Election Day four years ago, my mother stood with me on 19th Avenue in San Francisco, holding a "No on Prop 8" sign. Earlier in the day, she'd made get out the vote calls for the Obama campaign. The two of us sat together that night watching the returns come in, and she cried with happiness that Obama was elected, and with sadness that Prop 8 passed.
All that long, bitter campaign season she'd been getting treatment for stomach lymphoma. She went to her radiation appointments wearing a "Women for Obama" button that my friend Dawn in Michigan had sent her, and she always told me stories afterward of the other patients, techs, and nurses who were so excited by his candidacy. She was so happy, so involved, so alive.
On Inauguration Day, she was having a mastectomy for the breast cancer they discovered during the post-radiation scan after treating her lymphoma. I watched the ceremony on the television in the hospital waiting room. Her first words to me in the recovery room were, "Is he President?" I was so happy to be able to tell her yes.
It's so hard to believe that now, just four years later, she's been dead for over three years.
One of the worst things about losing my mother, other than the way she died and the actual loss of her in my life, was the feeling that in losing her, I'd lost my own identity.
I gradually came to see that some of that was trauma and depression, but some of it was because my mother and I were both very close and, in many ways, very similar.
We looked alike, so much so that her friends gasp now when they see me. We had similar political beliefs, similar taste in home design, books, and television shows (with a few notable exceptions), and of course, we both loved dogs to the point of obsession.
The paintings on the walls of my living room were once hers. Many of my most beloved pieces of furniture were once hers, or were gifts from her. I have her old bedding, some of her clothing, and boxes and boxes of photos that belonged to her. I lived with her in houses were we walked on the rugs that are on my floors right now. I am typing this sitting at an old Woolrich display table that was, many years ago, my mother's kitchen table. My office supplies are sitting on it in a wicker basket that was where she used to keep her placemats.
And then there are my dishes. I had a full set of Portmeirion Botanic Garden dishes, a gift from my mother after a trip to the UK with her then-husband, Tom Hughes, who was a Welshman. (Portmeirion is in Wales, where she and Tom had a home.)
Over the years the number of pieces I had fluctuated, as some were broken or lost in various moves, and my mom passed on some pieces of her set to me when she divorced and downsized. And then in my move to Michigan, I somehow lost or left behind all my soup bowls.
I bought white ones and used those, but the other day, on a whim, I Googled "Botanic Garden soup bowls." There was a set for sale on eBay at such a good price I'm half-sure they're fake, but I went ahead and bought them. I didn't hesitate, and didn't think about it.
When the box came, I opened it, unwrapped the bowls, and burst into tears.
Because when I looked at the pattern on the dishes, it brought my mom back to me so sharply that it was like someone kicked me in the stomach.
After I stopped crying, I washed the bowls. And while I was drying them, I thought about dishes, and whether, had I not had these dishes already, had my mom not given them to me, had she not loved this pattern so much, these would have been the dishes I'd have picked.
It doesn't matter, really. They're just dishes. I like them just fine, above and beyond the sentimental value. But it's just one more way I wonder: Who am I, really, without my mother?
Most of the time these days, I think I know. Moving to Michigan helped, as I have no memories of her here other than those I brought with me. Every day I figure out whether I do or don't like something independently of what she liked, or the limitations I willingly placed on my own desires to care for her in the last few years of her life.
But sometimes I feel like part of me really did die with her. Because so much of who I am is made up of memories I only share with her. Memories of days I helped her arrange her furniture, or she helped me with mine. Memories of our shared dogs, shared vacations, shared jokes.
Memories of watching Rosemary and Thyme, passing cozy mysteries we'd just read between us, sharing sweaters and table linens and rugs and catalogs.
And memories of the white painted display cabinet where she kept her Portmeirion dishes, plates slotted into the plate racks, the sun from the kitchen window shining on the bright surfaces and painted flowers.
I've been gone for ten days, a combination of business and pleasure. I even took three days of real vacation while I was away, and didn't take any calls or do work-related email or social media. I saw tons of friends I love and had a total blast everywhere I went. I got back last night to have my brother, sister-in-law and darling nephew, Ronan, meet me at the airport. I got home and had a joyful reunion with Kyrie and Rawley, and fell asleep in my own bed.
I forgot about the re-entry thing.
It hit me when I was driving to the dog park this morning, and I passed the street to my old house, where I lived with my mom. I felt my stomach clench.
I felt it again at the market where she and I used to shop. And it's haunting me now, how much I miss her. How many things I see and do every day remind me of her.
simply trying to put the best frame I can on the reality, which is that
the collapse of our economy took my mother's estate with it
and got my house.
I didn't actually think this could happen,
because the house was underwater on the mortgage. And if I'd had the
money to fight them, it probably wouldn't have happened, but the
estimate to fight was between $40 and $75 thousand dollars in lawyer's
bills, which I don't have, and even if I did, piling it on top of the
existing "underwater" debt on the house would have been, well... even
more financially nuts than trying to hold onto it in the first place.
pretty heart-sick. I've had to spend a small fortune in legal fees,
it's been agonizingly stressful at a time when I was already stressed
out over a lot of work issues (fortunately TOO MUCH work, not too
little!), and I feel like I'm losing a part of my life and the place
where I lived with my mother and cared for her while she was dying. This
is where I lost Rebel, too, and my beautiful deerhound Rosie, who died
shortly after my mom and I moved into this house.
I can't say too
much about the case, as in my experience, blabbing about your legal
woes on teh interwebz tends to bite you in the ass, but believe me, I
had lawyers and they were aggressive and thorough.
misery, I realize I'm also lucky. Lucky this didn't happen while my mom
was still alive, as she'd have never been able to stand it. Lucky that I
was making enough money to care for my mom when the economy went to
hell -- even two years earlier that wouldn't have been the case. And
lucky that my sister in law's twin sister just happened to have a small
house for rent -- she'd wanted to sell, but decided to wait for a better
market, and had decided to rent the house out just days before this all
The house is darling, it has a yard, it has an ocean
view, it's in my same general neighborhood, and while it's no longer
walking distance to the park -- boo -- it's only two blocks to my
brother, sister in law, and nephew's house -- yay! It's a safe place for
me to get over this and decide what's next in my life. The rent is a
little more than I'd have liked to spend, but I can afford it. And it
has no stairs, which considering I'm about to have knee surgery is a
Anyway, that's my sad story, certainly not the
first I've posted, but hopefully the last. This last year and a half has
been the most hellish since the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and my
mom's final illness was worse even than that. I'm torn to shreds and
don't think I could handle one more disaster, and am just hoping I can
keep it together enough to get myself and the dogs through the move.
don't normally like to post these big long personal things, and I
certainly know MANY of you are dealing with worse situations than this. I
just haven't been as active lately as I normally am, and every day I
feel such powerful nostalgia for those elusive things called "free
time," "sense of fun" and "creativity," and I
wanted to let you know what was up.
My sister-in-law sent me this photo the other day. It's Christmas 2007. It feels like the entire world has turned upside down since that day. My mother gone, the economy in ruins, so many other personal things that don't belong in my blog...
I miss my mother, and I miss feeling as happy as I look in this picture.
Last year at Christmas time, I was out with Kyrie and Rebel on a very long walk, and Kyrie hurt her foot. I didn't know what to do -- it was around 9 PM, very cold and very dark, and we were all the way down in the far end of Sigmund Stern Grove -- absolutely alone.
I'd left my cell phone at home. And there were no pay phones in the park, which, for those who don't live here, is more like a wild canyon than a regular city park.
By the time we climbed up the hill out of the park, it was obvious Kyrie wasn't going to make it home. So I looked around the quiet neighborhood, hoping to see a house that just screamed, "Non-paranoid dog lovers live here."
There was one house with its lights on, both the interior house lights and Christmas lights, with a brilliantly lit Christmas tree in the window. Even the porch light was on. And no stairs. So I took a chance and rang their doorbell.
A man answered, and I said I lived on the other side of the park. I explained my plight and asked if he could call my mom and have her come pick us up. I could hear his dogs barking, and he asked me to wait a minute, and shut the door.
He came back almost immediately. "I put the dogs in the back room," he said. "Here's my phone."
I called my mom, and she said she'd be right over. Then he asked if his children could meet Rebel and Kyrie. I said of course, and the two most adorable children came out, in plaid flannel PJs and little bathrobes with belts, one boy, one girl. And their mom. And they had dog cookies for Rebel and Kyrie, who took them carefully, as they always take things from children. Then the entire family waited with us on their lawn until my mom pulled up in her little Scion.
I got the dogs into the back of her car, and we went home.
This year, both Rebel and my mom are gone. Kyrie and I just got home from a short walk. I remembered my phone, but nothing happened.
Since my mom died, I've had constant severe pain. You might wonder why I haven't sought medical care for this problem, and this is why: The pain is never in the same place for more than a few days.
It started in my right calf, a weird pain like a cramp that persisted longer than any subsequent pains -- maybe two or three weeks. It was so bad I limped.
It went away as suddenly as it came, to be replaced by agony in my neck, which went away to be replaced by a shockingly sharp pain in my left toes, which popped up suddenly into my right shoulder, then my left shoulder, then the small of my back, then both my thigh muscles, then my left hip, and now my left knee.
Some of these pains have had minor tweaks or injuries that occurred before the pain, but seriously, I've spent at least half the days since my mom passed away limping or taking ibuprofen or creaking around like an old lady.
I know there is a psychological component to all this aching. I guess I'd been ignoring my body for so long -- hello, sleeplessness, erratic and unhealthy eating, no exercise, getting my body into uncomfortable positions to help support or move my mom at the end -- and probably just detached so utterly from it that my attempts now to re-inhabit the flesh are, well, painful. I mean, I'm not aware of any diseases that involve a pain that jumps all over your body like this -- are you? I'd hate to miss some rare diagnosis that can be cured by drinking more water or whatever.
I also re-gained some weight. Unless you've lost, as I have, nearly 200 pounds, you probably can't understand how depressing it is to put even a small amount of of it back on. In fact, the only thing more depressing than those pounds coming back is the re-appearance of my obsessive focus on my weight and what I'm eating, a crazy state of mind I thought I'd said goodbye to forever years ago.
Fortunately, two good friends pointed out to me that I'd gone batshit insane on the subject of food and weight, and that possibly I might want to consider that it had become the focus of some displaced anxiety, grief and feelings of powerlessness about my mom's illness, suffering and death, and my own loss. (Why yes, I do have very smart friends.) So I've sworn off obsessing on the subject through the end of the year, and even put my scale in the basement until then.
I am, though, trying to make friends with my body again. My new gym has a swimming pool, so I can get some exercise without hurting my shoulderbackcalfthighsarmhandfingerstoesknee [insert current afflicted body part here]. I also have an appointment with a new trainer for Tuesday morning, in the hope of designing a gentle re-conditioning program to work on mobility and limberness. Yoga helped me a lot with that in the past, but I had a really incredible teacher -- I have my fingers crossed that the yoga instructors at this gym are going to be right for me. They work with all kinds of people, including the seniors and those with disabilities, so I'm hoping this won't be "Yoga for the Beautiful Pretzel People." I've found WAY too many of those classes since moving to San Francisco three years ago.
But no matter how much I try to focus on the moment and myself, the fact is this: I really screwed myself up caring for my mom. I hurt my heart and my mind and my body. I burned myself out right down to the core of me. I have almost nothing left right now for anyone, including myself. There are days that every single thing I see or hear or touch hurts me, because it makes me think of her and how much I miss her, and what hell her final year was.
This time last year, my mom had just had her lumpectomy. We knew she'd be having her mastectomy in January. We were still happy and excited about Obama's election, and both of us were full of hope for the future.
Right now, all I have the energy to hope for is that I'll wake up tomorrow not feeling like I'm a hundred years old.
Photo: My mom and my beautiful nephew, in happier times.
I created a page with my mom's obituary (a longer version than the one in the Chronicle this morning) and an expanded slideshow of photos of her life on my website. It has complete information about her funeral, too.