Every time I try to write about this year I find that I have too much to say and yet no idea how to articulate the thoughts swirling around in my mind. I’m positive that anyone living through these times knows exactly what I mean. So much has happened in the last 9 months and when I do have a rare moment to catch my breath and reflect, along comes something else, some fresh new tragedy to knock me off my feet and send me reeling again. To say that 2020 has been the worst year of my life so far would not be an exaggeration. Sure, there’s been crappy moments spread out over other years but the almost non-stop deluge of grief, stress, fear, panic and heartbreak that I’ve experienced recently makes all those other difficult blips in time pale in comparison.
When our home didn’t sell and we didn’t embark on our RV adventure last fall like we’d worked so hard to do, it was hard to accept and understand. Then this spring the entire world went into lockdown as we faced a terrifying new pandemic and it all clicked into place. Thank God we weren’t out there on the road when this happened! We were safe and secure in our home in the Northern Michigan woods, prepared to hunker down and weather the storm upon us all. The spring was full of ups and downs, all of us feeling the fear and uncertainty of what we were facing. We stayed home for months, sharing Zoom calls with family and friends and only venturing out for groceries or the occasional hike or bike ride. We binge watched Tiger King and any other show we could get our hands on. We watched the news religiously, desperate for information and advice on what we should be doing to protect the people we love.
Summer arrived and with it came a loosening of restrictions, at least in our area. Restaurants opened up again at reduced capacity and it seemed like things were finally on the upswing. We were able to purchase a used fifth wheel camper from a friend to use on weekends and short trips, giving us something to do while remaining socially distant and the experience we need for our still present desire to head out full time someday. We went on camping trips, we took the boat out of storage and hit the water. Things were looking up finally! Even though the Cherry Festival and all fireworks were cancelled, we still spent the 4th of July on our boat. We were just toweling off after a swim and getting the grill out to start making dinner when I got the call that started the absolute chaos that has defined my life ever since.
I answered my mother’s call with a smile, excited to tell her about our day and suggest we video chat so that she could enjoy the view I had. She was sobbing hysterically and through her tears she explained that my father was gone. He had taken her to the emergency room with complications and pain from her recent surgery and while she was back being seen by doctors, he had a heart attack in the waiting room and died almost instantly. I tried my best to calm her and told her I’d be there as soon as I could. After I hung up and explained to Ron what was going on, he held me as we both cried for a few moments, utterly in shock. How could this be happening? Then I kicked into high gear and got busy getting things handled. As he pulled anchor and steered us back to the marina, I called my grandmother as she was on her way to the hospital to help my mom. The next few hours were frantic – getting the boat home, calling my daughter to break the news, booking flights for the next morning and throwing clothes into a carry on bag.
My daughter and I arrived in Phoenix the following morning, both with one-way tickets. We spent the next week neck deep in funeral planning, getting a handle on the finances and doing our best to keep each other and my mom sane and comforted. No time for tears, I had work to do. Our husbands flew out for the funeral before heading right back. Ciara was able to stay in Arizona for two weeks before flying home and I stayed for three. We were able to get my dad’s estate handling started, set up all the bills on auto-pay, handle the funeral arrangements and all other financial aspects while helping my mom navigate all of the changes and appointments she was facing.
I flew home and spent a long weekend camping in the Upper Peninsula with Ron, decompressing and unwinding a bit. The complicated relationship I had with my dad left me floundering in how to handle and process his death. It’s something I will likely be working through for a long time to come, maybe forever. In mid August, mom flew to Michigan to stay for three weeks for a break and change of scenery. Her Multiple Sclerosis coupled with the grief and stress she was feeling had really done a number on her and her health was declining greatly. She wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t eating well and her emotions were an absolute mess. I tried my best to plan fun activities for us, to make yummy meals and keep her spirits up. We were making plans for Ron and I to drive to Arizona in the fall and spend all winter there with her, going through all of their belongings and making decisions on what her next steps would be. We were trying to come up with scenarios where she could move in with us so we could help her. She was feeling so lost and uncertain of her future and no matter how I tried to comfort and reassure her, her mental and emotional state got worse every day. She fell while she was at our house and fractured her wrist and at that point, we agreed that it was best that she go back to Arizona and her own place where she was comfortable.
I talked to my mom almost every day after she got home. Her MS was flaring up and coupled with her stress it was making her symptoms almost unbearable. I could hear the mental distress in her voice and I worked hard to keep her positive, to assure her that we would be there soon and get everything figured out. We were just waiting for Ron to be laid off for the season in November and then we’d be heading her way. It was exhausting trying to constantly reassure her, especially when my entire life felt so up in the air and I hadn’t even had the chance to fully grieve my dad’s death yet. But I did my best. Everything was going to be ok, Mom.
Early on Sunday morning, October 18th my mom called me. She had fallen several times recently and had fallen again. Nothing too serious this time, she said, just bumped her head. She sounded so tired and said she hadn’t slept the night before, yet again. She started talking about our plans for the future and like I always did, I reassured her that we’d figure it out together. With her recent falls and health issues, she said she was starting to understand that she needed more help than she realized and was really thinking about what her future would look like, whether some sort of assisted living situation might be necessary. I once again told her not to worry, that we would all work together to come up with the best arrangement for her. As we were talking, her words started slurring and I realized she was falling asleep. She did this often, this was not uncommon at all. I tried to bring her back around a couple of times before I finally said “You sound tired, Mom. Get some rest and I’ll talk to you later, ok?” No response from her, so I assumed she was asleep and I hung up.
I tried to call her later that afternoon and again that evening but no answer and no return call. I called my grandmother and asked if she’d talked to mom at all that day and she said no. She agreed to check on her and we both hung up, neither of us overly concerned. Like I said, she’d been exhausted and this type of conversation with her was very common, we’ve all experienced them. I made dinner and settled in to watch TV, not giving it much more thought. Two hours later my phone rang and the caller ID said “Mom” so I figured she’d woken up and was calling me back finally. I answered cheerfully, “Hey!” and was met with my grandmother’s voice, telling me that when she couldn’t reach my mom on the phone she went to her house and found her sitting outside, slumped over. She was gone.
The next few hours is a blur to me. I was screaming and crying, hyperventilating while Ron held me. The police and paramedics were at her house, checking everything over. She was wrapped in a blanket and all the lights were on, her phone on the ground beside her. I’m still not 100% sure what happened because the medical examiner reports are still outstanding but I’m fairly certain that she passed away while I was talking to her that morning and I just didn’t realize. The guilt I feel about that is crippling.
I made another call to Ciara to share more heartbreaking news. Ron and I flew back to Arizona to plan yet another funeral, Ciara arriving a few days after we did. We spent a whirlwind week laying my mother to rest with my father, tying up lose ends and closing up their house before flying back home again. Five days after we got home, I went in for a planned surgery and have been recovering from that for the last week. Which brings me to today. Our camper is in the shop right now having repairs done to the plumbing system and new tires put on. We are planning to close up our home and head west right after Thanksgiving, about three weeks from now. We will spend the winter in Arizona, trying to piece together what in the world we do next. We have my parents’ home and all of their belongings to sort through, decide upon and liquidate.
As I sit here writing this, I can acknowledge that I have barely scratched the surface of letting myself feel the pain, grief, guilt and full emotion of all that’s transpired this year. Each time I try to let myself feel something, the avalanche of it all starts rumbling toward me and it feels so overwhelming that I turn and run, make myself busy instead. I understand logically how unhealthy that is but I’m just not ready to let myself crumble under the weight of it all yet. I know I’ll get there, and that this winter will likely be more difficult and cathartic than anything I’ve ever experienced. The chaotic state of the world with the pandemic flaring back up and an election circus never seen before are enough to send any sane person reeling and yet all of that is just minor background noise in the face of what I’m feeling with the loss of both my parents within three months time. Every morning I wake up and this new reality hits me like a Mac truck. I pick up my phone to call my mom all the time, to share something funny or exciting and then realize that I can’t. I cry often and still find it hard to breathe at times. I’m more quiet and I keep to myself. I have no idea how to be in this new world I find myself in, but I’m working on it. In the meantime I just keep reminding myself to breathe in, breathe out.
Copyright 2020, all rights reserved. All images taken by me unless otherwise stated.