battling the waves

I wanted to share a post about grief from reddit because I think it's probably the best description I've ever heard.

It's 2 days after my mom's birthday, 2 days before the anniversary of her funeral, and I - for the first time - attempted to tell my best friends how I'm really feeling.

I used this post to try to describe it. I wanted to share that with you, dear Reader.

This is the viral response to a question posted on reddit:
Alright, here goes. I'm old. What that means is that I've survived (so far) and a lot of people I've known and loved did not. I've lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can't imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here's my two cents.
I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don't want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don't want it to "not matter". I don't want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can't see.

As for grief, you'll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you're drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it's some physical thing. Maybe it's a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it's a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you'll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what's going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything...and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life. 

Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O'Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you'll come out. 

Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come. And you'll survive them too. If you're lucky, you'll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks. 

This post terrifies me. It is so overwhelming that, a year later, I can still lose the ability to breathe while walking down the street. I've been told sometimes grieving only really starts at the one year mark. What I know is that it NEVER stops. From everything I hear, it doesn't actually even get easier. You just learn to navigate it. I think I'm just starting to do that. Or not. But I'm at least finally starting to try.

I read through the comments to this post, and I found one that I couldn't help but share.

My dad died 2 years ago and it still hurts. But the thing is, he knew he was dying (throat cancer). He deliberately went off his meds about three days before the end so he could be clear and lucid. We had that talk that people always say they never got. I got to tell him how much I loved him, and he got to tell me (and everyone else in the family) the same. It was the most beautiful experience. Two days later, I had my arm around my mother, as she held his hand. My wife held his other hand. He took his last breath. I am amazed at how beautiful death can be. As much as I wished he didn't need to die, his death was the most beautiful thing I've witnessed in my whole life (46 yrs). Goddam I love being a human being. Even grief is beautiful.

I added this one because I know I'm throwing a lot of sadness out there right now, but I want to acknowledge that I know how beautiful this all is. Life sucks, but it's still fucking beautiful. 


how Gracie got her name

In the letters between my mom and dad when she still lived in Germany, my mom demonstrates a strong grasp of the English language, but you can tell that she learned more formal English that she uses with my father.

I happen to love how she used the word crazy, and I love even more that she spelled it "grasy". She used it quite often, and I read these letters right before I got the kittens.

I couldn't think of a better way to honor this little smiley bit than the beautiful cat Gracie has grown into. Mom would have loved her!


Sometimes I'm lucky enough to get a rare glimpse into the woman mom my was when she was very young.

My mom met my father when she was a nurse in Wiesbaden and he was stationed in the Air Force in Erbenheim. Erbenheim was my mom's home town, and was about an hour train ride from Wiesbaden. They had one date, declared their love for each other, then wrote letters back and forth until they decided to marry.

This is an excerpt from one of those letters.

I can't tell from the letters what happened on their previous date that she references at the top. And it breaks my heart that I can't ask her.

But I will always chuckle when I see that my mom called my dad her "bedroom gangster".

the things you miss

My mom was known for some pretty fantastic tidbits of advice.

She was a wise woman in so many ways, and she was smarter than most people thought (funny how a thick German accent in southern Missouri will make people think you're dumb), but my mom was not the best mentor when it came to dating.

Mama was eager to have me married off and bearing her grandchildren. She never wanted me to be unhappy, and she never nagged, but every once in awhile her agenda came out in terrible, and terribly funny ways.

When I was frustrated that a serious boyfriend was still protecting his ex, my mom's advice was, "Why don't you just get pregnant so he'll marry you?"

Good job, Mom.

And when I was missing that boyfriend months after we'd broken up, rather than consoling me, Mom said, "You should just go over to his house now and propose."

Even better.

That was my mom. She wanted to see me be a mom, and she wanted to know those kids. Badly enough that in later years she thought the quality of the man wasn't nearly as important as the grandchild he might give her.

She wasn't serious - not completely. But she didn't filter herself. (I mean - we all knew I had to get that from somewhere.)

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. That same ex was up at the ski house with his new girlfriend while I was there. I played it cool and was very nice to both of them, but when I went to bed I lost my shit. I found myself crying and reading through old emails, and I stumbled across the ones where I shared my mom's "wisdom" with my sister.

And then I really lost it.

In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to call my mom and hear whatever crazy piece of guidance she had to offer. I wanted to hear tell me to make a scene, or go dump cold water on his head, or profess my (non-existent) love to him. I'm sure whatever I can think of that she would say wouldn't compare to the amazing gem she would have actually given me.

And THAT is one of the things I miss the most.

a thousand goodbyes

A year ago today I spoke to my mother for the last time.

I'm not sure she could hear me, and I'm not sure she could understand me if she did. She sounded like a very drunk person on the phone - someone on the verge of passing out, but trying to talk to you. The encephalopathy in her brain had taken over, and I knew it was only a matter of time before her body shut down, as well. 

I remember what I told her. I told her I loved her over and over, and I told her it was okay to let go. I told her I would be okay, that she didn't need to worry about her children - that we would all be okay. I told her it was okay.

I lied. 

More on that later. 

This had happened three times in the preceding 4 months. The first time, we thought she had a stroke. We were thankful to find out that wasn't the case, but the truth wasn't much better. Her congestive heart failure, accelerated by an infection that sent her into septic shock and almost killed her in October, was slowly depriving her body of oxygen. The other times it happened, she was rushed to the hospital and placed on BiPAP, and the encephalopathy quicky resolved. 

By January, however, my mom had had enough. She called me to tell me that they wanted to move her to a specialized facility where she would remain on a ventilator - her biggest fear and the one thing she consistently told me she didn't want to do. She told me that she didn't want that - that she wanted to go home. We agreed that she would return to the nursing home she had just moved into to spend her final days with her husband. I flew home to move her and spend the remaining time with her. 

The doctors told me it could be a few hours or a few days, but not likely more than a week or two. I set her up with hospice and helped her with all the things she wanted to do before she died. She wanted a bowl of these terrible candies I couldn't stand, a domino's pizza, and all the diet coke she could drink. She talked to her siblings in Germany. She asked me to bring her the paper she liked so she could write letters to people. 

She never did write those letters.

Mom immediately got better after arriving back at the nursing home. Her oxygen levels maintained without the ventilator, and she felt good enough to get out of bed and take her wheelchair to the dining room to show off her daughter to her new friends. We watched tv together and talked about plans. She talked about getting healthy enough to walk again and I asked her if she wanted me to get a red hat to join the home's red hat ladies club. She definitely didn't. 

I had heard from enough people that when someone is dying, they frequently get better right before they pass. That happened with my father, and I thought it was happening now. So I extended my trip home. I decided I would stay until she died. 

But she didn't die. She kept getting better. She had energy. She made jokes. She yelled at me for all the things I threw out when I cleaned out her house. She nagged me to marry the boy I was seeing who had the German last name. She let me fix her hair. We even had a photo session where she learned (kinda) where to look on the phone for a selfie!

She was happy. 

Almost three weeks after she decided she didn't want anymore treatment, we also decided I should return to San Francisco. She was doing fine. The doctors said it might be months before something else happened. I had already taken 8 weeks of unpaid time off at a job I started 3 weeks before Mom got sick. I was paying for so many of the bills that me losing that income was more of a factor than I would have liked. I was also scared that maybe Mom was just hanging on for me. I wanted her to hang on for me, but I didn't want her to fight through something if it was really her time to go. I struggled with the decision for a while before I finally booked a return flight. 

We talked about death. We talked about how this might be the last time we saw each other. We talked about what she wanted. I knew that I might never see her again - that the next call might be the last call. But I didn't really KNOW it. I made plans to come back and see her in March - a mere 5 weeks away. 

As I left her room after telling her goodbye and hugging her about a thousand times, I heard her call my name. I will forever remember her voice in that moment. 

I turned back, "yes, Mama?"
She looked at me with skepticism, "If you want to get me a red hat, make it a really funky one."

That was my Mama.

I promised, we laughed, and I went back and did the hugging goodbye ritual another few times before I finally left.

I called her as soon as we landed, and we talked the whole way home. We spoke every day for the next 11 days. I could tell she was getting a little more tired, but she was doing okay. And then she wasn't. 

I noticed on the 9th that she seemed a little more tired than normal and she wasn't responding fully. On the 10th I could tell the encephalopathy was taking over her brain again. 

On the 11th I talked to her for the last time. 

I tried to call her on the 12th, but her phone was busy. I called my sister instead. As I was telling my sister that I was ready because I didn't want Mom to hurt anymore, as I was telling my sister that I wanted this to be over, as I was fooling myself into thinking that it could ever really be over, I was telling my sister that I had already said goodbye, and that I could only say goodbye so many times - I got a call from my brother. Mom had just passed as her husband held her phone to her ear with my brother on the other end of the line.

Mom died knowing how much we all loved her. She died knowing that we all had good lives and people who loved us. She died having taken control of the decision and having chosen not to suffer more than she already had.

But she also died with me having just lied to her.

I told her I would be okay. 

I'm not okay. 

I honestly don't know if I'll ever be okay again. Or maybe I'll just find a new definition of "okay".


It's been a year since I last told her I loved her. I wish I could say it again and again and again. It's been a year since I told her goodbye. It's been a year since I believed I had said goodbye more times than I could.

Today, a year later, I wish I could say goodbye to my mama again. I wish I could say it every day and never have it be the last one. I wish for a thousand more goodbyes.