Looking back on a year without mom

February 5 makes one year that mom died. Like those early weeks, when I could simultaneously and acutely feel both her presence and her absence, that day feels both so distant and so recent at the same time.

It’s been a year of trying to find my footing. I have often reflected on the advice of my grief counselor to “be gentle” with myself, something I don’t often do. I have tried not to expect too much from myself, although I did manage to achieve some small goals — my first 5k, for example, and a soft return to my book club.

Creating Order

I continue to have an urge to purge — to simplify, to de-clutter. I’ve never functioned well amid visual clutter—it’s a reflection of chaos, something I don’t tolerate well. I guess this urge is my attempt to create a sense of order in my life, after so much disorder.

Going through mom’s belongings and clearing out the house over the last year has been bittersweet. I took all her clothes to charity in the early, foggy, dazed days. I gave my mom’s knitting and crocheting supplies to my aunt. I tried to clear out stuff from the garage, but was easily and quickly overwhelmed.

I was glad to get rid of all the medical stuff—medications, walkers, canes, medical bills, etc.

One thing I had kept was the infamous “binder” I created when she was first diagnosed. It was a place to keep all our notes—her schedule of chemotherapy infusions, the dates she received blood transfusions or had procedures done. It included the names and phone numbers of all the medical team members, all the medications she was on with dosages and schedules. I had instructed my uncle and aunt that if my mom were taken to the emergency department and I was not there, the binder should go with her. It was as thorough a medical chart as any ED doctor could have until I could arrive to provide a full report, stay vigilant, ask questions, advocate.

That binder tells a story. It tells a story of someone who was willing to put up with a lot in order to live a while longer. While I consider it a roadmap of our journey, ultimately it was her journey. I had decided to hold on to that binder, perhaps as a way to hold on to her. But she was so much more than that, or any, diagnosis. So on the anniversary of her death, I purge the binder, too, as a symbol of her ultimate break with all the suffering of her last year.

It’s been interesting hearing from people who are on the outer margins of my life—people I see only occasionally. Some have been surprised that I haven’t completed a total renovation of my mom’s cottage in the last 12 months. Aside from the expense, I think they are pretty clueless about the process of removing evidence of a loved one—the clothes, the personal belongings. I’ve chosen to take my time. I do hope that this year I will start the process of making it my retreat, while still honoring the fact that it was her house for so long and a standing symbol of her independence and tenacity.

Being Present

As part of my own physical recovery, I took up some running—mostly at the behest of JJ. In my training for my first 5k, I would strain against the clock, making the periods of running a little longer each time. And throughout it I would be cursing that the end of the loop around Lake Merced seemed so far off. Where was the END?? As I was finally getting up to being able to run the entire 5 kilometers, it occurred to me to focus simply on where I WAS, at each moment, not on the end. It made a huge difference. And it was an epiphany for my life—a perfect lesson in presence.

As hackneyed as it sounds, I’ve had to plant my feet in place, and focus only on the immediate next step, rather than the entire journey. It can be overwhelming to look out at my life, the yawning gap that is the absence of my mom. So I just focus on where I am, at this moment, in this place. And as St. Theresa of Avila said, “May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.”

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