Content warning: death and alcoholism.
Me and Mom in Portland, summer 2015
On April 20th, my 31st birthday, I traveled to Sturgis, Michigan to visit my mom. Toward the end of last year, she put her house up for sale and she finally had an offer on it. My aunt and I wanted to go out there to help her pack and have a yard sale in preparation for her move. I didn’t know then that this would be the last time I would see her.
Less than a month later, on May 3rd, my mom died after a hard-fought battle with a decades-long alcohol addiction. I had thought about this possibility so many times over the past year when her addiction was at its height, but it was still a shock and felt very sudden. Since she passed away, I’ve been trying to make sense of my loss and her non-existence. She was here, and now she isn’t. If she’s not here, then is she somewhere else? If so, where is that? It’s been difficult for me to accept that she isn’t here anymore, and I’ve been looking for answers.
My thoughts these days are interesting to observe. I am an agnostic atheist, and I don’t believe in things like heaven or god because I don’t have proof or faith they exist, so I’ve been feeling quite challenged by the discomfort of not knowing the truth. Contradictory to my worldview and strong reliance on things that are “knowable” with observable information, I’ve even found myself imagining a place, like heaven, where my mom is now, being her best self, carefree and without pain, watching over me, in the presence of those who have also passed on.
Non-existence isn’t something I’ve given much thought to before. When someone passes away, where is “away”? Is it a place, or is it nothing and nowhere? People in my life have died, friends and family I’ve cared deeply for, some in sudden and tragic ways. But it’s never struck me like this. The loss feels so immense and immediate, unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Imagining a place like heaven, while I don’t believe in it per se, has been one way for me to try and make sense of things because I don’t have any empirical evidence to draw on. I also just don’t want her to be gone.
Right after she died, I started to believe that if I analyzed the situation enough, tried to put all the pieces together, it would all make sense and I would feel better and accept it. As an analytical person, as a researcher, I thought that gathering data would help me draw conclusions and relieve me of my anxiety. Information from the past, memories of my mom, the things she liked, the things we did together, the sound of her voice, the words she said.
Some things come to me easily, triggered by a thought, sound, smell, sight; other times I close my eyes and try to search my mind for anything I can come across. Thinking about what I am able to factually know has made it easier to accept her death now that it’s happened, because it’s empirical. I can paint a picture, connect the dots, and draw a timeline that spans her life, my life, and the events that shaped the future and our relationship. This helps me better understand and accept her ultimate demise.
The hard part comes with the unknowable. There’s a limit to what I can know about the bigger picture, simply because she is no longer here. Because she no longer exists. I live with an unceasing need for information to make my way through life and feel in control of myself, the present and the future. But I can’t know what comes after death, nor will I ever know all the reasons why she ended up where she did. I can’t ask her about what exactly in her life led her to have such a vicious disease. I can’t ask her what more I could have done about it. I can’t know what happened to her after she died. This is difficult to accept, even though logically I know not all things are knowable.
All I can do now is observe and understand myself in the present, accept what I know and don’t know, and triangulate this information with the memories I have to learn how to move forward. These are the only information resources I have to draw on, unless I were to incorporate faith. Either that, or I find a way to accept that this is one of those things that cannot be understood in the same way that I approach understanding things as a researcher. Something that I cannot observe, analyze and understand in the way I am used to doing.
Seeing the sites when she visited Portland in 2015
Mom driving the 1946 Alice Chalmers at her home in Sturgis, MI, 2015