An Elegy, of Sorts

Do the dead commune with the living through [tag]dreams[/tag]? Its a notion that I’m pretty skeptical about, but nevertheless would like to believe, like alien-piloted UFOs, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and intelligent politicians. My mother made an appearance in my dreams last night, and I don’t really think it requires a [tag]supernatural[/tag] explanation; I’ve been thinking about her a lot, as I always do this time of year. Today is the sixth anniversary of her [tag]death[/tag]. I remember I had a dream shortly after she died, in which she figured prominently. The details of that dream were fuzzy (more so six years later); I slept very little in the months leading up to mom’s death, and I was in a perpetual mental fugue. I was pretty much a zombie 90 percent of the time, and prone to violent emotions the other 10 percent. [tag]Sleep[/tag] came little, and tended not to last long when it did. But I remember that she was very upset in the dream, disturbed even. I do know the dream disturbed me. I felt guilty and hurt; it was another crack in a breaking heart.

Talking with my sister at some point not long after mom died, she mentioned that she had dreamed of mom several times after her death. She also noted that some people believe the dead communicate with the living through their dreams, and that perhaps mom had been trying to communicate with us. That thought has haunted me from time to time. Why was mom so upset in my dream? Was it merely that she had died? Or was it something about the manner in which she died, which is what I feared? Her death was long and drawn out, at the hands of doctors whose only concern seemed to be to do what ever it took medically to ensure that she lingered on, with no regard to her comfort or quality of her last days, and to ensure that they wouldn’t be sued for malpractice. I’m not saying we were ever intentionally mislead about her problems or the likelihood of her recovering, but we frequently got anything but straight answers. We would be told, for example, by her primary physician, that her oxygen levels in her blood were improving, and that this was a positive sign – only to hear later from her respiratory therapist that he had to increase the amount of oxygen he was giving her to the maximum amount, because her lungs were failing, filling up with fluid.

I felt so angry and helpless at the time, forced to sit and watch her die this slow, painful, lingering death, and at times seemingly tortured by the very devices and procedures supposedly deigned to save her and keep her alive. So many times I fantasized about marching into the intensive care ward and confronting her doctors. If she has a reasonable chance to recover, then OK, everything humanly possible needs to be done (and I agonized constantly, as did my father and siblings, about what else could be done, if anything) – but if she doesn’t, then enough of this torture (and that’s what it amounts to, I think, in many cases when people are near death, and kept alive through artificial means – torture). I realize now that in most cases, likely my mothers’ doctors were simply doing their best with the knowledge and means they had at their disposal – but when you are watching your mother slowly die, it’s rather difficult to view the situation objectively. I realize in retrospect that my issues are really more to do with our culture and its views on life and death with regard to medical treatment, but that’s another post for another time.

After I had that dream in which mother appeared so disturbed and angry, and talking with my sister, I couldn’t help but feel guilty, thinking that we should have done something different. That we shouldn’t have stood idly by. Rationally, I know there wasn’t much we could have done that would have changed the eventual outcome. But emotionally, to this day, I can’t help but think that we could at least have made her death more comfortable and less torturous, particularly if we had confronted her doctors early on and not been afraid to question some of their decisions regarding her care. Its been six years, but even now, when I think about it all, and remember the image of my mother in that dream, the pain and guilt come welling up – thankfully, it’s usually brief.

But last night, as I mentioned, mom appeared in my dreams once more. Again, the details are fuzzy; sleep came fitfully. It wasn’t the first time since that first disturbing dream that she has put in an appearance in my dreams, but this is perhaps the first time since then that I have had a significant, memorable impression upon waking. Unlike that first dream after her death, in this one she seemed … content, or at peace, at least; in this dream we were at some sort of family reunion, I think (again, the details, upon waking, were fuzzy); she seemed glad to see everyone. In life, at least, she always seemed to enjoy family get togethers. At her funeral, I couldn’t help but think of the irony; it was the biggest family get together that I could recall, and she would have enjoyed it immensely. …

So was mom trying to tell me that everything is OK now, and that I don’t have to dwell anymore on guilt, anger and second guesses? Or was this the message of my self conscious? Or was it simply random images in dreams generated by the intensity of my recent thoughts when awake? I know what I’d like to believe. …

In the days following her death I wrote something prescient, that I’m going to reprint here. I was trying to come to terms with her death in the best way that I knew how, through words. And yet, at the same time, I knew it was a futile exercise, and probably always would be. What I wrote then, still holds true today; in some ways, I’m still in that moment six years later, and always will be.

Good-Bye, Mom
an [tag]elegy[/tag], of sorts.by Jeff Chappell
1.30.01

I’m sitting at your dining room table, the glass table you loved so much, the one that I teased you about never uncovering for fear of it getting scratched. Even though Dad has already begun the sad process of cleaning and reorganizing, your ghost still lingers here. Even though you have been buried a week, echoes of you still reverberate throughout this house. Your magazines are still in the holder behind this chair. Notes in your handwriting are still on the fridge. Your pills and medicines – so many – are all boxed up, ready to be donated to the rural needy, but your brush still lies on the bathroom countertop, with strands of gray still tangled in it. Some of your clothes have already gone to a relative, but others remain in the laundry room and closets, waiting for Dad to pack them up and give them to the second-hand store.

I only brought a carry-on’s worth of clothes the second time I flew back east and I have to do laundry frequently. I like being in your laundry room, surrounded by your clothes and things.

It’s raining heavy outside right now. I can hear that loud, droning sigh that one hears indoors when it rains. It’s heavy rain, like the night you died. I wonder if rain will always make me think of that night.

As I pause and look around, my eyes come to rest on the clipped and laminated obituaries lying on the table next to my laptop. Rita made them for us, one for Dad and one each for us. I remember learning to write them in the first weeks of News Writing 101 at OU. I hated them then, and I hate them now. How can a life be summed up in three paragraphs? How can yours?

I could fill volumes about your life, and never tell all there is to tell. And for that matter, how can I sum up what you – and your loss – mean to me? Do the words exist? As a writer I suppose they should, but I don’t believe they do. Oh, sure, like many others before me, I could draw metaphors: it’s like a deep wound or the loss of a limb; I may recover, but the scar or stump will remain, and even though I go on, I will be forever changed. But this is like saying the Grand Canyon is awe inspiring, or that Michelangelo’s David is beautiful. These statements are certainly true, yet are so limited compared to the depth and breadth of the emotions involved as to make them absurd.

While someone who hasn’t lost a parent may be able to comprehend the metaphor, no words exist to express the profound effect your loss has on me. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the inability to express this in metaphor would be to liken it to the vastness of the never-ending cosmos. We may be able to grasp the concept of infinity, but do we understand what it means without ever having experienced it?

I could try to sum up the kissed boo-boos, hand-made Halloween costumes and homemade spaghetti or potato soup. I could list the birthday cakes and Christmas presents. I could mention the college loans that were paid off. I could go on about religious beliefs or spiritual matters. I could mention your smile.

I could do it in three paragraphs, or I could do it in 3,000 paragraphs. It still wouldn’t be enough. And it wouldn’t convey what your loss has meant. Perhaps I shouldn’t even try. One of my writing teachers told me once that I should never write prose about real events when I’m “too close to the moment.” There are a number of reasons for this – meaning and perspective have yet to be gained, and the writing can become labored.

To some extent, from now on, I’ll always be in this moment.

So rather than resort to that last bastion of literary defense, the cliché, let me just say simply that I love you, and that I miss you.

And good-bye.

For what it’s worth, Mom, even though I can think about all this now without weeping, I still love you. Even though I can visit your grave and only experience a lump in my throat and some watery eyes, and not a torrent of tears and [tag]grief[/tag], I still miss you. And even though I may go days sometimes, or even weeks without you crossing my thoughts, somehow, I don’t think I’ll ever be quite done saying good-bye …

3 thoughts on “An Elegy, of Sorts”

  1. Jeff, let me just say I somehow came across this *you know how the ‘net is* after clicking on something in your photobucket account. Thank good ol’ universal consciousness that it did. I needed to read this. You are a great writer!!!

    It was synchronicity, because just yesterday it marks 20 years since my mom’s passing.. She left after a long illness where the docs were doing everything they could to keep her alive, and in the end, she was limbless and broken and seeing things we didn’t see b/c she was on morphine. “Karyl, hand me that sandwich?” she pointed to thin air with her stump. My dad obliged and handed her an invisible sandwich and she ate it.

    That was one of the last days I saw my mother… 20 years ago. I’d like to say and I have said that it gets a little easier with time.

    Yesterday I got a hankering to go to the river, the same river my mom and my grandparents vacationed at when she was a kid… I wasn’t prepared to be reminded, and I hadn’t known that I was even speaking aloud in the car when I said “I need to go to the river…” I hear a small voice from the back seat say “Are we going to see Grandma Rozie?” clear as day. I couldn’t help but crumble with tears in my eyes and say yes… she would have loved Jazmine.

    So in summary, some days it’s easier, and some days it’s harder. I used to say that days didn’t affect me regarding her death, but rather moments. That was definitely one of those moments. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one wading through this territory, although I wouldn’t wish it on Anyone.

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