or How Marvel and Disney Tried To Scar Me For Life.
I cried when I watched Guardians of the Galaxy. I know I’m not alone in that, but I think that most people weren’t choking down sobs for the same reasons I was. I was upset, I was sad, but it was also furious. I clung to my control by fingertips, because standing up in the middle of the theatre, screaming “This isn’t how it happens!” and running out, well, it’s just not something one does as an adult.
We had known that something was objectively “wrong” with my mom for a long time. She was a closet smoker, lying to me since I was old enough to ask whose cigarettes these were I’d found, who had an explosive temper and a willful disregard for both her health and the feelings and needs of those around her. She and I had never had an easy relationship, and it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I discovered that it WASN’T just that I was an unreasonable person, that I deserved respect and trust, and to be treated as an adult. She had some ongoing blood pressure issues, struggled with alcohol, and generally was an influence I was glad to remove from my everyday life, via a move that put 900 miles and 2 state-lines between us.
That doesn’t mean that when she called just after Christmas and told me, amidst small talk about my younger sisters impending wedding, that she was sick, that I wasn’t upset and scared. She told me she had cancer, that she was treating it, losing her hair, and that we weren’t going to talk about it any more. Sister’s wedding was more important, and more immediate. The conversation was over quickly, leaving me full of questions, and with no answers.
My life quickly became a series of clandestine phone calls, collecting details from my dad and sister, learning that she had breast cancer, stage 4. My best friend who is a high school science teacher, showed me what that meant, that it had spread throughout her body and that any treatment would mostly be to make her comfortable and prolong the inevitable. She was going to die, and soon. It took a couple weeks for me to really understand the time-frame we were dealing with, but I took off time from work, bought plane tickets, and made the trip home early in February. I thought I was going to help my family get her settled in at home for awhile while she settled back in after a short hospital stay. I thought we would say our goodbyes, I would be supportive, and that then I would go home for awhile.
In the meantime I had sent a care package, a hand-me-down iPad, a subscription to Audible.com, and a hand-knit shawl I had made earlier and that I hadn’t really found a home for. “She’ll be bored, and this way she can read, play on the web, and be warm,” I thought. One outta three ain’t bad, I suppose. My sister warned me, but I expected that when I walked into the house I’d find her curled up watching TV, complaining, and generally meddling with anything within her reach. Instead, I found someone who had, for all intents and purposes, reverted to a small child. She looked up at me, proudly showed me that she had cuddled the shawl I had sent her into a ball like a stuffed animal, and seemed to promptly forget I had just walked in. It was the most coherent conversation I would have with her the whole trip. The iPad sat on a bedside table in a cookbook holder, something to be proud of, but that she couldn’t focus enough to understand or use.
The next week is a blur. Lots of pain, lots of fighting pain meds, lots of yelling at first, lots of taking turns making sure everyone was eating, and making excuses to get out of the house for short trips. Lots of cursing, lots of fear. On one trip out to the grocery store a couple days in, my sister shared what she had been told when her and my dad had talked about having mom stay at home with the folks who support families through these things. “When she gets worse from month to month, she’s got months left. When she gets worse week to week, it’ll be weeks, and so on and so forth.” She had gotten significantly worse over the days I had been home, and it was approaching hour to hour changes.
We all reached the breaking point together.
Mom hadn’t been properly awake in a day or so, she was finally taking the pain meds and sleeping, listening to the digital cable easy listening channel on the TV, because no one wanted to risk waking her by turning it off. We had all been listening to smooth jazz and easy listening for the last 48 hours straight. It was late, and we were playing board games in the other room, listening to her moan in her sleep, when my sister turned to me, and asked if I wanted to go see a movie. I hadn’t seen Frozen yet, and she had been asking me I’d I wanted to build a snowman for days, with a kind of determined cheerfulness. I wanted nothing more than to leave for a bit, hopefully gather some strength and composure before another day of pain and increasingly labored breathing. “Sure, if Dad doesn’t mind.” Everything seemed stable, and no one protested.
I got the text telling me that while we were gone my mother had stopped breathing, while Anna and Kristoff struggled towards each other across a field of ice, and everything seemed lost, in so many ways. I had blown off my family for Disney, and I wasn’t there when they needed me; worse, I had dragged my sister away, too. I managed to hold myself together till we were done, before it totally broke down in a restroom in a strip mall. Thankfully, my sister is made of sterner stuff, because I might’ve just sat there forever, if she hadn’t gotten me moving, and gotten us back to her place for the night.
The rest of the trip was memorial planning, house cleaning, a multitude of trips to the Goodwill with bags full of clothes, shoes, a few childhood bits and bobs that weren’t important enough to make the move with me. An amazing number of people showed up to the memorial, considering all the friction that we seemed to have between us, a shocking number of people seemed to have fond thoughts of my mom. I hadn’t known that she HAD that many relationships with other adults.
All this to tell you that when I watched Guardians, and watched young Peter hesitate to take his mothers hand, I almost exploded. I knew that fear, but it was so much worse than that. There are no neatly wrapped gifts at your parents death beds, there is no opportunity for one last conversation, no medical professionals to take the burden of care so you can just deal with your feelings. There are hallucinations, and moans of pain, even through the morphine. There’s increasingly labored breathing, and a rattling cough that always used to be from the cigarettes. There’s Anna and Kristoff, struggling through a blizzard, and guilt, and anger, and no convenient alien to snatch you away from the question of “now what?”.
I’m still struggling to Let It Go.