On Grief and Loss

Grief has resurfaced in my life in the past week. Subtle, quiet, it sneaks in and sidles up beside me, comfortable like a well-worn pair of shoes, though not nearly as loved.

I was 22 years old when my mom died. Two years, eight months and two days have passed since then.

I’ve had some time to become familiar with my grief. I accept it now as a sort of melancholy that hangs over me for a week or so every month around the 19th. Sometimes, though, it rips through me like a chasm, pulling everything into the blackness.

This too shall pass.

That was my mantra in the months leading up to my mom’s death. I clung to it like a lifeline in the tempest of my darkest days. Months of visits to the bleak, gray cinder block walls of the nursing home where she lay frail in a hospital bed, her skin a sickly yellow-gray, her thinning hair stuck to her head with sweat.

My beautiful, vibrant mother who once laughed heartily about the time she and my dad got arrested at a hockey game for fighting the police was now reduced to skin and bones swimming in pajamas.

I whispered and cooed as I stroked her hair back from her face. As I walked down the hall to leave for work, my shoes squeaking on the linoleum, I saw through eyes blurred with tears the people in the nursing home: White hair, sagging wrinkled skin, most had to be in their seventies or eighties. My mom was 54.

Parkinson’s related dementia had struck early; she was just 46 when she was diagnosed. I was 14.

I had no idea what was to come in the next eight years, the deterioration the disease inflicts, or that dementia is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Did you know that dementia kills you?

I watched, helpless, as my mom struggled to lift a fork to her mouth without the food falling off. As she looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked, “What’s wrong with me?”. As she lost track of what she was saying in the middle of a sentence. Or as, one by one, she forgot everyone she loved and held dear.

Betty Lou was the strongest woman I will ever know. She was loud, rowdy, and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. She raised me to have her endless child-like curiosity and taught me how to love science, books, and reading. We lay in bed giggling at night and told secrets.

In the hospital, there were brief moments where I would lean close to whisper, “I love you, mom,” and a flicker of recognition lit up her blue eyes. Her motor skills had deteriorated too much for her to speak, but in a faint, straining grunt I heard her say, “I love you.”

She never forgot who I was. I will never forget who she was, either.

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