Guest Post by Oliver

My son Oliver and I recently accepted an invitation to answer some “ask me anything” questions from a class of college students in a course called Death and Dying. Here are Oliver’s answers to the questions they had for him about his mom being near death.
What were my initial thoughts when I found out?
I thought about the kind of life she had lived up until that point – a life of striving to be kind, to be at one with nature, to be good to her body. It felt like a particularly shitty kind of irony that she would get such a ruthless disease.
Then I thought about all of the things that she would miss – my graduation, becoming a grandmother, mine and my brother’s creative, intellectual, and career accomplishments, guiding us through all of the stages of adulthood, being cared for and surrounded by love and family and nature in her old age. It was the single greatest moment of loss that I have ever felt, and I expect that they are the things that will make me miss her most.
I thought about all of the things that I wanted to do as soon as she was out of the hospital, all of the things that felt most important.
There was a lot of crying all around, and laughter, too.
How long did it take me to accept it?
This one might sound a bit weird and is where the story probably starts to diverge from what people are used to when they think/hear about dying people and their loved ones.
I think that once I had wrapped my head around her medical situation, acceptance seemed like the only path, so that’s the path that I walked. It’s hard to say whether that took minutes or hours, the order of things can get a bit scrambled.
Accepting it didn’t mean that I was done feeling sad, that I didn’t need to be close to her and my brother and the rest of our family, that I wasn’t still shaken by all of it. Accepting it simply meant accepting that there was no way she was going to live much longer, whether that meant weeks or months (at the time it felt like it might really just be weeks). I think that this was an important step because it informed my thoughts and my behavior from that point on – I wasn’t going to live in denial, or with some foolish optimism that things would just be ok. My mom was dying and I was going to make sure we got the most out of the time we had left.
How has my life changed?
I could answer this in two ways.

On the surface, my life isn’t terribly different, at least not yet. I finished my semester at school, I worked all summer, and I’m about to be back in school again for the fall. I see my mom and her family more than I used to, up from maybe once a week to two or three times a week, and sometimes for a day or two at a time instead of a couple of hours.

On a more philosophical level, I’ve had just about the most in-your-face reminder that a person can get that there are no guarantees in life. We all know that we could fall terminally ill or be mortally injured at any time, but it’s not useful to live in fear of that, so it seems like most of us don’t think about it too much, preferring instead to live life with the assumption that it will be long and fulfilling.

I don’t live in fear of death, but I do live with a renewed respect for it, or at least I’m trying. What does that mean, practically? It means that I try to be more deliberate in my decision making, especially when it comes to deciding how I’ll be spending my time. Whether it’s dinner plans or a year-long job contract, I try to give the decision the time it deserves so that I can make sure that my choice is one that will lead to fulfillment and enrichment. Knowing in my heart that I’m doing things that matter to me, right now, allows me to be comfortable with the knowledge that death may not be far off.
How did this change my relationship with my mom?

We’ve always had a strong mother-son relationship. In the years since I moved out (a little over 5 years ago), she’s also become one of my closest friends, so I don’t know if I can say that it’s made us any more or less close.

I obviously feel an urgency to spend time with her and our family, to have as many of the important conversations that we hadn’t already had, to revisit some of the things that have stood out as positive moments in our lives together. That reflection has probably given me the opportunity to feel some more pointed gratitude towards the many amazing things that she’s done for me in the years since my birth, or my conception, even.

bus - color corrected

Oliver and Susan last June in a San Francisco streetcar.

Do I have any regrets about my relationship with my mother?

Absolutely, though it’s hard to think of many specifics.We’ve had almost 25 years together and as much as people tell me how wonderful I was as a kid and how painless I was as a teenager, I know that I was far from perfect. Quietly stealing away from the house with my little brother when we were very young. Driving her to frustration and nagging by putting off chores or other responsibilities (she hated nagging/yelling – who wouldn’t?). Moments of blind anger or frustration as a teen. Some lapses of judgment that ended up bringing her (and my father) true parental distress.

I know I’ve probably expressed regret/apologized for all of those numerous times, but just for good measure – I’m sorry, mom.
How has all of this changed how I think about life and death?
To my mother’s dismay at the time, death was something that preoccupied me for what feels like the better part of my childhood (that kind of remembering can be deceptive, but I trust it here, I think). That preoccupation took a back seat to more pressing concerns as I started to grow into prepubescence, but I don’t think the reality of death was ever far away and remained a source of angst and distress if it lingered too long. Death (my own or a loved one’s) was probably my greatest fear.Now? As trying as this has been and continues to be for me and for all of us, the rest of my life hasn’t fallen apart. I think that for the first time, death, whether it be my own or someone else’s, feels like something that I can handle.
What’s my advice for other young people going through something like this?
Try and be honest with yourself, and with the people around you, if you can. Be honest about what you fear, your grief, your confusion, your happiness. Whatever it is you’re going through on the inside, this is the last chance you’ll have to share that with whoever it is you’re losing, and the last chance you’ll have to hear what they’re going through, too.
How do I cope with day-to-day struggles?
In pretty much the same way I always have. I think that I may be reading more books, watching more Netflix, and playing more games. Maybe that’s a bit of escapism? Processing all of this can be exhausting. I think it’s ok to need a bit of time where you can focus on other things, especially in a non-work capacity.
Is it hard to see my mother in pain?
Of course. This is the person who raised me and cared for me whenever I was sick or hurt. It’s hard not to feel frustrated that I can’t do much for hers, but I’m lucky in that, for the most part, her medications keep her comfortable.
What was my initial reaction to “the death project”?

She had hit such a stride professionally in recent years, it was nice to know that she had found an outlet for her creativity and insight, for all of the brilliant thinking she’d been taking the time to do about life and death.It’s also been nice because I haven’t had to explain to everyone what her situation is, or how we’re all dealing with it. I think that her being so open makes it easier for people to know where we’re at and how to interact with us, which is great because I’ve heard a lot of stories now about people feeling deserted in times of tragedy because people aren’t sure what to say. That would be hard. 

How do I think it has changed this process for myself and those around me?

I think that it helps to have it all out there. It doesn’t leave much room for denial or false hope, and it’s a comfort knowing that anyone who’s heard about her condition has probably read some or all of the blog.

See my answer to the previous question for more on this.
Are there challenges that I face now that I didn’t before?
I don’t think so. Not outside of the obvious emotional ones, at least.
What are my beliefs about what happens to us when we die?
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my mom about this, so I could write a lot here. I’ll try to keep it reasonable.
I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife, religious or otherwise. I don’t believe that our consciousness can survive outside of our brains, and I know that our brains don’t do much without oxygen and electricity and all the rest. I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t believe in a “soul” in the traditional sense.

My understanding of those things is that they are necessary for a lot of us because without them, it’s very hard to answer questions like “why am I here?”, “why does anything matter?”, “where did I come from?” – the real existential kickers.

I’ve come to my own conclusions here, and they essentially come down to embracing as fully as possible the reality that the moment our consciousness begins is the product of all that happened in the universe up until that point and that over the course of our lifetimes, every day, every second, every moment, we are doing things that are affecting the course that the universe will take, however slightly. In that way what we do in this life lives on long after our conscious time has come to an end and the molecules in our bodies have drifted far apart.

What are my expectations for when she eventually dies?
All I really expect for certain is that it will be unexpected. It will be my first and only time losing a mother, though, so I can make a pretty safe guess and say that it will bring a lot of feelings, that it may be difficult to focus on anything else for a time, and that I and so many others will have lost something that can never be replaced.
How have I prepared myself for that eventuality?
By doing my best to ensure that I don’t give myself anything to regret in the meantime. What that means exactly is probably best explained by some of the other answers here.
Can we really be prepared for something like that? 
I don’t think so.
How do I imagine I will relate to her once she’s dead? 

I won’t be relating to her, unfortunately. That’s hard to think about.

I will, however, be relating to all of the love that she has given me, all of the wisdom I’ve tried to learn from her, all of the memories I will have of her, to the people and places and things that will always remind me of her.

What is the last thing I would like to do with my mom before she dies?
Be close to her.
Other thoughts and feelings.
I love you, mom.

About susanbriscoe

English teacher, writer
This entry was posted in Ask Me Anything! and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Guest Post by Oliver

  1. simoneaholder says:

    Thank you for sharing Oliver. I met you once when you were a baby. You’ve grown into a fine young man.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Lara says:

    Dear Oliver, thank you for your well-written, thoughtful, though provoking and graceful insight on your mother’s life and, sadly, imminent death. I’m certain that she is very proud and most grateful to have such a loving son(s).

    Dear Susan, sending you love and wishing you peace, continued wisdom, comfort of your family and friends; and the joys of the changing leaves. xo

    Liked by 2 people

  3. curioussteph says:

    I love reading this and becoming aware that by your choices, Susan, you have also empowered your son to grow, learn and be present to your dying process as well, and noting his own process. I appreciated Oliver’s comments, and particularly his foreknowledge that no matter how prepared he might imagine himself to be for his mother’s death, that actually being “ready” is impossible. Nearly 30 years after my own mothers death, I still recall the intense resonance in my being when she died. One is never ready for such a loss, and it is a part of living.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. shoppers says:

    Wow Oliver. I wish I was as mature as you. Thank you for having the courage to attend the class and answer the questions.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. CRM says:

    This was lovely to read. Thank you, Oliver. And thank you, Susan, for pointing us to it.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. shelleycanada says:

    Thank for sharing and being open about subjects that are so often difficult to approach. Oliver you have so much maturity and thoughtfulness in your words. Susan I feel you mother so well at all stages of life, even and maybe most importantly during the hard parts. Again thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

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  10. Thank you for sharing openly what you are going through. I just found this blog tonight and it has sucked me in. I lost my best friend a year and a half ago to cutaneous lymphoma. It’s extremely rare and there is only experimental treatment for it currently. I am thankful that we could talk freely, though I regret waiting to tell her some things. We knew what she had was terminal, but I overestimated how much time she might have left. I wish I had gone to her when her husband said she was having a rough day. This wasn’t abnormal and usually those days she preferred to be alone, so I thought I’d just let her rest. Her husband told me he thought I should wait until the next morning before I came over, because she had a lot of medicine in her system and he didn’t think she would be alert enough to know I was there. In hindsight I would have gone anyway. I would have held her hand and told her I loved her whether she was alert or not. I would have sat in the silence with her and just appreciated the moments I had left with her. I had no idea she would pass that night. I’d seen her much worse in the hospital months before that and thought that would be it, but she pulled out of it and had 8 more really good months. I’d talked to her a couple days before and she was feeling good and talking about plans she had months from then. It just came as a shock that she went from enjoying a birthday party, to 2 days later having a hard day and passing away during the night. I guess what I’m saying is, there is a weirdly comforting similarity to my walk with her through this, and your walk through this together. Every moment is precious but you already know. Thank you for sharing.


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