Growing up, I always feared I would lose my mother, a stubborn German who loved hard and disliked herself even harder. Some days, in the years following her death, I blamed myself, thinking my fears materialized and led to losing her. I spent 20 years witnessing her self destruct, and eventually that became the norm; I simply accepted the inevitability of things, losing her emotionally long before she died. As I got older I began to ask myself, could I have tried harder? I would find old photos of her where she stared into the lens, and tried to make eye contact with the past in an attempt to understand what year the light escaped her and addiction stepped in with a futile flame. I searched for her pain before me – for validation that I didn’t cause her to lose hope in herself.
Even when the doctors told me she wasn’t going to survive, I still managed to hold onto a shred of hope that she would rise out of bed and demand to go home. Her personality was never one for weakness, and part of me refused to believe in the reality that surrounded us in the hospital.
“Please stay with me tonight, just in case.” It was the first time she reached out to me for help. Where her usual response to my pleas against her drinking was, “You’re not the parent,” now lay a woman at the end of her road, now admitting fear, now asking for humanity. I wasn’t allowed to stay due to visitation restrictions. That night, she fell into a coma, and the last words from me to her became, “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
I questioned religion, and God, and what I could have possibly done in a past life to deserve what I went through those two weeks. Anger held control over me as I sat beside her and wrote her eulogy, hissing oxygen provided white noise which eventually calmed me into sleep. I dreamed empty dreams, and woke up once again to a nightmare. She was gone before she stopped breathing, and I struggled to understand anything. I couldn’t understand the suffering, or what led her to make the choices she did. It was a perfect storm of bad decisions, and life itself was blind to my needs. It didn’t care that I was in my second week of my senior year of college. It didn’t care that I wanted her to pull through. It didn’t care how much I prayed, or that my last words to her were, “I can’t.” I wanted to make it up to her; I prayed to make amends.
Eventually, I accepted that holding onto anger would not bring my mother back. I watched her next to me, and relinquished my control. I realized in that late hour, that it didn’t matter what steps were taken to get my family to where it was, or what my future was to become. What only mattered was that I was there with her, riding a wave that came up on me, and it was going to keep rolling whether or not I went with it. I decided to go with it – I decided to be present.
Early on the morning of her passing, as I half-slept in the bed beside her, my phone rang to my childhood friend in breathy urgency, asking how I was. She told me she walked out of class, because she needed to check in, and apologized for not calling sooner. “It’s alright, I understand.” It honestly never occured to me that she didn’t call, but it meant the world to me that she did. She asked how I was feeling, and then asked about my mother. I rolled over and observed her quietly, a late September sun washed over her face. In that moment – in peaceful silence – I watched my mother take her final two breaths. “Are you there?” I forgot I was still on the phone. “I have to call you back,” I whispered as if to not stir my mother, “I think my mom just died.” We remained alone for a moment as I stared over her, waiting for another breath – hoping for her to fight – but the fight was over. In those few minutes I questioned religion again, questioned God, questioned why this was happening to me. Then I realized, I stayed with her, just in case. During a time in my life where I felt I should have had a plan, life, rather, had a plan for me.
Text © Kaitlin Oster
By Kaitlin Oster