I Finally Let Go Of My Mom’s Stuff For Mother’s Day

My mother stood in front of her ornate china cabinet, crammed with crystal and glass and silver, and traced her tired, swollen fingers across a weathered bowl. “This is an antique,” she said, her once forceful voice barely audible. “Oh, and so is this one,” she stammered, clumsily reaching for a vase. “They’re valuable. You’ll have to remember that when I am gone.”

She looked at me, tears taking their familiar shape in the corners of her eyes. The end of her life was closing in on us at the rate of a high speed police chase. The fierce, unrelenting tumors were literally choking her intestines, making my foodie mom rely on a feeding tube for nourishment. I steadied myself, knowing if I didn’t remain stoic, we would collapse together in a puddle of pain.

“I will remember, Mom,” I managed.

The truth is, five excruciatingly long years after her death, I don’t remember.

I remember the concerned look on her face. I remember the fear in her eyes. I remember her too slender frame, ravaged by ovarian cancer. I remember my heart beating one million beats per minute, threatening to betray my cool exterior. But I don’t remember what she asked me to save, and that has paralyzed me.

Jodi Meltzer Darter

Since her death, I have clung to her stuff. Her frayed recipe cards, stained with the remnants of family dinners’ past;  her half-filled journals, all written in perfectly passé cursive; her enormous collection of animal figurines; her cherished birdwatching and gardening and butterfly books; her unsent letters; her tremendous stash of cookware, amassed from too many trips to Marshalls. All of it.

Her belongings, tucked away in the unseen and undisturbed bowels of her basement, gave me an awkward sense of comfort….until I decided I had to sell her house.

The process of unearthing her material marks on the world has been intimidating, grueling, and, at times, impossible. I have had to go through the emotionally taxing process of figuring out what to keep and what to toss. It has both made me giggle uncontrollably and brought me to my knees. There has been no in-between.

At times, I decided to keep it all. I would make the exclamation defiantly, daring anyone to question my decision to keep every last morsel of my mom (my oh-so-smart loved ones didn’t say a word). At other times, I asked my husband to sift through stuff, and put things aside that seemed important. Ultimately, it was a job I could only do myself.

It has been absolute hell.

I have been doing my best to pacify myself during this perfect storm of saying goodbye to her home, her belongings, and desperately missing her as Mother’s Day approaches.

I cope by remembering her love, her essence, and her legacy, which transcend her stuff. I constantly remind myself that she is not represented by crystal candlesticks, or old record albums, or dilapidated holiday décor. I know she would understand that I can no longer carry the weight of her possessions, and I can only hope she forgives me for forgetting about the ones she deemed most valuable.

Instead, I value her.

I remember her flawless joke-telling skills that I did not inherit.

I remember her belly laugh.

I remember how she would always stop her car to help a frog cross the road, even if she was running late.

I remember how she would give up her seat to a pregnant woman, even if she wasn’t feeling well herself.

I remember her staying up all night making homemade desserts for bake sales that supported all of my teams.

I remember how she taught me to approach people with both an open heart and an open mind.

I remember her creative genius.

I remember her unparalleled hugs.

I remember her loud singing in the car with the sunroof open at a stoplight.

I remember how she valued writing a card and mailing it the old-fashioned way.

I remember her Abba ringtone on her flip phone.

I remember what it was like to have her in my corner, enveloped by her unconditional love.

I remember how she persevered through endless rounds of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, and hundreds of doctors’ appointments, and managed to still be the caregiver.

I remember her signature matching outfits, her yellow gold jewelry collection that rivaled Mr. T’s, her colorful handbags.

I remember her voice.

I remember how she reached for my son’s hand before crossing the street.

I remember the delectable taste of her homemade eggplant parmesan.

I remember her stories, and how she shared them so effortlessly, so colorfully.

I remember what a counter hogger she was when we prepared Mother’s Day brunch every year.

I remember all of the lessons she instilled in me, and I pass them along to my kids.

I remember my beloved mom, not her stuff.

Today and every day, I remember her.

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The Difficult Conversation You Need To Have With Your Loved Ones

A little over two weeks ago, I signed the Do Not Resuscitate papers for my mom. I bawled as I did it. I was giving permission for the hospital to let her die. Letting go doesn’t get any more official than that.

It absolutely broke my heart to do that. Even though I knew that it was the right thing to do — even though I knew that’s what my mom wanted, it was almost unbearable.

So, I can’t imagine how hard it would be if I didn’t know her wishes. I can’t imagine the pain that would come from having to make that decision and wondering if it was the right decision. You either sign it and wonder if you shouldn’t have or don’t sign it and potentially cause further suffering.

That wasn’t the only difficult part of my mom dying, either. Once she was moved to hospice care, I had to make the decision to not place a feeding tube. She hadn’t eaten in two days and I had the choice to place a tube or let death run its course.

The only potential silver lining in my mom’s last day is that we had this difficult discussion just a few months prior. After leaving her first oncology appointment where she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic colon cancer, we sat down at O’Charleys and proceeded with the tear-filled conversation that her doctor instructed us to have.

“You need to go ahead and talk about your end of life wishes now, so that she doesn’t have the burden of wondering what you want in an already difficult time.”

End of life wishes. That was an eloquent way to say, how do you want to die? My mom and I talked about DNR. She told me that she had watched her sister fight cancer for over a year until she was barely 90 pounds and that she didn’t want that. She didn’t want to prolong the inevitable, and I’m so glad that she told me that, because that’s exactly the decision that I had to make.

At the point I signed the paper, my mom was mostly delirious. She was hallucinating and not making any sense when she talked. She was no longer capable of communicating that she was in pain. Her liver was shutting down. She wasn’t eating. She was dying. And I had the option to prolong her dying process or let it happen naturally.

For me, it was an obvious decision to make. It was still hard, but I never had a doubt in my mind about signing that DNR. I prayed for a miracle but I also knew that God’s definition of a miracle and mine were not currently aligned. My mom was dying and whether I allowed them to place a feeding tube or resuscitate her, she was still going to die. In my heart, I knew that.

Even though my mom and I had what we thought was a thorough conversation about it, there were a lot of things that we didn’t talk about, simply because we didn’t know. I knew my mom wanted to be resuscitated if she was otherwise healthy, and that she did not want to be if she was not. I knew that she had a will. But I never knew that I would have to decide on a feeding tube or fluids. I didn’t know where her will was located. I didn’t know her funeral wishes. Did she want to be buried or cremated? Where did she want to be buried, if she did?

So, I want to encourage you to have the conversation now. Talk to your parents, siblings, etc. now. I don’t care if they’re only 50 years old and in perfect health — so was my mom.

I know that it’s grim. I know that it’s depressing. I know that you don’t want to have the conversation, but you’ll be thankful that you did.

And it’s not just for your parents and loved ones, but for you. What do you want? Do your family members know?

Give them the blessing of knowing your wishes so that they have one less burden to carry while they’re grieving.

Call up your parents and say, hey, I just read an article on Facebook and want to ask you a few questions. And just get it over with.

Do it now so that when you’re already completely broken and overwhelmed, you don’t have to think or worry simultaneously. You’ll know what they want. You’ll have peace with your decisions and you can move on quickly from that aspect of their death.

A simple search of Advance Health Care Directives will give you an idea of what you need to ask/tell/think about. A great list is here on the Everplans website.

Death is inevitable. And it will be devastating regardless. But because I knew my mom’s wishes, I’m simply grieving her death. I’m not in anguish over any medical decisions that I made, because they weren’t mine to make. I knew what she wanted and while the cancer took her away before she was ready, I was able to give her the gift of, at least, controlling what those last days looked like.

Brooke Wilkerson

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Losing Your Parent Is Absolute Hell — But Here’s What I Learned

It’s been five weeks since my father passed, and I still have moments of disbelief. I ask myself, “Is this real? Can this really be real?” I suppose that’s to be expected since my father’s death was so unexpected. When I would consider the longevity of my dad’s life, I would envision him living well into his nineties, perhaps even outliving me or my sisters. His parents are still living. He has a family history of long life. So why, how is he not still with us?

My dad was only 64 years old. He was healthy. He took good care of himself: eating right, staying active and even walking outside on his lunch breaks at work. Several years ago, his doctor warned him that his blood sugar levels were in the “pre-diabetic range” and that his cholesterol was slightly elevated. This news sparked concern in him and caused a drastic change in the foods that he ate. He cut out all processed sugar and practically eliminated high-fat, high-cholesterol foods from his diet. He was sure to eat plenty of natural foods including fruits, veggies and herbal teas.

Those are the rules, right? Healthy eating + regular exercise = healthy heart and long life. He rarely drank and never smoked.  His wife, a loving nurse, saw to it that my father had regular check-ups and that blood levels were kept in normal range. By diet and exercise alone, my dad kept his cholesterol and sugar levels exactly where they needed to be.

My dad was so conscientious about his health and self-care. That’s why the day we found out that he fell from his bike, likely dead before hitting the ground, was such a shock to all of us. My dad was out doing what he loved, riding his bike on a beautiful, sunny Alabama day at Wheeler Wildlife Reservation Nature Trails — too far away for paramedics to reach him in a timely manner. Would it have even mattered if they had gotten to him sooner? He was out riding with his good buddy, something they often did together.

My dad, a lover of nature, so fascinated and curious about its beauty and wonder, spent much of his free time walking on trails, kayaking lakes and rivers, and riding his bike — exploring this beautiful world provided to us by God. With his level of activity, healthy diet and avoidance of smoking and alcohol, that leaves us wondering, how did this happen? How did my dad suddenly and unexpectedly drop dead from a heart attack? How? Why? I mean, if he took such good care of himself, and his heart betrayed him anyway, what’s the point, right? What’s the point of following all the rules, dieting, exercising, in hopes of preserving your life if your body can just give out any random day, without warning or notice?

Jennifer Anderson

The truth is, it is impossible to understand how or why. I will never understand. And life is fragile. It can be taken from us, extinguished, at any moment. None of us are promised anything when it comes to how long we will live. That is a fact that I thought I was very well aware of before; we aren’t guaranteed life, not for ourselves, not for our loved ones. No one is guaranteed that they will be alive tomorrow. I thought I understood that fact, but now that I am living that reality — and the brutal awareness of that truth — how I see the world, and my perspective on life, has changed.

We aren’t promised tomorrow so now is the time to decide what is most important. For me, when I am between moments of sadness, grief and shock — yes, still shock — I focus on what is important in my life: my husband, my children, my remaining family and friends. I go outside and look at the beauty. I listen to the sounds, feel the outside air, and thank God for His gifts. I force myself to be aware of the moment I am in, and just feel appreciation for all that I have.

Even though my dad’s efforts proved to be futile, I am still going to exercise and attempt to make mostly healthy food choices. I will follow the rules and hope for a long life. But since I can’t predict how long I will live, or guarantee that I will live to be 100, I am going to slow down, focus on the ones I love, pay attention to them, love them, and enjoy the beauty of the world around me. And I will love my dad, think of him often and dream about the day that I will be with him again. I love you, Dad. I will miss you every day for the rest of my life. Until we meet again.

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How Losing Both My Parents Affects My Parenting

Growing up, Grandparents Day was my least favorite day of the school year. On that day at my elementary school in DC, each child in the class’ grandparents would be invited to participate for some portion of the school day celebrations.

I never met any of my grandparents. Three of my grandparents passed before I was born and my paternal grandfather had a heart attack and died on a visit to meet me a couple weeks after my birth. So two of my Dad’s uncles would visit us from Pittsburgh and join my sister and me on Grandparents Day at school.

For the most part, we only saw those two older gentlemen on that day of the year. I barely knew them and they were the oldest people that I had spent time with. I remember staring at their faces, confused by the deep creases that comprised their wrinkles and some of the mysterious moles that covered one of my uncle’s face. It felt weird holding them out as our grandparents, but at a time when fitting in felt critical, I was thankful to not show up to school “grandparent-less.”

Throughout the day, I watched my friends stroll in with their grandparents who had accompanied them throughout their lives. “I wish I had grandparents,” I would sulk to myself and then daydream about being showered in gifts and attention by my imaginary grandparents.

As a mom to a two-year-old girl now, I reflect back on those Grandparents Days as my daughter will never meet her maternal grandparents. My mom died of ALS eight years ago and my dad passed away from cancer four years ago. Becoming a parent has initiated a new round of grieving for me. I mourn the loss of my parents as grandparents to my daughter.

I also mourn the loss of experiencing motherhood with my parents. The day that I found out I was pregnant felt anti-climatic because all I wanted to do was to pick up the phone and call my parents to share the news. I still long to tell my mom, who was a champion of strong women, that we named our daughter Fianna, which means “warrior” in Irish.

I try to imagine my Dad’s chin drop in awe after watching Fianna speak as many words in Spanish as she does in English, thanks to her childcare in Oakland, California. I was notorious in our house for my daredevil antics as a small child. I often would flip onto chairs when I wanted to sit down. I daydream now about calling my parents and explaining how I barely made it to the top of the cement staircase near our house before Fianna lunged herself forward. I can almost hear my dad’s kind support which would cover up the secret grin that he would enjoy for himself.

Rather than Grandparent’s Day at school, I now watch in envy as my friends’ parents goggle over their grandchildren verbally, while their faces ooze with love.

Before my parents’ died, I had no exposure to death and no understanding of mental health issues generally. After they passed, I felt ill-equipped emotionally to cope with the trauma that I experienced through being a caretaker and the aftermath of their parting. I managed my grief by pushing it down and ignoring it as it manifested in other traits — anxiety, sleepless nights and incessant worry. Socially, there was pressure to “move on” and minimal space to discuss the continued pain. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my grief and of how it changed me. So I did my best to keep it all within me.

This new wave of grief that I experienced as a parent scared me. Once Fianna came into my life, the fear that my grief would guide my parenting or negatively affect her in any way overwhelmed me. I had accepted the imprint my grief holds on my life, but it made me feel like a bad mom to think about it negatively affecting her. My grief felt like my achilles’ heel in parenting — a fear which propelled me back into therapy, into writing and rethinking how I live my life.

During a recent visit to my sister Sarah’s house, I stumbled upon a first grader’s drawing of a skull with “Grandpa Jack” written at the top. The drawing was by my nephew, Grady, who is in first grade at a Spanish/English bilingual public school that had recently celebrated Dia de los Muertos. Grady met my dad briefly and was around two when he passed away. He never met my mom.

For a brief moment, it took my breath away to see my dad’s name on his homework assignment and filled me with that old familiar frustration. “Why aren’t my parents here?” Sarah shared that many of the kids in Grady’s class did not have a close family member who had passed, while my nephew brought in pictures and drawings of my parents. The activity ignited a conversation and Grady asked Sarah lots of questions about Granny Sarah and Grandpa Jack, including how they died.

The absence of my parents will always be felt in our house, but I too will try to bring my parents to life through stories.  Fianna will know how Grandpa Jack grew up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania, skipped two grades, started his own company and drove me crazy when he told me to “slow down.” Fianna will know that Granny Sarah was an anomaly in her generation as a female attorney working in Russia, that she drove without a license for many years and demonstrated a level of impatience when waiting in any line that is comparable to (or worse than) most toddlers.

But more importantly, death, grief and the potential implications on mental health will not be conversations to shy away from in our house. When Fianna is old enough, I will vulnerably share my experience as a caretaker to a parent with ALS and cancer with her, and the subsequent grief and trauma that subsumed me in the aftermath. I will try to teach her the importance of taking care of herself and accepting herself, especially in life’s most difficult moments.

I will not underestimate the pain that accompanies losing someone you love, but I will explain that my losses have propelled me to take in every moment with her — for myself, and of course, for Granny Sarah and Grandpa Jack.

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Why I’m Dreading My First Birthday Without My Mom

I lost my mom in October of 2018. It was a devastating blow to my world from which I don’t think I’ll ever recover. But I had to keep moving for the sake of my family, and my first task at hand was getting through the dreaded holidays for the first time in my life without my mom. Excruciatingly, the first holiday to overcome came mere hours after I saw my mom take her last breath.

I woke up with red, puffy eyes early that next morning to celebrate the birth of my first born. She was turning four and I had to be excited. Then Halloween came and all I wanted to do was show my mom how cute my kids were in their superhero costumes. And at Thanksgiving, my mom was noticeably absent from our regular family get together and the usual laughter and merriment were at a minimum. Christmas was next and, as expected, was incredibly painful. Every ornament I put on the tree and every Christmas carol I sang was like a punch to my motherless gut.

But the day that I’m dreading the most will be here in just a few short days. It’s my birthday.

I spent my first 30 birthdays excited to celebrate myself. I always looked forward to the “happy birthdays,” the over the top meals and drinks, and indulging in a yellow cake with chocolate icing that my grandma makes for me every year. Birthdays were all about me. That is, until I had a baby. On October 19, 2014 birthdays took on a whole new meaning. On that beautiful fall day in Washington, DC, I wobbled into the hospital having no true realization what was about to happen.

Don’t get me wrong, I know how babies are born. But never having done it before, I didn’t know just how much that one instant would change me. The experience of bringing another human being into this world is like no other. You don’t have to be religious or spiritual to know that what just happened was otherworldly. I’m sure that same feeling translates to babies born by surrogates or when adoptive parents see their child for the very first time.

And it was at this moment that I realized that my birthday was not solely about me. My birthday is about me and my mom. Sure, my dad was there too and obviously had a very important role in the whole baby making process. And he was next to my mom the moment I was born and he was by our sides ever since. But I came into this world through my mom. She endured the physical pain and trauma to get me into this world and experienced the euphoria when I finally arrived just as I had with my own children.

So, on my 31st birthday, I was busy taking care of a four-month-old baby and I no longer cared about the happy birthdays or the over-the-top meals and drinks (though I definitely indulged in that cake). On my 31st birthday, I thanked my mom. I knew then that all those years that I was celebrating myself she was celebrating us. She was celebrating the fact that we shared this very special, life changing day together. She probably had mixed emotions the day before each of my birthdays just like I do the day before my daughter’s birthday and the day before my son’s birthday.

My husband laughs because I come down the stairs crying after I’ve put them to bed for the last time as a “whatever-year-old.” I cry because another year of snuggles has gone by. I cry because they are one year closer to becoming independent adults who no longer need their mother. I cry because being a parent is hard and I wonder if I’m doing it correctly. I cry because I’m proud of who they are and I’m excited to see them grow. My children will probably never know the emotion I feel on their birthday until they are a parent themselves.

So in a few days I will have made it another year around the sun. My dad will call me early knowing that I’ll already be missing my mom. My brother will send me extra funny memes all day because that’s what we do. My husband and kids will shower me with kisses and hugs. And my son and daughter will be so excited to blow out the candles on my yellow cake with chocolate icing made by my grandma. I will be grateful for another year on this planet.

But I will miss my mom. Because on that day 35 years ago, she and I experienced something together that only we could.

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10 Ways To Really Help A Friend Who’s Caring For A Sick Parent

When a person you love deeply is slipping away, it is a struggle to not feel like you are dying right along with them.

My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago, at the age of 59. She and my dad decided the best way to keep me from shattering was to not tell me. They simply brushed off my confusion about the jumbled email Mom sent me on my 35th birthday and the nonsensical text messages that pinged me hours past her normal bedtime. When they finally shared her diagnosis, I was thrust into a dizzying world where I struggled to understand how to be a loving and supportive daughter to my nervous and disoriented mom and my terrified and heartbroken dad, while simultaneously keeping up with my 50-hour-per-week job and raising my three kids under 4.

As the reality of Mom’s condition sunk in, my life became a balance between wanting to know every detail of each misfiring neuron and being too scared to Google even the most basic information about Alzheimer’s Disease because the concept of prognosis speaks in percentages and odds. And she is not just a percentage of a person. She’s not 5% nor 1 in 10 nor “most” — she’s a complete woman, who raised me from the time she married my Dad when I was 12 years old. She is my whole mom, not a fraction nor a statistic, and there is nothing to be gained by fear.

What was more alarming to me since I found out that some sort of plaque has been creeping along the outside of my mom’s brain, stealing her away from me little by little, was the accidental ignorance with which my friends (and some family) approached me as they reached out in support.

I don’t fault the people in my life whose words have made me cry uncontrollably in the car the second I pulled away from their houses. I don’t think negatively of the family members who, while trying to dull the pain, have said things which have instead twisted the knife so violently that I’ve had to pretend to use the bathroom just to catch my breath. I’ve mastered the art of averting my gaze and changing the subject when I haven’t had the courage to say I couldn’t give them an update on my dying mother in a crowded kitchen at a child’s birthday party. But I owe the people in my life more than that. My friends would crawl across broken glass for me. My family would do anything to take this pain away. As badly as they want to support me, it’s not fair to any of us to pretend that my friends’ well-intentioned words aren’t sometimes making it harder for me to survive the death of my mother’s mind and then body.

So I wrote the list below, in hopes that someone who loves someone who loves someone with Alzheimer’s or non-Alzheimer’s dementia would read it and gain insight as to how to best support the person s/he loves.

1. Don’t ask a bunch of medical questions about my loved one’s condition.

That’s what Google is for. Many caregivers don’t want to know all the scary statistics and purposely don’t read up on all of the science behind the disease. When I’m asked a medical question that I don’t know the answer to, I feel guilty for not having done some imaginary due diligence. I feel like I could somehow save her life, if only I’d bother to learn the technical reason she can’t say simple words or remember our conversation from three minutes ago.

2. Don’t tell me about the latest miracle cure.

I’m borderline okay with you sending me an article about breakthrough discoveries of certain genes, but I’m not putting my faith in Dr. Oz, the essential oils you just started selling, nor the revolutionary purple root powder you saw in an ad at the back of Reader’s Digest.

3. Do tell me happy stories about my mom, things you love about her, or funny jokes she recently told you.

I’m clinging to normalcy right now. I’m basking in gratitude for her moments of lucidity. I’m longing to hold onto memories of her which bring me joy. Help me to believe that her legacy will be positive and beautiful and important.

4. Don’t “prove” to me that she is sick by telling me about the Alzheimer’s-y thing she did or said.

I know she probably didn’t recognize you even though she has met you ten times. If you’re telling me because you think it’s cute, it’s not. If you’re telling me because it made you sad, then I’m truly sorry you are hurting, but I’d really appreciate it if you could process your pain through discussion with a person who isn’t me.

5. Do give me a hug for no reason.

No-reason hugs are pretty awesome, and I can’t think of a time that I didn’t appreciate one I got.

6. Don’t ask me how Mom is doing when you just asked me five days ago.

I sometimes go a week or two without talking to her or my dad (for both simple and complicated reasons). If I gave you an update on Tuesday and you ask me again on Sunday, I feel guilty admitting that I haven’t spoken with her since the last time you asked. (Obviously if she were much sicker/closer to the end of her life, where her condition would constantly be changing, this wouldn’t apply. But Mom’s health is otherwise good, so there often isn’t a lot of measurable change from one week to the next.)

7. Do ask me, “How are you feeling?”

It’s a much more inviting and supportive question than “How are you?” and gives me low-key permission to answer you honestly with the state of my heart in that moment. I appreciate getting asked this by loved ones who know I’m in a grieved state about my mom because it also allows me to vent about work or my kids or the woman with 16 items in the express check-out line with whom I’m still irrationally angry. I sometimes feel selfish for being overwhelmed with the stressful or sad parts of my life which are difficult, separate from my Mom’s condition.

8. Don’t try to one-up me by comparing Alzheimer’s to any other disease.

All diseases suck in their own right. There is nothing comforting in “At least it’s not X, Y or Z.” And for the love of all things holy, please don’t point out anything that you perceive to be an “upside” of memory loss. There is literally nothing positive about it. Side Note: Don’t minimize her diagnosis by assuring me that you, too, misplace your keys or can’t remember people’s names. I’m 100% sure she has Alzheimer’s and you are not proving me wrong with your claim that her “forgetfulness” is common. (You are also only going to make me mad when you joke that you must have it too for the reasons listed above; if you are genuinely concerned, please make an appointment with your PCP.)

9. Do ask what I need.

One of my BFF’s, when someone is in pain asks, “What can I do to make you feel supported?” It may sound cheesy, but it’s genuinely the best thing you can ask a person who feels like they’re dying of a broken heart. Some days I might answer, “Nothing, I’m feeling okay in this moment.” Some days I might ask you to pick up my dry cleaning because between meeting my parents at a neurology appointment, buying Christmas gifts for my three kids’ teachers, and sitting in my car in a deserted parking lot, sobbing to LeAnne Rimes’ “Please Remember,” it’s the one errand I can’t pull off.

10. Go easy on me.

Maybe something I put in this list seemed insensitive or selfish. Maybe I was judgmental of someone when I shouldn’t have been. Maybe I snapped at you for something dumb. There are some days I am a pillar of strength and I’m seamlessly juggling the responsibilities and pain of my life. There are other days I give my kids Cinnamon Toast Crunch for lunch AND dinner plus four hours of screen time because I don’t have the strength to get out of bed. I’m doing my best to keep myself and my family alive while trying to be the best daughter I can be to a woman who, sometimes, looks right through me when I talk to her. The woman who cannot remember the names of my young children, who were born as she squeezed my hand and whispered encouragement. The woman who will soon not know my name when I hold her.

I’m going to hold her anyway. I’m going to love the hell out of her, not until she takes her last breath, but until I take mine.

And while I struggle to figure out how to be the daughter she needs (because I will never be as perfect as the daughter she deserves), I love deeply the friends and family who are holding me up as I hold her.

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This Is The Real Reason I Go Overboard With Halloween Costumes

I’m the mom who had her kids’ Halloween costumes done in September. Before the expletives start flying, let me explain.

I grew up with a very shy mom. Most of her sentences were just single word replies to questions. Even when I’d say, “I love you mom,” she would just say, “Mmhmm, me too.” Actually, I added the “me too” part so you wouldn’t think I grew up in a Dickens novel.

Because here’s the thing: I knew she loved me. She was just one of those painfully introverted people who showed her love through actions, not words. And one of her big declarations of love was making my Halloween costume every year.

As soon as school started, we’d go to the fabric store and flip through the costume patterns until we found the perfect one. Then, night after night as I was falling asleep, I listened to the gguh-gguh-gguh of her sewing machine as she carefully sewed each seam.

We’re talking some fancy shit here. I was a bunny, a princess, even The Statue of Liberty with full crown and torch, all made of fabric. Not one shred of duct tape in sight. I loved Halloween so much that I trick-or-treated into my teens.

When I was 14, my mom got sick with breast cancer. She got better, but when I was 19, she got sick again. This time she didn’t get better. She died in the early morning on October 30th.

I wish I could tell you that the next night, some magic angel trick-or-treater came to tell me, “Your mom will always be with you.” But the only thing that visited me that Halloween and at least eight Halloweens after it was deep grief. Every year, the October Bummers would set in (“Bummers” is a cute word for snapping at everyone you love and then running to the bathroom and crying).

My dad would reassure me by saying, “That hole in your heart will heal when you have your own children.” And to a certain degree he was right. The moments of pure anguish have become fewer and further between. I now have two kids. Two amazing reasons to push through the October Bummers.

I’m grateful to my shy mom for finding an outlet to express her love. And I’m grateful to my kids for helping me reclaim Halloween and letting me pour my love on them. Even if I occasionally have to use duct tape.

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This Is What It’s Like To Be A Parent Without A Mom

My kids always roll their eyes but they know better than to squint them and call bullshit when I tell my stories. They know the truth: that I am a living, breathing product of the (legendary) Unsupervised Generation. I drank in junior high school. I hitchhiked. I rode public transportation before friends taught me how to drive. I smoked. I cut class. I snuck in. I snuck out. I pretty much did unscrupulous things every chance I got.

My mother knew none of this.

I also did my homework without being told, got myself to school (and work and EVERYwhere else) without help and filled out college applications without so much as a sniff of curiosity from my mother. I likewise ate what was prepared, picked up after myself and made sure to disagree with her in my head or into my pillow rather than unleash a fate far worse than my imagination could ever muster.

Despite the lack of assistance (or Uber) it was not a hard life. If I’m being completely honest, it was fondly enjoyable even (you don’t say) without the internet. It seems my generation was adulting before there was even a trendy term for it and I don’t remember anyone ever complaining about it. There were fun times (drinking age = 18 = #seriously) and scary moments (drinking age = 18 = #seriously) and there was no shortage of regrets or mistakes or lessons learned.

Oddly enough, I grew into a mom who knows where her children are most of the time. Kind of a weird paradox, I know.

Every year around this time at the anniversary of her passing, my thoughts drift to my mom. She’s been gone seven years now and while there are moments when it feels like clichéd yesterday, there are other times when it feels like I’ve been flailing through motherhood lost and adrift without her for longer than I can remember. I often think about how similar we are (apologies to my better half for the insufferable German stubbornness) but more telling is how different we became as moms.

I imagine most people try to improve upon their own histories. I know I do.

My earliest memory of telling my mother I loved her was from a pay phone in the hallway of my freshmen dormitory. As I grew older it bothered me more and more that it might have been the first time I ever said those words aloud. It affected me so profoundly, the term became my personal pillar of parenting. I’ve raised four kids who have been hearing it – and saying it — their entire lives: into their phones, over their shoulders and across my kitchen counter.

My mom was a woman of few words when I was a teenager. A divorced mother raising three kids alone wasn’t exactly the norm back in the early ’80s. She had a lot going on and kept her business to herself (lord, she would loathe Facebook today). She didn’t banter with my friends (cannot lie, she was a wee bit feared), she didn’t know any of my friends’ parents and she was barely civil to my boyfriends (alright, looking back, perhaps she may have been on to something).

When I went through a high school breakup the only way she knew about it was when she heard Phil Collins’ “Throwing it All Away” on a six-day loop through my bedroom wall. I’ll never forget her coming into my doorway and warily whispering, “Please. Play another song.” That was it. No sentimental mother-daughter moment or long car ride for ice cream. Onward I went.

Conversely, I chat up my kids’ squads all the time (interesting aside: my mom never used hip terms like squad because she could’ve cared less about appearing hip. Again, why be hip when you can terrify?). My own home often bustles with kids and I can get a hold of every parent with a single tap. Contrary as well, when any of my own litter experiences heartache I am at the ready. My eagle eye and alert ear can detect the slightest change in demeanor, attitude or (sigh) hygiene and my maternal senses hurl into overdrive.

I am at once a bevy of constant communication and presence to my troubled teens. It appears I have become the nurturing contradiction of my own adolescence. This is entirely surprising to me because – again — I never felt slighted or deficient in my own adolescence. I can’t even recall any friend ever confiding in her mom back then either. That’s what girlfriends had each other for.

My siblings and I would kid my mom mercilessly about her earlier Teflon exterior. She was a tough one for sure but man, oh man, did she mellow out as time went on. It might’ve been her second husband, who arrived just in time to steady her, lessened her load of financial worry and loved her endlessly. More likely it was the welcome stream of good fortune that befell her family the second half of her lifetime.

After a difficult decade or so, my mom’s life blossomed and happiness settled in to reveal her softer, fiercely funny side that was clearly dormant in my own youth. She was able to witness her three kids all marry and create enjoyable lives for themselves. She was showered with ten – TEN! – grandchildren, the joy of which infused her every thought and attention (alas, cue in the dejected and forlorn look of abandonment from said second husband, forever delegated to the 11th spot in her life).

I wish she was here to see them all now.

I especially long for her to see mine.

My oldest was a high school senior and putting us through the ringer at the time of her illness. Whisper as we tried to shield her from our own distress, she knew. She always knew. I would give anything for her to see how he turned things around to shine so brightly. She would be over the moon with pride at the impressive young man he’s become.

Long before she died my mother had already taught my daughter how to sew, but her protégé had only just begun to display her innate talent. In the time she’s been gone my creative gal has gone on to teach herself how to knit, then crochet, then paint, then create jewelry, then, just recently, open an online store. Without question these two special ladies were kindred spirits of an enviable kind. I know the magnitude of her granddaughter’s natural gift would fill my mom to her absolute core and I wish she could revel in it.

She would still get the biggest kick out of my second son, whose devilish grin as the tween she adored now radiates the stubbled face of a young man. He captures every nuance of my mom’s own unassuming and affable personality and she would be tickled at their spitfire similarity. Gawd, if she ever caught sight of him in his college dress blues she might never stop showing his picture around Long Island.

She’d probably favor my youngest the most, a mere little boy when she left us. There was never any harm helping out the baby, she believed, because from any vantage point all the others always seemed unfairly ahead of the pack (*writer shakes head, remembering childhood*). My littlest’s unrivaled charm would find her putty in the palm of his hand. If she could see him now, she’d gush at his every accolade, triumph in his every touchdown and sneakily slip him a twenty whenever they were alone.

I get jealous of my fortunate friends who still have time with their moms. I really do. I hate that my kids won’t see their Nanny’s eyes glistening at their weddings. I hate that they don’t get to hear any more of her stories. They wouldn’t dare roll an eye at hers. I hate that she’s not here to teach them more.

But if I find myself on a lonely road, and I know too well my friends will eventually find themselves on a difficult one. Aging parents leave battle scars endured only by the strongest of daughters. I hope my familiarity and understanding of this stage of adulting is a comfort to them, for I’ll be at the ready for all of them when they need me.

I miss my mom at some moment in every day.

As the years tick on without her, I shall remain incredibly bemused at our similarities (sarcasm, anyone?) and increasingly content with our differences (ummmm, mea culpa, mom, for the bandwagon Facebook brags). Something tells me she would be nothing but overjoyed at the perfect metamorphosis of the mom she raised.

Finally, for what it’s worth, here’s my maternal postscript to my kids: Yeah. Just because I did it doesn’t mean you can. Remember, spidey senses. I catch EVERYthing. Wink.

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Grieving The Death Of A Parent When You’re Estranged From Your Other Parent

The last few days of our dad’s life was spent peacefully in hospice. As the nurses walked in and out of the room, we would ask them question after question and every time they answered, they would say, “It is all part of his journey. Everyone has their own journey and each one is different.”

Two weeks later, I began my own journey. One without my father. One I had never experienced before. One I never anticipated two months earlier as my father’s health rapidly declined and his own journey ended.

Grieving is a journey.

This journey has been especially difficult as it only intensifies the reality of my estrangement from my own mother.

I am now navigating life without parents. The magnitude of this weighs heavy on me every single day.

Five years ago, when I chose to cut ties with my mother, I had another healthy, active parent who was involved in my life. The loss of that relationship haunted me but I could fill the void with my focus on strengthening the bond with my father. My mother, personally struggling and unable to parent, created a toxic dynamic for myself and my family and I felt a great relief when I was strong enough to walk away.

The only time I questioned that decision was the day my father passed away.

There are days when I am consumed with thinking about which loss is more painful and cuts the deepest — the unexpected loss of my father or the ongoing void of not having a mother.

She wasn’t there the two months he spent in and out of hospitals and elderly rehabilitation centers to help us navigate his rapid onset dementia. She wasn’t there to question the doctors and nurses and demand they give him every option to get better. She didn’t provide comfort as we watched our gentle, fun-loving father distressed in a hospital bed, not recognizing us or knowing where he was.

She didn’t hear him say, “I am done” as we realized that we had pushed his journey too far. She wasn’t there to share in the telling of our funny childhood memories in that hospice room. She wasn’t in the receiving line at the wake to hold our hand. She barely expressed her sympathies to me over a text. And when we needed her to step-up and do one thing for us in this process, she let us down.

Months after the death of my father, I am well into my own journey of parenting without parents. The grief and loneliness come in waves but I am inspired by my eight-year old to keep moving forward. Adopted from Ethiopia as a baby, his own grief and loss journey has taught me more than I realized.

He encourages me to find hope in the joyful memories and reminds me not be afraid to cry when I need to. His own wonderful memories of my father have helped keep him a focus of our lives and still very much present. His strength and faith have given me insight into how powerful love and relationships truly are.

I think we name experiences “journeys” to justify that our pain is actually a process that will result in strength and learning. And maybe it will. But it doesn’t make the journey any more bearable. We put on a smile, grieve and continue with our lives while still holding on to that place of disbelief and denial.

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Watching Your Parent Die Is Absolute Hell

My dad was dying long before we received the devastating news on a cold winter morning. After suffering a minor stroke, my father’s stage 4 cancer was discovered quite by accident while he had follow-up tests to prevent further strokes. As my father relayed the news to me, I gripped the phone and tried to comprehend what he was saying. His cancer was advanced, and suddenly, his time on Earth was finite.

His battle was over before it started.

At his advanced cancer stage, chemotherapy options were limited and surgery wasn’t an option. Radiation wasn’t going to thwart the progression, and when we looked at the hard evidence, it was clear that his quality of life was going to suffer a great deal if he put himself through the rigors of a chemotherapy regimen that had little to no chance of prolonging his life.

It was fucking hell to watch my strapping, larger-than-life father wither away into a frail cancer patient right before my eyes.

My dad was dying, and I was helpless to stop the inevitable.

A dying parent is excruciating. I would get physically ill as I listened to my father detail the side effects from chemotherapy, his exhaustion and nausea, and his daily litany of health issues from the cancer that was slowly eating away at his insides. I’d lay awake at night and wonder if tomorrow was the day his health would go from bad to worse. When your parent is dying, you die inside right alongside them.

A dying parent is exhausting. I forced myself to try to focus on the rigors of raising kids and running a household while trying to keep track of what doctors my father was seeing that day and remembering to call my mother for the rundown of the latest tests and blood work. I longed for the days when our lives didn’t center around the ups and downs of cancer, when I could selfishly call my dad just to tell him about a professional achievement or about his grandchildren. A dying parent means never knowing what the day will bring.

A dying parent makes you realize that you are selfish. You find yourself whispering, “Please let him make it to Easter” because you want your kids to get one more holiday with their beloved grandfather. You secretly will him to hold on because you’ve made travel plans and you are terrified he’ll pass away while you are out of the country. You find yourself irrationally angry because cancer will eventually steal your hero and you can’t bear the thought of your children not getting to have their grandfather around when they are adults. Having a dying parent means you have to forgive yourself for feeling selfish.

A dying parent means it’s next to impossible to do “normal” things like girls’ night out and date night with without the urge to scream raging under your skin. My father was dying. How was I expected to sip cocktails and discuss The Bachelor like nothing was wrong? How was I supposed to go on living when his life was being cut short prematurely? Having a dying parent means you have to push through the guilt of feeling joy and happiness because you know that your parent expects nothing less.

A dying parent means there’s no rule book. There’s no play-by-play list that you can refer to on the days when the panic and rage are so raw that you think you might actually lose your mind. And while your friends do their best to sympathize with you, no one understands the sheer desperation that always threatens to bubble over in the middle of the cereal aisle at the grocery store. A dying parent means that you will be pushed to your limits, and you will find strength you didn’t know you possessed.

A dying parent means facing your own mortality with new eyes. In the final months of my father’s illness, I’d often look at my children and worry that my death would burden them in the same way. I worried that the fear and terror I felt in those months would be their journey someday when their father and I will face our own health issues. I wondered if I could be strong for them, like my father was for me, and I prayed that I could face death with the grace my father showed near the end. A dying parent means realizing that you, too, will someday be the dying parent.

A dying parent means your friends will say the wrong things and you will forgive them because they mean well. You will smile and nod when people offer platitudes, and you will gratefully accept frozen lasagnas that you will eat for a month because you are sure you’ll never cook again.

A dying parent means you will find yourself looking at your father’s hands and trying to memorize how they look when he’s reading to his grandchildren. It means breathing in his scent and praying that you’ll always remember that your head fit perfectly under his chin when he enveloped you in a bear hug. A dying parent means realizing that the earthly body you’ve loved fiercely will soon be one with the earth.

A dying parent will teach you that there’s nothing a parent won’t do to make it easier for their child in the end. You will hear your dying parent say, “I’m ready,” and even though you aren’t, you’ll let go of the hand that you’ve held since you were small.

When your parent finally finds peace, you realize that your parent is still teaching you about life.

Only now, you are learning about life without your dying parent.

And it’s a new kind of hell.