An absence of choice

Hey Mom. It’s Thanksgiving. I know this holiday was one of your favorites, maybe not quite Christmas Eve level, but up there given your love of cooking. There is also the fact that in your marriage years to dad, it was one of the holidays that required the in-laws to do the 7-hour drive to celebrate instead of vice versa. I remember so clearly those early turkey days because it was the only time of year that we’d empty the dining room table of papers and clutter. I’d help you dust the furniture, polish the fancy silverware and get the opportunity to “visit” grandma and grandpa in their hotel which, now in adulthood, I realize was a fairly crappy motor lodge. But as a child who’d had never herself stayed at a hotel, it was mysterious and exciting. Grandpa would brag about how quick and efficient his drive from Rockford, Illinois to Murray, Kentucky was in his Datson 280 Z. It didn’t even occur to me until now that meant that these two senior citizens would cram themselves into such a small vehicle for such a long trip.

But I digress.

Thanksgiving is the holiday of home. During my college years, it was that return to the roots and I reveled in coming back to reveal the person I was becoming whether it was via fashion or accomplishments or just the distance that going to college a few states away affords. By that time, you were married to your second and forever husband and settling into the holidays you’d always dreamed of hosting. This is when things became “a big deal” and you took your hosting duties seriously. You also surprised us all with a sibling, Emily Beth Korth. Born in 1992, she became the common denominator with our combined family. She meant blood relation on both sides. We all now had skin (literally) the game of the Korth-Begley union.

As I got older and married myself, the holiday began to rotate. Sometimes we would spend it with you, other times with my in-laws out-of-state. We were transient those early years of our marriage when it came to holidays and opted for what made most sense.

Then, we moved to Minnesota. We put more distance between us physically and we also bought our first home. And at some point, the idea of staying close became more appealing. As our roots and lives started to solidify in Saint Paul, the 4-day holiday became a respite. It became a time that meant we didn’t have to travel; a holiday to keep to ourselves. There was a Thanksgiving that you did come and visit in those early years and I’m so thankful for that. I think you wanted me to have a little of what you got early in your marriage, a chance to celebrate with family in our own home. It’s a lovely memory that I hold close to my heart.

But as the years peeled away, our Thanksgiving traditions started to diverge. We would call or text our greetings. Sometimes you sent me flowers or a table centerpiece. Minnesota Thanksgiving became a tradition that really started to set for James and myself. Has it been 10 years now? We cook a locally raised turkey, we invite friends over, there is always a puzzle, we get our tree and celebrate with a drink at The Tavern on Grand, we decorate for Christmas, we watch movies, we veg, we hike, we cuddle our pups, we enjoy the 4-day stretch and, on years we’ve needed to, indulged in Black Friday deals for technology like new computers and televisions.

I love Thanksgiving. I love everything about it now. I like the food, I like the meditation of the puzzle. I like to wear comfy clothes for 4-days straight and really connect with my little family (and, yes, I count a husband + 2 dogs as a family). I also love spending time with friends because they are the roots of our life here in MN.

But this year has been weird. I’m not going to lie. Coming into November, I started to dread the holiday in a way I’ve never experienced and, at first, I wasn’t sure why. How could I feel slightly repelled by the month and holiday that used to be my fave?

It didn’t require a lot of heavy digging to figure out why. Obviously, this is my first year without you physically on this planet, mom. Each first is going to sting. But it was also a year ago in November when your health really started to go down hill. It was early November when you fell and ended up on the hospital and hallucinated for 3 days with Barrack Obama speaking to you from the ceiling while James and I were forced to truly understand the gravity of your condition. Until that episode, we still had hope you would get a transplant, you would recover, we would have many holidays to come.

But after that painful week in the hospital, the game changed. And while you did recover from that initially, it’s when things really did change.

Not only do I have that memory close at heart, Thanksgiving 2 years ago was also when we lost our dog Dora suddenly and I still smart from that loss. She was only 9. It happened so fast. I will forever remember going from happy holiday mode to devastated “I can’t believe my dog is dying” in 48 hours. Looking back on November memories the past two years is such a mixture of pleasure and grief.

So, yeah, November this year started on me weird and melancholic and I was approaching with more trepidation that I knew how to handle.

Then it hit me. What was bothering me most was the absence of choice.

We had taken Thanksgiving for ourselves, James and me. It was our selfish indulgence and I never actually felt guilty or sad over that choice because Christmas was always there a month later. I didn’t feel the need to drive to Wisconsin in November when we could take the time for ourselves. But NOT having the choice to make the trip? That’s different.

That stings.

And the worst part? What I find the very, very worst part? I know the truth is that if you were still alive today with no health issues, we would not choose you. We would stay here in Minnesota, we would do our thing and I wouldn’t feel an ounce of guilt or sadness over that choice.

But because you aren’t here, this makes me deeply sad. I can’t choose to not choose you.

The good news? The holiday has actually been pretty nice. As darkly as I’ve been approaching the latter half of this month, now that it’s actually here, it’s been pretty joyful. Maybe I was able to compartmentalize and put that sadness in a box, but we had a pretty lovely Thanksgiving day that culminated in a fancy dinner of oysters and stone crab and a sunny outdoor walk with the dogs in the snow. Black Friday was a turkey feast with friends that was hilarious and indulgent and such food for the soul. And now I’m here in my cozy home on Saturday morning with a weekend still open ahead of me that will most likely include Christmas tree shopping, more time with friends, more puzzling and liquor and maybe some yoga, too. It’s a blessing. I am so lucky. My life is pretty damn great.

But I miss you. I really, really do. And I never got to say it to you in person, so I’m going to say it to you now:

Thank you. Thank you, mom. Thank you for letting me be selfish. Thank you for understanding my need to peel away and celebrate this day on our own. Thank you for never making me feel guilty or less than for not feeling a stronger pull to Wisconsin for this break. I know you understand. I know you understood. And for that, I’m so, so grateful.

Hey mom, thank you for the pan!

Dear Mom,

We used your paella pan last night. I wish I’d taken a few photos other than the one after shot from the feast where James, myself and two friends gorged ourselves on hefty helpings of rice, shellfish, smoked rice and chicken thighs.

I don’t have a lot from you, not that you didn’t offer. I’m just not very material when it comes to preserving our history so when we sat in your hospice bed that second weekend that I drove down and you asked me what I wanted from you, I was really at a loss. Other than your ring that was redesigned from Grandma Harriet’s retirement diamond, I didn’t have much in mind. (Which, ironically, after you passed, I gave to Emily anyway because it seemed to belong on her hand more than mine. But that is probably another note for a different time.)

No, I really wasn’t sure there was anything I needed/wanted. After all, your life in that house with your husband and family in Cambridge, Wisconsin really started after me. I’d left for college in Kentucky the summer you got married and we both started very different paths. My connection to you as a mother while I was a youth in physical forms just didn’t exist any longer.

When we sat on your bed a few months back and you asked me that question, I looked around the house and there was nothing that connected me. I feel kind of bad for saying that. You had a gorgeous house and it was all so very YOU. But it was your life after me. Does that make sense?

We did call my husband James, though, during that talk because you also wanted me to ask him, too. And if there was a connection to be found, it would be in the kitchen given all the Christmas Eve’s and holidays where you and he would cook for the family. If there is an essence to me of “our family” as adults, it is/was through food. The conversation that day was awkward conversation to start, but James immediately referenced two items: your Cuisinart food processor (from hence many, many batches of liver pâté were born) and a paella pan that I didn’t even realize existed.

This pan, ginormous in both scale and weight, is cast iron and lived in the depths of your cabinets. I even question if either you or your husband had ever used it considering it’s girth. But apparently, this pan had been noticed enough by my husband that he could reference it by memory. Take it, mom said. Take it home to James.

And last night, we really did do this pan some justice. My girlfriend, who is gluten free, was coming over for a bike ride and I promised her that James could make us dinner as a reward for her trip over to the east side of Saint Paul (if you don’t know the Twin Cities metro, it’s pulling teeth to get Minneapolitans and Saint Paulites to cross the river).

Since we were on the gluten-free train of meal planning, paella seemed like a fun adventure especially given our recent exposure to a neighbor who makes it on the grill. I immediately found a New York Times recipe and we even went to the local fish market for little neck clams and sustainably-sourced jumbo shrimp.

Jen and I rode for 30 miles. It was my first bike ride of the season and it felt good to get out on my bike and feel my legs and the road again. After all the emotional commotion of this past winter and spring, I finally feel like I am starting to come out of hibernation mode and my friend, Jen, understands. She also lost her mom recently. We have a lot to talk about together.

After the ride, Jen and I sat on the back deck and continued catching up while James, the paella-master, did his magic. And sure as shit, he brought out that ginormous monster of a pan full of fish and aborio rice and chicken stock and thighs outside, down the patio steps and placed it on the grill.

(Everyone also breathed a little sigh of relief that it fit!)

The meal was a masterpiece. The grill brought smoke and flavor that I’ve never experienced in a paella (I’m sure James would insist at this point I also mention the hickory chips). But I feel like we need to give props to the pan, too. It’s got good karma.

So, yeah. There’s that. We used your pan, Mom. I know we’ll use it again. Thanks for the inspo. Sad you couldn’t be here to enjoy it. XO

Paella pan
The aftermath from our paella feast in mom’s pan

I’m sorry that sucked so bad

Dear mom,

That was not fun. And I’m so sorry — for it all. I know it wasn’t fun for you and I am certainly in no place to complain. I also don’t regret a single second. I would do it all again. There were also a few precious moments. Very precious moments. Like when we sat with our sock-covered feet in the sun and watched the squirrels eat all the bird seed out of the feeder while listening to Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. I really liked that part.

But if I’m being honest, there were way more sucky moments than precious ones. Hospice, while wonderful, is also cruel. There were cruel, painful moments like when you told me you didn’t want to die. It was a terrible moment when you told me I couldn’t understand. It was awful especially that time you fought me so damn hard because you just wanted to make the bed and make it nice and have it feel like a real bed with tucked-in sheet corners and decorative pillows overflowing on top of the her *and his* pillows for sleeping and when I couldn’t get it all to fit you yelled at me, “THIS IS NOT A HOSPITAL BED!”

I still weep thinking of that moment. I have so much compassion and empathy for where you were at that very moment but I was also so frustrated. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t doing it right. And when I tried to reason with you, you really let me have it because you just wanted me to see you for who you were. To be present with your humanity. There was so little you could control by this point, but you could control this bed. You could make THIS look nice.

I should have been nicer about it. I wish I would have tried harder. I mean, god, there’s got to be a YouTube video out there instructing on how to make a perfectly beautiful hospital bed, right? Why didn’t I just google that?

We had 6 weeks. And there by the grace of God go I that we got to spend at least a part of each of those weeks together. Early on, it was mostly just visiting and television management (can’t we just turn MSNBC off for an hour for a Grace & Frankie epi?), but later it was care. Care in the form of blended smoothies you could barely get down. Care walking you to the toilet and praying you wouldn’t lose your balance. Care putting pills in your mouth when you got too weak to do the task yourself.

I never in a million years thought I’d have been capable of some of the things I had to do in the name of your care. As my favorite Peloton instructer often quotes, it’s true, “you don’t even know what you are capable of.

And yet, I still don’t feel like it was enough. I’ve never had a strong maternal instinct. I’m not good with intimacy. I like boundaries. I like walls. Straight up when I found out you were going into hospice, I made it very clear to everyone that I would not be one of the caretakers in this process. I would be there for you, yes. But I would not be there to feed you, wipe your privates or change your clothing. I was so very, very clear about that.

And it’s not because I didn’t/don’t love you. I’m pretty sure you understood. It’s just not who I am. Those are actions that don’t come easy. For goodness sake, I don’t even like to hold babies. I am uncomfortable around helplessness. In fact, helplessness gives me the urge to run in the opposite direction.

But while I did set those boundaries with you, I also didn’t run. The six weeks between February 22nd and April 11th were the most transformational in my life because that time taught me that I could be there for a person. Be truly there even though every cell in my body yearned to escape.

I’m still sorry it sucked.

I’m sorry I had to force you doses of lorazepam when you got feisty. I’m sorry that I had to make you to nap when you didn’t want to go to sleep (you didn’t want to miss a thing!). I’m sorry I gave you so much shit for watching cable news. And I’m really sorry for all the times I practically skipped to my car late at night when released because I could finally retreat to my hotel room to watch Housewives and drink whiskey.

I’m also sorry we didn’t have a bunch of deep conversations. I’m sorry I didn’t ask you more questions. As cliché as it sounds, I thought we’d have more time. I thought there would be more chances. I’m sorry I wasted time distracting us from meaningful moments substituted with Pretty Woman and Miss Doubtfire. (Fuck, those movies are so bad! Why did I make us watch them?)

Sucky shit is transformational. I’ve been through enough dark patches in my life to know that pain also goes hand in hand with growth. In the ashes, flowers are born. New life takes root. I will come out stronger, better, more empathetic and understanding and changed. Yet, that’s what also sucks the most about this. YOU don’t get to come out better. YOU don’t get to come out changed. YOU had to go through this shitty, sucky, horrible-ass experience and just die.

Just die.

I’m so sorry for that mom.

I’m so, so sorry.

It’s not fair. It sucks. And while all your pretty little kids get stronger and better and more evolved, you don’t get to be here to reap any of these rewards. Your sacrifice is the ultimate.

That’s death, I guess.

If I were Christian or believed in God, this might be easier. I could comfort myself in the stories of the afterlife and how we will all be together again — some day. But I have to be sorry for that, too, because that’s not what I believe. I don’t have that happy ending in my head. It’s not in my future.

Instead, I’m just sad and sorry.

And grateful.

In your final chapter, you taught me the greatest lessons that I’ll ever learn:

  • I am capable of more than I know.
  • Humanity is everything.
  • And when in doubt, google that shit.

Thank you for that, mom. Thank you. And, again, I’m so sorry.