“It was cold and it rained and I felt like an actor; and I thought of Ma, and I wanted to get back there. Your race, your face, the way that you talk…”
- “Five Years,” David Bowie
We all knew she was dying, herself included, it was just a matter of when. Two months before my mother was checked into the ICU at Lowell General Hospital, never to check out, I drove up Route 95 with my father and proclaimed my acceptance of the situation. “I know she’s gonna die before I turn 25,” I told him, with as much maturity as I could muster, “so I just need to make the most of it before then.” I wasn’t lying about making the most of my time left with her, but I wasn’t accurate about the timeline. Only she knew just how quickly the end was approaching, how rapidly her mortality was coming. And in so many ways, she faced it alone, unwilling to burden any of her loved ones with her imminent departure.
Patricia Ann Swierk, in the midst of an aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment after a recent full body scan revealed a cancerous growth in her liver, would pass away on August 16, 2005, just over a year after her lymph node biopsy revealed the melanoma cells from her cheek and arm had spread to her bloodstream. She wasn’t alone, of course, as myself, my sister, my father, and so many of our aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends (family isn’t just blood) were there with her until her last breath. I can still see her, moments before her soul left her corpse, her chest rising slower, and shallower, until she was gone. She wasn’t in pain then, and she wasn’t aware anymore of what was happening.
The last time I spoke with her, the night before she finally passed on, she was still in the ICU. We had been informed by the doctors, maybe an hour or two before, that her liver and kidneys were failing, her organs were shutting down, and she wouldn’t make it through that evening. My sister, father, and three aunts (Patty’s sisters) broke down, aghast at the sudden turn in her health. She had been getting weaker, and been more ill, the prior few weeks, but given her recent start on chemo, it was chalked up to an adverse reaction. In reality, she was dying, wasting away while we wasted our final weeks and months with her presence on this earth.
I went into the ICU room where she lay, having been brought to the ER that morning by my sister. The room was a dark shade of blue, I think, and countless tubes, machines, and cords surrounded and intertwined with her. She was barely conscious or coherent, having been pumped full of morphine, sedatives, and painkillers to alleviate the misery in her final moments, but she was awake. I strolled up to the bed beside her, slowly and cautiously, not knowing if this would be the last time I saw her (it wasn’t) or the last time she spoke to me (it was). We had decided I would run home to the house, to feed our dogs, Bonnie and Ziggy, and let them out before it got too late. I needed to get away, even for an hour, even if it meant I’d never see her alive again.
As I sat, gingerly, on the edge of the bed beside her, she looked up at me and smiled. She knew who I was still, and despite the fact her body was betraying her, she still needed to be my mother in that moment. I told her, desperate to keep myself together, that I had to run home to take care of the dogs, that I loved her more than anything, and that I’d be back as soon as I could. I knew the stakes, knew that she could be gone at any moment, and felt I was saying goodbye. I didn’t expect her to still be alive and kicking much longer, because that’s what we had been told.
She looked up at me, unaware of anything going on around her, unaware at that moment where she was or what was happening to her, and smiled warmly:
“Don’t worry, sweetie, take your time. I’ll be here, and I’ll talk to you when you get back…”
Her tone conveyed a lackadaisical belief that she would, in fact, just see and talk to me in a short while. The fear of death, of what happens next to her mind, her soul, her consciousness, was completely absent, replaced by a drugged out belief that everything was hunky dory. My facade crumbled, any strength I had perishing in the face of my dying mother, blissfully unaware of her impending demise, and I kissed her rushedly as I hurried away, telling her I loved her again. The tears were streaming uncontrollably, betraying whatever stoic demeanor I was aiming for.
She didn’t die in the next two hours before I returned, but she was unconscious from that point until the end. Just under 24 hours after I last heard her voice, she was fully gone. And that last conversation, those last moments of interaction with the woman who raised me, protected me, and loved me more than anyone ever has or, most likely, ever will (because nobody loves you like your mom), takes precedence over any other memory of her. It hovers above the rest, taunting me with the knowledge that life is unbearably, inconceivably cruel. She deserved better, and I deserved better, and so did my sister and my father and every other person that knew and loved her.
There was no one I was closer with, or felt more comfortable and calm around, or who I could let my guard down with and just be me. I practically went blue in the face telling those around me that, when she died, I lost my only confidant. She was my rock, my everything, she was my fucking mother. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful relationship with my mom, and without that anchor keeping me grounded, keeping me tethered to the path I needed to follow, I lost track of everything. And, as much as I bear a huge amount of responsibility for where I am today, there’s also abundant proof that suggests I was bound for a prolonged process of grief, psychiatric disorders, and difficulty maintaining the “easy path” (as a cousin once described my life being, from the outside, before her death) the instant Patty left this world.
My list of regrets in life is, shockingly, quite vast, but they all pale in comparison to my greatest ignominy: failing to graduate college. Virtually every issue I have stems from this piece of information, perhaps even more so than the traumatic ramifications, both short and long-term, of my mother’s unexpected passing. After my junior year of college, I was forced to go on personal leave, and with more than a decade passing since that day, the outcome is clear: I’m a college dropout. There’s a number of negative labels that are applicable to me, but none stings more than that scarlet letter of shame.
I’ve been able to find an internal detente with this over the past ten years, largely by framing the entire circumstance in a boastful yet self-deprecating manner. I may not have obtained my Bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, a highly ranked and respected institution for higher learning, but considering I have ¾ of it completed, it’s basically better than an actual degree from most anywhere else. Describing my non-degree as better than the real thing is good for a chuckle or an irritated retort from time to time, but it’s still just a verbal bandage over a deep psychological wound.
It’s also a lie, that being a college dropout is the main reason I’ve become the person I am today. It’s a huge factor in how I view myself in relation to who I think I should be, but why was I unable to complete the coursework to earn a BA in Sociology? I wasn’t flunking out or doing poorly academically, so what drove me to end up in a position where I had to withdraw from the university entirely? How did I transition from the teenager who was accepted to an elite university, recruited as a defensive tackle on the football team (go Jumbos), to a man in his early (mid) thirties, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?
When my father passed away, three days after the ten-year anniversary of my mom’s death, someone I love and respect dearly apologized to me because both of their parents were still alive. It was silly, of course, because there was nothing he could have done to alter the events of my life, and why should he feel sorry for NOT having to deal with such tragedy in his? It just is what it is (right, sis?), so no need to overthink how anyone else is luckier than I. But he did have a point.
A 2007 study, Death of Parents and Adult Psychological Well-Being (Marks, Jun, Song), noted that the advantage of having two living parents, to one’s overall well-being as an adult, has been “underestimated,” given the continual availability of “two primary affectional/attachment bond figures alive in their lives.” That loss of a primary attachment figure, particularly one’s mother, who is often the primary attachment figure in our culture, has been reported to lead to “a greater decline in global happiness, a lower level of psychological wellness, and…a decline in self-rated health,” compared to those with both living parents. Ample evidence has also demonstrated that “mothers often remain a critical social resource…through early adulthood and into middle age.” The absence of that resource leads to “greater psychological distress over time,” and qualitative analyses show a “general societal underestimation of the impact of filial bereavement” than many believe.
So maybe the quick and lazy answer, as to why my life has gone down the path it has, is that my mother died when I was 19. But that doesn’t negate that there is still A LOT of truth in that statement, and it’s no secret that the death of a parent, particularly when younger, is a traumatic life event. This is even more apparent in situations where the death is unexpected, where it’s “most likely to be rated as the worst” traumatic experience when discussed by individuals who have dealt with monumental loss. A 2014 study, The Burden of Loss (Keyes, Pratt, et al), analyzed the impact of those unexpected losses:
“The loss of close relationships is unique among stressful experiences. (They) influence a wide range of physical, cognitive, and emotional processes in everyday life…contribute importantly to a sense of identity and are often intertwined in a person’s self-concept, and, as such, the death of a close loved one has unique psychological sequelae.”
The key point above is that, when someone that close to you dies, it’s not just them you’ve lost; it’s YOU who’s gone as well. Those standout relationships in our lives, those individuals who inhabit those roles, are “intertwined in a person’s self-concept.” They are literally part of what makes you you, and removing that pillar from one’s life requires learning how to live your entire life over again, as a new person, with that section of your being excised. That incredible burden is also unknowable from the outside, since those who have not experienced parental loss “just (do) not understand what they were going through.” It’s impossible to know what that is like, to understand the deeper ramifications when a parent disappears from your life forever. Not that it stops innumerable people from telling you they understand how you feel. News flash: if you haven’t experienced a parent’s loss, you don’t understand anything about the bereavement process, or just how damaging those “major life stressors” can be.
All of this adds up to a seemingly simple, straightforward conclusion, which is that I am not to blame for my enormous struggles throughout the past fourteen years since my mother’s tragic, unexpected death. I’m not the only one who’s gone through what I have, or made the same mistakes or dealt with the “prolonged grief reactions” because I was at a “heightened vulnerability for onset of…psychiatric disorders.” I’m off the hook, right? No personal responsibility in my failures and misfortunes, because it’s barely quantifiable how huge the impact is of the unexpected loss of a loved one, particularly a parental, primary attachment figure, and even more so when the loss occurs before adulthood. Right?
Of course I’m still to blame for where I am in my life, and am still at fault for the actions, choices, and outcomes that I’ve experienced. Another consensus finding is that a support system needs to be in place, and therapeutic practices need to be utilized to process one’s grief and figure a way to unload the weight of bereavement, in order to “minimize” the “damage and suffering experienced by individuals in adult life.” A 2013 study, The Long-term Impact of Early Parental Death (Ellis, Dowrick, Lloyd-Williams) concluded as much, and there was no shortage of available options for counseling, support, group therapy sessions, or anything else that could have helped me process what I had lost. But you need to utilize the available resources, something I flatly declined to do.
EVERYONE tried to get me to accept help outside myself, and I almost always refused for as long as I could. I was young, I was naive, and I believed I was strong enough to move past what had happened and get back to normal. Only, as mentioned above, normal no longer existed, since her death meant the death of who I was with her alive, and getting beyond that loss wasn’t something I could do alone. But I didn’t care, so I ignored it all as long as I could, letting everything fester and snowball until, one afternoon, my father burst into the apartment I shared with my cousin in Somerville, dragged me home, and my collegiate days were officially over.
I’m not entirely sure what I want to feel around this time of year. I noted earlier this week that Mother’s Day is an unpleasant period and, as much as I wish it didn’t, a bitterness creeps in, and an irrepressible sadness can easily overwhelm. But I want to do something to honor my mother and her memory, something beyond just lamenting what I don’t have. Maybe I don’t remember as many intimate details about my mother as I wish I did, but I do remember her, and the larger pieces of information about her life.
She loved Michael Bolton, for instance. She loved him mainly for his music but, also, maybe because he was handsome with long hair? Her sisters were not as insightful as I’d hoped when I inquired about what drove her fandom (but I still appreciated the effort!). Scrolling through his discography, I can hear the man belting out his string of hits, and vibrantly remember driving around with mom, listening to him croon on the radio (presumably on cassette tape?). He never actually answered the question of how am I supposed to live without her, though, did he; that would have proved helpful.
She also loved me an insanely huge amount. I was her baby boy, little Sparky, and she did everything she could to raise me right, to keep me warm and safe and happy, to protect me from the horrors and dangers of the world. People often tell me, around times like these, that my mom would be proud of me, of what I’ve done with my life, and how I’ve worked to put the pieces together after she passed. I’m not sure I agree with that, even a little, but there’s still time. There’s still time to actually make her proud, to act in ways and accomplish things in my life that would make her beam with joy.
So let me start here, this Mother’s Day, and accept my responsibility for where I am. It’s easy to solely blame her death for what occurred afterwards, but it’s not wholly accurate. I’ve made a number of poor decisions, and rejected far too many olive branches of help and support through the years. I can’t simply point a finger elsewhere and lay the guilt at anyone, or anything, else’s feet.
To you, Mom, wherever you are, if you’re still anywhere and able to see or hear or feel me in any capacity, let me give you my acceptance. An acceptance of my role in where I am in life, an acceptance that I can’t do things alone and need the support of family, friends (what are those?), and neutral third-parties who can provide feedback and insight without a personal stake in my life. And my acceptance that you’re gone, and it’s ok to miss you deeply or feel drastically sad when I think about you. Maybe, after this year, I can find some peace, some solace, in who I am and who you wanted me to be. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you, I miss you, and I will never forget you.