were shed there.
I left a little bit of my soul lingering under a tree the day she was cremated.
A travel center in Ashland, Virginia, was the first parking lot. That’s where it began. I didn’t even make it out of the state before it all fell apart. I only know times and locations because Google tracked each detour, creating a permanent history of one of the worst days of my life etched on a server and easily accessible with the tap of my finger. My mother was never that accessible, but her death... I can relive that in map locations, photos, missed calls, and a sea of messages with painful ease.
The time after that phone call feels like I’m peering through a fog attempting to piece together shattered moments. We got into the car. I was instructed I would no longer be driving. I didn’t touch the steering wheel of our van for nearly three weeks. If I’m being totally honest, my husband didn’t want to let me drive when I finally did. He saw me at my lowest and the direction my mind was going terrified us both. I changed our destination from the hospital to the Airbnb I found before we left home, after calling hotels trying to find something suitable for a family of five that wasn’t going to break the bank, I settled on a tiny Airbnb with a kind hostess. Friday morning every sentence started with “My mother’s dying”, by Friday afternoon every sentence started with “My mother’s dead”. It’s been months and that’s still a strange arrangement of words for me.
I muttered, "My mother's dead", constantly in between crying spells. I felt immense guilt in those first few weeks. Guilt because I waited so long to write to my mother. Guilt for not checking up on her more. Yes, I know it’s not the responsibility of the child to maintain the relationship, but I still had immense guilt over all the ways I didn’t break myself in pursuit of her love.
Then there was the guilt for falling apart in front of my kids. I was supposed to be super mom, like a robot made of steel, and in those first weeks’ most days I had enough energy to accomplish whatever death-related tasks there were and then I collapsed. On days when there weren’t death-related responsibilities to weed through I tried to get in a few hours of work while parenting the kids. I tried to feel normal. By lunchtime, I was mute, numb, and distant. I spent hours under a blanket wondering how it was possible to feel as if I was being ripped from the inside out over a woman whose birthday I didn’t even know until I had to file paperwork for the death certificate. I often asked myself if I had the right to grieve so intensely for a woman whom I had spent most of my adult life pretending didn’t exist. I sat in confusion at the depths of my grief, perplexed by how deeply death could cut.
As I look back on the day that started it all, I now know that version of me that looked back in the mirror. She was the fractured remains of the woman who attempted to hold various versions of herself together with sarcasm, humor, and a well-built wall. Over the past few months, I’ve tried to apply Kintsugi, the Japanese method for repairing broken pottery, to the mending of my heart and soul. Filling in the gaps with the gold of healing instead of poorly supergluing everything together with rage and trauma responses. It hasn’t been easy. I can still feel the agony that lived inside of me those first few hours and days. The gut-wrenching pain that left me naked on the bathroom floor drowning in sobs as I gasped for a life raft while having to confront decades of pain that I pushed down and did my best to ignore.
I am not the person I was before that phone call on that summer morning. I’m not the person who stared back at me in that travel center bathroom. I’m not the person who stepped out of the funeral home desperate for air. But I remember each of those versions of me, the pain they felt, and the companions who helped them through those iterations of self.
My mother’s death has forced me to evolve in new and unexpected ways and as I continue to morph into who I shall be after this moment in time I have to find solace in the fact that while I am not who I was, who I was is still apart of me. Those memories. Those emotions. They are still there, and they weave a tapestry that will tell my story. I am appreciative of who I have been and hopeful for who I will become.
I’ll leave you with the words of the 11th Doctor because he summed up painful, yet necessary, change eloquently:
But times change, and so must I... We all change, when you think about it, we're all different people; all through our lives, and that's okay, that's good, you've gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day, I swear.
Copyright(c)2023 Rayven Holmes