I apologize for those who enjoy brevity - this won't be a short post.
Part 1. "Five Years" by David Bowie
I've pondered this post for a while. How to start? What to talk about? Why should I write it? It's not an easy one. So let me just jump into it...
It was five years ago tonight that my mom died after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer. An anniversary that I dread every year, but here it is, already five years later, a "big" anniversary: a half-decade. Talking with Erin (my sister) today, I mentioned that it went fast, and she remarked, "But at times, it felt like ten years." It's true. These five years have both flown by and crept by at a glacial pace.
The first year was the longest. Every day was something new to conquer - a "first" that you had to overcome emotionally as you realized that she wasn't around to share with you: the first day, the first week, the first month, the first birthday, the first mother's day, the first Christmas, the first six months, the first family vacation, etc. Getting through every one of those days was a challenge. I dreaded each and every one of them, but afterwards, there was a sigh of relief. "It's over. I never have to do that again for the first time," I'd think to myself.
For the first anniversary, Erin happened to be out here visiting, and I really needed her out here. It was a long buildup to that day. We drank to her memory, cried, and remembered the good times. It was not an easy night. But after that night, there were no more "firsts" that would pop up on an annual basis. Sure, there were things we'd have to deal with along the way, but the road had been paved. We'd made it part of the way, but there was a long way to go.
Part 2. "All Things Must Pass" By George Harrison
When it all happened, we were all in shock. We didn't sleep a wink that morning. At 5am, we started to clean in preparation of the funeral and the guests. The house had to look nice. Anything to get our mind off of it. I felt sick to my stomach, but cleaning was important. It stopped the tears for a few minutes. The house was impeccably clean by 8am.
What saved our sanity that day, and the days, weeks, and months that followed, were all of the family and friends who all were there for us. People calling, writing cards, emailing, driving and flying from near and far to be there for us. It was a distraction. Something to make us feel comforted.
It was an amazing outpouring of support, one that I will never forget. I don't think I said this at the time, but to each and all of you, whether you read this or not, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for your kind words, your hugs, your tears, your shoulder of support, your flowers, your memories, your kindness, and most of all, just being there. Without all of you, those days would've been impossible to get through. You all made those days tolerable. Five years later, I remember just feeling happy to know that you were all somewhere, thinking of my family, even if it were just for a brief moment.
But after those first few days, when things started to quiet down, that's when the reality set in: we're going to have to figure all of this out ourselves. I preferred it when people were flooding our house and calling non-stop. It made the days go by quicker.
Erin, Dad, and I tried to rally as best as we could, but it's not a simple process. We had to get back to "normal" and go back to work, to life, to things as they used to be. Coming back to LA was one of the toughest things I had to do. I was supposed to leave for LA was the night my Mom died, scheduled to fly out just hours before she died, but since she was in such bad shape, I had canceled my trip. By flying out to LA again, I was convinced that something bad would happen. It was challenging, but I managed. I really just wanted to stay at my dad's for a few more months. Everything would be easier, right? I guess there's just no easy way to deal and my life had to re-start.
Part 3. "Waiting On A Sunny Day" by Bruce Springsteen
The everyday sadness gradually faded as time wore on. I stopped crying at random songs, I stopped tearing up during sappy commercials, no more welling during TV shows with a slightly sad ending. The tears are now reserved for certain days. Mother's day isn't really fun, my birthday is getting slightly easier to tolerate, and Christmas has become much more of a celebration again. The good times come back to memory so much quicker than they used to. I can look at old family photo albums and enjoy them.
Speaking of photos, two days after mom died, we were pulling together photos for the funeral, and as I looked through one box, and randomly, I found a hand scribbled note that Mom had placed in there for some reason:
"Trust your hunches. They're usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level."
It's something I had heard, probably something Mom had read in a book and told me once before, but finding it less than 48 hours after her death, I took it as a message that she wanted me to get. Silly, I know, but I still have it framed and read it to this day as a reminder of the way she used to think through problems. It's nice to read it and get some motherly advice.
There was one other "sign" that I will never forget. For the wake, after Mom's funeral, we wanted people to remember her as she'd want: her beach chair out with her beach bag at the ready, and Motown classics playing over the loudspeaker.
As we were getting ready to end the afternoon, this is the song that was playing...
Part 4. "Someday We'll Be Together" by Diana Ross and the Supremes
Maybe there's an afterlife, maybe not, but for that one moment, I was comforted by the thought of being "reunited" with my Mom.
Obviously, it's been an emotional night for me as I write this. But over the last five years, my family and I have grown closer as we've dealt with the loss. The pain has quieted from what it once was, but it's still there. We're all having a tough one today, but tomorrow will be better.
And so, I'll say good night with this - the speech I read during my mom's funeral:
"This is not easy to do, but I’ve taken my mom’s advice, and I have to say, that I’m very thankful that you're all only wearing underwear today.
I can say so many things about my mom, but I wouldn’t know where to start. So let me explain a little bit about our family dynamic. Mom was our Margaret Dumont. Margaret Dumont, for those of you who don’t know, was an actress who starred as the comic foil for the Marx Brothers in just about all of their movies.
So I guess that makes Dad, Erin and I – Groucho, Chico and Harpo, although, Erin, I’m not sure which of us was Chico or Harpo. We both look like we could pass for an Italian and we both, too often, chose to speak with a sound effect instead of words. That, by the way, was a trait inherited from Dad’s side of the family.
In each Marx Brother’s movie, Margaret Dumont was dignified, well mannered, and proper, something that the Marx Brothers certainly weren’t. The Marx Brothers were crass, crude, and a little crazy. But she made their jokes funnier because she played off of it.
That’s what mom did for us. She played straight to our Marx Brothers. And she never cared. We’d sit at the table and joke and laugh, sometimes, it was even at her expense. Without fail, she’d always say, “Why don’t you lay me down and just pick on me like I’m a banjo.” But she loved to see that we laughed and had fun as a family. And that’s why she’d be so happy today to see all of you.
You were all her family. She didn’t care who you were: her son, a brother or sister-in-law, a co-worker, a friend of dad’s, the checkout kid at Harris Teeter, it didn’t matter. She instantly had a bond with you somehow. If you said hello to her, chances are she might talk your ear off for a few hours. She felt like she had to make you comfortable, no matter what the situation was. You could have her over to your house, hosting her, and soon enough, she’d probably turn the tables and end up hosting you.
But even the great hosts have their frustrating moments. She hated when Erin and I fought and she’d make threats to get us to stop. If she were making us toast for breakfast and Erin and I were bickering, she’d say, “What are you going to do when I’m gone?” We’d stop bickering for a brief second and say, “We know how to make toast. We’re okay.” She never took that too well, for some reason. Today, I’m happy to say that between the three of us, we are able to toast a piece of bread. But I don’t think that was her point.
What are we going to do now that she’s gone? We’ll cry a lot. But more importantly, we’ll remember how great she was to all of us, and how bravely she fought for the last 2 and ½ years. Sadly, bravery doesn’t always come out on top in a challenge like this, but bravery made her fight look easy at times. It got her through farther than most could have handled.
Her fight against cancer is the last of many life lessons she taught me: be brave in the face of adversity, laughter makes life easier, remember how important friends and family are, and always, always make sure the toaster is on light to medium.
Goodbye, mom. I miss you. I love you."