“When someone leaves your life, those exits… are… not made equal. Some are beautiful, and poetic, and satisfying. Others are… abrupt and unfair, but most are just unremarkable, unintentional, clumsy.” -Griffin McElroy, The Adventure Zone
My Mom passed away on July 9, 2017. We stood in her ICU room and said everything we needed to say, and then told her she had to go. She had to let the pain end. I had been at a birthday party just 36 hours before, drinking beer and showing off the new house Mom hadn’t seen yet. My fiancé and I got two flat tires on the rush up to the hospital. My brother had to weld his own broken truck axle while he rushed to the hospital from west Oklahoma. One minute we’re sitting with our huge family in the ICU hallway trying to make each other laugh, and the next we’re sobbing and trying to find any sense of what to do next. Her exit was abrupt and unfair.
She was a better writer than I am, but if she were on the phone with me while I wrestle with this latest life implosion, she would suggest I write about it. So after a few months of watching Frasier in the dark, eating popsicles and sobbing, it’s time.
I’ve been through several phases since that day, but in the last couple of weeks there’s been a theme: who am I now that she’s gone?
Hi, I’m 27 and I don’t know who I am. If you’re younger than me, good news, you’ll probably be fine. If you’re older than me, sorry for being naive.
Mom and I weren’t mother-daughter besties. We’d lived in different states since 2009, we both got focused on school and careers and spent most of our individual free time worrying about things while trying to relax. But there’s a part of me that I could only let out on the phone with her. Now, that part is bursting out of me at a rate that simultaneously scares and relieves me. I get to be Somewhat Fully Realized Allyson, but at the expense of losing my Mom. I didn’t have time to think about what this could mean. She was diagnosed months before she died, and I wasn’t able to be with her as much as I wanted. There was no time for us. Whether that was my fault or not will be something for my therapist to figure out later.
It’s no secret that so far, I’ve been a pretty shitty adult. I don’t keep my read receipts on so I don’t have to talk when I don’t feel like it. I forget birthdays even when Facebook tells me about them. I flake out on friends in favor of Netflix. My credit score is just a laugh-cry emoji. I failed out of college twice, and finally graduated from a for-profit art school that announced their closure my last semester (stay away from the for-profits, kids). I use my mental illness as an excuse to not participate in the world at large more often than I’d like. Cooking is my least favorite activity.
Now that I’ve lost a parent, I feel as if I’ve been pushed to the front of the cliff diving line. Before, I had so much time to prepare, to agonize and get excited, to wonder and plan. Not anymore—adulthood is here and ready to play. Suddenly I’m becoming more proactive about birthdays, my family, crossing things off my to-do list. I’m thinking about savings accounts and my own health, less like future goals and more like late fees. I’m being forced to have some of the most painful and difficult discussions with my fiancé about death and legacy. I have to tell Mom’s husband I want things of hers that he understandably also wants. I’m not great or even average at any of these things. But it doesn’t matter.
All the things I needed my Mom to help me understand about myself, I now have to figure out on my own, and fast. How will I walk down the aisle or fill out adoption applications without her? How will I stay connected to my family without her as a conduit? I rewrote this paragraph four times and tried to find a way to not cry. Nope, still hurts. A lot.
That’s one thing they don’t tell you about the months following a parental death. It doesn’t just end at her funeral. You cry all the time for no reason. Guilt, anger, fear, bargaining, wishing, smiling—all while you wonder how your tear ducts are still functioning. They also don’t tell you how much the industry of death SUCKS. Get a will, no matter how basic. Tell your loved ones what you want. Get your passwords in a password bank (it’s 2017 y’all, we have the technology). Get life insurance. Go to the doctor.
All of this is to say, it’s time for me to step up. The week following Mom’s death I kept thinking of the big safety net underneath trapeze artists. I felt like that net was gone. But then I realized that I still have a net made up of smaller ones stitched together: family members I hadn’t connected with before, dear friends I had probably flaked on dozens of times, coworkers, and teachers. And now I have to reach out to them for help when I need it, because I can’t stop trapezing. I was never good at metaphors okay, give me a break.
Carla told me a few years ago that a friend told her, “you don’t truly become an adult until a parent dies.” At the time I brushed it off and thought “Well, I have plenty of time until I need to grow up.” I laugh now at how wrong I was.
P.S.: Fuck cancer.