When I was home a few weeks ago, I heard my mother talking — to herself, I thought — after we’d put her to bed. I peeked in her room and saw her tucking in beside her the old doll that usually sits on the nightstand. “Is that cold air hitting you?” she asked, arranging the covers around plastic-limbed doll. My heart skipped, and when my mom saw me, she told me to cover the image of Jesus on the wall because he, too, was cold. Obediently, I pulled it from the wall and settled it on the floor. “The draft won’t hit him there,” I said.
How had we gotten here so soon? I thought I had more time. When visiting my mother-in-law in residential care — and her mother, too, before she died in 2005 — I’d seen the occasional woman resident walking around holding a doll, the vestiges of motherhood memory compelling her to cradle as her own flesh and blood a children’s toy. Still, I was unprepared for my own mother to do the same.
It was the peak of a swell that had been building since summer, a slow-moving wave of change that bit by bit snuck up on me until I felt dragged under by its power, caught in a current of grief.
The sea change, which I did not yet recognize as such, announced itself in July with a phone call from our petsitter while I sat writing in a rented casita in Albuquerque. My guinea pig had died. As far as tragedies go, this one affected only me. As my husband liked to tease, Moby was only a rat, albeit a giant white one with red eyes. I’d adopted him after he sat in a pet supplies store for a year because nobody wanted him. In fact, someone once bought him, then returned him. I’m a sucker for a hard-luck story, but also, as a kid I never had a guinea pig. He represented a bit of innocence and wonder, a slice of childhood retrieved during trying times. When hungry, he stood on his hind legs rattling the bars of his cage, squeaking loudly. He hid in my hair when I held him in the curve of my neck. My husband discovered he could whistle at a certain pitch, and Moby would answer. I loved Moby.
A few weeks after that, the swell rose a bit higher: Chaucer, our male bearded dragon died. We’d gotten him when he was just six months old, and he’d stretched into a handsome, yellow adult almost two feet long, so tame and gentle we could hand-feed him. Even my mother used to like holding him, and allowed me to photograph her with him early in her illness. Cancer, the vet said, showing us the images of the necropsy. I have a strong stomach; what was more difficult to accept was that I had yet another animal habitat that would sit empty, yet another pet to miss. I loved him, too.
Then this: Earlier this year, my brother had decided to move back to El Paso so he could be of more help with Mom. A self-employed private investigator, he has lived near me for about the past ten years. Now, he made plans to leave his business in someone else’s hands and applied for a job that came open with an El Paso non-profit agency. When he got the job, I was elated. More boots on the ground to help our sister with Mom was a good thing. My trips to El Paso would still happen, but with less urgency.
Still, as I drove the 600 miles to El Paso, SUV packed tightly with my brother’s clothes and mementos, I felt incredibly sad. And off balance. Sometimes having a sick family member feels like you’re trying to keep your head above water at all times, trying to ride each wave that comes in hopes that it won’t pull you under and thrash you. Every small change, even if it’s good, creates chop. And just as you feel ground beneath your feet, the next one appears on the horizon.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, year-end festivities? There isn’t time for me to think that far ahead, must less “feel” the holiday spirit that has previously had me humming Christmas carols to myself by October. And believe me I’ve longed to feel the stirrings of something besides grief. What I’ve discovered is that sometimes I need to simply sit with my emotions for days, or weeks if need be, and ride them out in all their bone-jarring intensity until I can come up for air. If I don’t, they’ll just take me under later.
I’ve found my footing for now. I hope I’m ready for the next wave.