I’m not really cut out for having a nemesis, let alone the literary kind, but I acquired one in graduate school a decade ago, and he’s been difficult to shake ever since. This is in part because he’s gone on to become wildly successful and rich and well-known and I have not. It’s a lesson in humility I do not wish on anyone, and it’s taken me years to get past my pettiness in order to write about it with any semblance of perspective.

On the night of our mother’s first seizure, the one that leaves her on the living room floor with her right leg flopping like a fish out of water, my sister shows up to the ER with a newborn mouse in a pouch around her neck.

“We found it today,” her husband says to me. “Underneath my car, next to its brother or sister, who was smashed dead. She’s trying to save it.” It is just the two of us standing in the orange and blue hospital waiting area. I stare at him. “I’m not sure anyone is supposed to know, though. So maybe don’t say anything.”

Fear, Karma

By Abby Mims

Essay

I read an essay a few months ago by David Rakoff called “Another Shoe,” which details his second bout with cancer at 49. His first was lymphoma in his twenties, and now there is a tumor in his shoulder, probably caused by the radiation he had the first time around. This newest cancer threatens to cause the removal of his entire left arm, which, you can imagine, is a particularly daunting notion for a writer. (The best part of the essay comes when he practices what life would be like with one arm, literally tying one hand behind his back and trying to go about his day.) The biggest thing he takes away from the experience is extreme gratitude for not losing his arm, and this: the decision to live without letting the fear of death swallow him whole. He also accurately observes that we are all dealt a fair amount of crap in this life, and the best way to respond is to simply get back to the business of grocery shopping, getting our hair cut, paying our parking tickets, and loving the people we love—because life continues on, whether we are participating or not.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I will fare when my mother is gone, how I will deal with her absence, if I will crumble or if I will rise. It does absolutely no good to play this game, because that’s what it is. It’s a game of magical thinking, trying to imagine one’s reaction to a life-changing event. I still play it anyway, believing at some level that it will prepare me for what is to come.

I ponder the word grief a fair amount too, sometimes feeling like everything I do in a day is layered in this concept, except those days where it lifts and the beauty of the moment shakes off my inevitable future without her.  But even those moments are bittersweet, as it feels like I’m cheating somehow or betraying her in those seconds that I don’t look or feel like a person who is losing her mother.

When I think about what I should look like, what grieving looks like, the first person I think of is my grandmother. This is ironic, given the lengths she went to avoid grief and pain. My grandfather died when I was 12 from a heart attack. She was 65.  For years, she told me this: “He died laughing. Can you imagine? He had just won a golf game and was ribbing his friend Chuck in the car, and then he was gone.”

At the funeral, I remember her walking to his graveside stiffly, leading his mother there gently by the elbow. My great-grandmother wore a pink polyester house dress and stood bravely on her thick legs as the preacher put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Parents should never have to bury their children.” I wore a new blue and purple dress and suede ankle boots for the occasion and as the coffin sat in the open air, I held on to my mother’s  hand for dear life.

After the service, because it was what you did in my grandparents’ world, my grandmother hosted what felt like hundreds of people at their house: pigs in a blanket, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, mini pork sandwiches, gallons of white wine and buckets of martinis. She told us to smile, to greet people, to pass the hors d’oeuvres, because this is what you did in my grandparents’ world.

The strange thing is when I think of those few days, I have no memories of my mother’s grief, only my grandmother’s. I can picture what happened when we found out my grandfather had died, as my dad brought my sister and me home early from our monthly weekend with him.  Our mother told us and we sat on her lap and cried.  My father cried too, but stayed outside, standing just beyond the screen door. We all stayed like that for what seemed longer than possible before my father stepped off the porch and disappeared. Yet from those two days around the funeral, nothing in terms of my mother. Only my grandmother’s face has stayed with me, the sharp edges of her body, the quick moves she made from one room to the next, never standing still, as if trying to outrun her husband’s death. She remained in near constant motion for the next 15 years trying to outpace it, in part by traveling the world. When she wasn’t on a trip in those subsequent years, she drowned her grief in bottle after bottle of chardonnay and an affair with my grandfather’s best friend.

My grandfather’s absence was palpable to me in those years after, but I never fully absorbed the magnitude of her loss until the year I turned 25. She offered to take me to New York for Christmas and my birthday, which was just a few days before the holiday. I was single and trapped in a miserable job at a mutual fund company and jumped at the chance. She had her own reasons for wanting to leave town for the holidays — I realize now it had much to do with the fact that the wife of my grandfather’s best friend had recently died and this hadn’t changed dynamics of their relationship. My grandmother wanted to get married again and cook for someone every night; he wanted to live alone and eat hot dogs for dinner.

Bits and pieces of the story had come out over the years, but what I could see clearly on that trip was that my grandmother was incredibly unhappy. It didn’t matter that he paid for our trip and sent everything from martinis to a miniature Christmas tree to our room that week — what my grandmother wanted, he wouldn’t give her. As the days passed, I realized that what she missed most in that city was my grandfather. They had often taken trips there together, and she showed me the places they had been: the famous post-theater spot Sardi’s, a speakeasy called Chumley’s, the restaurant Josephine.  We went to a drag show in the Village after having dinner with Julie, a woman they had met years ago at a San Francisco Cabaret. She was 75-years-old at the time and invited us to come see her perform.

My grandmother was buzzing with life at 2 a.m. afterwards, laughing like a teenager, telling me what a crush my grandfather had always had on Julie. All week, whether we were headed to see Chicago or coming from a showing of Scorsese’s Kundun, she would tear up in the cab and say, “Bob Greig would have loved that,” or simply, “Bob–” clearing her throat and putting on her dark glasses to hide her crying. She would usually take my hand at some point, squeezing fiercely. I squeezed back, helpless.

A few months ago, she helped define grief for me again, albeit accidentally. My mother, step-father and I were headed to the cemetery where my mother will have a headstone. She’ll be cremated, but wants us to have somewhere to go when she’s gone. (My grandmother, gone 10 years now, did not allow us the same. She had an adjoining plot to my grandfather, but because the site wasn’t well maintained and his marker was chipped by gardeners and never repaired, she decided to be cremated and sprinkled out over the Pacific.) My mother recently procured a plot near a dear friend of hers, Christie, who died in 1999. “I couldn’t be happier knowing I’ll be near someone I know,” she said.

Death has always been a part of my mother’s lexicon. She worked in geriatric social work and hospice care for 25 years before she got sick, and has a library full of books on death and dying. She is a straight-up Kubler-Ross junkie. This is, to say the least, a little unusual. I have done my best to confront the issue of death on her terms, brave and clear-eyed.  A topic steadfastly avoided for most of my life, the concept crystallized when my sister was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at 28.   But there was always the possibility (and later, reality) of remission for my sister, which has never existed for my mother. What I mean to say is, after my sister recovered, I put death back on the shelf. There is no more shirking it this time around, so I figured I might as well get the grave site visit over with. I have not, however, taken my mother up on her offer to tour the crematorium.

Just before we left, I was looking through the bookshelf in the living room and saw the title, “Up From Grief.” Given my current fascination, I pulled it off the shelf. It was my grandmother’s book,  inside she had written, “Given to me 20 (underlined) days after Bob died and three months since Edward.” Edward was her friend Edith’s husband; Edith had given her the book. An accompanying postcard stuck inside the book by Edith read, “I don’t like this book, but everyone else does. Read if you want.”

From what I could tell, she’d made it about halfway through the first chapter, arguing with the book’s premise the entire way. On a particularly classic page, she has bracketed a passage about how “grievers are afraid to admit their real feelings to others and often to themselves” and written “Don’t think so.”  Next to the assumption that those grieving feel guilt, anger or shame, my grandmother has scribbled “NO” and underlined it.  Screw survivor guilt and feelings of doubt and confusion. Shirley Greig wasn’t having it. Even though her husband had died incredibly recently, I don’t think her view of this psychobabble changed much over the decades.

How does this change my understanding of grief? I’m not exactly sure, but I read the passages out loud to my mom and we laughed so hard we cried. Her commentary was perfect — entirely irreverent and a direct reflection of how she lived her life.

We visited my mom’s site on Memorial Day, as that is when she always visits Christie. It’s really not such a bad day to go to a cemetery, as the place is full of people and the headstones are bursting with flowers and flags. We drove up there under the threat of rain but the sun was out by the time my stepfather and I wrangled Ma out of the car. We stopped for a second and tilted our heads back, felt the rays on our faces.

She pointed at a spot on a gently sloping hill with sweet little tree just a few feet away. We rolled her over and she showed me Christie’s grave, a reddish headstone with an etching of a mother and three children. The quote there said something about how light shines on anyone who remembers those who are gone.

“So,” I said, after a few moments of silence. “Where will you be?”

“Right here,” she said, pointing to the ground beneath her wheelchair. My stepfather had managed to wheel her directly over her plot.

“You are fucking kidding me,” I said, and she shook her head. And then we cracked up, because we find this type of morbidity mildly hilarious. “Will your headstone look like Christie’s?”

“Yep,” my stepfather said.

“No,” my mother said. “Smaller, level.”

“Close enough,” my stepfather said.

“And what will it read?” I said.

She tried to get it out, but couldn’t find the words. This was happening more and more. My stepfather said, “It’s a beautiful day and I love you.”

As soon as he said it, I realized she’d already told me. Hearing it out loud was almost more than I could bear in that moment.

“So,” she said, “So–” She was stuck on the words, but gestured around her plot with her good hand.

“If we come, you’ll be here.”

“Right.”

“It’s good you’ll be here, Ma.”

“Huh? What?”

“Not good that you’ll be dead, but that you’ll be here. That there will be a headstone. You know what I mean.”  She nodded.

The sun, the flags, standing there looking at my still-alive mother perched on her future grave site provided an odd comfort. I wonder sometimes if my grandmother had been more able to confront her loss, to give in and express all those feeling she so denied, she might have died happier or at least more at peace.

Not long after all of this, I heard a piece of an old interview with George Burns on NPR. He said that even though Gracie had been gone for 30 years, he still went once a month to Forest Lawn to see her. He talked to her about everything and anything on those visits, told her what was happening in his life. He said it helped him miss her a little less. Here’s hoping.

 

In June, roughly an hour after a brain biopsy revealed that my mother had a glioblastoma and would be lucky to live a year, she shook an IV’d hand at her handsome Bolivian neurosurgeon and said, “I know you’re married, but now this is officially serious. We need to find my daughter a husband, and we haven’t got a lot of time.”

As said daughter, I was only mildly horrified. This new persona of my mother’s had mostly to do with the steroids she was on to control the swelling in her brain, and our whole family had adjusted to the side effects. Essentially, they had turned my meditative, soft-spoken, yoga-doing mother into something of a manic, bossy chatterbox.

I did, however, wince at the handsome neurosurgeon. He laughed and said, “Well, I don’t usually cross those lines, but I’ll see what I can do.”  Then he smiled at me like he knew what it was to have a mother who loved you in this way.  My sister, lucky girl, is already married.

Pre-cancer, my mother always wanted me to meet that right person but she didn’t obsess about it, never saw it as a shortcoming of my character. That was my job and it was something I talked about almost constantly.

“Build the life you want,” she’d say when the topic came up. “Then you will attract the love you want.”

“Ok, ” I’d say. “I’ve built it. Now where the hell is he?” I said this at 19, 23, 27, 31, 34 and 36. And probably every year in-between.

“Patience,” she’d say. “It will happen when it’s right, and you will never see it coming.”

Now, it is July, and almost her birthday. It is a sunny afternoon, and we are sitting in the backyard of the house where I grew up in Portland.  I have a present for her, in the form of a possible man in my life. He has, as she promised, come out of nowhere and it seems to be impossibly right. I’m trying to figure out how to tell her in a way that will encourage her but keep her from getting too excited.  It’s so new that it’s not anything but a thought, an idea, a piece of blue sky.

She is restless, still a little amped up from the steroids. She shifts from side to side in the wheelchair she’s had to use since a massive seizure rendered her right leg useless a few weeks ago. She shifts and touches the silver chain around her neck. The spectrum of her beliefs hang there — an Om medallion, a tiny blue Mary Magdalene medal, a picture of her guru, Mahrajji, and a small icon of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.

And then I tell her. He is a friend of a friend, I say. He is my age and he understands what’s happening better than anyone, because bizarrely,  his father died of the same brain cancer she has less than two years ago. He lives near San Francisco and this mutual friend referred him to my blog;  he read about her diagnosis and emailed me. This is about all I know, aside from the fact that he is single. We have only emailed back and forth two or three times, have never met, never spoken.   This is all the information she needs. She’s instantly convinced it is fate, karma, kismet. The stars have aligned.

“This is your guy, this Matt. Good name. He has to be your guy.  How could he not be?”

“Ma,” I say. “We don’t know anything yet. Not one thing, really.” And we don’t, but I’ve allowed myself to fantasize about it, the idea that he will comfort me and guide me through this unfathomable time.  When I can’t take it anymore, I will be able to press my face into his chest and bawl.

“I mean, can’t you see how perfect this is?” she says. “This missing piece of your life is falling into place.” I shake my head at her, knowing I can’t stop this speeding train of consciousness that she’s on. “Listen,” she says, grabbing my hand. “Right now, I’m clearer than I’ve ever been in my life and I know that he is a part of why this is all happening.” She means her cancer, and I shake my head again.

“Ma,” I say. “Let’s just see what happens next.”

“Alright,” she says. “Alright. Now you need to listen to me. I realized something yesterday and I need to tell you about it.” I lean back in my chair and take her in. “If I die quickly, I know that I’m coming back in India.  It will be a fast reincarnation.”  She tells me she will be reborn in the mountains of Kainchi, the former home of Maharjji.  She and my stepfather traveled to the ashram there last fall.  She wants my sister and I to go there after she dies, she says, and we will find her in those mountains, adopt her, bring her back here.  Her brown eyes flash and mine fill with tears. I know in part, this is the steroids talking, but the sentiment and beliefs are at the core of the mother I love with everything I have.

My mother is 63 and I am 36 and from start to finish, everything that has happened since her first seizure less than two months ago (a shaking in her leg that she said felt like a stroke that went as fast as it came) has been so surreal that I find myself thinking, yes, yes, this is fantastic plan. She can die and  just like that, she will be back in our lives as a beautiful black-haired Indian child that my sister or I will raise.

~

“Hold on to hope until it’s taken away,” Matt says to me the first time we talk on the phone. And that’s the moment it happens, the moment I start to fall in love with him and my mother is right along side me, falling just as hard. She cannot believe he is real either, from his love of Kerouac and Ginsberg, to the typed letters he sends that have been banged out on his Underwood. When she meets him for the first time, only a few hours after I have, she squeezes my hand and shakes her head in wonder. “I love him,” she says. “I just love him.”

By winter, we have seen each other three times and are in love. I find myself doing something slightly disturbing – referring to him as my soul mate, a term I’ve always thought was kind of a crock of shit. But the rub is, he’s exactly that. From his sweet face to the sound of his voice to the way he talks about writing, books and family; the way he makes me laugh.  Then there is the way he and my mother are so alike  in so many ways:  loving, kind, sensitive, both  possessing an uncanny, innate understanding of me.

He is also the only person I can really talk to about what it will be like when she dies. She will be here one day and gone the next, I tell him. And that will be it. He says it will be different than that, it will be something you will help her do and in the end, something she achieves. Being with her through it will change your life and although you won’t be ready, you will let her go.  It will be the hardest and most beautiful time, he says.  I know he is right, but then there is the question that no one can answer:  How will I continue to exist in a world without her in it?

In the early fall, a grand mal seizure lands my mother in the ICU for two days. When she comes back to us, she opts to have surgery in the hopes of ending the seizures and buying some time.  She comes through it all beautifully and in the months after, her mania fades without explanation. We tease her about it, her excessive demands for scotch tape, the constant rearranging of the living room. Some things she remembers doing or saying, some she doesn’t, but she never waivers about Matt.

“You’ve found him and that’s all that matters. It makes all of this worth it,” she says. This is the one thing I can’t abide her.  No matter how much I love Matt, I could never make that trade.  Some days, though, I feel like this is exactly what I’m doing.  When I tell her this, she has a ready answer. “Don’t you see?” she says. “It may not be how we would want it, but it’s all entirely perfect. Everything  is happening just the way it should.”  She should die 20 or 30 years before her time? How in the fuck is that perfect? “In Hinduism there is the belief that each death happens not one minute too early or one minute too late,” she tells me. To that, I have no response.

Soon, it is the day before Thanksgiving and I am flying to San Francisco to spend it with Matt. He cannot get the time off work and although she understands, he feels guilty for taking me away from her on the holiday.  My mother, however, is thrilled that the two of us are spending it together. A few days before I leave, we go over the dishes Matt and I plan to make. She has been teaching me to cook since her diagnosis (I’ve  always just been a baker) so she was particularly invested. I told her there would be apple pancetta stuffing, Parmesan mashed potatoes, spinach with crispy shallots and sage butter for the turkey.  As we talked and laughed, and she oohed and ahhed over my choices, I was suddenly struck anew by the fact that she won’t be here next year or the year after that, or any year in the future.  She won’t see me get married or kiss my children. Thinking about all of this, I asked her something I’d been wondering about since our conversation in July.

“Ma,” I said. “Do you really think you’re coming back in India?”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, that could have been the mania. But you never know.  Could be India, or – who knows? I could come back as one of your babies.”

I take off for California, a pecan pie at my feet, baked in my mother’s kitchen for Matt as a surprise. I wonder how it is that this has become my existence, living between the two loves of my life, having to leave one to be with the other.  As I fly away from her, what she has said soothes me. Not that I necessarily believe she will come back as my child or that we will find her reincarnated in an Indian village.  It is moreover, the feeling that there is a seamlessness and continuity to what is happening, from the unconditional love she’s given me all my life to Matt’s love coming along just in time.  It is this love, her love,  that will continue on. In this way, she will never really be gone.