To my editor Carol Taylor, thank you for helping me tell my story. I would also like to thank Jerry, Lisa, and Jillian for your words of encouragement.
Song: Fix You – Coldplay
Fix You is dedicated to my mother, for giving me the strength to write this book
and the courage to make peace with my past.
1 – Denial
2 – Near Death Experiences
3 – Bruises
4 – Death Becomes Her
5 – House of Darkness
6 – The Funeral
7 – The Perfect House
8 – Dirty Jersey
9 – Facing the Music
10 – Rose Colored Glasses
11 – Mud
12 – Becoming a Grown-up
13 – Making Peace
14 – A Year Wiser
15 – Prince Charming
16- The Fall
17 – Cobwebs
18- Every Show Must Come to an End
19 – Catch Me
20 – Little Boxes
To my greatest friend Stacy, the sister I never had; and my two amazing brothers, Michael and Jimmy who have shaped me and who’ve forever imprinted my heart. I am not afraid of what the next day will bring, because I know I’m safe with you in my life. I didn’t have the answers five years ago when I decided to write this book, all I knew was that I had a story to tell. This book has led me where I needed to go, allowing me to make peace with my past, to love my present and to make positive changes for the future. I hope you will learn from my story.
How do we come to terms with the decisions we’ve made in our lives, decisions in our career, friendships, and relationships? I’m the kind of person who is always searching for answers. But what if the answers aren’t there when you need them? When we’re “in it,” in that specific moment, weird place, your present, you are “in it.”
You must first leave that chapter in life in order to make sense of it. I get frustrated sometimes because there are no answers yet, but I’ve learned to be patient, and experience the wild turns, surprises, and everyday emotions, until one day something clicks, and you see why it happened all along; the unraveling of your life.
My mother died from cancer. To this day, I still rub my shins if I get a bruise for fear it may turn into a cancerous tumor; it’s always in the back of my mind. Am I destined to become my mother? It’s my deepest fear. She was deserted by her husband, and defeated by her worst enemy, cancer. Her last words “I was an idiot,” left more questions than answers. Every ache, bruise, and pain I feel, I now associate with death.
I could die tomorrow, this I know. So my instinct is to run. I run, and I run, to try and escape these thoughts, but I realize there’s nowhere to go. There are songs that have guided me through the most difficult times; “Fix You” by Coldplay is one of them. It represents a crucial turning point in my life, the act of fixing. How do you fix someone who is broken inside or better yet, how do you fix yourself? When I started writing this book I thought the story was about my mother dying, but what I realize now is that it’s about the girl she left behind.
My mother’s story was never told. She never had the chance. Pictures and stories are all we have left, unveiling themselves like little wrapped gifts from a forgotten time. I watched a black and white video of my mother’s wedding the other day. She came running out of the church with a big smile on her face. A glimpse into her life…a photo of her engagement party, her happiness before it all changed. I know I will never fully understand my mother, but I still have to try. This story is my chance. I write it not only for me, but for my mother as well.
I wake from a deep restful sleep, stretching both arms out in front of me. The crisp autumn air has finally settled in. It’s the season I looked forward to most every year as a little girl growing up in northern New Jersey. How I loved the pumpkin picking, the bumpy hayrides, and the taste of homemade apple butter sold at the local fall festivals. I have fond memories of playing in the large pile of leaves in the front yard of my home wearing the old, hooded navy blue sweatshirt that was handed down to me. I remember the smell of the morning dew enveloping each leaf as I grab a massive armful, tossing them around playfully. My two older brothers and I would take turns throwing ourselves into the fluffy, neat pile my father had just raked. We’d carelessly scatter them around, giggling without a care in the world.
It is 2002, on the first cool day of the year in Virginia. The brisk air seeps in through the windows. The once summery green leaves are mixed with golden yellows, ochre browns, cherry reds, and burnt orange, my favorite colors. I’d slept like a baby feeling amazingly refreshed as I lay in bed, a warm smile on my face. That’s when I then notice that the alarm didn’t go off. I glance at the time, it says 10:30 am. I try to remember what day it is. Is it a workday? I take another look at the clock. Did I oversleep? I mentally retrace my steps from the night before. I set my alarm and I collapsed onto my bed exhausted. It was right after I got back from the Weidermier’s…
I was having dinner with my boyfriend David and his parents, Ronnie and Grace. David wore the baby blue polo I bought him that matched his eyes. The sleeves hugged his muscles when he bent his arms. He’d just gotten home from work and his father handed him a beer.
“Son, did you get any new accounts for us today?”
David’s thick dark hair is neatly parted to the side. He stands tall and confident. “I think I closed the deal on one of them. I have to follow-up again tomorrow.”
“Good job son.” Ronnie says, patting him on the back.
David nods, then walks with his father out onto the porch while his mother and I make small talk in the kitchen. She’s preparing one of her delicious and healthy meals. Her kitchen is welcoming like her smile. The red walls are a rich statement against the deep mahogany cabinets. I can see my reflection in the sleek black island cook top.
I’ve sat here many nights sipping a glass of red wine, watching her prepare dinner. Her tidy kitchen is blessed with ivory Corian countertops, while the southern decor of rooster ceramics and spider plants dance along the windowsill. She loves her plants and trees in their clay pots, strategically placed around her home. As I drink, she waters each of them while maintaining our conversation. The house sits on a lake and is custom designed with private balconies and an outdoor deck that overlooks the pool and the gracious landscaping. Grace spends endless hours planting her homegrown gardens with bird feeders and flowers that emulate the warm colors of her home.
The weekends usually consist of David’s father taking us on their pontoon boat for a late night cruise. The front headlights guiding us through the fog reflect the mist that sits just above the water. Under the parasol of trees, the sounds of frogs and crickets become the background to our laughter. An after dinner cocktail rests in everyone’s hand as Ronnie amuses us with stories of David’s childhood. I proudly look over at him, at my hand lying casually across his shoulder.
Their house is the home I never had growing up, the one I always wanted. I marvel as I watch Grace selflessly prepare a meal for her family after working a full day and then running to the gym. She is the perfect housewife; a sweet, gracious homemaker who somehow manages to maintain her petite, toned physique and her perfectly styled blonde hair. Grace has that special ability to make you feel special, and to cater to your every need while staying calm and put together. She took an immediate liking to me when David first brought me home. I liked Grace right away. I felt privileged to be a guest in her warm and inviting home.
I glance back at the clock again, 10:45. It’s slowly beginning to set in; I’m late for work. I’m supposed to be at work at 9:00. I don’t know why I’m not jumping out of bed, running to the bathroom, and throwing on some clothes. Instead I break into laughter. I look down at the sheets and notice my cell phone. It’s turned off. I never turn off my cell phone. This is why I didn’t hear the alarm and why I’m late for work. Then I pause, noticing the silence in my apartment, the hazy light from the sun peaking through the blinds. All of a sudden, I begin to connect the dots looking back at my alarm clock. An ironic sequence of events allowed me to completely and utterly sleep in. My gut, my intuition speaks loudly putting it all together for me: the pain and suffering, I don’t feel it anymore. That can only mean one thing – my mother is gone.
I sit up and stare at the white walls, preparing myself for what could be waiting for me when I turn on my phone. I’m apprehensive as I press the button and cautiously put it to my ear. I hear the familiar recording from my voicemail. You have thirteen new messages. I already know what they’re about. I bite my lip in anticipation of the first message.
“Amy, it’s Jimmy…call us back as soon as you get this.”
Jimmy is my closest sibling; at 32 he’s four years older than me, and the only one in my family with blonde hair. “He takes after my side,” my mother would boast, but my mother had straight long brown hair. Jimmy’s an actor, and usually very dramatic, but today he’s over the top. Living four hours away from him in Fairfax, Virginia, I miss him dearly.
“Aim, we’re trying to get a hold of you…call us back.” He finishes dramatically.
I’m the baby of the family and my personality is right between my two brothers—the outlandish Jimmy and the conservative Michael. I listen to the next message:
“Hello?” it’s Jimmy again. He sounds confused almost reluctant to speak. “We don’t know where you are but…” He pauses. “Mom died tonight. We just got the call from the hospital.”
I swallow hard looking at the clock one last time. I don’t actually know how to comprehend the words “mom died,” but a deep sense of relief washes over me and brings with it a strange feeling of peace. Mom’s death feels like the end of an era, and it is. It is the end of the reign of an incredibly angry woman who controlled and manipulated each member of my family, and of our lives, in completely different ways and with completely different results. It’s an abrupt conclusion to a drawn out and bitter end. I come back to the present as the barrage of messages continues.
“Amy? It’s Dad… give a call when you get a chance.”
It’s the first time I’ve heard from him in over two months. I slam my phone shut, and swing my legs to the side of my bed. I lift my right leg and stare at my knee.
I think back to the countless hours sitting in the hospice unit in Wayne, New Jersey. She was at Wayne General Hospital in the wing where the terminally ill waited to die. There was a sitting area just past her room with a mini-kitchen, a table, and a waiting area. Alongside the sofa was a wooden end table with pamphlets on, How To Cope With Death fanned out. The walls were painted a rosy upbeat pink, vibrant and cheerful to counteract the lingering reminder of death.
The patients each hung on for life, managing their pain with daily meds on a morphine drip. An odd groan would occasionally come out of the room adjacent to my mom’s. An elderly man lay weak and incoherent, his gaunt face and debilitated body seemingly stuck in place.
The objective was to medicate the patients so they were comfortable, continually feeding them the drugs they require, aiding them through the dying process. Up until then, I didn’t even know there was a dying process…the slow passing that was only in God’s hands. Waiting for my mother to die became torturous, as I’d pace back and forth outside her room. Every few hours I’d signal the nurse quietly and whisper, “how much longer do you think she has?”
I don’t know how many times my brothers and I asked that question. We wanted an answer; anything that might make being there more manageable, as if predicting death would lessen the burden of a 54-year-old woman dying from colon cancer. The nice nurse with the blonde ponytail would look at me with sympathy.
“Everyone is different…it could be months, it could be weeks, it could be days,” she’d shrug her shoulders then move to another patient’s room with their pills. Walking into the waiting room I found Jimmy and Mike laughing.
“How can you guys be laughing at a time like this?”
Jimmy looks at me, “Amy what do you want us to do? Cry? You have no idea the shit we’ve gone through in the last couple of months with her while you were off in Virginia living the good life.”
My eyes begin to tear. “That’s not fair.”
“What? It’s the fucking truth!”
“Jimmy, that’s enough.” Michael holds up his hand silencing him. “What happened? Did you hear anything?”
“No. I asked the nurses and they said they didn’t know anything.”
Jimmy crosses his arms.
“I don’t think Mom has much longer Amy.”
These are the words in my head as I leave New Jersey and head back to Virginia.
I commute back and forth to Northern Virginia as often as I can. The weeks turned into months before I attempted another visit. On the days I actually make it to Jersey, I’d sit in the hospice unit and time would seem to stop while I waited for my mother to die. Other days I’d lose it, grasping the truth, crying to David, “this is the end of her life!” I’d sob, burying my head in his Polo shirt while he sits there speechless. I hoped she could hear my cries, to understand what she was doing to me, to us, but she just lay there in a drug-induced coma, sleeping the remainder of her life away.
In other hospital units there is hope, a possibility of patients surviving, healing and living, but in the hospice unit, those possibilities do not exist. You’re simply waiting for your loved one to die. So I’d cope with the circumstances, and sit there, watching her sleep. But the hardest part of all, is knowing that she is responsible.
I wish I could tell you that my mother and I were close, that we spent every last moment together before she died; that we were the best of friends, but that wouldn’t be the truth. The truth is that my mother and I were estranged for the last year of her life.
As I sit in the hospital room watching my mother die I know that I can’t mend our relationship. I know that I can’t change the past and I can never fix her. All I can do now is hope for a miracle, for some type of forgiveness from her as I try to put myself in my mother’s place. I wonder what it must feel like, to know that you’re dying and that and it might all be your fault.
Denial is the first stage of death. No matter how hard you try to believe it’s really happening, you can’t. You want to project forward; forcing yourself to feel something more…understanding what death feels like so you can gain an appreciation for the loss of something. In this phase however, you know nothing. You’re in the dark.
Denial is a powerful thing. It not only tricks your brain into thinking something really didn’t happen, but it can actually change your thinking, even alter your reality. You can feel the truth in your heart; yet you willingly choose to look the other way. So, I tell myself that she’ll never really be gone because she’s a part of me, or shall I say, I am a part of her. But what hurts the most is the thought that she did this to herself. That she’d not only give up on life, but is the reason why she now lay in front of me dying. Part of me blames myself. I didn’t believe her when she wrote me all those letters. Instead I turned away and ran in the opposite direction. And now, I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself.
I am fixated on her pale face, as she sleeps on the bed across from me, wondering how my mother and I got to this place. It all seems a blur as I flashback to what seemed at the time to be irreconcilable differences, during an important year for me, the year I graduated from college, and got a job so I could escape her for good. But, here I sit, at the foot of her bed watching her die. A tear slips down my face. I’ve become witness to our tragic act, the last words she wrote to me still pierce my heart: You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.
Now I’m consumed by guilt, for the part I played in our drama. I was forever running away. Now, I wonder if I’m to blame for her death. The more I try to place my finger on exactly what happened between us, the more I find myself digging deeper into our past, looking at each moment, each memory, trying to figure out where it all began…