I always find it a bit odd whenever I encounter people my age who are just becoming grandparents and still having living parents themselves. Yet, when I do the math it isn’t so odd. Perhaps I am the odd one.
Next week I will have officially lived half my lifetime without my parents. When I was in my early 20’s both my parents died two years and one week apart. When I was younger, these anniversaries were incredibly painful, and cast a permanent pall over the holiday season. But, as with most everything, time has worked its wonders. I’m still not a big holiday person, but at least now they are merely annoying rather than agonizing.
It wasn’t the death of my mother that was so surprising or ultimately so damaging. After all, she was never the healthiest of women. I knew she had heart problems. But, it was the way it was handled that caused the most pain.
I was going to school at Berkeley at the time. Finals had just finished and winter break had just begun. Time to party! A trip to the folks in Burbank was planned for Christmas, but I wasn’t in any hurry to get down there. My then boyfriend and I had spent our first day of freedom down in Santa Cruz, and when we got home later that evening, there was a message that my brother called. While odd, it wasn’t alarming.
Early the next morning he called back.
“Are you sitting down?”
“What? Yeah, sure.”
“Her heart. Last week.”
“Well, she had been in the hospital a couple of weeks ago, and then she came home and had a heart attack, and then died shortly there after in the hospital.”
“What? When did she die?”
“About a week ago.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“Well, we figured you’d be in the middle of finals and we didn’t want to bother you.”
“What the fuck?”
“Fuck you. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I was going to drive the 6 hour drive that day, but chose instead to stay with my friends and get good and drunk. The next morning the boyfriend and I drove down to SoCal together. It was a subdued drive. He was also in his early 20’s and had no idea of the right words to say when someone loses a parent.
When we got to my family home, it was empty. No father, no brother. Only trace elements of my mother. Her sweater was still hanging on the back of her chair, and an impression of her body was imprinted on her bed. This was all made even more surreal because I had never been alone in that house. My mother had been housebound due to an anxiety disorder. She was always home. She was the quintessential “stay at home mom”.
The boyfriend found a note: “We’re at Rosie’s” (my brother’s soon-to-be wife) and gave the phone number. When I called my brother said Rosie was having a party and he decided to take dad. They’ll be spending the night there. I wasn’t invited.
While I could have spent the night in my own bed, I simply couldn’t handle it. Ultimately, I found refuge with my childhood friend and her parents. They said and did all the right things. They were outraged at how I was being treated. They made me a strong drink, and ultimately ended up tucking me into bed.
The next few days were a blur. There was no funeral or memorial service. My mother had no friends and no known relatives except for ourselves. My father and brother offered me no solace. They had had a week’s head start in dealing with the loss. They had each other. I ended up getting pneumonia, and even then they failed to take care of me. Finally, despite being very ill and against doctor’s orders, I left. I need to heal both physically and emotionally among people who cared about me.
Over the next few months I called my dad every week or so to make sure he was OK. I was going through my own hard time; the place I lived was being sold and I had to move, and my boyfriend decided to move back to Southern California. I ended up taking advantage of the kindness and the couches of friends. One day when I called to check in with my dad, I was shocked to hear “the number you have reached is disconnected, and there is no new number.” What? We had had that phone number my entire life! So, I called my brother.
“Dad’s phone number is disconnected.”
“Yeah, he moved down to San Diego, across the street from me.”
“That’s good he’s close to you. What happened to my stuff in my room?”
“Oh, did you want that? We just left it. You can contact the people we sold the house to. Maybe they still have it.”
“You’re an asshole, you know.”
“It’s not like you’ve been a lot of help. Sorry.”
And I’m sorry for going for so long about this. It’s weird to be writing it all down. The distance that I was feeling at the beginning of this post no longer feels so distant. In relating this the pain is no longer there, but I can still feel the hardness in my heart towards my brother, and the gratitude for my friend and her parents who took care of me that awful night.