We don’t know sometimes when it’s a first or a last. I mean, we all know we are going to die. It’s our truest guarantee. But when it’s someone else who does the dying we are somehow less prepared for our reactions.

I thought I was dying one night not long ago. I’d woken up in my bed and my entire body felt light while my brain felt a sort of peace I’ve never experienced without drugs. My breathing felt shallow, but not urgent. Maybe I really was dying and my softly thought desires to keep living were answered with continued breath and heart beat. I’ll never really know I guess.

The surprising peace I felt, even as I thought to myself the question, “am I dying” was the strangest part. I can only hope that’s what everyone actually feels – if anything at all. Generally, I can’t bear to imagine the pain or loneliness that some people experience at death.

Until the death of my mother, the closest I’d sat to death was with my grandfather. After many years of cancer, our family came together for his final days. He was never alone at the end and he was in his home. I like that. No hospital smell. No rules.

My mother’s death still stabs me if I allow myself to think about it. The sitting up and swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, the attempt to stand, the fall. Of course, I don’t actually know if that’s what happened. I know she had been lying in her bed upstairs taking a nap. She probably had her teddy bear, Holly, in her arms and her CPAP mask covering her face. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe it’s worse because I don’t know what happened or exactly when. Was she already down when my stepdad got home? While we were joking on the phone while he cooked dinner and we assumed she was just napping because that was the routine? It was just supposed to be another Friday.

My mood wasn’t great that day. I felt discouraged about finding a job, my weight and my finances. Still, I pushed myself out the door that afternoon and to the gym where I walked on the treadmill and listened to Coldplay sing “Paradise” on repeat.

This could be para-para-paradise.

On my way home from the gym my phone rang. It was a request for a second interview for the job I wanted most of all for which I’d applied. The job I’d told my mom and stepdad about earlier that week. The first thing I wanted to do was call my mom and tell her. I parked at the grocery store and dialed. No answer. Well, that wasn’t too unusual for the time of day. I left a message and decided I’d call back in a bit. She would be so excited and her excitement would make me feel proud and excited too.

I went home and ate dinner and called back. This time my step dad picked up and we talked for a bit. When we hung up I was feeling better about the day so I grabbed my Ben & Jerry’s and fired up Project Runway and dove in.

When the phone rang later I assumed it was my mom calling me back. I heard Bob’s voice on the line. “Your mom’s passed.” My first thought was “this is a joke. He’s going to say she’s passed gas and I am going to hear her giggle in the background and he’s going to hand the phone over.” I asked him to repeat himself. You mean…dead? I just remember making him to say it more than once. Ugh. Excruciatingly repeating the phrase. I fell to the floor of my kitchen and cried. Well, not so much fell as crumbled.

The emotion sort of consumed me the way the shock of a broken bone consumes you. When I broke my toe a few years earlier it was like a jolt of electricity ran from my foot to the top of my head. Nothing in my brain could focus and all I could do was fall backward on the couch and breathe. It feels sort of weird to compare the shock of finding out my mother was dead to striking my pinky toe on an ottoman and breaking it. But I suppose shock is shock when it goes down to pure science.

“Should I drive to the house?”

“No. Don’t come.”

Between bits of crying I set about calling family. I watched John Denver (her favorite) clips on YouTube. I cried some more. I went to sleep. The day ended.

She ran away in her sleep

And dreamed of

Para-para-paradise, Para-para-paradise, Para-para-paradise

The story can’t change and I hate it. I hate that I can remember that day. Messages I left that she never received.

Earlier tonight I found a piece of paper on which I’d written my feelings and drawn a picture. “I just want to scream: MY MOM IS DEAD!” The picture is of a person with crazy all around her head. I remember sitting in those first few months after repeating that phrase to myself. “My mom is dead.” In bathroom stalls. Blankly into my computer at work (I got that job.) Sitting on my couch at night.

Her funeral still upsets me. Not the actual service, of which I remember almost nothing except being stoic and pushing down the emotions while I delivered the eulogy. I remember picking my dad up at his hotel that morning and being confused about where it was, though I thought I knew exactly where it was and being worried about being late. Being flustered and upset and trying to suppress that too.

We only had so much time with her body at the funeral home before the ceremonial casket was closed and moved to the church for the service. I felt uncomfortable looking on the body that had been my mother because it didn’t feel like her. It didn’t look like her. It looked like a wax toad version of her. I hate thinking about that and prefer to remember her body in life.

The part that upsets me is not speaking up for my dad. He sat down in the pew directly behind me and then an older man came up and said that it was his seat. My dad obliged and sat off to the side – alone. I can’t change it and I hate it. I hate that I didn’t tell that distant relative man that my dad could sit wherever the fuck he wanted because it was more important for him to be there than the old guy. Didn’t that old guy know who I was? And why the fuck was he sitting in the second row pew anyway?! I’m still angry at myself and that entitled old man. I can’t forget the way my dad looked. I wanted him by me and I wanted him to know he mattered. His presence mattered to me, to my brother, my family and to my mom. It’s one of the shitty things I carry with me.

I’ve written about this before. I guess no matter how many times I write it down it still feels the same and never changes. It happened. On January 13, 2012 my mom, Eileen Smith, aged 56, had a heart attack and died in her home in Kansas City, Missouri.

Now I wear the mark of some of her final words on my right forearm.
“Hi Sweetie. […] I’m proud of you. Every day of my life.” Several days later, she was gone.