Idioms are a funny thing. You hear them all your life, never really thinking about them much. Then an expression’s used in a context that stops you, well, dead in your tracks.
In the last week of her life, my mom came up with a doozy. We were blessed that she was fairly coherent and awake a good part of that week. Like many people do on their deathbed (literal deathbed, that is, not the idiom kind), she talked about needing to rest.
Then she said: I’m just dead tired.
Now I’ve used that phrase countless times when I was really, really tired, or when I just wanted to make the impression that I had to stop. But hearing it from Mom, eyes closed, days away from death…well that got my attention.
Dead tired. Think about it: she was exhausted by dementia and she was done.
Of course, knowing Mom for the hilarious jokester she was, she may have said that trying to be funny. Or, when she heard herself say it, she may have instantly realized the irony of the statement and chuckled to herself. (She was in that “rally” mode the hospice workers told us about, and was saying some pretty funny and astute things, so who knows?)
The irony wasn’t lost on us, believe me. We walked out of her room shaking our heads at that one. I still can’t believe she said that.
Ever since that day, that phrase has been stuck in my head. It’s made me think of all the other idioms that refer to death or dying. Take my personal favorite, “dead run,” meaning to go as fast as you can.
Which brings us to the title of the present article: My Dead Run Summer. Or, After Mom Died, I Ran All Over the Country for Months. Like five months.
After the funeral I didn’t go home. I left Dallas and went straight to Colorado for a few weeks. Then back to Florida. Then L.A. Then Florida. Then back to Colorado.
From Colorado I drove over 2500 miles west: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia. Then Florida. Then back to Colorado. As we speak, I’m in Florida. Next month, I’m going back to Colorado.
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s the true confession of a runner. A Dead Runner.
I’ve always been a runner. In the old days, I used drugs and alcohol to run. Now, vacations do just fine. Or Westerns. Vampires and Hobbits work, too.
That summer, I needed to connect with something way bigger than myself. I was lost. All I’d done for years was take care of Mom, think about taking care of Mom, recover from taking care of Mom, write about taking care of Mom, talk about Mom. I would do it all over again in a minute, don’t get me wrong.
But I needed to go. I needed to see immense things like the Grand Tetons and vast buffalo herds and bugling bull elk. I needed to walk out at night and see nothing but constellations. I needed to see wild horses.
I needed to find Mom in the Great Wide Open. I needed to adjust to that terrible reality that she was no longer available to me on the human plane.
And I felt her everywhere, not only in the middle of all that spectacular nature, but in random places.
There was the guy in a Colorado hotel lobby mindlessly singing to himself “Who Will Buy” — one of Mom’s favorite songs from the musical “Oliver.”
There was the busker in Pike’s Place Market, standing next to a flower stand full of Mom’s favorite wild flowers, the kind we used at her service, singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
There was the time I walked into a Starbucks in Portland, and an obscure B-side Joni Mitchell song was playing – the same song Mom used to hilariously imitate when I was in high school. (She just didn’t get Joni Mitchell.) I stood there in line, full of the wonder of it all, and communed with my mother.
And that’s the trick now, to find ways to be with her. It’s not that hard. Right now I’m sitting in the first writing workshop I’ve been to in years. I can hear a beautiful woman’s voice singing upstairs. There’s a collie snoring by the fireplace, and another one stretched out in a spot of grassy sun. My whole being is alive, tingling with the bliss of life.
God it feels good. For so many weeks, I’ve been locked into such sadness. Just forlorn, really, unable to reach any space that felt like joy. Which means I was unable to reach my mother, because she embodied joy.
She was indomitable: divorce, cancer, dementia — she still found a way forward. And that’s what I hear her telling me today: find your way forward.
Do your work, write, help others. It’s ok. Talk about dementia, it won’t break your heart, at least not permanently. Tell the stories, use your experience, make the journey mean something.
Cry, rant, rave, laugh, scream. Just live. It’s ok to hide in story books, but don’t reside there. Feelings won’t kill you, although you think they might.
A friend whose son recently died posted an article on Facebook called “Getting Grief Right.”. Like me, she’s trying to find something to explain the inexplicable. Her bravery to work at grief, to find a way to endure the pain she feels daily, gave me strength. The article said that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of the relationship with the deceased. I needed that line.
I loved my mother deeply, so of course my grief will be as deep. She was my world, so naturally my world is foreign, even hostile at times, without her. But I’m determined to find my way forward, to make her proud.
I may bolt at times, but I won’t run for good. My dead run summer lasted all the way to the dead of winter. Maybe, finally, my dead run has reached a dead end.