Grief, or Something Like It.

When AssHat’s parakeet, Bambi, died he cried for a week. When Faline died a year later, I watched my mom throw her in the trash and asked her where my Silly Putty was. Weeks later I kept asking why we threw Faline out, and wasn’t she a good bird? Weeks after Bambi died, AssHat wasn’t missing him. 

Everyone grieves differently.

When our grandfather died several years later, AssHat cried himself to sleep on the living room floor of our grandparents house. I punched my pillow until I fell asleep, angry that grandpa didn’t tell me he was leaving me. months later I was ashamed at my behavior, and was heartbroken that I never got to say goodbye or cry for him like I was supposed to. AssHat was over it.

AssHat cried when our mom died, but I wasn’t sure if it was because he loved her or because he would miss his safety net. I didn’t cry, because I don’t cry. But 18ish months later my estate work is slowing down just enough that I’m feeling her absence, and he’s over it. Everyone else I know is over it, but the grief and the loss was just postponed for me again. 

Now that dust has settled I am starting to cough; but everyone grieves differently.

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Moving on out

It’s done.

Done, done.

So done that to go back would technically be illegal.

So done that I can never return to my childhood home.

My email alert chirped on my cell phone twice today; once from my Realtor saying, “we’re on record!” and the other from my lawyer saying, “The deal is done.” As if he were some devil rolling up his scroll after i signed my name in blood.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened. But it was the price I had to pay for freedom.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my mother passed away without a will, but with enough credit card debt – just enough- that my brother and I were forced to sell her condo. While there was some life insurance, anything that goes directly to a beneficiary is not listed as part of the tangible assets of the estate – meaning we get those funds, and the creditors can’t have them. It also means that they can force us to sell what could be sold, like her car and her home.

This doesn’t sound too unpleasant, but the largest issue with this situation was the housing market. For a long time I couldn’t get a buyer, and then when I finally, painstakingly found one, the funding/financing fell through. I spent 3 months running around like a cockroach trying to find the dark once you’ve turned on the kitchen light, just to get the necessary information to the lenders so the buyer could afford the mortgage.

Horrifically frustrating long story short, the condo association ROYALLY messed up, and the buyer backed out on my 25th birthday. After I had done all that work. After we had done all of the inspections. After I’d been told everything was going to go through.
Happy birthday to me.

Eventually the property went back on the market, and eventually I found another buyer. This time I was allowed to move at house-centipede speed since most of my paperwork was in order from the last buyer. We closed today, which was a victory, a HUGE victory, but not THE victory. Not the end of the estate.

The end will come once I have dealt with the creditors, paid everyone who needs to be paid, and dispose of the remaining things that need disposing. As hard as it was to be forced out of my childhood home, as harder even than that to successfully find a buyer, and harder still to sign the paper knowing that that part of my life is gone forever, signing away that safety net allowed me to finally see a light in the darkness and breath through the smog.

The end is near, but for now let’s keep on going.

So… Now What?

It would be too easy to say that the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is watch my mother die.

It certainly wasn’t a thrill though, and I hope that I never have to be in that position again. But I will say that I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I was there to tell her I loved her, I was proud of her, and that she didn’t let us down. I’m glad that she wasn’t alone or scared, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to tell her all of these things when so many people never get to even say goodbye.

But even while I sat there holding her hand and stroking her chemo-thinned hair back from her forehead, I knew that losing her and burying her wouldn’t be as difficult as moving on once all my duties were finally done.

And I wish like hell it has been this difficult because I miss her.

But I am considerably more selfish than that. I’m having a hard time moving forward because I don’t know what to do with myself.

I was 23 when my mother died from Leukemia. In the years beforehand, I was almost like any other college student: go to class, do homework, try to date, play a sport…. I always had something to do; side projects like the rugby team around a central theme of school. Even through some not so normal events like 4 major surgeries, taking care of my comatose father, or the time we were homeless for four months due to the condo flooding, my day- my life – had direction:

Save dad, heal from surgeries. Stop being homeless. GRADUATE.

My dad is alive. I’m back in physical therapy. I graduated from college against all odds- and a particularly nasty assistant dean. I have my own apartment.

I have no idea what I’m going to do next. You know, other than the obvious “get a job”. I’m struggling to redefine myself and my goals, since my circumstances dictated what I did and who I was for so long.

I went from being the outgoing, fun, enthusiastic about life kind of girl, to someone who was scared everything that could go wrong, would go wrong. Most of the time if it could, it did. I went from easy going and take-things-as-they-come to so uptight I’d give the most staunch, bible-toting Republican a good run in the “who has the larger stick up her ass” contest.  

And now I find myself back at a difficult crossroads, but there is no clear path this time. I have few tools to carve my own, and not a road sign is in sight.

So…where exactly am I supposed to go when the road I’m on ends?

It’s Not Like It’s Going to Kill You…

Warning: This post may contain offensive subject matter. Please read at your own risk.

“What does a cloud wear under its clothing?” I asked my mother.
She shook her head that she didn’t know.
“THUNDERPANTS!!!”

My mother tried to laugh, but the effort cost her what little energy she had left. It also made her make a weird choke-coughing sound that was really disconcerting. She motioned for me to bring her the sheet with the alphabet on it and spelled out “funny”.

I told her it would have been more polite to laugh out loud and she gave me that “Are you kidding me?” look. The one that was right next to “What am I, chopped liver?” in her Jewish Mom’s Book of Guilt Causing Faces that I’m sure every Jewish woman gets upon the birth of her first child. 

My mom wasn’t connected to her life support system anymore, but I still leaned next to her bed out of habit and the fear that I’d dislodge something vital, rather than sit directly on it. She had asked to stop all treatment a few hours earlier when it became clear that her AML was incurable, and she never did regain her voice. It made communicating with her pretty one sided unless we used our Anthology of Meaningful Faces

“Would you like to hear another joke?”
She nodded that she would.
“You do realize that the only jokes I have left are sexist, racist, or holocaust jokes?”
She looked at me and shrugged.
“OK, well, what did Hitler..”
“Not funny.” My mom pointed. Okay, so she wasn’t a fan of holocaust jokes, even with amazing punchlines.

The nurse walked in and asked if my mom wanted anything to eat since she was on a feeding tube for the last 4 weeks and wasn’t able to physically eat or drink. The nurse thought it would be a nice treat now that it was out, and I asked if she had my mother’s favorite Dove ice cream bars.
The nurse returned several off-color jokes later with two Popsicles.

“I have a lemon popsicle and a strawberry popsicle.” She said.
I quickly told her that we are both very allergic to strawberries.
“Mom,” she said to my mom (the nurses always called her mom in front of me for some reason), “Would you like to try the strawberry?”
I realized that the reason she offered was that it really couldn’t do any harm at this point, and I’d had this realization just as the nurse said “It really can’t do any harm at this point.”

My mom still shook her head “no,” and I gave her the “would it kill you to try something new?” face that came in my book, Daughter’s Book of Faces that Make Mom do Things Against Her Better Judgement, that every daughter -Jewish or otherwise- get the day she turns 13.
Just for clarity though, I followed up with, “What, would it kill you to live a little?”

My mother made the “You’re going to put me in an early grave” face; I laughed, the nurse left the room confused and probably disconcerted, and I fed Mom the lemon popsicle while the strawberry melted in its unopened wrapping.

Roll-top Memories

My boyfriend and I were walking through the mall when I saw a roll-top desk peeking out from the front corner of a country-type furniture store. Since the poor fellow was holding my hand, he got dragged headlong through the crowd of Labor Day shoppers as I ran for all we were worth over to that desk. The store- and the desk- seemed very familiar, and as I looked around some more I realized that it was the same store that my mother and I would frequent back when we were very poor. We never bought anything, but boy did we dream about it; especially that roll-top desk.

When I first saw this desk as a child I asked my mother if I could have it for my birthday. As much as she wanted to be able to buy it for me (and for herself), she had to explain that we couldn’t afford the desk with all of our other expenses. She said that if I was really good and saved my allowance each week, then maybe one day I would own it.

Then I asked if I could pretty please have it for my next ten birthdays and Hanukkahs, but she still said no. Damn.

So I saved. And saved. And saved. Eventually I took a detour on my route to the roll-top desk so that I could buy the Jumanji board game. It had taken me 10 weeks of not buying penny candy or treats of any kind to afford the 20$ game. I realized then that I wouldn’t own a desk of my very own until at least high school.

And then, like many young children, my attention wandered away from something I supposedly loved.

Fourteen years later and I can more than afford it, but I don’t want it. I don’t need it. It was nice, in a very weird way, to have that desk bring back so many memories of my mother and I drooling over it in the window when we couldn’t afford anything. But if I bought it now, it would just remind me of my mother, and how I’ve moved past wanting her back; needing her back, or having a place for her in my life now that everything has changed.

As a child I wanted that desk in the worst way, but as an adult I literally have no space or need for it. I didn’t start wanting my  mother back until a few months ago when her death really started to set in, but I understand now that too many things have happened and too much time has passed for me to actually have space for her in my life -even if I could resurect her in some friendly, non-brain-eating zombie way.

I needed my mother more when she wasn’t around; when I couldn’t have her. Now that I’m doing better on my own, I realize that I don’t need a mother the same way I did several months ago. I feel a little guilty about that, and not wanting that desk anymore. I just worry that what happened to the desk will happen to my mother and I’ll completely forget about her for years and years.

Knock on Wood

“I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass
Look at the tested and think there but for the grace go I
‘might be a coward I’m afraid of what I might find out”
-The Mighty Mighty BossTones

Have you heard this song? Well, if you’re like me and exist, you probably have. I always liked this song growing up; thinking that if I was tested I would kick whatever situation’s ass that I found myself in. I imagined that I was some kind of super hero and my powers were integrity and perseverance. I would be so stoic while I triumphed that the world would stop.

“Have you ever been close to tragedy, or been close to folks who have
Have you ever felt a pain so powerful, so heavy you collapse

My mother’s illness and subsequent passing were not my first exam. Sure, I’d been through tragedies before, like when the captain of my high school hockey team committed suicide. But that wasn’t my test then, it was his parents’ and his closer friends’.

My first personal test came when I was 20. I received a call from my estranged grandmother telling me that my equally estranged father had been in a serious car accident. “I don’t know if he’s alive or dead!” She’d said, “Call this number”.

And so it began.

To make an insanely long story less long: My father broke a really important bone in his neck in such a way that any movement could kill him. He had several serious life-threatening-on-their-own-individually infections, and a broken heart. (Yeah, he literally broke his own heart and needed a pig’s valve to fix it). The icing on the car accident cake was his 3 weeks unconscious from a medicine allergy we didn’t know about.

Well done, dad, go big or go coma.

For long-story reasons best saved for another post, my father’s care fell to me. The car accident itself wasn’t a test for me. I wasn’t the one lying in a coma with tubes feeding me, or the one that was unable to move without excruciating pain. I was tested by having to make (literally) life or death decisions for a man I barely knew and deal with the ‘family’, or more appropriately: the crazy strangers who shared my bloodline.

I didn’t want to be his proxy, I didn’t want to drive almost two hours from school to make decisions that could potentially kill him if I was wrong. I didn’t want to deal with my brother, or my dad’s brother, or my grandmother. But I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t help him. I couldn’t let “little me” down.

And this stupid effing song would come on the radio while I sat there with my hands at ten and two. At first I thought it was ironic. My mother thought it was a sign. Every day that I was supposed to go, no matter what station or time of day it was, this song would play. Even when I gave up on the radio, my own iPod betrayed me and played it on shuffle.

So I took the test. I stayed by my father that spring. So much so that I had to withdraw from school; not only because I missed lots of class to physically take care of him, but also because in doing so I developed a sinus infection and pneumonia of my own that led to surgery the next year. I hated going to the hospital. I would sit in my car with the engine running and my hands on the wheel. Not driving. Not willing to spend more time with my father while he was unconscious than i spent with him when I was growing up and he was awake. But even after I gave up on music altogether, I would hear the song in my head, and then again over the hospital PA system in the waiting room, or in my father’s ICU room coming from his T.V.

Fast forward a few years: my father survived and I’m still in school. My mother was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) during the winter of my final year. At this point, my mother had been taking care of her mother (from here on out referred to as either “The dragon lady” or “SlenderGran”) who had had a recent foot surgery, and I was recovering from ankle surgery on the opposite leg. It fell to me to take care of SlenderGran while my mother was sick, as well as taking care of my mother, her condo, her bills, and my schoolwork.

I didn’t hear the song on my way to the hospital this time. I knew that I wasn’t a coward, that I have certainly been tested, and I’d like to think that I passed. But it occurred to me that this time may not have been a test. As hard as it was to help my mother, take care of The Dragon Lady, and stay in school, it would have been unbearable to stay away. I don’t hold much stock in fate, but I don’t think I needed the song this time. I didn’t need a reminder to do what was right. So what if this time I was sick enough on my own to drop 30 lbs in one month. So what if it was winter and I had to carry my grandmother down her front stairs, or shovel her house out of feet of snow while I was down to one leg? I didn’t have leukemia. I wasn’t fighting for my life. The very least I could do was help my mother fight for hers.

The song has come back since her passing. I hear it when I’m thinking about burning all of my estate work, or when I’m thinking about taking off and never coming back. The test with her wasn’t in saving her life or helping her out like it was with my father. It’s surviving now that she’s gone and continuing to do right by her without her here. It’s in trying to build a relationship of sorts with my father, or checking in on The Dragon Lady to make sure she’s O.K. even though we haven’t spoken in almost a year.

Little-girl-me thought that you could only pass or fail when tested and that you wouldn’t really know which until it was over. It’s not over for me, and as much as little-girl-me thought she’d be so brave she’d stop the world, grown-up-me knows that pass or fail, the world will keep on turning. It would just be really nice to get a progress report every once in a while to see how I’m doing.

“Because I’m sure it isn’t good 
That’s the impression that I get”

Paperwork and Preparedness

What bothers me is that I asked her if she had a will.

I was thinking ahead.

She shook her head and pressed at that spot between her eyes that meant she had a headache, or that the thought of thinking about something unpleasant would bring one on. I asked her, and now 18 months later I’m still drowning in the sea of her estate.

For what it’s worth she tried to be a good mother, but every once in a while she’d drop the ball so hard it deflated. The woman who was prepared for everything, made copies of copies for everything, planned for a possible scenario’s possible scenario, and was by trade a contingency planner, did not have a will. 

Thanks, Mom.

To those of you reading this who don’t know me, my situation, or Massachusetts probate law, the shorthand version is this: Mom got surprise cancer, then she surprise died. When you don’t have a will, all of your assets get caught up in probate and they’re stuck in there until an administrator is appointed by the court. In my case, it meant fighting for this position against the rest of my family so everything my mother worked for wouldn’t get destroyed, and then being fiscally responsible for debts. After that person is appointed, he or she will have to deal with the distribution of assets and accounts, property, etc. If the deceased had credit card debt like my mother did, and he or she has to sell his/her childhood home to pay it off, the estate remains open until the property is sold.

Not so bad, right?

Enter the housing market crash, and fast forward 18 months: from my mother’s condo (where I’m no longer allowed to live without paying rent to my absent sibling)  to my new apartment down the street where I’m buried under eleven copies of divorce agreement facsimiles from 1994.

I’ve learned more about my mother digging through her paperwork than I knew from actually talking to her: how she was terrified that originals of documents would get lost or torn, so she made tens of copies. How she was afraid for my older brother when he switched to public schools and was too developmentally impaired to find his way home on the bus; how she would draft multiple versions of a letter to my father to ask him to pay for whatever he was supposed to pay for that week per the divorce agreement. It’s all here in her old paperwork that she commandeered our toy bins to house. It’s not that my mother and I weren’t close; we were so close we fought most of the time, hated each other some of the time, and loved each other fiercely all those times in between. I just can’t help but resent her not being prepared after she drilled it in to us to have extra clothing, extra copies, extra pens, extra everything, and I asked her.

I can’t even yell at her because she’s gone. I just sit on my bed like it’s a life raft, with all of those choppy-wave papers on the floor until I can’t see carpet. I wade through them only to find more, but its information that wouldn’t even have mattered if she’d said, “I have a will, it’s located here:____”, or, “I don’t have a will, but I will make one immediately”. Not, “The doctors said I’m curable so we’ll talk about this later”, only to lose the ability to speak or write one the very next day.

This post isn’t a rant about how much I hate or don’t hate my mother; it’s about those who read this learning from her mistakes, my own mistakes, and all of the things we did right. What I’ll say to you is to write a will. Don’t leave your loved ones up a paperwork river without a paddle or a pen. If someone depends on you, a will can protect them. It can’t replace you, but can save them thousands of dollars, prevent your family from fighting, and make sure things end a lot smoother than if you pass away testate/sans will.

You’re never going to see surprise cancer coming. Write a will.