What My Mother’s Death Taught Me About LifeS

Eight days after I buried my mother, I learned that she was considered indigent in the state of Colorado. This, above all else, broke my heart. Somehow, the knowledge that my mother was officially poor erased all the progress we’d made in the second half of her life—poof—just like that. There we were again, in the mid '80s, after my father left us, bankrupted his company and tried to bring us down with him. My mother and I hunkering down while she tried to fight him in court, garnish his wages. Me, working one, two and then three jobs during high school, shape-shifting on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

When my mother moved to the U.S. in the early '60s, poverty was something she’d wanted to escape. Like most other parents, she wanted to give her children a better chance at life than she’d had; for her, this meant leaving Yugoslavia behind, as well as a childhood characterized by war and poverty. You see, in my family, World War II wasn’t just some war in a book—it was when my grandmother was killed by a bomb when my father was just a kid, and where my mother and her family were set free from a concentration camp the night before they were to be killed.

Compared to them, my life was a piece of cake. My mother and I might not have been able to buy groceries after my father left us, but at least we still had each other. At least we still had the possibility of a better life.

At no time did I realize this more clearly than when Yugoslavia ripped apart at the seams in the early '90s, killing 130,000 people and displacing millions of Bosnians, Croatians and Serbs. I was in my early 20s by then, finishing up college, and grateful as hell for the possibilities my parents had given me by raising me in the U.S. I was in debt, sure, but at least I was alive.

“You might not have enough to eat in the U.S.,” my mother said when I told her as much, “but at least you’ll never be bombed.”

I nodded. I was one lucky son of a bitch, and I wasn’t going to forget it.

So I did what all good children do: finished my degree and went out and got a “real” (read: white collar) job that made my parents proud. So what if I hated it? That was what life was, after all: sacrifice and hard work, mixed together with plenty of suffering.

If my family’s experiences in the U.S. hadn’t taught me that, our roots back in Serbia certainly did. I came from a proud but beaten-down people who’d been screwed throughout the centuries, then built their identity around these loses, such as when the Serbs lost their religious homeland to the Turks in the Field of Blackbirds in 1389. Over the years, suffering seemed to have become the Serbs' national sport. How many other ethnic groups do you know who’ve spent the last 600 years celebrating their greatest defeat?

This was my heritage—war, misery and fighting—and I took it seriously. So seriously that when my father died when I was 22 years old, I fell back on another lesson I’d learned: don’t get too big for your britches.

My father had, and it cost him everything: his family, his business and finally, his life. If he hadn’t been so greedy, went the family story, then he wouldn’t have lost the business. And then we wouldn’t have had to sell the house.

The last thing I wanted was to end up like him, bankrupt and alone, all because I’d been greedy. So I quit my “real” job, and went back to tending bar, where people like me belonged. Then I spent the rest of my 20s paying penance for all the things I’d fucked up—things that weren’t my responsibility in the first place, like getting my father to love me.

It took me years to realize that my father self-destructed because of his own demons, not because of anything I did. As I learned more about my father’s life, I began to understand how awful it must have been to lose your mother when you were just a young kid; how, if you didn’t deal with it, you might not really recover.

My father certainly didn’t. He spent his life running from one thing to the next, and whenever things got too tough, he bolted. His unofficial mantra? Leave before you can be left.

Meanwhile, it took me years to break out of the death spiral I sunk into after my father died and get my life back on track. Even then, old habits died hard. I was stuck in a no-man’s land of competing beliefs, and it showed in everything I did: the guys I dated, the long hours I worked, how little I ever actually got ahead. After all, I could be successful, but not too successful; get married, but not too happily; I could follow my dreams, but only if they were safe. Work for The Man, but don’t outshine him.

So I kept working at it, uncovering the family secrets and learning how they’d messed up my parents before messing up me. I learned how the things we don’t deal with just keep getting handed down, through the generations—things like hurt, abandonment and divorce.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I continued to learn about the man my father had been. And ever so slowly, I began to forgive him.

The person I didn’t forgive was myself.

I continued to move ahead slowly, painfully, like some kind of tortured snail. I did stupid things like work my butt off to get into graduate school, then let the deadline nearly slip by before finishing my degree. I scoured the country for academic positions, then deserted the one I found in my backyard. When I finally found a great guy, I left the country for three weeks before our wedding. As soon as we got back from our honeymoon, I bolted for another month.

For so long, this was how I lived: testing, always testing. How far could I go before I, too, imploded?

I was following in the footsteps of my parents, fighting the good fight. Like my parents and their parents, I was suffering. Like my parents and their parents, I was celebrating my defeat.

Never mind that by the time I was in my early 40s, there wasn’t much left to fight. By this point, I was living a pretty plush life with an awesome husband, two children I loved dearly, a fridge full of food, and a fledgling part-time business doing what I wanted to be doing. And yet I still couldn’t stop shooting myself in the foot, making things harder—always harder—than they needed to be.

Then my mother got sick last October, and things began to change. After a few days in the hospital, my mother’s doctor sent her in for a routine procedure. But things went awry when the gastroenterologist inadvertently punctured her colon, sending her into septic shock. Before I realized what had happened, my mother was in the intensive care unit, fighting for her life.

After I’d raced down to the ICU, the attending doctor told me how five of my mother’s major organs had shut down, including her lungs and kidneys; how the only reason her heart was still beating was from the drugs they were pumping into her system; how she’d gone septic, so septic she only had a 10 percent chance of surviving the night. And by the way, she was so full of cancer that she probably didn’t have long to live—assuming that she survived the night, that is.

Pause. Which is a pretty big assumption.

I stared at him in shock, my head oddly disconnected from my body. I found myself looking at my hands while he talked, fingernails I’d recently polished gold because it was something small I could do for myself, something fun. At some point, I realized I was shaking. My arms were moving by themselves, as were my legs. I kicked them instinctively, desperately wanting to run.

There was no longer anywhere to run.

Once I pulled myself together, I called my husband to bring in our 4- and 6-year-old children to say goodbye to my mother. Then I spent the night by her bedside, bargaining with God. I didn’t care about the cancer; all I wanted was a few more days or weeks to say goodbye. But for that to happen, she had to make it through the night, and for that to happen, she had to make it through the next hour.

Each hour she stayed alive increased her changes for recovery. Three ICU nurses took over where the attending doc had left off, and I watched intently as they followed protocol, inserting a seemingly endless array of medicines into the lines snaking out from her body. After a while, we settled into an uneasy silence, me sitting next to my mother’s bed, holding her hand, while the nurses worked to save her life.

Slowly, steadily, miracles began to happen. When a surgical team couldn’t be found to insert a critical port into my mother’s heart to deliver more life-saving meds, one of the nurses suggested an experimental leg port—something none of the other nurses had ever attempted. It worked.

Another gift came from the sheer number of nurses at my mother’s disposal. While these ICU nurses normally cared for three patients at once, tonight had been quiet, freeing up a second nurse to help my mother. The third nurse—the only one experienced in inserting the leg port—wasn’t even supposed to be working, and was only in the ward because of a scheduling snafu.

I learned all this from my mother’s primary nurse, Carla. “But what would have happened if that extra nurse hadn’t been here?” I asked. “Would you have still done the leg port?”

She shook her head. “No, I’ve never done it before.”

“The other nurse?”

“None of us have ever done it before.”

“Then what would have happened?”

Carla paused. “Your mother needed that port. It’s a good thing we got it in when we did.”

I sat back in my seat, swirling in a sort of thankful shock. This was how the hours passed, full and intense as hell. The clock continued to inch forward, each hour giving rise to that much more hope, that much more life. My mother had been admitted into the ICU in the early afternoon; by 11:00 p.m., we were down to two nurses. By 1:00 a.m., we were down to one.

Somewhere in the pre-dawn hush, I finally fell asleep in a chair next to my mother’s bed. I awoke to hear her telling me she was going to be sick, that she needed help. I ran to get Carla, and a second nurse jumped in, increasing her anti-nausea medication and stabilizing her other meds.

Then I remembered that my mother had a breathing tube in her mouth.

I looked over at Carla, who was adjusting more lines. “I thought you said she couldn’t talk.”

She looked up. “She can’t.”

“But I heard her. I’m sure of it.”

Carla didn’t say anything, just looked at me steadily, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d encountered stuff like this before, if not on a regular basis.

For the next two months, this was how my life was, full of awful-wonderful miracles like this one. After my mother pulled through that first night, we learned she had Stage IV appendiceal cancer, a cancer so rare that none of our doctors had previously encountered it. When we finally tracked down a specialist in Denver, that singular appointment led to a series of events that would help forgive my mother’s outstanding medical bills after her death. It would also classify my mother as indigent in the eyes of Colorado.

Even though my mother only lived two months beyond that night in the ICU, those months continued to be full of bits of grace. Like the night my mother told me she didn’t want me to throw away my life after she died, like I had after my father’s death.

“There’s no reason for you to suffer after I’m gone,” she said. “I’ve lived a good life. Now it’s time for you to live yours.”

Spend time with your husband, she said. Spend time with your children.

Make your life matter, she might as well have said. Don’t pass this legacy of suffering on to your children.

If I didn’t hear that message then, I heard it loud and clear when I received the official letter informing me that the state considered my mother poor. Yes, the classification was necessary to forgive the horrendous medical bills left over after Medicare, and yes, it killed me nonetheless.

My mother might not have had a lot of money, but she knew what really mattered in life. To see the joy on her face as she unfurled her palm to show my kids what gift she’d brought them today—a perfectly ripe tomato from her garden, a super-sweet pear—was to know that something was still very right in the equation. Then, to see her reduced to a stamp on a piece of paper, forever after considered poor … who the hell wants that for their mother?

But there was another reason the indigent classification shook me. Once I sat down and looked over the paperwork, I realized that I wasn’t very far behind my mother financially. That despite all the jobs I’d held, only twice had I earned more than the individual income poverty level cap for Colorado. The first of those times was when I’d held that “real” job at age 22, the one I quit after my father died.

Despite the fact that I’d moved halfway across the country from where I’d grown up, despite the fact that I’d surpassed my parents’ education level not only by going to college but also to graduate school, despite the fact that I’d even taught college, despite the fact that I’d bucked my Serbian heritage by marrying a Japanese-American man, despite the fact that I’d done everything I could think of to break those old family patterns, the truth was that I hadn’t gone very far at all. I was still bound by the old chains, connected to my parents by suffering, self-sabotage and defeat.

Why was I refusing to be more successful than they’d been? Why, at age 42, was I making less money than I had when I was 22?

Because it kept me connected to my parents. If I didn’t surpass them in life, we’d remain connected, bound by the chains of love.

Except that my mother had done her best to free me from those chains before she died, and I was determined to break the rest of them before I passed those goddamn chains down to my children.

Especially when there are so many other things that I could be teaching them. Things like unconditional love, acceptance, and—hell—maybe even a little joy. Rather than showing my children what they can’t be in life, I’d much rather help them be what they are. I’d much rather help them be themselves.

After all, isn’t that why we’re here? The world needs their particular brand of medicine just like it needs your particular brand of medicine.

And yet so many of us shrink our love, our gifts, our true essence in life to fit someone else’s ideals, convinced we don’t really matter.

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.
A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson

The other day, my 4-year-old son Gabriel came home from preschool singing, “This Little Light of Mine,” an old gospel by Harry Dixon Loes that goes like this:

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Listening to his sweet, little-person voice singing those words made me realize just how easily and often we parents—despite our very best intentions—fuck up our children. How an offhand comment or plea for peace unintentionally wounds them, making them think they don’t matter.

Until we do the best we can to repair it. And herein lies the miracle: by repairing our relationship with our children, we somehow end up repairing ourselves.

This is how we show we matter—by standing up and being who we really are. By realizing that you’re you and not your family; by understanding the family patterns that keep you stuck; and then, by doing your goddamn best to break free from all the old stories—stories you might have once treasured, but have now turned into chains.

Tanja Pajevic lives in Boulder, CO, where she is working on a grief memoir and a children’s book. She blogs at The Rhythm of Grief and Reboot This Marriage: Two adults. Two children. One year to reboot this marriage.

[Image by Jim Cooke]