Thursday 14 July 2016

Round 3, Day 302: Life, death, life

I left a few more weeks than intended between my last post and this post. But I'm still here, still sober. More and more, I'm settling into being sober as a source of strength for me.

My mother died a little over a week ago. It wasn't unexpected. She had dementia and we all knew she was in the last stage of that illness. A year ago I visited and spent some time with her, when she still had some of her faculties. At that point she could sit up and interact with people, and she loved to laugh. After that visit people often asked, "Did she know who you were?" but one thing dementia teaches the family, or should teach the family if they are open to learning that lesson, is that visiting the sick person isn't about you, and it isn't about getting what you need from the person the sick person used to be. By last summer, my mother was years past knowing who I was. But she was alive, and somehow still vital. She was still herself, in a way that we understand as people but that the medical and scientific descriptions seem to miss. I was able to connect with her during our visit, and we laughed a lot. Over this past winter, she mostly lost her ability to sit up unassisted. She slept most of the time. Eventually she could hardly swallow. Occasionally, when she woke up, family members said she still smiled or laughed for a moment. Thanks to the wonders of the iPhone, I have a recent photo of my mother laughing with my youngest brother. By the end these moments happened very rarely. Now they are gone, except in memory.

My husband and I flew across the country at short notice, the way people living away do when family members die. The trip to where I'm from takes pretty much a whole day. We stayed with family, participated in the wake and funeral, then spent a couple of more days visiting and resting. The wake was a traditional Catholic wake, with an open casket, so for two days people who had known my mother, or who knew members of my large family, came to pay their respects to our family, and to the memory and the body of my mother. There is something about the open casket wake that I find comforting. For two days, in that room, the person who was my mother and the body of my mother were the same and not the same. My mother looked beautiful. She was dressed in a pretty blue dress, which made her look more like herself than she had wearing the drab easy-to-wash clothes she wore in the nursing home. Her hair was done in a way she would have liked, artfully mussed by a hairstylist relative who was horrified by the old-lady do that the morticians had done. From some angles, her face looked as it did when she was alive. The set of her mouth made it easy to imagine she was about to make the kind of sharp (and likely cutting) comment she was known for much of her life. But of course she lay perfectly still, still as only the dead can lie. In that room, we had photos of my mother laughing and dancing, and stories of things she'd said and done, but she wasn't coming back with any more sharp remarks or one more quick laugh. Yes, we all knew that, but the wake gave us space to be with that knowledge, to try it on and take it into ourselves. We did this for two days, and after that we closed the coffin, had the funeral, and then we put the coffin, with the body of my stylish, still mother in her pretty blue dress in it, in a hole in the ground. At the graveside, I was bent with grief. A hole in the ground is a lonely place, and my mother hated being alone. It seemed wrong to leave her there. I wanted to stay. But there was a funeral meal to be shared, and more stories to hear. The living have to eat, and talk, and I had to get on with that part of the funeral. For the rest of the day, I stood and sat with relatives and friends and talked some more about my mother. She was still with us, and at the same time she was alone in that hole in the ground.

My family lived in a small rural area, but my mother was born and raised in the city. A couple of days after the funeral, my husband and I walked through her childhood neighbourhood, past the house she grew up in and the school she taught in starting at age 16. It helped me see the city differently, walking from one end to the other, thinking about my mother's hard childhood and how she loved teaching and what it must have been like for her to be a young person so long ago, before she was my mother. One of my nephews had a sports event in the afternoon, so my husband and I walked across the city to meet up with some more family members and watch the young boys rowing on the lake. Some of us went out for fish and chips, and then my husband and I went walking some more, through the downtown and up a big well known hill that overlooked the city and the wild ocean.

When I sat down to write this post today, I didn't mean to write what I did. I was going to talk about drinking, or more accurately, not drinking. On the Saturday morning at work when I got the phone call from my family, Saturday afternoon at home making travel arrangements for the long flight, all day Sunday reading and doing sudoku and passing the time on the flight, at the wake and the funeral and during the days visiting afterwards, and then in the always somewhat guilty return flight home, I didn't drink. Many people did. I come from a drinking family and a drinking culture, and wakes and funerals are steeped in booze. People got drunk and loud. At least one person got drunk and passed out. A few people got drunk and, only then, cried. I didn't want that. I wanted to be sober. Just once, getting the bus on the way home from work the morning I got the news, as the bus passed a wine store I used to frequent, I wondered whether I might have some wine. But I didn't want to.

Somehow, over the past three years of being sober and then not, and sober and then not, and then sober, I have become sober. It's who I am. I was so grateful to be able to face the news and the travel and wake and funeral and all that time with family, to feel the grief I feel in my mother's death. I was able to experience the complicated love I feel for my family and the straightforward love I feel for my husband, and enjoy the powerful connection I have with the people and the place I come from, even when it was sad and painful. I had some amazing conversations, including one with a woman whose son I used to tutor, who took me aside at the wake to tell me about her near-death experience and caution me that death isn't something to fear. I was able to live in the presence of death. I didn't need to turn away from it all and find solace in drink. Life itself is solace, even when it's sad and filled with grief. And I'm grateful for that.

If you're still reading after this long post, thanks for keeping me company through this getting sober thing. I'm grateful for all your support. Peace and joy to you.