I’ve been at a loss the last several days, even before Sandy Hook. You see, my mom died a week ago, unexpectedly, and there’s no excellent way to cope with that kind of event. My father died in 1997 and so my siblings and I are now part of the “Adults with No Parents” club. It’s not a formal organization, nor even one anyone wants to join. It just happens, like it or not. Sometimes there’s anticipation. Occasionally, we imagine that someday the folks won’t be around anymore. But when it actually comes to pass that your last living parent passes on? Well, that feels different. The part of our lives we lived as someone’s child is gone. Poof.
She had a heart attack, in case you were wondering. Or rather the coroner called it a ‘heart episode’. Regardless, Mom’s ticker shut down and with it, her time with us, her friends, this life. She’d started to have a rough go of it lately. We’d moved her from an isolated, three-level condo in the San Fernando Valley to a cottage on Balboa Island in Newport. She was a block from the bay, two doors from one of my sisters, six blocks from my other sister at her weekend home. My mom loved it at first but then her early dementia got worse. The doctor told her she could no longer drive. She was frustrated about forgetting things, repeating herself, losing the independence she craved. Who knows if one makes the decision to go or not, but the siblings and I are convinced she looked at the road ahead and didn’t like what she saw. Mom never wanted to burden anyone. Unlike many of us who enjoy being taken care of, my mother sort of loathed it. Perhaps it was the childhood she spent in and out of hospitals with polio, and then the Irish stubbornness afterwards – “I don’t need help. I can do this myself.” Whatever it was, the week before she died wasn’t merry and bright. We all spoke to her; we all sensed it. And then she was gone.
The girls and I were staying on the Island last weekend for a soccer tournament and so got the news shortly after Mom was found. (The husband was on a plane to New York.) They took it hard at first, but they’re kids. Resilient as hell, back to school. Back to Christmas and all that goes with it. Me? I’m struggling in the normal way a person struggles with this. Yet I’ve got these three children and it’s Christmas. Did I mention that? And so there’s much to do and little time to actually grieve. I’m not sure what actual grieving looks like but I’ve told my Jewish friends that sitting Shiva, without some of the extreme requirements, makes more sense to me than this. This is blurting out to someone you barely know that your mom died before they launch into some trivial complaint that you don’t give a shit about. This is showing up at holiday parties and making small talk with people you don’t know because you didn’t insist on not going. This is breaking down over the girls’ misguided ideas about Christmas presents and then storming out of the house with the dogs so you can go cry by yourself at the park while they run around. (Dogs are great, by the way. They like to lick salty tears.)
In Mom’s senior college yearbook, they described Joan Callahan as “gracious, gregarious, grand”. She was all that. She was no nonsense. She did stuff instead of talking about it. She was unsentimental, which annoyed us occasionally as we got older, but she was the first person I wanted to tell when something good or bad happened — and then she was thrilled or suffered along with me. We loved to talk football and politics. She read the paper every day. My mom wanted the books she read and the movies she saw (often, always) to be like the foods she ate – enjoyable but not elevated. She abhorred pretension even as I tried to convince her there was nothing snooty about appreciating fresh vegetables or $12/lb. Peet’s coffee. Her smile was as warm as her laugh. She and Dad raised us to be kind and friendly before anything else – so while none of us are doctors, lawyers, or CEOs, we are all surrounded by that which makes life worth living: family and great friends. There are grandchildren – my three and six others – being raised just the same. And that’s their legacy. It made Mom and Dad proud.
I’m sad, though I’m being honest when I say my sadness does not compare to Newtown’s. (Yet another gun control post of mine is imminent.) No one would describe my pain as unimaginable – Mom was 82 – but there it sits, in my heart and my head, just the same. Turning fifty was a new chapter, and now here’s another one. I’m not sure how this goes. Nobody is. But it goes and that’s life and there’s the gift – another day to live, love, laugh as Mom taught us.