Yesterday was my 32nd birthday.
I've been attempting to reflect on my last 365 days lately and it's been difficult. I think it's because the last 365 days have just been difficult. There's been so many changes, shifts, endings and beginnings that trying to make sense of it feels a little like trying to undo a big knotted ball of string - you think you've figured it out and then the knot is back there again, seemingly worse than before.
Around my birthday last year, I named one of my biggest fears. No, not birds, although that is a pretty big one. After all these years of 'losing' mom to MSA and the shifts in life that come with young children, I realized my fear was of people leaving me, of being left behind, alone. I had placed my security in relationships and I was failing at keeping them. Shortly before Christmas, this fear began to have negative consequences and physical side effects on my life.
So while friendships ebbed and flowed (as they naturally do), I worried that it was my fault or that there was something inherently wrong with me that had people looking for something better, 'leaving me' by that perspective. I had let my fear of (ultimately) being alone grow unchecked to the point where I lost sleep, experienced panic attacks almost any time I visited with friends, felt my emotions become rollercoaster-like and I noticed myself disengaging from my family regularly. In naming my fear, I had no choice but to see the ramifications of that fear on my life... and the ones surrounding me.
I decided that I had to dig into this hard place, full of fear, if I wanted to be free of it. I started listening to podcasts and sermons on fear and anxiety, I read Brené Brown and saw a counsellor. I cried a lot and I pulled back - from relationships/situations that I began to recognize as triggers, and from social media for various periods of time. I read often, sometimes as an 'unhealthy' coping mechanism. I made decisions to better my mental health and spiritual life, and while some were easier to implement than I thought, there are others that I still struggle with.
It was within this past year that I had someone from our community (in the health care industry) describe mom as palliative to my face. When that word was used, it was factual and correct but it also took me by surprise and felt like a punch to the gut. I recall it taking all my effort not to cry right then and there, I don't remember if I succeeded. Not long after that, I was at a retreat weekend that was structured enough to ensure we were fed and well-caffeinated but open enough for creating at our own leisure, together or individually. As a group one evening, we were asked questions, our responses written on little pieces of paper and then we guessed which answer belonged to each person. I remember laughing so much with these women in that sacred space of sharing, the same space where we created and witnessed others create. We shared our mantras/words/themes for the year and I claimed 'embrace the mess' as my theme. Sure, on one hand it meant embracing the physical mess I regularly feel caught in while teaching my littles to clean up after themselves (spoiler alert: it's not going well). But more importantly, it meant embracing, acknowledging and not shying away from the mess that comes with grief and the anxiety I was learning to address. I spoke the words "My mom is dying" out loud and in that public space, and it felt just as surprising and true as labelling her palliative.
In December 2016, I began to acknowledge that having no control over how long or how much of my mom I could keep, had shattered me. Where I once felt grounding and security in a relationship, I now felt disconnected and alone. I had to acknowledge that while my mom is still with us physically, she no longer could fulfill the many roles a mother figure embodies. I needed my mom to be my sounding board on parenting, marriage, friends, and my female ally in a family predominantly male, but that wasn't happening. It is difficult to feel those needs are met when her voice is gone and our conversations are one-sided - me sharing silly anecdotes or my concerns with her while we look into each others eyes and I try desperately to interpret what she is trying to tell me. It is difficult to glean wisdom and advice from someone when you are limited by yes or no questions - "Close your eyes if you are saying yes, Mom". One year later, I will admit to struggling still with feeling alone and disconnected. Experiencing continuous loss and grief will do that to anyone, I suppose.
This past year was about acknowledgment of fears, the loss of denial and finding God in all of it. I don't know what 33 will bring - I expect hard things that will make me feel a little more shattered and more than likely, even messier. I can no longer deny that my mom is dying. There are times still when I'm frustrated by the question "How is your mom doing?" and the response I want to give is "She is dying - losing function and completely reliant on her family for everything." Of course, saying that would make others feel uncomfortable. Partially because I don't always want to say it kindly while I'm reaching for my sandwich meat at the deli counter of my grocery store, but mostly because I would be removing any remaining denial for them, of how far along this disease has progressed. It was hard for me to hear someone else use the term palliative while describing mom, but earlier that year I had begun to acknowledge that, to some degree. My time with a counsellor, sifting through the pain and searching for the Truth within it, had prepared me for that statement. My decision to stop distracting myself and deal with my issues by taking time to be alone with God, reminding myself of truth through Bible verses that give me comfort, has caused a shift recently in my response to my fears and my mom's disease.
There is a Charles Spurgeon quote - I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages - that perhaps embodies my year's theme of 'embrace the mess' better than those three words. Life this year left me feeling untethered, disconnected. I've described it before to friends as though I have nothing to cling to that is safe and secure in the middle of an open body of water, feeling as though I'm drowning by each new wave of grief I experience and losing the strength to tread water at times. The truth is, every wave I've felt has been pushing me towards God, towards the security I can only find in Him, and I have found myself clinging to the Rock of Ages only by embracing the movement of these waves instead of fighting them this year.
The waves keep coming - I don't think they ever stop while we live on this earth - but I'll 'kiss the wave' and embrace my mess, if it reminds me that Jesus is called Immanuel, "God with us".