The Quiet Chaos
by Hannah Murden
I remember the day we found out that she was dying; it was my birthday. We celebrated me coming into the world whilst we began to mourn her leaving it but it was my mother who became a ghost before me. Every family event was tainted with the taste of death and the bittersweet embraces were mixed with the stale alcohol from previous days on my tongue. When I saw her for the first time after the news and bent down to hold her tiny frame, I realised each of these small moments was a goodbye. These hugs were different as in spite of her obvious fragility, she held onto me tightly with a desperation that would force the pain from my heart to the surface and I knew it was really the end. The feeling reminded me of my nephew grasping my finger with his pink, pudgy hand for the first time but prompted different tears in my eyes. We gathered for a family photo, a souvenir of those days of pain we could treasure forever. A great idea! I’d frame it in years to come. I’d see the desperation in my grandfather’s eyes, how he clung to the back of her chair and not her as if he were practising his distance.
Have you ever heard of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy? It’s a condition which causes the temporary weakening of the muscular portion of the heart. So when you hear those stories on the news about a couple who were married for 80 years dying within days of each other this is what they are talking about. It’s where the pain of losing a spouse is so great that you actually die of heartbreak. I tried to imagine my grandfather doing this but something so emotionally driven wasn’t how I pictured him going. Instead, I had an image of him sat in the empty house with a bottle of whisky in hand and Criminal Minds on TV. It wouldn’t be dignified. It wouldn’t be gracious. He wasn’t the saint that she so desperately tried to be. He would go quietly and selfishly and not care what mess he left behind even when she was no longer there to clean it up. I didn’t resent him for it though, it was human.
The alcohol really was a problem then. It became evident that whisky wasn’t enough for him, now it was too close to enjoyable and he wasn't looking for a good time. In one week he managed to drink a whole 2 litre bottle of vodka and replace it without her ever knowing. Whilst she went off for her weekly chemotherapy session he drank the days away and hid his shame before she came home. When those days drew to a close, he slept in his chair and left her to face the night alone. The one time I actually forced myself to enter their house during that time was the first time I saw them as old. A film of dust covered every surface, the kitchen was scattered with crumbs and the calendar was months behind. These insignificant imperfections gave me something to cling to and I focussed on them because I could solve that kind of problem. I could clean that counter, change the calendar month and throw out all the mouldy food hidden at the back of the fridge. That I could do.
What feelings I had towards her fate were often pushed down and I swapped my guilt for self-involvement. I got healthier, I went jogging and I ate the food that was deemed as “good” for me. When I felt like I had failed one of these small routines the sense of disappointment was crushing. One day, after realising I hadn’t drank anything but coffee for an entire day, I lay in bed all afternoon and cursed myself for my carelessness. I tormented myself repeatedly over the coming weeks every time I felt like I had failed myself. Once the anger ran out, I was reduced to tears and slept through the pain. Mother’s Day came and went, her last birthday too, time kept pushing and they tried to push it back. Doctors increased the chemicals that they pumped into her, which were a sickeningly fluorescent orange colour and caused her to feel even worse. They promised to improve her “quality of life” but that was hard to believe when I looked at her sunken cheeks and heavy eyes. I remember looking at her and seeing the outline of her skull; the jaundiced skin sinking further every day to reveal death lurking beneath.
When my brother came to visit he gave her his professional opinion on some home-made brew she had concocted. It was (of course) recommended to her by the priest who swore it would prolong her life by three years. We held back our laughter because there was no place for it. She made jokes all the time, she laughed every day she spent with us and she never let her fear show. We were carrying the burden of that for her, after all. My mother was the most affected. Her hair had strands of grey and her perfect nails began to chip. She often just stared out of the kitchen window, swivelling her wedding ring in a steady rhythm and breathing forcefully through her nose until a deep, crimson ridge appeared around her finger. I towered over her every time I made a gesture of comfort but my attempts were useless, I only seemed to make it worse with every word I spoke. Talking was not something she participated in, she only muttered or shouted. After each visit I’d escape back to work with such haste to stop the guilt from abandoning her catching up with me.
One night, I attempted to discuss everything with my father. Even at twenty-one he could not see me as older than ten and kept secrets from me. When my favourite uncle died whilst I was living alone, I didn't hear about it for an entire day because my father was afraid of telling me when I had no one around. Another time, he lied about the severity of his debt problems until I found the letters stashed behind the sofa cushions. That night was different however, that was when he told me everything. He told me how long she had left and what treatment she was having and how my mother cried every night. He told me how she needed me there but how he understood that I couldn’t, I had too many commitments already, this was all just an inconvenience to me after all. I managed to produce a tear and watched him come to pieces without a word of love from me. Secretly I knew he was thriving off the drama, he had just retired and already he was deemed useful again. Carting everyone from this place to that. He passed his mother’s house on every journey and I knew he kept expecting to have to stop there even if he didn't let his eyes stray from the road to the gaudy green front door he'd repainted for her summers ago. Behind his despair at my grandparents' predicament I could tell he was anticipating his freedom from them both. He felt that guilt deeper than any of us and he didn’t need to admit it to me.
At the final family gathering where we were all complete months had gone by since I had learned of her mortality that I had almost began to let myself believe that she would never actually leave us. I knew in the depths of my stomach that I was kidding myself but accepting my emotions day-by-day left my mind in a heavy fog and the denial helped to lift it for a while. My sister-in-law asked how I felt and I shrugged. My cousin answered for me and I glared at her. Silence, was my answer. I didn’t need her elaboration. Anger rose in my throat but disappeared at my lips and the drop back down to despair made the day pass in a blur that I still can't slow down enough to see.
All of this I observed; passive and detached from my family. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel or what I was supposed to do. Whatever I did feel at the time wasn’t strong enough for me to remember it now. The silent veil of death lingered in every aspect of my life back then but I passed by it with no dispute. I accepted it presence wholly without a second thought and then hated myself for my complacency. There were no how-to's, no guidelines, no rules and I realised I was lost without them. I needed those boundaries and someone telling me what to feel but instead I became detached from my own existence. Everything about then was a quiet kind of chaos, like watching the news without sound. I was losing my grandmother, that was a certainty, but my mother was falling apart before me and there was nothing I could do but watch.