Saturday, November 2, 2019

Surviving the Unthinkable: Finding Your Way As Life Goes On

Thirty-nine years ago today -- November 2, 1980 -- what started as an ordinary Sunday was suddenly and forever a life-changing day.

It began with our usual happy Sunday routine. My husband Bob and I went to the Hollywood Newsstand to buy the Sunday New York Times and assorted magazines, laughing and joking with the proprietor Bernie Weisman and enjoying his usual outrageousness. Then we went to our favorite restaurant, the Shaker Mountain Inn, for a brunch of omelets and muffins. Our favorite server Flo smiled and entered our usual order as we sat down. It was just another sweet Sunday morning in our young lives. Then, suddenly, it wasn't.

Bob was paged over the sound system to take a phone call at the reception desk. Our eyes met, startled. He hurried away. Rooted in place by sudden fear and dread, I watched him from the back as he took the call. He bent over suddenly as if struck in the stomach and then straightened, one hand shielding his eyes. My breath caught. I couldn't move. On his way back to our table, he stopped Flo and talked with her for a moment. She embraced him, then hurried away, reappearing with our brunch order packed neatly in to-go boxes.

Bob came over and put his arms around me, saying softly: "Sweetie, we need to leave. Your mother has been found dead."

He told me later that the phone call had been from my brother Michael, then a fourth year medical student at Stanford. Our mother's longtime next door neighbor Wayne, noticing newspapers accumulating in her driveway, had discovered our mother's body, sitting in a chair just inside the unlocked front door of her home. She had died so quickly from a cardiac arrest that she hadn't even had time to drop the newspaper she had been reading. Wayne didn't remember that I hadn't changed my name after marriage, that I was listed in the phone book and lived only a few minutes away. So he called Stanford Medical School and officials tracked down my brother in his off-campus rented room. Michael had called me at home and got no answer. Then he called our sister Tai, who reminded him that Bob and I were probably having our usual Sunday brunch at the Shaker Mountain Inn. And so he called, tearfully asking Bob to take good care of me.

I was in shock as we drove to my childhood home. My father had died of a heart attack four months to the day before. And now my mother was gone. How could that be? It was too soon. Far too soon. Tai, the youngest of us, was only 25. Michael had turned 32 the day before and I was 35 and feeling suddenly catapulted to a new phase of life. I wasn't ready to lose her. I shook my head in disbelief. I felt suddenly and terribly alone in the world, despite Bob's firm and loving grip on my hand and the warmth of Tai's arms greeting me on my arrival minutes after our mother's body had been removed.

I wondered, as grief engulfed me, how the sunshine could be so bright, how the day could be so beautiful, how people could be going on with their ordinary Sunday lives when my life was suddenly and forever changed.

We all have those moments that turn ordinary days into extraordinarily painful turning points in our lives.

It may have been the loss of a parent or a treasured sibling or friend. It may have been a miscarriage of a much-wanted baby or a beloved child or, perhaps even worse, an adult child. It may have been the death of a beloved spouse or the demise of a marriage through divorce. It may have been the unexpected loss of a job or a career or a cherished goal.

Whatever the shocking loss, a line from a long ago Peggy Lee hit may have come to mind: "I thought I would die....but I didn't."

Life does go on. We do what we need to do: we make plans and persevere and smile politely and sob in the shower and in unguarded moments. We struggle to imagine life without the lost person or job or goal. We may make some bad choices along the way: mine was to adopt my mother's compulsive overeating as a coping strategy and double my weight in 18 months. And we make healthier choices -- to work through our grief, knowing that this loss will always, to some extent, be with us; to reach out to others, sometimes reconnecting with new warmth, sometimes reaffirming love that has always been and will always be with us. We turn to faith or music or sweet memories to soothe our pain. And we go on.

Others may watch us with empathy, with sadness and with wonder. "How do you stand it?" one friend asked a few months later, after my last grandparent, my maternal grandmother, died of a stroke only two months after my mother's death and as a beloved cousin was nearing an untimely death from cancer.

I didn't have an answer. Except that you do somehow stand it. Day by day. You get up in the morning and put on your shoes and do whatever you need to do. Sometimes you don't do it well. Sometimes the tears surprise you once again on a day when everything seemed a little better. And sometimes a moment of lightness and joy comes as a welcome surprise when you've been feeling that your sadness will engulf you forever. Maybe the joy comes from a visit from a dear one who understands. Maybe it comes from a sudden memory to savor. Maybe it comes as you bury your face in the soft fur of a treasured companion animal.

All the tiny steps forward bring some hope and peace. The sadness, the missing, the regrets will always be there, but tempered by new realities. Life goes on with its challenges and its joys.

Thirty-nine years later, a new generation has transformed our family: my sister's child Lex, ten years later, and my brother's children Maggie and Henry, born nearly three decades after we lost our parents. My brother and I are now considerably older than our parents ever got to be. Our lives and careers have had moments our parents couldn't have imagined. We have lived most of our lives without them.

All these years later, so much is gone: Bernie and Flo, the newsstand and Shaker Mountain Inn. Our Sunday routine. Our youthful anticipation and optimism. A decade ago, Bob and I left California for new life in Arizona. We're looking back on a long past and ahead to a shorter future.

We've come to terms with the past. We've all had moments of facing our own mortality. We've imagined the loss of ourselves and all that defines us as we've watched an increasing number of peers pass away. My first lover died nearly a year ago. He was a sweet and gentle man, forever a friend and, in my mind's eye, perpetually youthful. I couldn't imagine him growing old and passing away -- until he did.

Yet somehow, impossibly, life goes on. We dry our tears, cherish our memories and take one step at a time back into living lives filled with moments of joy and sadness, searing losses and enduring love.


  1. I'll be 62 soon, and find myself contemplating the direction of my life; feeling that positive changes need to occur. When I read essays about mortality, like this one, I find myself hanging onto the stories, hoping that I will handle future changes that will happen in my life - good or not so good.

  2. The biggest thing I have learned about loss is that life will never be the same, or 'normal' again, but it can be 'a new normal'. Hearing it phrased that way was a big help to me, not only in dealing with the losses that have already happened but in looking ahead and knowing there will be more coming.

    As you point out, too, if a family keeps expanding in the direction of the younger generations, it is a comfort. I would not want to be the last of my family living.

  3. this is such a beautiful post, Kathy. We don't ever get over it; we get through it. But the path isn't always easy. Maybe it shouldn't be -- that's what relationship is. I know we will face many more of these in time to come. I hope I remember the lessons of the past and those shared here.

  4. I remember driving home from work, and stopping by my mother's house in 2001. The newspaper was still in the driveway. Although your post brought that memory back, I appreciate it because I remember her productive life, her intelligence, facility for languages, her humor and her comforting presence. A beautiful post, and a testament to your strength and compassion. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for your beautiful words that come from a place of shock, grief, and loss. I can’t imagine the shock you felt and the change that came to your life. You were so young to lose a mother. Here I am the same age as you and yet my 100+ year old mother still lives. I just lost my sister who is 12 years younger. Life has such unexpected twists and turns but somehow we do manage to go on.

  6. Kathy, finding your blog (and reading this first post) couldn't have come at a better time. For most of my adult life, I spent Saturday mornings with my mom (usually on the phone, as I "moved to the big city" 30+ years ago). She left us 15 years ago this December, and not a Saturday morning goes by that I don't miss our long talks very much. I've been dealing with some health issues this year, and it just makes me miss her even more (if that's possible). Anyway--I've been spending this cold evening with my tv off (for a change) and reading your prior posts for the year. What great stuff you share.. I look forward to more.