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Entries in coping (2)


things i remember: hunger

The week my mother was dying, the hospice nurse said she could still pull out of this and live.

"See?" she said to us, examining my mother's hands. "No mottling. Her vital signs are good." 

We knew she was wrong. But we pretended she wasn't. Because it's human nature to hope.

That week, even as her body began shutting down, we still bathed my mother. We gave her medicines. And we fed her. I think back and try to imagine what my mother's eyes were trying to say to us as we tipped the Ensure to her lips. "Just one more, Mom, one more sip," we coaxed, her eyes never leaving the face of the person feeding her. Please be hungry, we thought. Because if you're hungry, there is hope. If you're hungry, your body wants to go on. If she could have spoken, perhaps she would have said, "Oh, child, if you only knew. I have no more need of food." Indeed, sometimes it just came back up.

Two of my mother's sisters stayed with us that week. One of them had a birthday. My memory blurs but I think there was a cake. I think it was white but there may have been pink frosting and strawberries. We ate it. We laughed. There was other food. My mother's daily caregivers prepared meals she wouldn't eat. They fed us, too, my sister, brother and me. We sometimes sat at the table while my mom lay in bed, or while she was propped on pillows on the couch or in the newly delivered wheelchair. But that food blurs. Save for the cake, I remember not a single meal from that week.

In hindsight, the fact that she wasn't hungry, that she couldn't eat, should have let us know she was slipping away. We should have known it then. Acknowledged it.

Instead, one afternoon I took my mother's hands and remembered the nurse's words: "No mottling." Except that now, there was.

We stopped trying to force food into her body. Family members came to say good-bye. Some wondered if we shouldn't try to give her something. An IV, maybe. I loved them all but didn't have the energy to talk about hospice. About palliative care. About letting go. 

After the funeral, we invited people to her house. I wanted to cater something. But a friend said, "Don't. People will bring food. Let them." At least that's what I think she said. As I mentioned before, my memory blurs. But when I think back to the hours after we buried my mother, I remember hunger. 

Maybe remember is too strong a word. Because honestly, when I think about the table set up in the carport, the only thing I can see clearly on it is a tall pot from which wafted the warm aroma of frijoles de la olla. So no, I don't remember everything that people brought. But on my tongue I still feel the richness of the funeral spread: macaroni and cheese; a creamy pasta with peas; a sugary, store-bought pastry we devoured, leaving nothing but crumbs. I don't eat meat, but I think there were sandwiches of some sort. Or maybe hotdogs. In my hunger, I probably ate those, too.

It was a complex hunger I was sating. I remember standing by the gate to the back yard, holding a plate, talking with my husband and two friends who flew in for the day from north Texas. I remember marveling that someone would do that, fly somewhere for a day for my mother's funeral. I remember marveling at the textures of salad and pasta and bread and beans on my tongue. At the unbelievable sweetness of sugar. At the warmth of love.

This was was my hunger--for family, for friends, for companionship in my grief. But also for the food that my mother had not been able to eat. For the meals that we had so badly wanted to feed her but could not. For the continued life that we had wanted to give her but could not.

Time wears down those rough edges of loss; most days when I think about my mother now, I feel gratitude for all the years I had her in my life. But occasionally, I think back to what I'm missing by having her gone, or I remember her last week on Earth and the way we tried to keep her alive one more day with one more spoonful, one more sip, and I feel hunger.




things I remember: the beginning

The week my mother began to actively die, I started keeping a list of observations about grief. My grief, my family's grief. Grief I saw in others. My mother had Alzheimer's for years. I had written essays about this journey for a long time. After she died, I thought I had one more piece in me. About grief. 

When my mother was first diagnosed, I told myself, "You will only be here once. Whatever you must do for the next several years to take care of the woman who raised you and sent you into the world, give it all you've got. Hold nothing back. Write, photograph and talk about it because you never know who else it might help. Remember: you will only be here once."

After she died, my writing brain stalled. I haven't been able to write. Not about this. Maybe that's just the nature of grief--its grip can be paralyzing. Or maybe it's just that grief is too expansive for me to tackle in big chunks, whether it's chunks of time spent crying, or chunks of time spent putting it into words. 

But something in my writing brain is stirring. I keep thinking back to the list I started on my iPhone notes app, sometimes just a line on a virtual page I hastily titled, "Things I remember." Even now, a memory or a dream will make me pause, turn to that page in the app, and write another line or two.

I've realized grief doesn't have a finish line. There's no visible end you can count on, no marker at which you finally stop and say, "This is where my grief journey ends." Similarly, I have no final piece in me about grief, summed up tidily, beginning to end. Grief is two steps forward and a hundred back. It is waking up filled with joy, then shopping at Target and thinking, "Mom could use a new pair of pants," only to remember that, no, she can't. I've stumbled through the darkest of it and along the way, I've found that I'm coping. 

But, no, there's no real end. Just the realization that love doesn't die. So, while I have no final piece to write about grief, I do have many small, observations about it that I'll offer occasionally here, on the altar of love. Because people leave us, but love never dies.