Survivor’s Guilt

September 30, 2009

So I am up late watching TV because I can’t sleep the other night, and I find “Bright Lights, Big City” on one of the cable channels. The movie is a remake of a book that I’d read by Jay McInerny. It’s about a guy who spirals down into some dysfunctional behavior over the loss of his mother to cancer. Why I choose to watch this movie over going back to bed and trying to get some sleep, I don’t know.

Even though the main character is played by a 1980’s Michael J. Fox…the guy is not likable at all. Except there is one scene – that is particularly engaging. It’s when Michael J. Fox spends a night sitting next to his mother, sharing his life with her as they both absorb the importance of what may be one of their final memories together.

Although I spent many hours with my mother in the weeks before she died, we never had the long talks at her bedside like you see in the movies. Before the disease started to take away her speech, it was very rare that either my mom or I would talk about death. For me, at least, the topic was off limits – it was defeatist.

When some people find out that their time may be cut short, they take off on Hemingway-style adventures. Mom’s preference was to dedicate herself to her work and to spend as much time as she could with her family. It was as if all she wanted for the rest of her life was for things to stay the same. And that’s how it would be.

So now that all I have left is time to stay up late watching bad TV, it’s hard not to think about all of the things that are going on in my life, in all of our lives, without her.

On one of the rare occasions that mom showed me any of her tears, I could only try to comfort her and say “don’t worry, the therapy will work – it’s always worked”. Perhaps that had been my moment to have a different kind of conversation with her. It didn’t happen, and I can’t remember her ever crying in front of me again.

She’s been gone for a while now, and I am learning how to pass by a display of fresh calla lilies without feeling like someone just punched me in the stomach. But I am wondering what her final wish may have been. What it would have been…if we’d had that conversation.


4 Responses to “Survivor’s Guilt”

  1. Margarita Says:

    Words are often misinterpreted, relayed incorrectly, recalled differently as time goes by. Chole relayed her feelings through her actions and the memories she intentionally left us. There is no doubt she did not want to have a conversation of words.

  2. Linda Haymond Says:

    Dear Howards,
    I believe the “soon to depart” makes that conversation happen if they need it. What we see in films is Hollywood. You and other family members as well as loving friends were tuned into Chole’s needs on a deep and caring level, and she knew it. Chole was the most direct, cut to the chase person I ever knew. She lived her life saying all along everything she needed to say, and you know that, too! Two years ago I had an ovarian cancer scare. Before the ultrasound results came back, thankfully negative, I shared only with my south american daughter Maria, my greatest fear. That fear was to have to watch my daughters grieve my pending absence from their lives. The rest I could handle. Maybe Chole felt the same way.
    With gratitude for the opportunity to stay connected,

  3. Lydia Avina Drayer Says:

    Silly boys. Chole was constantly having that discussion with both of you, with all of us. Howard Lee, she had you buying more jewelry than any mortal could possibly wear in a lifetime. That started around the same time as the battle with cancer, no? It was to give comfort you by giving to her and so that you could ultimately go through the theraputic bonding exercise of giving those gifts again to her/your loved ones. Howard Joseph, if I had to listen to her heap praise on your head over J. Jill, green tea ceremony, Dallas outings, etc., I would have needed some of her anti-nausea medication myself. Your mom was so exceptionally gifted at LIVING that she didn’t have time to focus on dying. Howard Lee, stop wondering how to handle “the time”. Chole gave us all the perfect how-to example. If any of us screw it up, she’s going to give us the look, so be warned.

  4. Howard
    All I can say is that I looked for the same moment with Chole and never had that conversation either. And I tried on several occasions. It is interesting now that I think about it, I tried for that moment with my father as well. I asked both of them if they wanted me to help them write some letters or make a tape or video and both shunned the idea. I asked if they wanted to talk about the situation at hand and they would say not now. What you read about in the Hospice literature did not happen – the sharing of life’s most difficult passage. For Chole it was a path she decided to travel alone. And I begin to wonder how I will handle the time when it comes for me.
    Death and the aftermath is not like the movies for sure.

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