2017 was the year I became a ghost.
The first thing I did in 2017 was bury my mom. The second thing I did was change my locks.
When someone you know and love dies, you go through a lot of weird stages. They tell you that. They tell you to expect the 5 stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
What they don’t tell you is that you also panic. You panic because you feel like everyone you know and love is going to die—at any moment. You feel like life is about to end, tomorrow. And you’d better start making it count. I had good intentions to make 2017 the beginning of my new life, but…
A few months before she got really sick, I thought my parents were ignoring me. No one called me around Thanksgiving. I took it really personally. It turns out they just didn’t know how to tell me. They also knew they couldn’t lie to me.
In my house, I kept finding lady bugs. It was winter outside and it made no sense. I was trying to have a good attitude so I took it as a good sign. I decided to “prepare for something good to happen,” and set up my Christmas trees early. Then I got a phone call and was put on a plane to come home.
After she died, I showed up to work right away. My boss asked me what the hell I was doing there. I didn’t know how to respond. I decided to start dating again, even though I was terrified that I’d be asked how I spent Christmas (you know, watching my mother waste away and die from cancer). That I might be the girl who cried on the first date. I had no sense of time: my brother would say things like, “You know, it’s only been a month since Mom died?” and would be really surprised.
I was also surprised at what a huge setback it was. I went back to guitar and had to re-learn chords again. Simple chords. I forgot how to play my favorite Beck song. I still can’t get it. I had spent the better part of 2016 overcoming what had been a horrendous divorce from my husband of 8 years. I thought I’d come such a long way. Yet suddenly, there I was back at stage 1 again, missing him. “He should be here, why doesn’t he care?” I’d watch myself, in this strange, third person – out of body experience – say things like, “I miss him.” Then snap out of it and realize I didn’t. What the hell was wrong with me? (It turns out, when you can’t deal with trauma A your brain just goes back to trauma B.) I remember the day we found out she had cancer. I came home and word-vomited the news before I could catch my breath. He stood there silent then said, “OK, but we have dinner plans with my folks in an hour. Get ready.”
At the beginning of 2017, I did stupid things like date a young guy and, on the advice of my dad, didn’t tell him my mom had just died. I signed up to be a coordinator at Rock and Roll Camp for Girls. Then, I backed out. I realized I couldn’t read a spreadsheet. I couldn’t return phone calls. When I told my boyfriend about my mom and he said I had too much baggage? I just agreed with him. I didn’t stand up for myself.
I bought a giant green backpack and went to Switzerland on a $400 plane ticket. Everywhere I went it was like my mom was walking 10 steps behind me. I’d flown halfway around the world and I couldn’t get away from this. I’d become a classic Cheryl Strayed stereotype.
This summer I went to all the places I used to go and each time I’d run into my ex husband. He’d always pretend not to know who I was and ignore me. I felt like a ghost haunting our old places: Oktoberfest, Big Cottonwood Canyon, anywhere in Ogden. I went to an Andrew Bird concert and passed out in Pioneer Park because I didn’t eat dinner. I was sure I was dying and no one gave a single fuck. I kept going in to see my doctor because I thought I was having a heart attack; my chest felt like someone had stabbed it with a knife. “No permanent damage, everything’s fine,” they’d say. I cleaned out all the things my ex left in my basement and got really, really sick from whatever he was grinding up, burning, growing, and smoking down there. I worked. I worked and worked and worked and worked.
I had a friend tell me in 2016 that I needed to pick a date in the near future and decide just to not be sad about my divorce anymore. Just like that. This was only a few weeks after my ex had moved out. I really wish grief worked like that.
My dad has decided he’s no longer sad anymore. That’s great for him, but he doesn’t dream about her every single night. The first time I dreamt about her, we were walking together on a boardwalk, talking. (Well, I was talking and she just listened.) At the end of the boardwalk she stopped me and said, “I’m going to tell you something,” and I woke up. The next time, she came with me to guitar practice. We waited and waited but my teacher didn’t show up. So, I just played her every song I knew how to play. There were lady bugs on my guitar. Often in my dreams I will hear my mother talking in other rooms. She’ll be healthy again. It’s been a year and I’m so disappointed that I went through 2017 in such a fog. It looks like I had fun and did adventurous things. I really, really tried. I had someone scold me for not knowing how to be alone. I wish people knew how much time I actually spend alone.
Just before she died, when she was in bed, my dad had the most annoying music playing for my mom. Some easy listening bullshit. She didn’t like that kind of music. I panicked then, and I’d panic now if I knew it was the last chance I had to listen to music. I put the Mama’s and the Papa’s on for her. We listened to Bowie. We listened to Gordon Lightfoot, Quilt, Jose Gonzalez, the Troggs. People talk a lot about “being present” and reaching a state of mindfulness. I’ve never been more present than I was in the days and weeks leading up to her passing. I remember every song I listened to, I remember everything like it was in HD. I almost wish I didn’t. I remember drinking way too much and praying that every morning when I woke up that she would have passed peacefully in her sleep that night. It felt like the world was ending, and it did. It did end, for her. On December 31st, the last day of the year.
I’m hoping, since it’s been a year, that things will be different. I hope it won’t follow me around like a black cloud that scares everyone away. I hope it won’t be the thing that drives guys away, although, really? This is life. This shit happens and it’s such bullshit that I had to go through it alone. It’s unreal that after I left my ex, after it took so long to leave someone who wouldn’t let me go, I walked into this.
I try to remind myself that everyday is a chance to create something beautiful.
I tell myself that I am capable of great things. I attempt to rise from the ashes.
I’m supposed to be “goal setting” for 2018, but I’m not going to anymore. I’ve told the universe what I want and I’ve come to realize it’s going to do with me what it wants. Maybe the universe has my back? Maybe it doesn’t. I knew there was a big storm coming before this whole thing happened, and still. And still.
There have been times the past two years when I felt like giving up, which is the worst thing you can tell someone. But, to me, the worst is that you can’t tell people. You’re not even allowed to talk about it. Well, I don’t feel that way anymore. I really don’t.
I honestly hope that I get to move forward.
People usually describe a big loss as leaving a hole in your life. That’s not right. It doesn’t describe it, fully. It’s bigger than that. It’s gigantic. You’re not the same person you were before. You become something else. Maybe that’s why 2017 felt so strange. Maybe a lot of people had to become something new.