Some few weeks ago my township held a semi-annual "shredding event", an occasion for citizens to bring forth their accumulated piles of dossiers and documents to be fed into a giant communal shredder, lest our identities be filched and/or days of our lives given over to feeding two sheets of paper at a time into our home shredders.
This was my pile:
It might have been much bigger but that was all I could part with at the time.
The pile contained all the Medicare statements and Blue Cross EOB forms I had received for my mother during the time I was her power of attorney. I held on to these until her estate was closed and we were sure all outstanding issues and bills were resolved. It has been many months since the estate closed and I have no further legal need of these documents. But I found it surprisingly hard to let them go.
I browsed through them and their listings of date of service, provider, and service provided. I remembered many of these "services provided", some quite vividly. There were routine doctor visits on which I had accompanied her. There were the "pain shots", the epidural steroids to relieve the pain of her spinal stenosis. Organizing those was like planning the invasion of Normandy, given the astonishing difficulty in communicating with the doctor's office; the need to coordinate scheduling with availability of someone to take her there; and the trickiness of managing all this for someone taking coumadin. There were the ER visits for falls and other minor emergencies. There was the mountainous paper trail generated near the end, when she bounced from assisted living to hospital to rehab hospital to nursing home and back around till the final bounce home to die. Sometimes I looked at dates and events in disbelief: did that really happen then? so close to the time she died? did all those things really happen so close to one another? Or, oh my god I totally forgot about THAT! How strange, I thought, that these impersonal medical records hold memories of my mother I'm struggling to piece together.
When my father died (young, in his fifties), my mother was devastated. She could not bear the idea that he would go underground. When my brother died, eight months before my mother, we helped her to her feet beside his coffin in the funeral home for the "last goodbye". Though she could barely stand she kind of launched herself at him, weeping over his dead form and declaring "oh Paul, it won't be long, I'll be coming after you." She did not want him to go underground, either.
When she lay dying at home, mostly robbed of speech, she communicated to me one day with great difficulty: "I'm afraid to go in the ground." I don't remember what I said to comfort her beyond "I know" and "I'm sorry" and maybe the pitiful "it will be okay". I don't know why I didn't ask her why this fear was so strong. Lifelong devout Catholic, each Sunday at Mass she recited "I believe in...the resurrection of the body and life everlasting" and yet in the face of death it appeared this was cold comfort. When her youngest brother, the one she raised from age seven, died before her and was cremated, she did not like that any better. She fretted over how his body would be resurrected at the end of the world. I tried to assure her that if God could do anything, He could surely put her brother's ashes back together in the form of his body. She remained unconvinced.
When she died it was some time before I could leave her side. This parting, unlike every one before it, would not be followed by seeing her smile yet one more time.
I believed I was relatively blasé about the subject of corpses and what should be done with them; I often told Mr. Z he should have mine turned into compost for my garden. At the funeral home, it did not seem to me as if it were her lying there. In the bustle at the house the morning after her death, we could not find her glasses. Lying there without them, that face could have been a wax doll.
And then at the cemetery, the graveside service ended, I wept the tears of a motherless child. I did not want to leave. I knew they would put her in the ground when we left. And she did not want that. It did not matter that she was beyond wanting. Finally, my younger sister said through her sobs and tears, "We have to let her go. Come on. We have to let her go." It was like breaking a spell; her words gave me permission to leave. I let her go, I let her go underground.
A week or so after the funeral my younger sister and I both had the same experience. It was a physical sensation of lightening, as if someone had just removed a very heavy backback from our shoulders. It was not just a mental uplift; we were both still very sad, and actually perplexed by the physical sensation. It was very distinct, and strong. I can only describe it thus: it felt as if I had been literally carrying something on my shoulders, and someone had lifted it off of me. Not that I had set it down, but that the weight had been lifted off me. I had a constant feeling of that sudden lightening for about two weeks. My sister, the same.
I also quit having migraines for three months. My doctors thought that it was the reduction in stress that allowed me to stop having migraines, but I didn't think so. (For one thing, I still had all my worries about my in-laws, and while I no longer had power-of-attorney duties, I now had executor duties for the estate.) I felt that my body chemistry had been altered by grief. I felt that my body was so physically preoccupied with the sensations of grief and loss, that it had no resources, so to speak, to devote to experiencing migraines. In this way, it was similar to the period just after I had my stroke, when I was almost completely blind. I had no migraines then, either. They did not come back until my sight recovered to the point where the place in my visual field where auras formed was functioning again. After my mother's death, my migraines did not come back until I was no longer completely blinded by grief to the world around me.
Time heals all wounds, as they say, whether you want it to or not. Eventually grief lessens, the sharpness of pain dulls, the loved one recedes into memory, which is unreliable, and must be pieced together through written records and conversations with others. Sending the medical records to the shredder was sending a pile of recorded memory to oblivion. If memory is all that is left, how can we bear to part with even one tiny morsel, no matter how bitter its taste? And yet doctor's appointments and ER visits are memories perhaps not worth savoring. There are so many, they dull the taste of anything sweeter.
I gave my folders to the township for shredding. I let them go. Death is cold, the ground dark and silent, but I remember warm evenings at dinner with mom, in the summer at Apple Annie's in Point Marion, the two of us talking, and her smile.