Visiting my mom, she didn’t say much when I arrived. She seemed to want to doze. I got my computer out to pay her bills while she napped. Then I thought twice. I thought, before I go to bill paying, I’d ask if there was anything she needed to discuss.
“Yes,” she said, suddenly alert.
“I want you to tell me how to die.”
I wasn’t sure if she was asking me how to end her own suffering or how to process what was going on. I was able to clarify that.
Then, I said, “What in particular is challenging you right now? I mean, besides for everything? Is there something in particular that you need help with.”
“I just need help,” she said. She cried for a while.
I said, “I hear you asking for help. But I don’t know what you are experiencing and so I am not sure what you need help with. Do you want to tell me about what is going on.”
She paused for a long time. I thought she was sleeping.
She said, “It is like… “
She was quiet for a while.
“Mama, you said ‘It is like…’?”
“It is like… “
She paused again for several moments. “It is like… nothing.”
I took some time. I didn’t know if she was having an experience of “nothingness” or if she meant her experience was like nothing else she had experienced.
Finally, I said, “I see you really searching within for ways to describe what you are experiencing but I think you are finding that your experience is like ‘nothing’ you have experienced before. You are struggling to describe your experience but you can’t find a way.”
It is hard, you see, because she is drugged up. To give her an experience of being heard, I have to guess to some extent and fill in the blanks. But when I guess right, it animates her.
Just now, she became animated. “Yes, that’s right,” she said. “That’s right.”
We were quiet for a while. I felt so lonely for a moment.
I said, “It strikes me that to be in the midst of such important experience and to not be able to communicate must feel very lonely.”
“Yes. Yes,” she said. She cried for a while.
Eventually there was a period of silence. She said, “When I see you… When I see you, it seems like you have it all together.”
She started crying again. I noticed, in myself, some conflict. A lot of my life I feel I have presented as though I was quite together and therefore, in times of need, I have not gotten the support I wanted. A lot of my life I have imagined people want to take more than I could offer because I looked together. Indeed, I felt my mom sometimes overlooked my needs because I seemed together.
I didn’t want to process that. I wanted to hear her and help her speak her experience.
She was crying. But because of my conflict I misinterpreted her feelings.
“It makes you feel bad that I seem together?”
She shook her head. No.
“You wish you felt as though you had it all together?”
“Yes. Yes.” And she cried anew.
She grew quiet for a while.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes and looked at me, “Do you have it all together?”
I thought. “I don’t think that quite reflects my experience. I often wake with anxiety and worry about money. I feel lonely because I have no partner…”
As I said those things, I realized how trivial they felt in contrast to what she is facing.
I said, “But I do have a certain peace with my humanity. I don’t fight the fact that I don’t have it all together. I think I am largely ok with with not having it all together.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
I said, “I don’t think any of us completely ‘have it all together.’ We are all struggling with being human. If no one has it all together, in a certain way, that means all of us do have it all together. Not having it all together, if you are human, is in fact having it all together.”
She was quiet. I began to regret what I had said. It was too heady. Too intellectual. Plus, I’d missed an opportunity to let her express her own experience…
So I asked, “What is it, Mom, do you mean by ‘have it all together’? What does altogether mean to you? What is it you feel you are missing that makes you not feel not altogether?”
But she was sleeping now. I liked to believe that my heady response had actually brought her some comfort because it relaxed her out of our conversation and into sleep.
I got my computer back out and started working on paying her bills.
She woke up for a moment. She said, “You are amazing!”
I said, “I’ll put that on my online dating profile. ‘My mom says I am amazing.”
She smiled and fell back to sleep.
I wondered about posting this. It is in some ways prosaic. Workaday. Just like many of the conversations my mom and I have had. At the same time, it is very intimate, and I worry that writing this invades her privacy.
But I needed to write it and, writing it, I realized I also needed it to be read. I need to share the experience. I think this, by the way, is my motivation for being a writer.
Also this: No one knows what intimate conversations with our dying mothers are like. We keep them private. Never having understood or witnessed such conversations, we don’t have a sense of normalcy when it comes time to have our own.
Hearing what other people have shared deeply, knowing the intimate details, makes us all feel ok when it is our turn. Feeling we are ok, we are less self-conscious. Being less self-conscious, we can do a better job.
Also, I just wanted to write this.