Losing My Parents, Losing My Voice
I've been trying to start a blog for a couple months now. In theory, this should be no big deal. I used to have one, for six years. And I'm a natural-born oversharer. I've brazenly talked about my failures as a wife and as a single parent on morning TV. My Facebook status updates have been a detailed record of life's minutiae, from the delight of freshly highlighted hair to the irritation of traffic jams. And once a month in the editor's letter of the magazine I ran for six years, I'd craft a simple piece, whether about my promises not to overschedule and overanticipate for the holidays or about my sense of loss for having had only one child, that would resonate with the 10 million women who might read it.
And then I wrote 100,000 intensely personal words about my divorce -- a from-the-kitchen-floor view of the two years I spent lying down crying, trying to put my life back together when my husband said he was done with me -- for a book that I launched into the universe this March with much fanfare and many intimate interviews (including with BlogHer's Lisa Stone, on video!). New York Times, AOL home page, a 7-minute Today Show segment -- I was everywhere, sharing stories I thought people would connect to, trying to untangle hard truths about the mystery of what we get in life.
And then all of a sudden I wasn't everywhere. Everything went blank, all at once. Because my parents started to die. Suddenly, and scarily.
It's still challenging to describe what happened, but the shortest way to tell the story is this: Mom goes into hospital in January, pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, followed by a major surgery she almost didn't survive, three emergency surgeries, and one month unconscious in the ICU. My father, at the hospital for eight hours every day, waiting for her to wake up, handed out a dozen early copies of my book to the nurses, insisting I sign them because he was so proud.
My mom comes home to complete her recovery; my father is her sole caretaker, and my mother still has an eight-inch open incision on her abdomen. She isn't doing well, not eating, not really waking up. My father urges me to come down on weekends and talk to her, to find out if she is giving up, if she is trying to die. (She is not, she whispers.) Then, unimaginably, three weeks later, my father disappears (exactly one week after the book he was so proud of came out), swallowed up by a freak infection that ruptures in his brain, taking him away from us but leaving his body behind; he would spend the eight weeks he had left in the hospital, in the same ICU unit my mother had been in, leaving my sick, scared mother at home alone.
Someone needed to figure out what to do, how to manage the care of both mom and dad, and prepare to help them die. And that someone, aided by my two brothers, was me.
As the crisis erupted, I had to bow out: from my job, from my blog, from promoting my book, from everything, so I could be in Philadelphia as much as possible, while trying to keep home in Brooklyn stable enough for my six-year-old son, who was terrified by what was happening. He asked me, "Why does life have to hurt so much -- and not the kind of hurt where I need a Band-Aid, but the kind of hurt that makes me want to cry?" I never came up with the right words to say to him, but I grabbed him in a huge bear hug and rocked him until I was less afraid.
As I announced my resignation and packed up my office, I was stunned by what many people said to me: "Sounds like you found your next book!"
I guess people meant it as a compliment of sorts, but I was horrified. The tragedy of what was happening to my parents, to my family, to my brothers and me, was not mere material.
Because my job was public, my resignation was, too. And so on the two satellite radio tours that had been scheduled before my father fell ill, I was asked about not only my divorce (which I'd had two years to live, two years to think about and two years to write), but my parents' illnesses and what lessons I was learning from it. I stumbled through the interviews, trying to find authentic, truthful things to say about this avalanche that was only just starting to slide down on top of me.
In these interviews, I was stunned to discover I had boundaries. That there are some things I just couldn't share. That I wanted to protect my parents, not damn them to their intractable cancer and brain damage on the soundwaves pouring into the cars of strangers across the country. I was humbled to realize that I was discovering, at the tender age of 41, that I actually had private parts, pieces of me meant for me alone.
This inward turning is so wholly the opposite of how I've walked through life that I was even more terrified. What if the me I knew was never coming back? And, of course, the truth is, that me will not be making a return engagement. I knew I would be forever changed by my parents' deaths. It's one of life's few before-and-afters.
Six weeks into the family emergency, I was still getting many, many emails from women who'd read my book and wanted to connect with me. I tried to respond. I tried to start up a blog to stoke the burgeoning community of women who were collecting on my book's website and telling their stories, asking for me to head up a group. I got my sign in and all the instructions for how to make my first post. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't give myself permission to live anything other than the all-consuming challenges that were making up my day-to-day.
I had to leave my mother, many times a week, to come back to Brooklyn and take care of my child, torn between two of the people who give my life its most profound shape and meaning. Many times my mother was angry, wanting me to live with her, "the way it should be," she'd say. But just as many times, she would be able to let me go, and say, "You're doing so much. Thank you." And I'd take her hand and kiss her face and say, "We are both doing the best we can. We are all doing the best we can. And that, in the end, is all we get to do."
And in the end, that was my only comfort. And so I let go of trying to find my voice.
My father passed away June 2, the day after I signed him into hospice care. The day of my father's memorial service was my mother's last truly lucid day. Some of her final, tearful words to me were, "What's happening to our family?" The truth is, we were pulling together as we were falling apart, my brothers and I in lockstep, paying our parents' bills, making impossible decisions with the doctors, realizing that the strength of our upbringing was being brought into bold relief, a bittersweet realization and blessing that has carried us through this season of sadness. I signed my mother into hospice care three days later -- a fox mother ridden with the mange greeted me at the top of my parents' driveway when I arrived that day, a poignant message from the universe -- and she died four weeks after my father died, six months after their 50th wedding anniversary.
My mom's memorial was two Sundays ago, August 1, and I pulled out all the stops, throwing a party in her style with a glass punch bowl, linen napkins and all the china and silver she'd collected over the years and loved so much. These tasks have been comforting, rituals that make it feel like my parents are still alive. I can't imagine the grief I'll feel when we sell off their things, sell off the house, and close up the geographic center of where my family lives. Lived.
Somewhere during these weeks, I got an email from BlogHer's Elisa Camahort Page, reminding me that I had agreed to be a judge of BlogHer '10's Voices of the Year. At first I was tempted to bow out, to remind her that I had no blog, no job, no platform, no purpose, and therefore no reason to be someone who could possibly judge other people's writing. But then curiosity got the best of me, and I clicked on the first link, read the beautiful post grappling with one of life's impossible moments and burst into tears. And then I read the next one, and the next one, until I was done, filled with the stories of all the different paths that we have to walk, some of them hard, some of them joyful, all of them eternally important.
There were so many hard events, so many big questions, even the simple little moments, being grappled with in those beautiful pieces of writing. I took a breath to the bottom of my lungs for the first time in months after I'd finished reading and appreciating them all. (What I was doing definitely didn't feel like "judging.")
I'll be attending the conference this year (my fourth BlogHer) without a blog, without a job, and with a lot of questions about who I am without my parents still swirling. I'm still not sure I have my voice back (though this post is my first attempt to find it), but I do know I am really looking forward to the party that is all about voices, a celebration of all the ways we find our words and share our stories, to solve and live and love life, both for ourselves and for others.
One thought that's kept occurring to me in this quiet, scary time is this: There are so few times in life when you hold yourself in your own hand, trembling, desperately wondering Who Am I, Really? And losing my parents is all about that. I thought for months that I might never have anything to write again, because the grief was blotting out everything except itself. There are still many days I feel completely flattened, feel that nothing in life will wake me up again, that the questions I've had to face have no answers, and that the terrible insecurity of it all is unsurvivable. Days that I believe I will never find the words to make it all make sense to myself, much less to others.
But on my good days, I can frame it differently, I can think about it like this: the only audience that matters right now is myself. And that my voice will be silenced until I am ready to speak, and not a moment sooner. Until then, I'll be blogless, head bowed. It seems a fitting way to honor my parents, the two people who are gone, the two people who absolutely, always wanted to know what I had to say.
Stacy Morrison is a writer, author (Falling Apart In One Piece, a memoir of divorce and acceptance) and magazine editor, who is currently, but temporarily, blogless, jobless, and most exciting of all, directionless.