Saturday, August 29, 2015

Losing Both Parents: Reflecting on the Death and Rebirth of Home

The last several months have been extremely difficult.  I had figured that the mourning after my father's death would help prepare me for the eventual loss of my mother, an event I had figured was still many years away. My mother's death in May and the months afterward have demonstrated otherwise.  Crossing into a parentless world by my mid-twenties, I've found myself struggling with questions I've heard are often associated with midlife crises: what is a worthy life and what values do I want to embody for the rest of mine? Time is short.

Within this strife, though, has arisen a surprising opportunity of creating something new.  This post, and perhaps several to come, will reflect on the many overwhelming, paralyzing, and empowering emotions I've journeyed through leading up to and through my mother's death.  It may go without saying, but I write this not to seek out sympathy (it has been greatly appreciated) but as a reflection of our common humanity.  Perhaps we may learn something together.

After my father died in 2011, concluding what I had thought was nearly a decade of hardship for my mother as his prime caretaker, my mother fell ill and was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (MG)-- an autoimmune disease which weakens voluntary muscle use.  Her symptoms got especially worse with the stress involved when I moved her from our longtime home in Northern Virginia to Michigan.  There was heavy emotion after she dropped a fresh pan of appreciative cookies on the floor, and at the end of one moving trip she had to hold open her eyelids to say goodbye.

Nonetheless, over the years since she seemed to have been on a steady trajectory of recovery utilizing steroids and other medications to ramp up her body systems to compensate for the losses from the disease.  Remission is possible with MG, but for as close as my mom seemed to get she would find herself stumble, get frustrated, and have to ramp up steroid use again and start the process again.  Three steps forward, two back.

It was during one such stumble I began to have a deepening worry of my mom's health in the first days of May.  At this time I have been nearly four years settled in Denver, and my mom three and a half years in Michigan.  I often used my vacation days to see my mother, help her out with items at the house, and anticipated potentially leaving on short notice to help her for a week or two get back on track.  This time I went so far as to warn my boss and volunteers with the Sierra Club of a sudden departure, waiting on my mom to make the call.  The trouble was, I couldn't tell how sick she actually was.  Every conversation seemed to be in a layered cryptic code where I had to read between the lines.

She had told me she was having more trouble getting around.  She had to use a wheelchair to get to her last doctor, which given her stubborn pride was a shocking development to me.  She also complained of worsening pain in her back as she let slip for the first time she has known for a year she's had a growing heart problem.  After this list of ailments, she would play it all off and say she's doing alright and there's no need for me to be there to help, at least not yet.

In concern, I called a neighbor who was providing more and more care for her to try and get the whole story.  I asked point blank if I needed to get up there and, in respecting my mother's privacy and trust, she gave a long pause and said I would have to ask my mother.  The tone in her voice grounded my worry.

I went back to my mom with growing anxiety to try and understand the full severity of her condition. She downplayed it once more and concluded with "I don't know what's going on, Bryce, and that's the truth."  I repeatedly offered to come up right away but the answer was no, not yet.  She didn't want to offer any sort of urgency given her condition.  Yet, as we talked on the phone I noticed her tone was more impatient and our conversations brief; our family's sense of dark humor around death more evident. How much was she holding back?

My mom knew I had an upcoming trip to San Francisco with the Sierra Club to be a trainer for new organizers.  She asked me to essentially be on standby for traveling to her, wanting me to prioritize my visit around a pending appointment with an MG specialist and not take me away from work yet given the trip.  I reluctantly agreed thinking any visit was now weeks off, but was soon surprised to learn she secured dates for my brother and sister to separately visit later in the month.  I was heavily suspicious of her sudden desire to see her children and feared the worst case scenario.

Within a few days, my mom found out the MG doctor appointment, hours away in Grand Rapids, would be months off.  She then emailed me:
Come when it is convenient for you and don't worry about Grand Rapids which is off in the far distance. Give me a phone call sometime, no rush, and we can discuss our options. Love to you.....................Mom
My heart dropped.  Here she was playing off any need to worry, yet those extensive periods share a tone which are very uncharacteristic of her.  With the pending work trip, I immediately called her and said it wouldn't be a problem for me to cancel and go straight to her now. She paused for some thought, but insisted I go ahead with the training.  I was torn because I knew she didn't want to be a burden-- especially after those enduring years taking care of my father-- but how severe is she really?  How much time does she have?  Am I reading too much into this?

Confronting my mom with the separate one-on-one visits from my siblings, she said I was the most flexible for traveling on short notice; thus, it was important for me to be 'on-call.'  At the time my sister was overseas with the Military Sealift Command supporting the Navy in the Middle East playing politics with Iran, and my brother runs a business in international trade out of Mexico City.  I couldn't argue with her.

Just before these conversations my sister had recently sent me instructions on if there were a "mom emergency" how I would be able to contact her via the Red Cross.  Given the recent developments, I shared with her my fears in an email on May 4th:
"My hope is it is just part of the MG and she'll pick up again, but thus far my conversations with her-- and our morbid jokes-- are that she's entering a severe stage that she doesn't think she's going to get out of given all of her ailments (MG, growing severity of her heart problem, diabetes). I think on one level the staggered visitations are goodbyes."
My doubtful sister soon shared this suspicion.  My mom quickly dismissed it by stating "you know how Bryce is always being dramatic."  Hearing my sister's feedback from their conversation, I decided to alleviate my worry for the time being and focus on the training for the week.  My flight took off for California.  


I arrived for what ended up being one of the most emotionally difficult weeks of my professional career.  We went off schedule at the training to rightly explore the severe issues of institutionalized racism and white privilege within the Sierra Club.  From holding a powerful privilege walk to having black and white caucuses, there was much shared anger and sadness, sobbing and quiet reflection.

What happened at the organizing training was a conversation which I believe will go down in history as a turning point for the Sierra Club.  I'm proud to see this will be an ongoing conversation and commitment for all who participated there and beyond. Privilege is a very complex thing, as is beautifully illustrated as an example in this recent comic, and I struggle almost everyday assessing my privilege afforded to me and what to do with it.

In parallel to this week, I found myself working hard to help an acquaintance deal with a severe life crisis.  With a group of friends, we spent many hours searching for the right resources to provide support.  It was exhausting on top of the already taxing week, being the most difficult time I've had since my father passed away.  Fortunately though, things worked out in this case and I'm happy to share the person got the help they needed.

After visiting a few friends in San Francisco, I quickly found myself traveling through the airport headed to my gate on Mother's Day.  As usual when I have a brief moment, I took out my phone and called my mom.

"Hi Bryce!"

"Hi Mom!  Happy Mother's Day!  I'm sorry for not calling earlier, you wouldn't believe the week I just had..."

I spent a moment explaining a bit of what had happened, and the crisis I found myself involved in.

"... but everything has worked out!" I finished.

"That does sound like a long week..." she said in a hurried breath.

I brought up I got her a gift for Mother's Day (a hydrangea) but it was a few days behind, and to expect it soon.

"Bryce, you shouldn't have done that," she said in a surprisingly terse tone.

"Since I can't be there right now it'll serve as my presence and radiate love until I can be there."

"Aww..." She went noticeably quiet.

"Yeah, I need to go in a minute to get to my gate, but I just wanted to say hello, and I love you and I miss you.  I'll talk to you later about everything this week."

"I'll let you go... but... I...  we'll talk later.  I love you."

I paused at her pause, something seemed off.  The cryptic code tugged at me, but I had a plane to catch.



(* Our family has a habit of saying very long goodbyes, and to resolve this issue at one point we created a numbered system for this and other certain situations.  27 happened to be code for the all-encompassing "I love you, take care of yourself, I'll be thinking of you, etc." good-bye). 

The conversation lasted 5 minutes and 54 seconds.  I resolved to call her the next day and put a date on the calendar as soon as possible to visit her.


My flight arrived back in Denver late Sunday night.  I was completely exhausted, still reeling from the difficult week.  My wonderful girlfriend, Katie, swept me up in a bucket and dumped me on the bed where I feel fast asleep in a balled heap with her at my side.

Out of the dark lull of sleep, I awoke to the distant ringing of my phone I had left downstairs.

Who could be calling so early?  Should I be worried about mom?  It's probably one of those east coast telemarketers again...  I drifted back to sleep for a few minutes.

The phone rang again.

I knew something was wrong.  My eyes shot open and I ran downstairs to see I just missed a second call from my mom's neighbor.  My heart sank as I immediately called her back, I feared the worst.

"Hi, I didn't check your message, I just saw you called..."

"Bryce... something, awful, horrible has happened..." she stumbled over her words.

"Your mom passed away."

"No! No, no, no..."  spilled uncontrollably out of me.  

She explained my mom called her up saying she couldn't breathe.  The neighbor's husband called the ambulance as she hurried to the house.  She got upstairs to see my mom in the chair staring at her, "I can't breathe."  Then she had a deep, guttural sigh.  I knew from her description it was death rattle.

The neighbor, in a panic, then said to mom "I have to wave down the ambulance, I'll be right back."  My mom's house has an address on a road which no longer exists (it washed out into Lake Michigan years ago) and indeed having her wave down the paramedics outside saved precious minutes.  My mom was unresponsive when they arrived.  She never recovered.

I fought to recompose myself as my mom's neighbor handed the phone to the police officer with her.

"Mr. Carter, I know this is a very difficult moment for you right now.  I'm sorry for your loss."

I rushed upstairs to grab a piece of paper to take notes as he described the next steps and phone numbers of the hospital and police department.  Katie stirred and quickly realized something was horribly wrong as tears streamed down my face.

The officer asked, "With you as next of kin, I need to confirm her wish was to be cremated?  The funeral home is going to pick her up shortly."

"... yes, her wish was to be cremated."

Katie's face paled.

I wrote down the information for the funeral home, thanked the officer, and thanked my mom's neighbor for everything--emphasizing I know she did everything she could-- and let her know I'm going to be up there as quickly as possible.  

I hung up and fell into Katie.  Again losing all control, I sobbed deeply with her for several minutes.  

I then forced myself to recompose again, explained what I knew to Katie, and set about the next task of informing my two siblings.  

I pulled out my sister's information she gave me of how to contact her in an emergency through the Red Cross and was soon put on hold.  My aunt then called-- the first time I can recall ever speaking with her in my life.  Katie and I switched phones a few times managing the calls.

We finally got through to a Red Cross representative and had to provide my sister's information, and the phone number for the police so they could independently verify.  I told my aunt that I would be leaving as quickly as possible to get up there.

I started trying to contact my brother in Mexico who wasn't immediately available. I aggressively was e-mailing, Skyping, and messaging him to contact me.  

I called my boss to let him know.  I e-mailed several people and then put up an auto-responder for a 'family emergency.'  

My brother finally called my phone.  His immediate response to me saying mom's dead was "no she's not."  But then it dawned on him and the shock hit.  He would work to get to our mom's house right away.

A few minutes later, a Restricted Number called me.  "Bryce, what the f*ck!?" my sister exclaimed.  The Captain had just pulled her in and told her the news matter-of-factly, and was letting her use the ship's secure line.  We touched base and my sister would have to fly out of the Middle East through Germany.  Fortunately, they were still in port for another hour or two and she could get off the ship right away.

Having lost a parent before, I knew what laid ahead.  I immediately started packing a heap of my clothes, potential funeral attire, and took a shower.  I came out to find Katie gone.  In a moment of overwhelming devastation and loss, I fell to the floor.  I thought Katie had needed to remove herself from what was happening and left, making me feel utterly abandoned.  I was sheepishly relieved a moment later upon learning she went to the grocery story to buy me food for the road.  Katie is amazing, and felt bad for the misunderstanding.

At this point, I embraced the only action I knew I could do-- get to my mom's house as quickly as possible.  I wanted to be the first there so my siblings wouldn't have to bare the burden of arriving to the empty home and whatever else may await.  My aunt, Katie, and my siblings implored me to not drive straight there.  I explained as long as I felt like I could keep going, I would.  I drove for 19 hours straight.

Driving has always been a reprieve for me, a place to relax, a realm between the realities of life.  I needed to drive and keep my mind clear, compartmentalize everything else away in the back of my mind.  The day turned to dusk as the arid landscape of the plains morphed into the dull shadows of trees blurring by in the night.  Every few hours I would get gas, stretch, and as the night progressed sought out caffeine.

When approaching the Chicago suburbs, a truck about 30 seconds ahead ran off the road and flipped on its side.  By the time I drove up, another half-dozen trucks stopped with their drivers going to help the one in need.  I kept going.  The faint haze of daylight started to hint as I hit the Michigan state line.  Within 24 hours of my mother's death I arrived at the house.

I parked outside the garage on the driveway, knowing the neighbors would quickly observe my arrival.  I kept a key on my key chain for the house and entered.

I took careful, cautious steps into the house.  The silence was deafening as the blood in my ears screamed.  I still pause to expect the family dog, Princess, to come running around the corner.  She died several years ago.  I walked deeper into the house and soon upstairs.

I looked into my mother's room and it said everything.  The recliner ajar, her medical bracelet carefully placed on a nearby stool next to the wireless house phone and several packs of her favorite Neccos, the imprints of a half-dozen varied feet in the carpet itself.  This is where she died.

After several moments absorbing what lay in front of me, I slowly turned with no purpose but for more deliberate steps out of the room when my phone shattered the silence.  As expected, my mother's neighbor expressed her wish to have had me visit her first so I didn't have to be in the house alone.  It was alright, I said, I needed to stop here first.  And I did.

Within hours my brother and sister arrived-- all three children spread around the world, all three arriving within a day.  Mom would have been so proud.

The difficulties, though, were only about to begin.

/// end of part 1 ///