“How was your summer?” became the dreaded question upon returning to school in the fall of 2011. How are you supposed to respond without lying but without making the person feel completely uncomfortable?
The truth was that it had been the worst summer of my life. After the initial shock that allowed me to get through the first month after her death, the waves of grief came crashing through. Up until that point, it just hadn’t sunk in that Mom wouldn’t be coming home. Of course there had been tearful moments. But in May, I could not have foreseen that the worst was yet to come.
First, there were all the questions. “How could this happen? She had been doing so well for so long. Why didn’t we catch the cancer taking over her liver sooner? Why hadn’t we called my grandparents sooner? Why did the nurses send me home on that day? Why didn’t they tell me that my mother was dying?! Why did I leave, I should have stayed, I shouldn’t have left her side, we would have had more time together. I should have known.” These thoughts swirled around in my head on an endless loop, tormenting my conscience and leaving me in a daze.
Then came the tears. They finally made their appearance in the middle of June while I was visiting my cousin nearly 3,000 miles away from home. Maybe it took that removal from home to be able to process what had just happened, for the numbness to wear off. Or maybe it was the contrast between the harsh California sunlight and the dark clouds of grief that were settling around me. Whatever the cause, the shift in my mood was as dramatic as a shift in tectonic plates. Heavy, loud sobs that left traces of mascara on nearly every pillow case and comforter with which that I came into contact. My appetite changed to that of a baby bird, nibbling here and there but never able to stomach a full meal. The sight or smell of chocolate made me gag. Too much sweetness for this new bitter reality. Too strong a reminder of Mom.
Sleep became a cruel joke. Each morning I would wake up dreading the rest of the day but nighttime was just as hard. I became afraid of the dark, not so much of what might be lurking in the shadows, but of its vast emptiness. Without Mom, everything seemed empty and foreboding. The sound of my own heartbeat against my pillow as I fell asleep terrified me. It was the sound of mortality, whose fragility had become heightened to me. As a result of sleeping poorly at night, my days were filled with impromptu naps all around the house. These were heavy, deep sleeps from which I would wake up disoriented and feeling just as tired as I had been before.
Right as the worst was beginning, it was time to put on a brave face again. Of all the difficult things about that summer, visiting my grandparents was one of the most challenging. My grandparents, who had just experienced what no parent should ever have to live through. When it was finally confirmed that my mom’s cancer had rapidly spread and that there were no more treatment options available to her, one of the first harsh realities of the situation we had to face was that my grandfather probably would not be able to see his daughter again. At almost 90 years old and with a heart condition, there was just no way he could make the trip to the US. As calm as Mom remained during this period, I could tell this was the hardest part for her to accept; the pain was evident on her face and her voice wavered when discussing it. She considered making the trip herself but she was too sick to travel at that point. To add to the disappointment, we were supposed to all be going over to France that summer to celebrate Grandpapa’s 90th birthday. But with each passing day, these plans that faded into a distant past that represented normalcy and it became clear that no one would be celebrating. As for my grandma, she didn’t make it in time. No one expected the end to come so fast and unfortunately, neither of my grandparents were able to be there by their daughter’s side as she left the world into which they had brought her.
For these reasons, going to France to see my grandparents almost two months after her passing was not the European vacation that people may envision. But as unexpectedly fast as my mom’s battle ended, the only thing that we were able to discuss about “what happens after” was that I would go and be there for them. I made this promise to Mom through my tears as I laid in her bed, saying the words as fervently as I might have promised her as a child that I would find a cure to cancer. Because, really, what could I ever possibly do to relieve my grandparents of this pain, the heartache of losing a child that they would carry for the rest of their lives? But I made the promise because it was the only thing I could do in that moment to try and comfort my mom, and I clung to that promise as the only sense of direction for the future without her.
Looking back on that month in France, I realize how much of a haze my world had become. All my memories from that trip seem to be trapped behind this murky film that covered my eyes, tainting everything around me. It’s funny to have so many memories of what grief looked like on those surrounding me because I don’t really know what it looked like on me, only how it felt. The physical manifestations of grief had set in around me: my grandma’s red-rimmed eyes from sleepless nights and tears that she wouldn’t let anyone see, my grandfather’s silence. A second memorial service was held for all these people who had known my mom, who had been a part of the first twenty-five years of her life and hadn’t been able to come to her service in the US. At the time, I resented this second service because it seemed so disconnected from who I knew my mom to be. But a lot of these people were mourning a person that some of them hadn’t seen in twenty-something years, a person who was quite different from the person I had lost. The morning of this service, I hid in the attic for a few moments of quiet among all the relatives and to go over my remarks. I honestly don’t remember much from the service but I will never forget my Grandpapa, a man who always stood tall and spoke eloquently, hunched over beside me, weeping. The worst part of this memory is that I can’t remember if I reached over and held his hand or put my arm around his shoulder; I was just trying to get through it all. I hope I did.
So that was France, blubbering and blundering my way through. I returned home at the end of July with just a few weeks of summer remaining. Weeks that I spent hardly getting out of bed, let alone my house. It was a good day if I got up and showered. Friends called or sent me messages but I didn’t answer. I simply laid in bed and let the world spin around me because it felt like it would only spin faster if I tried to put two feet on the ground. At this point, a lot of the tears had dried up and I would count the days in between crying as some kind of achievement. But it was the sheer exhaustion of grief that had overtaken me. This was the part of grief that works its way into your mind and convinces you that this is what your world will look like forever, where you feel like you could never possibly be happy again. I didn’t know how to live without her.
This is the fourth summer season without Mom and there are still moments when missing her feels just as real as that first summer. This melancholy seems to return every summer around the beginning of July, as it has occurred every summer since she’s been gone. It’s the stillness of the house when everyone’s out except me. A good book that I’d love to pass along to her. The moments of boredom when you just want to talk to her. The summer sunlight filtering through the trees on a Saturday morning. Riding with the windows down at dusk. The occasional overheard conversation in French. Once you’ve gone through one season of missing someone, that season becomes an annual reminder of absence. But there’s also the appreciation and wonder at being able to happily get out of bed in the morning and productively go about the day when just three summers ago, taking a shower and leaving the house seemed exhausting and unappealing. Some days are still hard but it’s a reminder that her presence is still felt. And sometimes you just have to wake up, put yesterday behind you and say “It’s a new day.”