Sunday, January 16, 2011

The True Worth of (Last) Words...

Monday's How I Met Your Mother is a "very special episode." Last week we saw Marshall (Jason Segel) get the news that his father died suddenly and unexpectedly. It came at a time when he should have been celebrating-- in fact, he wanted to be celebrating-- with his wife over the fact that they were trying to have a baby. But after episodes upon episodes of the Aldrins going back and forth on whether or not they were actually ready for a baby, it turns out the thing Marshall was most not ready for was to lose a parent. He may be a lawyer working at a huge company, thriving in a city that is notoriously tough and cold; he may be a husband and a homeowner, and often times, the moral center of his group of friends; but he is still a little boy at heart whose best friend was not Ted but actually his father. And he has been taken from him too soon.

"Last Words" is an episode that deals with Marshall's grief, in all of its ugly colors. At times he is childish; at times he is selfish; at times he is irrational; and he is always obsessive. He focuses on the last thing his father ever said to him because it wasn't something deep or poignant like you would see in a movie. And he's mad as hell about that, despite having years of great memories with his dad to console him.

But here's the thing: Marshall's dad didn't know he was going to die, so he didn't know he should have hugged Marshall tighter before jumping in the cab to head to the airport to fly home. He didn't know he should have looked him in the eye and told him how much he loved being his dad and how proud of him he was. He was just going about his day as normal when tragedy struck. And watching Marshall get so caught up in it made me equal parts angry and obsessive, too, because when it came time for my mother to say her last words to me, they weren't anything deeply poignant or loving, either.

My mother didn't know exactly when she was going to die, but she made the choice a year and a half ago to stop eating, stop drinking, and stop taking treatment for her cancer. Once that decision was made, she knew it was only a matter of days. Looking back now, I can rationally make the argument that even within those days, there were moments I for sure thought she was slipping away, only for her to not-so-miraculously still be there in the morning. After about day three, she wasn't talking anyway; even the delirious babbling had stopped and occasionally she would make a groaning or grunting sound to prove her mind was still active in there somewhere, somehow. If I wanted to make myself feel better, I'd lie to myself and say those grunts were her trying to tell me she loved me one last time. But I don't really believe that.

Before she made her decision, she hugged me in the kitchen of the apartment in which I grew up and told me how sorry she was she wasn't going to be around any longer. She told me she wanted me to be happy and healthy. If I wanted to make myself feel better, I'd remember those as her last words. But in truth, there were a few days after where she would say the occasional thing, like when the hospice social worker came to make sure she didn't want to be checked into a facility, and she got agitated and starting pleading to just be left with her family. There was the time she sat straight up in bed and started talking about making a turkey for Thanksgiving, clearly lost in a memory or a vision of the future she'd never have.

I guess the one thing I should cling to is that when I asked her if she wanted me to just end it faster for her, she didn't-- or couldn't-- answer. I could barely get the words out myself, and if she had said yes, I don't think I would have been strong enough to do it anyway. The memory of those last words would have haunted me to the day I died, especially if I couldn't deliver on the promise.

But in truth for a while after she passed away, I was really angry that she knew she was leaving me and didn't try to shove a lot of sappiness, or impart some last minute wisdom, my way. I kept thinking 'How could she not?' even though we never had the kind of relationship that would have expected such behavior.

My mother used to write me letters that she'd never give me. Sometimes I found them in her drawer when I was still living at home, in high school, and I went in there to borrow twenty dollars out of an envelope she kept with her checkbook. Sometimes I'd see them tucked into her suitcase when she came out to visit me and unpacked in my bedroom. They were letters full of last words that she'd write before she got on a plane, in case anything happened, or before she went to the doctor, as she had a long and complicated medical history, or once and a while just when she was feeling particularly emotional after a huge blow-out with my father, or maybe even with me. Yes, she left me one such letter after she passed away, but it was not at all what I was expecting either. After years of knowing these things existed, I expected much more emotion on the page, but what I found was some very practical advice about being smart with money and not allowing other people to control my life or my situation.

My mother was tired. She had been beaten by life and by her cancer. She had written and rewritten a version of that letter to its own death. After a while, the words probably seemed pretty futile to her. But they still mean something to those left behind. Sometimes "I love you" is just something we say to make ourselves feel better after we've said or done something else that was quite a bit crappier. Sometimes we need to hear ourselves say it more than the other person does. But sometimes whether we already know it or not, the words really do help in their own, slightly mystical way. The "I love you" signed on the bottom of my mother's letter is what I count as her last words, even though she wrote it at least a month before she actually died.

It's probably why I'm so insistent on telling Madison I love him every time I leave the house...

Watching Marshall go through his own version of this now, a fictional character and a year and a half after I did, was a tougher cross to bear than expected-- perhaps in part because seeing the show take such a dramatic turn was so unexpected in and of itself. He was so stuck on obsessing over such a minute detail because his grief was bigger than he could imagine, so he compartmentalized and lashed out at the small detail he could comprehend. It was the first time I saw my own reaction thrown back in my face, and obviously, it brought a lot of feelings and issues right back to the surface.

But what, more than anything, the episode showed me is that
in the end, we all find our own way to focus on poignant last words. And, I guess, any words are better than no words at all.

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