Fifty Shades of Guilt


sis and mom bw2I went back to my hometown a few weeks ago for a friend’s birthday and stayed at my mom’s fancy schmancy new condo.  The second night there, I got home kind of late, got all ready, and put myself to bed as us adults do.  Right as I was about to drift away to dreamland, I hear my mom come home (she seems to have more of a life than I do). About ten minutes later, I hear her clear out sobbing in the kitchen.  I mean body-heaving, gut-wrenching sounds are traveling through these obviously thin walls right into the spare bedroom.  She might as well have been crying in the corner.

And, I freak.

A normal human being would have immediately gotten out of bed to go console their mother.  I have long given up any claim of being normal.  I can however claim at least partial forgiveness, because my mom used to be the family rock.  She was the frickin’ “Great Stone Face” of our time – the woman could be in an argument with my father, wouldn’t have a clue. She could be making life/death decisions about my sister – you’d never have known.  The woman was a private fortress of emotional solitude.  I didn’t even hear my parents argue until right before they got a divorce (I was twenty).  Ever-so-slowly after that, though, my mom began to show her emotions little by little.  But, to hear her all out breaking down?

Like I said, I freaked.

After about ten minutes, I convinced myself that I should get up and go talk to her, as much as I may dread it.  Because, along with not being normal, I’m also super awkward.  I know I’m bound to not do the right thing…piece of evidence numero uno…I walk into the kitchen and say: Hey.  Soooooooo…sounds like you may be a little upset?  …in a tentative yet joking voice.  Luckily, the woman has known me for some time and she does look up, smile, and say: I didn’t think you could hear me.

We talk for over an hour – really I just lean against a kitchen cabinet and listen while she sits on a step stool in the corner and tells me about the 5,233,489 ways that she feels guilty.  Eskimo, snow. My mom, guilt.

(1) She feels guilty when she’s not sad.  She hasn’t been sad for a while, she said.  But, not being sad, makes her sad.  Feeling “okay” for a couple of weeks, makes her feel horrible.  And that night, she walked through the door and just was overwhelmed with guilt and then, sadness that her baby was gone.  That her sick kid who used to always be on the couch in the evenings wasn’t home when she walked through the door.  That she now comes home to an empty house.

(2) She feels guilty because for the last year of my sister’s life, my sister must have felt so devastatingly, unimaginably alone.  My mom was tired.  She was understandably tired of sacrificing her life to stay home and be best buddies with my sister, so she had started going out on the weekends to do normal life things.  I think it would have probably been different if my sister hadn’t been so damn difficult, but my sister was damn difficult.  And not only that, but my sister had been making bad choices…choices that don’t lead to the hope of a healthier life but toward a quicker death.  That’s not easy to watch… But in hindsight, it’s hard not to hate yourself for every moment you didn’t spend with her.

(3) She feels guilty for pushing my dad to be involved more with the doctor/medical side of my sister’s life in the last few years.  My mom had a job…my dad didn’t for some time.  So, my mom thought it made sense for my dad to go to the appointments, so she wouldn’t have to take off work.  …but my dad didn’t know the nitty-gritty of that world so my mom thinks that some crucial decisions were not made correctly……

(4) And on the flip side, my mom feels guilty for a bunch of decisions that she did make.  She even questioned whether she made the correct first choice…I guess there was a moment in the very beginning of all of the hospital nonsense when my mom asked the doctors to save my sister, instead of letting her go. My mom wonders if that was selfish….would it have been better to have let her go right then at the beginning than to have held on to her and watch her suffer for so many years?  My mom told a rather heartbreaking story of how she came to the realization that my sister really only lived for her.  That my sister only pushed through some of what she did because my mom asked her to…..

So, I stood there in the kitchen, leaning against the cabinet, feeling squirmy because on some level, I didn’t want to hear this.  Like mother, like daughter.  I have built my fortress of emotional solitude and leaving it, let alone going into someone else’s is well…kind of terrifying.  My mom just kept crying and telling me…telling me all of this and so much more. And, I understand in my own way.  I feel guilty, too…about similar things, about different things, but my mom’s guilt is unfathomable.  It is infinite and ever-expanding.  It is the mother effin’ universe of guilt.

That’s the last time I saw my mom…until tomorrow.  I invited her to visit for Mother’s Day, so she’s driving up after she gets off work for some quality mother/daughter time.  And as great as it is, as much fun as we’ll hopefully have, I know it’ll be a little painful.  Because, I’ll inevitably think about how I used to fight for time alone with my mom…used to ask and push for us to do things without my sister.  I’ll think about the times, that I now regret, when I got my way…when my sister stayed home…

…and I’ll feel guilty.

(My) Family and Grief

I love my family.  BUT – we are all very different people.  I have certain characteristics from both of my parents of course – but my combination of traits is much different than my brother’s and sister’s.  Needless to say, then, that we’re each handling my sister’s passing very differently.

My father is the most open about his feelings.  He wants to talk and share…in the extreme.  He wants us to all fall apart and lean on one another.  He keeps telling me that I need to “show my emotions.”  Thatjustmakesmewanttopunchhimintheface.  Fine…not really…but I don’t like being told how to feel about this.  My mother is handling this the most “normally.”  She’s a balance between expressing emotions and being stoic.  (Parents divorced btw.)  My brother and I don’t talk about it.  We just deal in our own way – privately.

What bonds our grief and at the same time, is the biggest rift between it is our guilt.  I wish I could say that my sister had an amazing, wonderful life.  She did not.  She was sick.  The list of health issues she had is never-ending…as is our guilt.  We all failed her.  We weren’t understanding enough when we should have been, weren’t there for her when we should have been, weren’t appreciative of the time we had together when we should have been…  We weren’t horrible, either, by any means…and many times, we thought we were doing all of these things…but if we truly had been, I don’t think we would be so full of regret now.  We knew her time may be limited and, yet, this didn’t affect our actions like I wish it would have.

And, she failed us, too.  She couldn’t accept that she would never have a “normal” life.  Or, couldn’t accept that she would have to work and fight for a healthy body.  She was so pissed that she didn’t always try, didn’t always follow the doctors’ orders.  She made her situation more difficult for herself and for us.  To the point where we sometimes “gave up,” because it was so hard to watch someone self-destruct.  These were the times that we would forget about the disease and the many times where she had actually tried.  Only to have the disease come back and knock her on her ass – to remind her that no matter how much effort she put in, it could come back at any moment to wreak havoc on her body, her mind, her soul.

So, each of us – sister, brother, mother, father – is trying to navigate our guilt.  We’re trying to look at where we failed, remind ourselves of the times that we did our best, and remember that my sister was a very difficult young lady. There is a reason that I fondly called her “Brat.”

It may seem a little twisted – trying to put blame on the dead.  But, in some cases, that’s where it belongs, too.  Nobody is perfect.  We all failed each other here.  It’s going to take some time to really clean up this mess of emotions that we’re each going through.  I’m hoping that some day, the positive memories with my sister become more vivid, more vibrant, more clear…instead of these gaping holes where positive memories should be.  I’m not there yet, though.

Not yet.