secondary drowning: on losing
My mother never got to see me turn thirty. In 2011, I remember thinking, in the weeks leading up to my best friend’s wedding, that my mom would never get to see me get married – if I ever got married. In an odd way, I was really grateful to Kim for getting married when she did (not that I had any bearing on it), because my mom considered Kim to be like a daughter to her. It meant the world to her, to be there.
But since my mom died, there’s a long, growing list of things she’ll never see. I never meant to start counting them, but at some point, I began. And once begun, those thoughts often volunteer themselves within invitation or provocation.
These realizations appear out of nowhere, more often than not. And I can’t help but think it’s a lot like secondary drowning. You think everything’s fine, and that the danger’s somehow passed. Until you aren’t, until it’s most certainly not. Until you’re crying over something seemingly inconsequential at the most inopportune moment. (I just spent five minutes crying, leaving the tissues across the room. Because somehow, I thought it they were farther away, I’d feel better soon. Proximity has absolutely nothing to do with grief.)
Occasionally, when someone significant happens, I imagine what my mother would say. I can almost hear her voice, see the expression on her face. It’s a patchwork comfort. Sometimes, it helps. Sometimes, not so much. But you do what you can with what you’re got, right?
This year, for a heap of tangible reasons, this holiday season has been more difficult. The sense of loss and absence is more pronounced, more profound. There are days where I’m absolutely fine and the farthest thing from maudlin you can imagine. But last night and today? Not so much. Yesterday, I’ve been on edge in a way that leaves me absolutely fumbling for an antidote. And today, I’ve been trying to pin down what’s different between this year and the two before it. Was there some kind of trigger or switch that accidentally got flipped? Was it something someone said that derailed whatever track my emotional train’s been on?
A little while ago, I realized what’s different. It’s so blindingly obvious that I could almost kick myself for being so out of touch with my own feelings. The honest truth is that I’ve never been good with change. There was a time I’d fight against it wholeheartedly. Now, I’ve learned to accept it with more grace. Because change is necessary. It’s a constant in life. And if you can’t deal with it, your rigidity ends up affecting you in horrid ways. I’ve seen it happen. It’s far from pretty. It’s a ugly kind of prison, fashioned from fear. But that’s another tale for another time.
In the past few months, myriad things have changed. Big things. Back and forth, here and then, and all back again. I’m not going to get into the details. They’re not for public consumption. But those changes have hurt like hell. They have caught me at my weakest, most vulnerable. And there’s really no defense in my arsenal, right now, for things like that. So, there’s a chance that I’m not the best version of me, at the moment. I hate that.
I also know that when I get like this, I tend to disappear a bit. Pull back. Hide. Whatever. Because I’m the person who helps other people, not the one who needs help.
The thing is that my mom’s absence also tends to highlight other absences in my life. To wit, someone I would also reach out to – someone I trust with my life – has been decidedly, curiously absent for months now. By choice. The decision was, I have to assume, deliberate. Again, the details don’t matter. The heart of the matter, though, does. That person who I relied on (and really, I don’t rely on a lot of people) is very much…not here. Reaching out is basically impossible, and the notion might hurt slightly more than the reality. Because I know loss down to my bones, but a purposeful absence is something more sinister. It conjures up all kinds of ghosts, not to mention old doubts.
But I digress. The point is that the person is not here. And I’ve lost that avenue, that solace. That might be that biggest turning point for me this year. It was unexpected. But the impact is deep. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not reducing that person to a human crutch. I’m trying to illustrate the compound nature of missing. It’s harder to deal with one loss, while grappling with another.
Shortly before she died, my mom told me that she was worried about me. That something would happen to hurt me, and that she wouldn’t be here to (as she phrased it) put me back together. Because if there was one thing she was good at, it was a) knowing when something was wrong, b) talking it out, and c) figuring out how to handle it. Not necessarily fixing it, but patching whatever it was with duct tape. Sometimes, duct tape is the best we can manage.
Am I broken? No. Am I okay? Not exactly. Do I wish she was here? You bet your ass that I do. But if there’s one thing she taught me, it’s that you cannot rely on other people to fix your problems. And that, occasionally, there isn’t a solution. There’s just the way things are. And you deal with it.
Tomorrow, darlings, will be better. This I know. Because, even for a lapsed Catholic and a terrible heathen, I sure have a hell of a lot of faith. Just not the kind that comes with communion wafters and zombie jesus. I’ll gladly take the wine, though.