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8005 Days Later January 17, 2014

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, life lessons.
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I think about my mother most, if not all, days. In one month it will be the 22nd anniversary of her death by drunk taxi driver. That’s 8005 days so far. Probably on about 7500-7995 of those days my thoughts of her boil down to, “I wish I could ask Mom what she thinks about x…”

Then there are days like today, when the loss feels even more crushing than it did at the time, because it’s real now. It took about a year for me to process that she was really gone. We didn’t see each other much in those last years, both of us were far too busy, so it wasn’t strange to go for days without really crossing paths with her. It didn’t help that she didn’t look like herself in her coffin, either. Her head had been pretty much shattered or crushed in the accident and, while the mortician did a fantastic job of re-sculpting her face, it was even easier than in most cases to look right at it and be in complete denial. It was very important to some of our family to have an open casket, but that’s one of my few regrets, agreeing to that. I hate remembering that ruined head. It wasn’t hers.

Her head was where she lived. The thing that has always given me some measure of peace is the absolutely sincere conviction that she’d rather be dead than alive with a compromised brain. I would, too, and I will never be anywhere near as brilliant as she was.

Since she was killed in St. Maarten, it took a long time to get details of the accident and there are many I’ll never know, because I couldn’t be an advocate in any way, and advocates are often the only reason anyone tries to get to the truth. The police investigation was terribly bungled. We had to get a lawyer there to try to fight for us, but there was little he could do. The cops had let the driver go home, it took at least 15 minutes for them to test him for drugs and alcohol and, even though his levels of alcohol and cocaine were too high to make his story (the he had them after the accident) plausible, they just couldn’t prove he was drunk and high before they let him leave the scene.

For all I know, he’s still driving drunk and has hurt or killed others. I hope that is not the case. I hope he learned his lesson, that he remembers the day he took the life of a woman in her prime and came close to creating an orphan (my father managed to shock everyone by recovering, but it was touch-and-go for some time) and wants it to never, ever happen again. I don’t know who he is, so I will never know. I’d rather not know. I’d rather have hope.

I don’t understand how anyone can have even a drink and get behind the wheel. Once upon a time, sure, but since the 80s no one can claim ignorance about the effects of alcohol on your reflexes. I have a deep love of whiskey (and whisky), craft beers, good tequila, and fine cocktails. I’ve been tempted to have “just one” when I was the driver many times. But it’s not worth it. Nothing is worth it. Exactly one time I had a little champagne before I drove a very short way, and I still haven’t stopped beating myself up for it, 18 years later.

The way I see it, if one drink makes me feel even slightly more relaxed, then one drink is too many for driving. It’s a good lesson to get pounded in so deeply before getting a driver’s license.

Until the past few years, when my social life expanded globally thanks to social media, I could honestly say that most of the people I love are dead. That’s a strange thing to be true in your 20s and early 30s, at least, according to friends. The concept that anyone can get to adulthood without losing a whole lot of people is foreign to me.

Please don’t feel bad for me about this, it’s not necessarily a bad truth. Death is something we all have to deal with and you need to learn your own best methods for grieving. Experience is the only way to learn. My family didn’t ever spare me from attending wakes and funerals, even as a toddler, and I’m endlessly grateful for that decision. I could never have planned a funeral attended by hundreds at the age of 15 without having attended a few myself in the past. Planning her funeral was the best thing for me at the time, I learned that hard work and strategizing in times of trouble was my best way to cope, lessons that I have used in many situations since, like volunteering at Ground Zero and managing our “refugee” lives during Sandy. I learned that I could stand up to adults who wanted to treat me like a little kid and use their power to influence me or take me out of the equation, a very empowering thing for a teenager.

I think it’s also why I don’t fear death, and has a lot to do with my lack of faith in a higher power or afterlife. I hadn’t had faith in monotheism for a long time before my mother died, but if there was any chance I’d come back to it, it died with her. Immortality has no attraction for me. The brevity of life is exactly what makes it so exciting. Every single day matters. Thinking that you have more waiting for you after death (especially with all sorts of conditions on what that next life could be) can prevent you from living this life to the fullest. Heck, even if I’m wrong, and there is something more, why squander this life on that chance?

The only immortality that matters is the life that you live in the hearts and minds of those who cared about you and your work. I’ve run into some old students of my mother’s who were deeply affected by her, including kids who never expected to go to college before she came into their lives but did because she pushed them and are so glad. About 800 people turned up to her funeral. She was popular and beloved and I had no idea until the crowds packed our church. She earned it. She tirelessly worked to make the lives of everyone around her better. She made a lot of enemies along the way, too, but you have to in order to make a real difference, especially in the nasty field of public education. Even a lot of people who didn’t necessarily like her much showed up to honor her out of respect. It was amazing.

I really wish I could have understood any of this when she was alive. It’s pretty common to take your mother for granted, especially in adolescence. You can’t really know who your parents are until you are an adult, you can’t understand their jobs and lives from the perspective of childhood. Now that I understand my mother better as a whole person, I just wish I could talk to her about it all. I wish I could ask her opinion of current events, especially in education. I really, really wish that I could discuss her scholarly work from her PhD days and hear more about her early travels, and tell her that her dissertation is now considered a serious academic source cited by many scholars in recent years. That would make her so happy!

Ah, well. Nothing that can be done. But this is why I have days where the wounds still feel very fresh, even after 8005 of them.

I’d be a different person if my mother was still around. I would have had far less control of my own decisions through my young adult years, she was pretty controlling in some ways and would be very upset with some aspects of my life. I would have been more protected through those years as well, and that is not an appealing idea at all. Like everything in life, there are pros and cons to my mother being gone.

Other losses are much simpler to process, I just flat-out miss the people and their presence in my life and I grieve for them without holding back. With my mother, it’s very complicated. Most of my life has been pretty amazing, and I’m pretty sure I’d have missed out on most of my best adventures if she had been around. But I would have had other adventures and experiences, and who knows how cool they could have been? Not worth dwelling on. There are no answers. I’m 99.9999% sure that I would never have met the love of my life, which is the ultimate reason to be glad things worked out as they did, no matter how difficult.

Most days, I let these conflicted thoughts help me cope and the happy memories and gratitude over having the mother I did are the raft I float on.

Today is just not one of those days.

But, I’m not sharing this to make anyone sad. I’m sorry if I have. The thing is, you may miss someone forever and there will be rough days, but if you allow yourself to feel all the feelings, it does get better. The days I miss my mother the most are also the days her memory inspires me to fight the good fights, share experiences, and appreciate what little time I have with everyone I care about.

If you find yourself thinking about my mom’s story the next time you have a choice about drinking and driving and let it influence your choice, this is all worth sharing just for that.

If you find yourself taking the people you care about a little less for granted today, even better.

But the best thing of all would be if you take this as a wake-up call to follow your passions, then you really get the point. You could be dead tomorrow. What are you going to do with today?