It feels odd to type that The Sopranos helped prepare me for my mother's death. It seems like a something Rob Gordon or some other character in a movie a bit too self aware to be completely realistic would say, not a real person. But I am a real person. I'm really sitting here, really thinking about the year that has passed since my mom died, and really remembering how Johnny Sack's death from lung cancer helped me to prepare for my mom's.
Cancer is too amorphous and arbitrary to say that it always follows the same script. If there are dozens of different cancers, there should be dozens more ways to die from it. But, when thinking about people I personally knew who succumbed to this disease, the process is eerily similar.
They're diagnosed. They get treatment. They have good days and bad days. On good days they're able to do many of the things they were able to do before they got sick. Sometimes they're so much like their "normal" selves you forget they're even sick. On bad days, well, you remember. At first, the good days outnumber the bad days. Then good days and bad days happen with the same frequency. And then, as the disease progresses, the definition of what constitutes "good" and "bad" shifts. You know the regression is irreversible. Even worse, you know they know. But they're still there. Still able to live and find some enjoyment out of life. Still the person you knew and loved.
And then it happens.
Not death. Not yet. But there comes a point when they deteriorate faster than you thought possible. A point where they were talking and watching TV in the morning and completely incapacitated by that evening. A point where you realize you've had your last conversation with them. Maybe they can hear you. Maybe they can even blink their eyes or faintly move a corner of their mouth — a gesture you're hoping was some form of a smile. But they will never talk to you again. No "last conversation" because the last conversation you had will be the last conversation. They're there, but with each passing moment, there's less of them there.
I was "prepared" for this to happen because I remembered a season of The Sopranos where their depiction of New York crime boss Johnny Sack's last weeks followed a similar script. Well, let me rephrase that. I knew it was going to happen. I knew there was going to be a point where my mom just wasn't going to be the person I knew anymore. She'd still be alive. Her body would be there, but the things that made her her wouldn't be. Even before my mom's health got considerably worse, I remember resigning myself to the fact that it was going to happen. Not death, but that space between living and dying that ended up being the last time we'd see Johnny Sack on screen.
But I wasn't prepared for it, really. Nothing can prepare you for seeing a person so vibrant just a week earlier not able to speak. Even though I knew it was coming, the day it happened remains burned in my memory, a nightmare as vivid today as it was then.
I'd been with her at the house the night before. We knew she didn't have many days left. But she was still there, still aware and still able to speak. It was a struggle, but she could still do it. I went home that night. Worked the next day. Went to the house again that afternoon. 5-ish. A few of my cousins were there, as was my aunt — who had been staying at the house to help my dad out — and my dad. My girlfriend was with me. My mom was laying on the hospital bed we'd set up in the living room — same as the day before — but the difference between her the day before and her then was so stark that I just sat in a chair next to the door for 10 minutes, speechless. I didn't even acknowledge anyone else there. I wasn't prepared.
My mom died October 18th. Today, October 16th, marks a year since the day I knew I'd never hear her voice again.
There were so many things I wanted to talk to her about then, and so many more now. So, I just imagine. I imagine how she would have reacted when telling her I was engaged. She would have cried, she would have told me how much she loved me (and my soon-to-be wife), and she would have already started to think about what she was going to wear at the wedding. I imagine how much fun she would have had with every step of the process with my wife — the dress fitting, the bridal shower, the cake tasting, etc. I imagine what she would have thought about season two of The Newsroom — one of the shows we'd watch together those evenings I spent with her when she was sick. I imagine how big of a fan of Lupita Nyong'o she would have been. I imagine how happy she'd be when I told her I actually got the grant I applied for. I imagine her dancing with my dad and laughing with my aunts at my wedding. I imagine asking her for advice — and french toast — and ending every conversation with our secret handshake.
My dad and my sister have taken my mom's death especially hard. I was prepared for that, so — with help from my wife — I've tried to be the optimistic one. The one who attempts to put things in perspective, and tries to comfort them when they need comforting. The one who didn't need comforting. I think I've succeeded. Part of this has also been circumstance. I've had such a busy year —- seriously, it's been like four years worth of experiences packed into one — that I couldn't help but be who I've had to be.
Some days are good days for me. Most, even. All things considered, it's been a good year. Today, though, is not one of those good days. I just keep thinking about being in that chair, seeing my mom there but not there. I can't get it out of my head.
Today, I don't want to have to imagine. I just want to talk to my mom.