Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Glue

Glue (n): An adhesive force or factor.

She was the glue. The thing that held us; bound us together. She was what made us a unit. A package. A family.

I can honestly say I only realized that in the moments after my mother's death as I sat next to my brother, a man who I, as an adult, saw once, maybe twice a year. As I sat and listened to him talk of the moment that my mother, reaching towards something, took her last breath; a moment I could not bear to watch, my mind was racing. Over and over again, I kept saying to myself, "I don't know how to be us without her." I never said it out loud. I couldn't bear to say it out loud. The "us" had changed so dramatically over the past few years. Us, without my mother, just didn't seem possible.

On the year anniversary of my brother's death, I wrote a blog filled with hope, love and a new understanding of what my life was supposed to look like. I had learned so much from a loss that was so profound. I spent the next 6 months truly coming into my own emotionally. I had a gratitude in my life that I really don't think I had ever experienced before. It was truly humbling.

So here I am, nearing the year anniversary of my mother's death and wanting to convey some deep, meaningful message of hope, love and understanding. And I'm here to tell you, I'm just not there.

The first few weeks after you lose someone in an anticipated death, such as cancer, there is an odd sense of relief. My mother's battle was quite short in the scheme of things; 3 months from diagnosis to death, but painful nonetheless. The emotional and physical toll of being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer was devastating on a woman who had buried her parents, her husband, her son and all of her siblings. She became incapacitated almost instantly. She was afraid of living and afraid of dying.

The glue was cracking. And we all knew it.

The Ciliberti's are an odd bunch. Ask anyone who knows my family. We love fiercely. We fight fiercely. We defend fiercely. And we never back down. Never. So as the glue began to crack, we all did what it was we did. And we did it fiercely. My one sister cleaned fiercely. The other cried fiercely. The other took notes fiercely. My brother made calls and tried to stay calm fiercely. And I tried to hold it together fiercely. Because as fiercely as I tried to hold it together, I knew when it fell apart, it would be fierce.

The last hours of my mother's life were so devastating and filled with anxiety. She had come home on hospice the day before, upbeat, coherent and happy. 24 hours later, she was letting go. Completely planned on her part, if you ask me. Once they told my mother treatment was no longer an option, her priority was to come home to die. On her terms. Fiercely. Just like all of those damn kids she raised. So she did.

So when I walked in the house and saw my mother laying in the hospital bed that sunny Saturday morning, peaceful and no longer in any pain, I was relieved. But I also knew the glue was gone. And I had no idea what to do.

I have had some low moments in the last year. If you have had the pleasure of never experiencing the death of a parent, sibling or close friend, consider yourself blessed. Eventually, you will be there and everything I'm about to say will make sense.

Life has it's ups and downs. The highs make it all worthwhile. And the lows; well I just keep telling myself, they could be worse. Because in reality, they could be. I lost a brother. He was far from perfect. At one point when I was in my late teens and he was around 30, we had a fight and didn't speak for 6 months. He could get on my last nerve. And he thought I was a know it all. But he believed in me. I lost a father. He was far from perfect. But no child deserves to lose a parent at 11 years old. And I've lost my mother. She was far from perfect. But she was my mother. And when it comes to mothers, that's all that really matters.

I have watched my family systematically deconstruct over the past 12 months. It has been a process likened to another death. My mother was a buffer to the bullshit. And when you take away the buffer and the glue, you are left with tiny fragments that don't exactly fit the way they used to.

I grew up in a very enmeshed family. The joke was "once you marry or enter into the Ciliberti family, you never really leave." We never cleaved to our spouses, which is probably why we all suffered a divorce or two, with Ralph never marrying at all. But many of those ex's remained part of the Ciliberti clan in a way leaving many shaking their heads, asking "how did you do that?" And the answer is....I don't know. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't.

But for the most part, my mother, the glue, bound us tight. With high expectations for family loyalty in the midst of chaos and resentment. And we obliged her.

I sat through a training on trauma this week; my special little interest. I listened to much of the same information as I've heard multiple times in similar seminars. I've even developed a training on trauma informed care and advocate hard for the idea that so many kids who are diagnosed with ADHD are really just victims of trauma or chronic stress. But, this time, I started to really think about the idea that I am a trauma survivor and all that entails.

Loss has colored my world. But so has resiliency. For me, it is always a balance. A key to bouncing back from loss is not necessarily moving on in the traditional sense, rather its figuring out how to come to terms. Post traumatic stress develops when the experience of an event is such that we are so overwhelmed by horror or pain that the memory literally sears itself into the brain. The sights, smells, tastes, and sounds all act as powerful conditioned stimuli to set off flashbacks, anxiety attacks, nightmares. You can't control it. It just happens. I still feel a tinge of panic 3 years later if my phone rings around 10pm, the time my sister called screaming frantically that my brother was dead. I have memories akin to flashbacks as I round the curve just before the Antique Mall in Pennsbury Township, remembering how carefully I took that curve in the rain on the way to my mother's house thinking, "I can't wreck the car. My mother's son is dead." I still react very strongly to the sight of gladiolus and the smell of large amounts of flowers, a lingering memory of my father's viewing 30 years ago. I go into instant panic if I have to enter a funeral home. I have been known to literally run out of funeral homes. I never saw my brother or my mother laying in the casket because of the sheer horror of walking into the funeral home as an 11 year old and seeing a sight no one did or could have prepared me for.

I have come to terms with the fact that I have some level of traumatic stress. And that I shouldn't be ashamed or feel weak by disclosing that. I also realize that I have been able to keep going because I continue to talk about it. I continue to process it. I continue to write about it. And, the scariest part is that I let all of you see it. Because for years I was so afraid of what it would mean if I let it all out. And now, for the most part, I don't give a shit. I pop in and out of writing as my resiliency allows. When I go silent, I am either in a really good place or a really bad place. I haven't been in a good place lately, But then I remember that I need this. And that maybe someone else needs it. And those who don't need or want it can chose to look away. And that's okay too.

My mother was my world. She taught me more than she will ever know. I miss her.