De Profundis, Dona Nobis Pacem: On The Leftovers, Ambiguous Loss, and Missing My Mom
"Do you want to tell him?"
This was the first thing I heard on the morning of November 16, 2013 when I picked up the phone that woke me on that Saturday. I didn't recognize the woman's voice on the other end, but it was clear that it wasn't talking to me. It was waiting to verify that I picked up before passing the phone along to whoever the woman was with. I said hello, but didn't get an answer. Only muffled noise, like the sound of a radio when the car goes through a tunnel. Ten seconds later, I hear my dad's voice.
My eyes, which had re-closed during the ten-second delay, snapped back open. "Yeah. Dad. What's up?"
"Your mom's in the hospital; she had a brain aneurysm."
I didn't answer right away, but when I did, all I could muster was, "Jesus. Fuck. So..."
"In a coma." "Should I come home?"
I had been living in Huntington Beach, California. About 3,000 miles from the spot where my mom was weeding in the garden when a blood vessel in her brain, likely weakened from decades of smoking, burst.
"No, there's nothing they can really do right now anyway, they're just seeing how she is."
I wasn't settled. "Are you sure? That sounds fucking serious." I had a vague idea about what an aneurysm was. I knew that it was a burst blood vessel, and I was under the impression that if you experienced one, that you were as good as planted in the ground. But my dad didn't sound terribly upset. I assumed it was either because my mother was doing better than I had previously understood that she would be, or he was in shock. Maybe both.
Dad repeated, "No, I'll keep you posted on what happens."
I asked if he was sure again, and he said yes again and we hung up. It was early on the weekend, and I laid back down and closed my eyes, trying to recapture sleep. It was pointless. I could feel the sound of my heart in my right eardrum, and there would be no way to calm myself down enough to pass back out. It didn't matter. The phone rang again less than two minutes after my dad hung up. It was my sister this time. "Kurt?"
"Yeah, Kel. What's up, what's going on?"
"Wake Eric up. You guys better come home."
My stomach moved up into my throat. I woke Eric up. We got to the airport. In less than 90 minutes, I had gone from sound asleep on an unreasonably warm November morning (even for Southern California) to sitting in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. Eric and I didn't say much, but he seemed to be optimistic, if worried.
I knew better. I was fully aware of what an aneurysm does to the brain and the odds of surviving one. More importantly, I had information that Eric didn't have, even if we were both aware of what happened. I knew all I needed to know from the tone I heard in my sister's voice.
The plane ride home was uneasy. I tried to sleep multiple times, but ended up in the space between consciousness and unconsciousness -- that strange place where you forget your troubles for a moment, only to snap awake and are immediately reminded. There was a significant amount of turbulence on the flight. It didn't affect me; I spent most of the time staring straight forward and trying to will the jet stream to push the plane faster. I also stared at my phone, knowing that as soon as the plane touched down and I turned off Airplane Mode, I would have a message. I was right.
We touched down in Philadelphia around 5:30PM, and I immediately checked my voicemail. It was from my sister again, telling us that once we were on the ground, we should hurry to the Trenton hospital where my mother was. I also had a text from someone who I had not spoken with in years. The text: "I'm sorry to hear about your family's loss." This was the final hint I needed to verify what I already knew -- my mother was asleep in a hospital bed and Trenton, and she wouldn't be waking up. The burst blood vessel in her brain shut her lights off, and no amount of medical help could turn them back on. I wasn't heading to Trenton to see if my mother was okay. I was heading to Trenton to see her outside a casket for the last time.
I was right. When I turned the corner to the hallway of my mother's room, I saw my sister leaning against the wall by the door. She didn't have much of an expression on her face, but I knew. The rest of that night is a bit of a blur, but I do remember staying behind in the room for a minute after everyone left. I felt strange speaking to my mom then, unsure if she could hear me, but hoping she could. I couldn't find the right words, so I rambled on about how she didn't get to see the beard I had been growing that month. I said I hoped she was proud of me. I told her I loved her. I told her goodbye. Definitive though that should have been, as I walked out of the room that night, things felt unresolved. There was no closure. Less than 24 hours before, I had been talking to my mom about a cold she thought she was catching and whether my nephew got the chocolate I sent. This came too fast. It didn't register.
I didn't cry that night. I didn't cry at the funeral. I didn't cry for quite some time.
It didn't feel like my mom died; it felt like she disappeared.
The Leftovers premiered eight months after my mother died, and I still hadn't processed my grief by the time I watched the first episode. The commercials for the show were intriguing enough, promising a mysterious thriller in which 2% of the world's population simply disappears. I have always been a fan of dark themes in my entertainment, and my mom's dying didn't do anything to curb that. It might have made it strengthened it in fact.
A blog is no place to cover three seasons of the most brilliant television I've ever seen. But I can report that in watching The Leftovers, I felt more deeply and cried more suddenly than I ever had in my life. At first I wasn't sure why; the show isn't about death. Characters do die on occasion, but the greater tragedies embedded in the show are about how the characters relate to each other and process "The Departure" of their loved ones. Some join cults. Others try to restore order by enforcing the law. Others have gone numb and do anything they can to feel something again. Still others feel guilty that they got to stay while so many others disappeared.
I could relate to all these different kinds of reactions, because in its own way, my mother's death was not a death; it was a departure. There was no drawn-out illness. There was no recognition that she was sick. There was no predicting that she would be alive on November 16th and dead on November 17th. There was only her weeding the garden at one moment, and her inability to ever weed again in the next.
That makes it impossible to feel resolution. Like the characters on the Leftovers, my family was left to understand how and why mom disappeared. Some of us didn't understand; some of us still don't.
I have a tattoo on my back. It reads: Pro aris et focis, which translates to "for our altars and our hearths." I wanted to get something related to how I feel about my purpose. No matter what I do, professionally and personally, I want it to be in defense of those that I care about. Pro aris et focis relates to the tendency to defend all that which is near and dear to you. I've been thinking about this a lot, and it has reminded me of two other Latin phrases that incidentally, are featured in The Leftovers -- de profundis and dona nobis pacem.
These phrases respectively mean "out of darkness" and "grant us peace."
I miss my mom every day, and this year, it's been more intense. In a week, she will have been gone five years, and I'm still in the darkness about it. But I want to get a measure a peace over her departure. These phrases remind me that peace can come from darkness, but the only way to gain that peace is to stare into the abyss. If you don't... if you ignore it, the darkness grows bigger and envelops everything. I'm not sure how to begin to really process the last five years, but writing this blog is a start. I bought a journal that is now sitting on my desk, with a pen that I bought specifically to vent with.
It's not much, but it's peeking over the edge into the abyss.
She died almost five years ago, but I still dream about my mother on occasion.
The context changes from dream to dream. Sometimes I see her standing in the front yard after the lawn has been freshly mowed and the garden has been newly tended. Sometimes I see her waiting in line in different places; the doctor's office I went to as a child is a popular location. Sometimes I see her inside a house I don't recognize as any I've ever lived in. Sometimes I see her watching me play baseball.
But no matter the context, the content is always the same. I see her and am confused. It can't be. She died, after all. And when you die, you disappear.
I approach her and feel a sense of immense relief that goes beyond the bounds of the dream. It's the kind of feeling that you experience even in your physical body -- so real that your brain can't distinguish what's real and what you're dreaming. Mom always looks at me, and seems surprised that I was ever upset at her death. From here, the dream goes in one of two directions. Sometimes, I ask my mother how it's possible that she's back after having died. She tells me, "I decided to come back. And so here I am." I then ask her if she has to leave again, and she reassures me that she doesn't -- that death is only temporary, and she's back now.
Sometimes in my dreams, though, I tell my mom, "You're not really here." And she tells me that no, she's not; that I am only dreaming, and that she will be gone when I wake up.
Regardless of which direction the dream takes, I wake up with residual feelings. Sadness. Frustration. Even anger. Despite the fact that I feel poorly after waking up and realizing that my mom is indeed gone, I try to hang on to every detail of the dream I just had. By doing so, I can maintain the feelings I had when I thought my mother was still alive -- even if only subconsciously and temporarily.
But without fail, like the departed in The Leftovers, the dream fades from my memory in what seems like an instant. No matter how much I try to keep the feelings I had while under the illusion that my mom was still here, I can't.
Like my mother herself, the feelings are gone without warning, and I'm left trying grab them as if I was trying to catch fog.