Wednesday, April 22, 2009

“The Long Goodbye,” continued

I just finished reading the most recent two posts in Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye” series—“Watching Someone You Love Accept Death” and “What Is It Like To Recover From Grief?”—and though I’ve obviously been a fan of the whole series, these affected me the most. Seriously, are we the same person, Meghan? When I read this part, I actually laughed, because it was so much like something I’ve thought:
“I started feeling … better. Not 'recovered,' the way one feels after a flu. But … better. I suppose this isn't a surprise. I simply conform to the clinical norm: Studies show many mourners begin to feel less depressed around four months after the death. Knowing this makes me feel annoyed and truculent. I don't want to conform to a grief scale. I want to be an extremity. A master of grief.”
But in all seriousness, these last entries were both difficult and comforting for me to read because of how much I relate to her words.

Although I didn’t have a direct conversation with my mother about accepting her death—I was clinging to the belief that she was going to get her new lungs and heart, and somehow, everything would go back to normal—I always felt a sense of calm emanating from my mom, even toward the end. Or if not calm, normalcy: the last time I spoke with her in person was in her hospital room in Chicago, a couple of weeks before she died. I was upset over getting a “C” on a writing assignment graded by my history TA. (A “C” was not a grade I was cool with— yeah, I know I’m a big geek.) Now, if you never met my mom, it might be hard to imagine a woman on oxygen, wearing a hospital gown, getting all fired up and ranting how she’d like to have a word with him, but she did. And she did it with style. If I remember accurately, she said, “You’re a better writer than he’ll ever be!” Not that she’d even read my assignment, or read anything he’d ever written. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t kidding when I called her my cheerleader.

Anyway, everything seemed relatively normal that afternoon until later, when I realized that my dad had insisted that I talk to my mom in private, dragging my boyfriend away—we’d used a concert as an excuse to drive up to Chicago from school—and they stayed away, for almost an hour. I’ll probably never know what the hell they talked about while I sat beside my mom’s hospital bed, talking and laughing with her, but I’ll always be grateful I had that time, even if we spent the majority of time talking about school, and my new short haircut, which she loved. (I hated it.)

I managed to make it through the concert that night—ok, fine, it was a Good Charlotte and No Doubt show, and I loved it at the time—but once we started driving, I lost it. I most likely scared the shit out of my boyfriend, as I’d seemed fine until that point, but I couldn’t stop sobbing. In retrospect, I’d like to believe that deep down, I knew that I’d just hugged my mom for the last time and that’s why I freaked out, but who knows. I do know that I’ll never forget that hospital room in Chicago, or that conversation with her. That’s what matters.

The entry on recovering from grief was the most on point for me, though. Particularly when I got to this part:
Just the other day, nearly a week after Easter, I had to make an apple pie for a video shoot about mothers and daughters. The recipe I used was my mother's recipe, and for a day or two before I made the pie I was in a gloomy mood. I felt anxious, irritable, resentful that I had to make the pie—a pie I'd been wanting to make but was frightened of making ever since my mother died. It was absurd how much mental space this pie was taking up.

The day came. I made the pie. I pulled out the old recipe book my mother and father had given me and my brothers—the 4A Cookbook, they called it, after the apartment we lived in. And, step by step, almost as if it wasn't happening, I made the pie. I didn't let the dough chill for long enough and it came apart as I tried to roll it out. The result looked messier than usual as it went into the oven. But I felt OK; it had been strangely comforting to read my mother's words and revisit her way of making things. I loved that at the end of the recipe for pastry (butter, Crisco, flour, sugar, water) she wrote, philosophically: 'This will constitute the dough.'

But as the pie was cooking, I had a little meltdown. I was supposed to turn the heat down from 425 degrees, I remembered. But … to what temperature? Time to call Mom. I reached for the phone. And realized—I couldn't ask her anymore. From now on, I would have to answer my pie questions myself, through trial and error. The pie made my mother more absent. And yet—it also made my mother more present: When it came out of the oven, it reminded me of her.”
Seriously, Meghan? Seriously? I’m almost irritated with you for, well, being me.

My mom’s birthday fell on July 8, and every year, she’d make a flag cake that did double duty as a 4th of July cake and a birthday cake for her. She loved it. One of my favorite pictures of Mom, she’s holding up her flag cake and wearing her annual Old Navy flag t-shirt. The best part of the photo is her smile: genuine happiness. No oxygen cord.

So, on the second July 8 without her to make her flag cake, I decided I had to do it. Like Meghan wrote, “I'd been wanting to make but was frightened of making ever since my mother died. It was absurd how much mental space this pie was taking up.” It was true. All I could think about was this damn flag cake.

I dragged my roommate Diana to the grocery store with me to buy the strawberries, blueberries, Cool Whip, cake mix. We got back to our apartment and started baking the cake. Everything was fine until I had to start cutting the strawberries. Then I realized I didn’t remember how I was supposed to cut them: Do I cut them in half? What do I do? I burst into tears. Diana grabbed the knife out of my hand and cut the strawberries for me.

The next year, I made the cake with no problems. It annoyed the shit out of me. Where were the tears? Where was the stabbing feeling in my gut? Of course I know that’s ridiculous, but it’s true.

I think I’ll make the cake this year. And this time, I’ll just enjoy it. I think that’s what would make my mom happy.


  1. uhm... i def remember this! i might have even told you to go away and smoke a cig. and that haircut took 4 years to grow out! and the cake was delicious :-)

  2. god, that haircut was awful! I blame it all on the heat wave that first week of class. thanks for cutting the strawberries! :)