The worst day of my life was July 7, 2006.
If asked, my official answer would probably be July 6
, 2006 -- the day my mother died. However, she died after 9 that night, and while the moment I learned of her death will haunt me forever (due in no small part to the fact that the news came via a voicemail from a nurse at the hospital who said she was sorry to inform me my mother had "expired"), the rest of that evening was too frenzied to allow the fact to really sink in. I was booking travel, calling/emailing/IMing/texting people, and packing. I did sneak off to sit in "my mother's" closet in my apartment and wail for a spell while the Dude was asleep, but mostly I was just in shock. (My mother never lived in that apartment with me -- never even saw it -- but she was supposed
to come stay with me for an extended period after getting out of the hospital and her room was all ready.)
The 7th, though, was a long and painful day. I'd slept for a total of about 20 minutes when the Dude and I headed to the airport for an early (6 a.m. or so?) shuttle to Laguardia. I spent that flight looking through photo negatives (which I'd grabbed from boxes of photos and stuffed haphazardly into a manila envelope in the hours before) to find a suitable photo of my mom that I could get enlarged and frame for the wake, knowing she'd wanted a closed casket and figuring there ought to be some visual representation of her there. (I came up with the one shown at the end of this post, which everyone seemed to like.)
A friend picked us up from the airport and dropped us off at my parents' (except now it was just my dad's) house. Dad seemed his usual noneffusive self, until the Dude expressed his condolences to him, at which point my dad broke down just for a moment. I tried to hug him but we both knew it was ineffectual, and unnatural-feeling since we were not huggers -- at least, not with each other.
Almost immediately, the Dude and I drove my dad's clunker up to the main shopping street so I could get the photo enlarged and printed. I initially wanted to go to this specialized photo/framing shop that I liked, but it wasn't open -- and fair enough, as it was still only about 8 a.m. We sat on a bench and waited a while in case it was to open soon, and while there, several friends and acquaintances passed by -- something I used to both love and hate about where I grew up. They were on their way to work (it was a Friday), or out running errands, as if the world were still turning and nothing was wrong. I put on a brave face. Finally we decided the shop wasn't going to open anytime soon, and walked down the block to the Rite Aid photo counter. The lady behind the counter pleasantly helped with my request but she had no idea what it meant. I wanted to shout, "this is for my MOTHER'S WAKE. Do you get that? My MOTHER is DEAD! How can you not realize the enormity of this??" Instead I picked up a few things in the aisles of the drugstore and went to check out at the pharmacy register, where one of my mother's friends often worked. Indeed, I found her on duty that morning. She had not heard the news: "how's your mom doing?" "Well...actually...she passed away last night..." and I dissolved into tears right there in the drugstore. People behind me might have thought I was crying about whatever ailment had brought me to the pharmacy counter.
Afterward, we drove to the hospital to collect my mother's things. I fought back tears as I asked several people where to go -- first the front-desk guard, then a nurses' station on the floor the guard had directed me to, then someone in the ICU where the nurse had directed me. Finally I left with my mother's purse and the other assorted articles she'd had at the hospital with her for all those months -- some clothes, slippers, reading material, and her prized possession: the album I'd made for her of our Australia trip a few months prior. She'd shown it to anyone who stopped by her hospital bed for more than a moment, and when I'd visit, we'd look through it together, even though we'd both seen all the photos dozens of times by then. From the hospital I drove us to the river, just to sit for a bit (and to show the Dude the view of Manhattan and the Bronx). I went through her purse as we sat on a bench by the water, separating the important pieces (non-driver's license, social security card) from the junk. It felt both like a violation and like the most natural thing in the world.
The next item on the agenda was going to the funeral home with my dad. The Dude stayed behind at our house and rested. The arrangements were made swiftly, for a viewing that very evening and the funeral the next morning. We didn't have to involve the cemetery because my mom wanted to be cremated.
By this time I felt like I'd been through the wringer and it wasn't even noon.
I don't remember exactly what we did the rest of the day -- the Dude checked into his hotel nearby, I puttered around (picking up the photo, buying a frame to put it in, framing some other photos to display at the wake, and bringing all that plus some of my mom's clothes to the funeral home), and my dad worked the phones. He was better at delivering the news coherently than I was. I think I tried to take a nap at some point in there but I couldn't sleep.
Although my mom wanted a closed casket, the funeral home offered us the option to have a private viewing before they closed it and let everyone else into the room. We decided to do this, and I'm still not sure if it was a good idea. On one hand, it helped us (at least, me) to see her one more time, but on the other, it left us all in a blubbering heap just as everyone else started to file in to pay their respects. It was me, my dad, my godmother, and the Dude. The Dude barely even knew my mom, but he still wept at the raw emotion coming from the rest of us upon saying goodbye to her body before the lid closed. Although they hadn't done a great job on her (she wasn't embalmed or worked on much, but they tried to arrange her jaw and mouth the way they thought it should look, and it was all wrong), seeing and touching her cold lifeless body really drove it home for me. I placed her beloved Australia photo album at her side and a rosary in her folded hands.
The rest of the night consisted of greeting visitors and enduring neverending assurances of "she's at peace now" and various other platitudes from well-intentioned mourners. I kept it together pretty well (not that I had to, or even should have, but I have a problem breaking down in front of other people, and was already embarrassed enough having done so at the store and at the private viewing) most of the night, until some of my mom's friends started telling me how proud she had always been of me.
The Dude and I went to the diner for a late meal after the wake was over, and I spent most of it bitching about a couple of good friends of mine who hadn't turned up despite saying they were coming. It felt good to be angry instead of just impenetrably sad.
I dropped him off at his hotel and I went back to the house, where I'd decided to stay that night. My dad was dozing off in front of the TV like any other night, and I used his computer to check my email and scan in the photo of my mom to order some blank notecards of it, for thank-yous. I was by now a master of the "silent cry" and tears ran down my face the entire hour or so that I was online. Finally I figured I should go to bed, but once I was lying there in my childhood bedroom, it struck me that I would never again wake up in this bed to my mom cooking breakfast, fondly shooing the cats out of her path, or sneaking a smoke at the bathroom window. I cried those huge, heaving, hiccuping sobs usually reserved for children, until I was too exhausted to keep my eyes open any longer.
July 7, 2006, was an exhausting day of loss, pain, and finality. At least July 6 I woke up knowing I had a mother -- indeed, one who was supposedly "doing better" at the hospital. And July 6, her suffering ended, so in a way that was a good
day for her. But for those of us left behind, July 7 was the crushing first day of the rest of our lives.