Two weeks and 3 days ago, on Nov 21, 2015, my car CD was interrupted by the sound of my cell phone ringing.
My oldest brother was calling and was unusually quiet when I answered and slow to speak. I figured it was just because I was on a noisy car phone and thought he was calling to talk about the new guitar I’d gotten for my birthday. Even as he spoke over the noise of the road, I had trouble wondering how Mum having a seizure and falling unconscious had anything to do with my birthday.
Shock makes you do funny things. Numbed to the traffic around me and oblivious to my wife beside me I obediently followed Google Maps to where I was headed while the gears in my mind drove right on past. My wife sat alone through the wedding party we’d gone to enjoy while I paced backwards and forwards on the patio on my cell phone. I spoke to my daughter who’s a Doctor, briefly, who helped me convince myself that I needed to book the first flight back home to Wellington and that everything was not really okay. We raced home and I packed a suitcase, poorly, with a dark suit. I threw my things into the car and drove myself to the airport well before my flight.
I sat in the airport lounge and waited. I checked my email, my Facebook, my Twitter, my Google+ … anything to try and slow my racing mind down. My good friend Peter knew I was coming and was messaging me to arrange my airport pickup and transfer to the hospital where Mum lay still unconscious. I remember txting my sons in the USA that their Grandma was in a bad way and that I was flying there right now. I remember boarding the plane early to try to get to my mother sooner but quickly became frustrated with the other passengers. I tried not to jump up from my seat and shove their impossibly over-sized bags into the tiny overhead bins so we could takeoff. Didn’t they realise my mother lay in a hospital bed between life and death while they laughed and lugged their Luis Vutton baggage? I was seated by the window in one of those big planes with 3 x 3 seats. The friendly talkative people next to me probably never understood what was so fascinating that made me stare out the window the entire flight. Tears and fear are easier to hide when no one can see your face.
I landed in Wellington, grabbed my suitcase, and walked to the curbside to meet my dear friends Peter & Susan, who at a frantic phone call dropped everything to pick me up. I tried to explain to them what had happened and that I needed to go to the hospital. The drive with them to their house and then by myself on to the hospital was about 45 minutes. I stared out the window and talked nonsensically on the way to their home. I knew my way from there to the hospital but if it wasn’t for Google Maps telling me when to turn and where to go I would have ended up somewhere else.
I arrived late that night at the hospital and my sister-in-law came and got me from the lobby and then somehow past locked doors and lifts to the bedside of my silent mother. This is the memory that is most vivid for me that day: a small hospital room with my family crammed around the ashen wheezing frame of my mother.
When I walked through the hospital room door I think I smiled and said hello to my family waiting there. I was feeling awkward and scared and was afraid I’d burst into tears.
The night after my mother passed away there would be a lot of tears.
There were moments later when I lost my cool, like when I called the airport parking to tell them I had urgently flown to my mother’s side and she had died. I was apologetic (I hadn’t told them when I would be returning and had just left the car at the parking space) but they were shocked, horrified and sad to hear this and told me not to worry as they were providing my parking for free. I was embarrassed that their empathy made me cry.
I now understand that this is what shock looks like. Shock and coping.
My mother wasn’t sick or suffering from cancer. Her obituary doesn’t say why she died. The truth is, we don’t really know why my mother died, only what she died from. Her heart rate fell to 35bpm for 2 days before she passed, and for reasons of circumstance or pride or some superhuman will to keep going, my mother didn’t need to go to the hospital. On Saturday, November 21, 2015, she was at the lunch table with friends and had a sudden seizure and never woke up.
Death can bring out the best in people (my wife and kids for loving and supporting me through my tears; my brothers who came together and supported each other; Peter & Susan for putting up Miriam and I for almost a week while we arranged funerals and all of the indecent administration of death; every single person who posted their love to help me get through the day) and it can also bring out the worst in them. My mother’s death brought out some of the baggage we have in life but it was overshadowed by grace.
When someone we love dies it’s an intense and often life-changing event. My mother was a tenacious and perseverant 92 year old who had shown how to take life one day at a time and keep going in her twilight years. That might have made losing her so suddenly easier: I thought I had been preparing for this as she faced these latter elderly years. But in those preparations I became vulnerable to the randomness of life that kills your mother on a Sunday 4 weeks and 2 days after you turn 50.
In most articles like this people normally switch over into lessons they’ve learned from tragedies like this. That you should live every day you have to it’s fullest like it’s the last day you have. That you should always say the special things you’re thinking or feeling because you never know if you’ll have another chance. When I was young these things might have made me roll my eyes. Today, they might make me start crying. They’re generalisations – ways to cope. Sound bites with glitter and glam that are missing the painful exposed centre that is the wound of grief.
I’ve changed because of the death of my mother. Some of those changes aren’t so welcome: when I see an incoming call from my brother I get a little white-eyed with panic. But others, the ones I’ve purposefully walked towards, have made me a much better stronger person. And while I would much rather have my mother still here with me and would trade any of these moments of growth there’s still value in what I’ve learned and what can be shared with others.
One of the principles I live by will sound, at face value, to be like one of the platitudes I eschewed above.
Lean into the truth that God can make gold from garbage.
We lose far more than a loved one when they die. Life can take a turn for the worse then, or at any other time, and keep punching us in the face, then kicking us with a steel toed boot till we’re on the ground. The way out of that is to look at the good more than the bad.
That doesn’t mean you should lick just lollipops and fill your life with things that make you feel positive. The negative is a necessity of life. Pain, sadness, trouble – we need it. Trying to live a life without them is out of whack and probably unhealthy too (as well as delusional and a false life). Accepting the good and the bad in my life and in others has helped make life better as I can honestly figure out the positive and negative situations and relationships. Once you figure that out the next step is easy: trust God to be with you as you walk through the bad to enjoy the good.
I last spoke to my mother 15 days before she died. Once again I was driving, en route to work for a day full of demands and distractions, and I called her to just say hey. The call was short: mum and I didn’t talk for hours on the phone and that day we spoke for maybe 10 minutes. She didn’t feel that she had a lot of energy, she said, and so we didn’t spend a long time talking. I now know she was heading towards her last days with us on this side of eternity but I didn’t know that at the time. I could agonise over that final conversation, but to be frank, I don’t really remember a word of it beyond how tired she sounded, and how that troubled me, for a moment, as she was always tenacious and perseverant. Instead, I just remember that I’d phoned her, that we’d chatted, that she was happy I’d given her a call.
Maybe things will or maybe they won’t ever get easier for me in terms of my mother and her death. I might start crying randomly over something to do with mothers on TV. The random, unimportant things that happen in ordinary everyday life will sometimes take my breath away with sadness, or longing.
My mother was an imperfect woman and I was an imperfect son. I loved her, warts and all, and I wish she were still alive today. She helped me realise things about myself and how to live my life, for better or for worse, and her last lesson was no more complicated than any of the others before them, but I am thankful for it.
There’s good times. There’s bad times. Know who you are with all the good and the bad. Trust that God is walking with you through it all and just take another step.
That sure isn’t easy, but life rarely is.