I really want to get back to writing about games soon. I’ve got, like, 5 drafts queued up that I just need to finish and kick out. Next week.
I’ve spent most of my day trying to write this. I tried my usual muse-stimulators of Scotch, ice cream, naps, long showers, cello music, coding. I pushed hard, but was never able to come up with a clever opening, so this will have to suffice. The rest of it was so thoroughly something I had to say that I’m willing to forgive this.
Today is a strange day for me. February 9th is one of those days that kind of crosses my calendar and I’m never quite sure what to do with it. Because ten years ago today, my mother died.
This is long and rambling, just like my last ten years. You’ve been warned.
I said goodbye
It was my third year of college. Mom had first gotten diagnosed about a year before, and we had more or less known that she wasn’t going to get better since December. Why the hell I was still in college for that semester… who knows. I just remember thinking “What else would I do?” I had spent the previous summer at home to take care of her, instead of staying around school like I did the rest of college. We ate breakfast and lunch and dinner together almost every day. She loved watching, in order, The Sopranos, Jeopardy, and whatever romantic comedy I could find that she hadn’t seen before. (This summer is why I’m kind of a rom-com connoisseur.) I pushed her around our neighborhood in her wheelchair, and drove her to the beach where we’d just sit and watch the waves. When school started again in the fall, she had reached a point where professional assistance was more appropriate, and it just… kind of made sense to go back to school. I think staying too much longer around my hometown with only my quickly evaporating mother for company would have driven me mad.
Anyway. So I was in school, but not. I was doing the 10 hour drive back home pretty much every weekend. Even at school, my brain was elsewhere. Yes, I was that guy who stepped out of class to take a cell phone call. Because (a) it was my first cell phone, given to me so I could know the instant something happened and (b) fuck you, professor, that call might be the last time I get to hear my mom’s voice, so yes, I’m going to take it.
(It was, actually. The last time. When I made it home the next day, she wasn’t talking anymore.)
I sat bleary eyed around a table with my brothers and dad as we talked about funeral schedules and proofread the obituary. In the bedroom, you could sometimes make out the sounds of her struggling to breathe.
“Struggling to breathe” is one of those common phrases that loses weight from repetition. But the effort-filled sound of her dragging the air across her lips is etched into my brain as one of the starkest and eeriest recollections I have.
The next morning, she was still there. Still making that same sound. And I had to go back to school. Thinking about it a decade on, I probably could have afforded to miss that Monday morning lecture. But my connection to reality was so tenuous that all I could do was abide by a schedule that the University computers had optimized months ago. What else would I do?
So I was leaving that morning. I walked into the bedroom. Just my brother Jason was in there. He looked up at me, knew what I was there to do, and walked out without saying a word.
I sat with my mother for the last time. I wanted to try and have some kind of small talk, just to lighten the mood, but there was nothing to talk about other than the fact that one of us was dying. Could she even hear me? For my own piece of mind, I’ve convinced myself that she could. This is why we’re given the powers of delusion: so that we can believe that we did the right things when we had the chance.
I held her hand. I listened to her breath. I leaned over to kiss her one more time, and I watched my tears roll down her cheek. I whispered to her, “Thank you for everything. I love you.”
I stood up and was walking out before I remembered one of the other beautiful powers we have as humans. I leaned back in and whispered, “I’m so sorry for anything I ever did to hurt you.” Then I drove away.
(Vague blanket apologies are typically not the best things to deliver, but under the circumstances and given the genuine sincerity behind it, I’m going to give 20 year-old Shane a pass on this.)
I said hello
So I went back to school. (She died a few hours after I left, as I was crossing from Georgia into South Carolina.) And then went back the next weekend for the funeral. And then… technically, that was it. Nothing else occupying my time, right? I could focus back on school and work.
There is a huge difference between having a parent dying and having a parent dead. And the period of that transition is one of the most surreal times I think I’ve had in my life.
It’s a strange kind of existence during that window where everyone is trying to be nice to you because they know some terrible shit has just happened. I know for a fact that I was insufferable during this time: moody, impatient, unreliable. The worst part of it was when people would try to offer sympathy, because it often took the form of telling me about their grandparents dying. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve also lost three grandparents at this point and I know that is a pretty terrible thing. But the impatient Shane would seethe at this, shouting in the back of my mind. “THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS, THOUGH. GRANDPARENTS DIE. THEY’RE OLD. MY MOM WASN’T OLD AND I’M KIND OF TOTALLY LOST RIGHT NOW.” On the surface, I’d thank them for their thoughts.
Then it got interesting. A friend showed up at my doorway, having just heard the news. She looked at me, and I braced myself for the sympathy I’d been immersed in for a while, and all she did was look me in the eye and say “So, I lost my dad when I was sixteen.” And she sat on my couch, and we told stories about our parents, and laughed together and cried together. And that’s when I started realizing that there was what I came to know as a silent fraternity around me, of people who had experienced real loss. Someone who I never would have expected to have a non-joking thought came by to talk about his dad, and one professor’s office hours became a strangely emotional bonding session when she was telling me about her sister who died in high school.
I’ve now been on the other side of that conversation a couple times, watching friends suffer through losses like this. I know the rest of the world was well-intentioned and doing the best they could to provide support, but it seemed like only people who had been through it understood that sometimes you just want someone there to talk about anything other than the reality you just got punched with.
It’s something you never get over. You just get past. You keep swimming in the mundanities and eventually find yourself back in the land of the living. For me, it took another summer of working out of my apartment, living vampire hours, and talking to almost nobody. I watched the movies I loved, the movies she loved. I cooked the things she had taught me and imagined her correcting my technique. At the end of the summer, I came back for my last year at college recharged and raring to go. Bit by bit you get your life back.
I said “well…”
And so I’ve now survived a decade without my mom. I got accepted to grad school, graduated college, worked as an Imagineer, finished grad school, worked with Steven Spielberg, fell in love, watched two brothers get married, welcomed two nephews and a niece, shipped a consensus Game of the Year, and…
Hmmm. Damn. Hard to see what’s next. But with all of that, every step of it, every joy, every hardship, everything, my first instinct is still “I should talk to mom about this.” My mom was well known and respected in our town for her wisdom. I remember people coming to our house (which was not really convenient to anyone) just to ask her advice on something about their kids or their family or even their business. (These visits didn’t stop when she was on her deathbed, and up until she couldn’t talk anymore, she was still helping people.) My brothers have all told me how valuable her counsel was as they became adults.
And that’s something I kind of missed out on. I still remember the odd timing – just a week before she was diagnosed (before I had any inkling that something was wrong, but she knew there was trouble incoming) was the first time I ever opened up to her about my personal life. I’ll be damned if her advice wasn’t insightful and spot-on. A week later I first googled the words “glioblastoma multiforme” and uttered the first of many “fuck cancer”s. And I never got to hear her advice again.
I see the rest of my peer group getting their shit together – buying houses, getting married, having kids, starting companies. (No joke, as I was writing this, Facebook let me know that another ex got engaged just today. I think my mom would have liked her, probably even after we broke up. She would be happy for them, so I will be happy for them. I could do a lot worse than trying to react to things the way my mom would have.) And I feel kind of… broken. I wonder if the meager social skills I had in high school had actually been second-hand boosts from my mom, and how much I fail to understand people without her help. My close friends can attest to how frequently I bother them trying to understand inter-personal behavior. (I’m a bit of a robot.)1
Oddly enough, losing my mom made me into an optimist. Because while it was, and remains, the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, now I have that benchmark. I periodically do this morbid exercise wherein I try to imagine the worst thing that could happen, given my current life conditions. With every scenario, I can measure it: “Would that be worse than losing my mom?” Thus far the answer has always been, “no.” And since I handled that, since I got past that, since I’ve incorporated that to the point where it no longer crushes me on a daily basis, I figure I can handle anything else that happens.
So, looking at it that way, it’s impossible for anything to happen that I couldn’t handle. So bring it on.
I’m confident that some day there will be something that would conceivably be worse. But in a weird way, that’s something to strive for.
The other bit of optimism is how quickly it happened. One day I got an email; less than a year later my mother was gone. If you had told me when I was graduating high school that my mom wouldn’t be around to see me graduate college, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have gotten angry with you. But all that while, I was just a few years away from the worst parts of the story.
But hey, that means I could always be just around the corner from the best parts of the story, and also have no idea. Because five years ago today I was in the middle of what still stands as the best weekend of my life, and never would have seen it coming. Who’s to say where backstory ends and chapter 1 begins?
Maybe tomorrow. Maybe yesterday.
Seriously, friends are the best and are the only way I’ve gotten through all of this. From the ones who surprised me with a viewing of the Star Wars Holiday Special on my birthday to the one I saw dancing to (coincidentally) one of my mom’s favorite songs as the clock struck midnight last night and both our brains were lolling about in vodka and loud music, I’ve always had people who knew what I needed more than I did, and that’s just been sheer dumb luck on my part.↩