When I lost my mom in 2011, I was nineteen years old, on leave from my second semester at NYU after a phone call at the library: “Come home. The doctors aren’t sure how much longer I have to live.” Ovarian cancer ravages: bones en-fragiled, weight disappeared, wigs employed to cover hair lost.
The fog, then, that began the loss of six months of my life: mailing out boxes from my dorm; purchasing a one-way plane ticket; pulling my carry-on behind me down the Union Square region streets, still adjusting to the publicity of NYC travel, hating its grit and the unevenness of its cement.
I don’t remember the last month of my mom’s suffering–April to May, spring tucking itself around the trees in our front yard–beyond the faint recollection that, as she spent twenty hours in her bed, aching, peaceful and uncomplaining, I lay in my own, numb. We lost her unexpectedly, in the sense that I remember my dad speaking, hurriedly, when her collapse began: internal bleeding, turned coma, turned death, no last words exchanged; machines beeping, breathing, holding her physical frame.
There are no words for the loss of the attachment you have to life–the one who understands and sees you; the one who has raised and protected you; the one whose wisdom has shaped you, deep inside, to fight for the good and the best. I don’t remember the memorial service, the Mass to pray for her, the completion of homework to satisfy the classroom requirements left behind; I don’t remember the summer, the cyclical movements of grief, and shock, and a rage so deep that it doesn’t really move in you but just sits, hard as rock. I remember the trauma of our own form of poverty–funeral expenses, and flight expenses, and Polish consulate expenses added up, as my dad traveled with her ashes to Poland alone, leaving three of us infantilized at home, as if we didn’t need our closure over the Olsztyn cemetery, candles lit, a step from cobblestones and bakeries with bread fresh. I was done with a year of university, and the younger two barely had their minds wrapped around high school.
The last time I really looked at him, he sat in the kitchen corner, working on two laptops at a time–the computer given him by work, IT programmer genie that he was, and the computer he brought up for Polish news outlets, soccer games, and U2 music videos.
I think of this duo now–one returned, property of the MN state government it was, the other in the pile of items about which decisions must be made–and it’s hard to wrap my mind around sixty-seven years of his identity evolving: Polish-born; a self-learned programmer, so intelligent that it hurt; a refugee to Germany, giving up his Polish passport and its marker of empty, communism-imposed stores and wait lines for food; a sponsored immigrant to Canada, when hundreds of Polish couples and families fled, and took jobs with car auctions and restaurants; a husband, who waited seven years for me, the eldest; a father of three, who never quite figured out how to speak; a home-owner, who liked to keep shoeboxes of archives, organized and messy at once.
When I looked, he sat bent over, a limp in his right leg, suffering out the infection that he thought was related to the leg, to leave-raking and yard maintenance that he managed alone.
Sat solitary, that same way he sat solitary his entire life–he who spent time drinking with university friends, and who converted to a form of reason when he encountered my mother; he who layered his sweatshirts with cigarette smoke, as he smoked his mother’s militarism out, and spent hours bunched over in the garage, a Żywiec can a night.
When it came time for surgeons to go in on Wednesday, last week (11/6), this infection in the leg apparently involved the entire graft that doctors had placed within him two years prior during an artery bypass surgery, which took him out for an entire month; his colon and liver; his interiority–which then bled, even as platelets and donated blood couldn’t re-fill it.
One of my brothers and I took the call at home–“come, for he doesn’t have much longer”–and headed to the hospital. He was gone three hours later, after a surgery that was supposed to ease pain in his leg.
The shock is like a needle in the heart. The re-orienting now, mentally and emotionally, of our entire lives–hard. Where we had some kind of stable point of contact with him, some kind of regularity, we don’t anymore.
He, too, will be cremated and buried with my mom abroad, dust on the very earth which birthed him–and so life runs. I think of Anastasia, and life as an orphan as it begins now; I think of death, and the place that relationship has–only the greatest intimacy is worth living for, for everything else gets stolen, and you’re left with a yearning in the heart, for time better spent.
Śpieszmy się | Let us hasten
Ks. (Fr.) Jan Twardowski
Śpieszmy się kochać ludzi tak szybko odchodzą
i ci co nie odchodzą nie zawsze powrócą
i nigdy nie wiadomo mówiąc o miłości
czy pierwsza jest ostatnia czy ostatnia pierwsza.
Let us hasten to love others so quickly they depart
and those who depart will not always return
and one does not always know speaking of love
whether the first one is last or the last first.
I love you, tata. Thank you for all things.
I’ll be back to work tomorrow/Friday.