Guest Blogs

Caution: Road Work Ahead, Part 3

In the wake of my father’s death, facing up to her loss, my mother needed me – obsessive, distracted me, in all my imperfect weirdness.

“We can’t, it’s not right…,” my 91-year-old mother wailed between sobs. I held her in my arms as this harsh rogue wave of grief rolled through her heart, splintering the careful defenses she’d built up stick by stick since my father died last March after the three years of his mental and physical deterioration that nearly killed her too.

Still sobbing against my chest, her wails began to transform in tone. “He was my love, my one true love,” Mom said, her words underpinned with the steel of moral certainty that steered our family through every crisis we faced when I was growing up. She looked up at me, her deceptively frail body still in my arms, her face soaked with tears. “It’s wrong,” she said, her voice ringing with that old unbending conviction. “We can’t throw your father away like this. I won’t do it.” Then her gorgeous compassionate face fell against my chest again, the courageous steel washed off its foundation by another ferocious wave of grief. Between sobs she choked out, “It’s wrong, everything’s all wrong.”

Standing in my mother’s bedroom, my mind should be in step with my heart and focused only on comforting her in her moment of need as she had done for me since the first time I skinned my knee. But my mind traveled, looking for reasons, for clues. This was happening in July only four months after my dad’s funeral, so her anguish and agitation made sense. Plus there was the wait for his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Our sympathetic Arlington rep told me, after the guns and ceremony and the honor guard had marched off to the next burial, that Dad actually had a pretty quick turnaround, considering the combined number of eligible military dead from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and ongoing wars converging on the National Cemetery these days. When the rep turned to my brother and mother to finalize details of the headstone, I closed my eyes and saw an impossibly long, dark train reaching across the country filled with families, each needing to tell the story of their loss, constantly rolling toward this sacred place and these kind people.

But we’re not focusing on national tragedy here; we’re focused on personal tragedy. Then again, as anyone with ADHD will tell you, understanding any event in a larger context often provides a deeper understanding. (Be patient, for heaven’s sake – we’re not daydreaming, we’re figuring stuff out on a bigger or smaller canvas, depending on, well, a lot of things.)

STOP AND FOCUS. The point in July was that there in my mother’s house in Delaware, where my wife, Margaret, 17-year-old daughter, Coco, and I had driven from Georgia, to, among other things, help my mom get back on her feet, it was only two months since my father’s burial. So now I was holding my mother in my arms and crying along with her because of course it was too early to move Dad’s clothes out and clear out his office. But no, I had to barge in with my obsessions with order and neatness that I’m convinced always makes anything better for anyone (or at least not so overwhelming that you slip into depression). Again, the point – I caused all this pain. For God’s sake, what kind of monster was I?

Anytime that question is heard inside my head, and it’s often, the whole stage lights up and ADHD, alcoholism, and hypomania all hit their answer buttons at once, all out-shouting each other with reasons and justifications. But my dyslexic ADHD daughter, Coco has many times reminded me of my words to her: ADHD, or any other unusual wiring in your brain, is part of who you are, but it is never an excuse for what you do. She’s doing it all with ADHD — pulling a 3.5 GPA. So, I thought, I should, too. And that meant that I had to own up to my actions and make amends, do whatever it takes to fix this.

But wait a minute. Just that morning my mom and I had waved goodbye to Margaret and Coco when they left for a few days at a summer camp with my brother’s wife and kids – Margaret subbing for my brother due to his back problem and so he could prepare for the surgery to fix it, but that’s another twisty road in this story that will just have to wait, because now I remember that as soon as the packed van had turned the corner at the end of the street, Mom had turned to me and said with that same steel steer-the-family-through-the-storm voice, “Let’s finish breakfast and get this closet thing done, shall we?”

Wearing a chore-ready sweatshirt and jeans, she hurried me through our yogurt and coffee. That done, she led me back to their bedroom, without a glance to Dad’s office, where a hospital bed had once been set up and he, my Mom’s one true love, had quietly died in the middle of a March night with my mother holding his hand.

In their, now her, bedroom she swung open the closet doors. “Thanks for agreeing to do this with me,” she said. “I need the space and it’s too ghostie like this anyway. Now, some of these shirts you or your brother might want, but most of this should go to Salvation Army.” Mom put the first load of Dad’s clothes in my arms, and that’s when the rogue wave hit, nearly drowning her in grief. I dropped the clothes and held her.

So these few minutes later, I realized that once again, it had nothing to do with me. My mother was grieving, yes, but also blaming herself for betraying her husband by still being alive — and by, after years of caregiving for him, just beginning to look after herself. That’s why I was here in all my obsessive, distracted weirdness. I was here to stuff and cart boxes, yes, but more to help her fight that blame and defeat. So, with whatever steel I inherited from her, my first task was to get my mother into a comfortable chair, so she could direct the obsessions with order and neatness that will help her begin to build the new life she needs to survive.