I have kept a journal since early childhood, but I began journaling in earnest four years ago as my Mother was in the last stages of her fight with cancer. At the outset, journaling was my method of coping with a huge loss but, over the years, it has developed into much more. I remember living in California and flying home frequently to Philadelphia as Mom’s condition continued to worsen. Near the end, I spent a week in Philadelphia, almost entirely at the hospital.
During this week, I spent the night with Mom and it became clear to me that it was not going to be very long until she passed. My heart became so heavy and every breath seemed to become harder to take. I knew I needed help. I reached out to a therapist and began writing that very night.
After my Mother’s death, writing became my outlet. I was never very good at expressing myself verbally and writing, as well as painting, became my way of doing so. This process has not been an easy one for me. I went through stages where I did not write and I shifted to a dark place. Re-reading my journals to gather memories and thoughts during the peak of the pain has been horrible.
Since I wrote such detail in every entry, I started getting flashbacks of other memories of my Mother, which would trigger a highly emotional response in me. Every time I re-read an anecdote, I would have a flashback to another time in my childhood. If I wrote before going to sleep, I would have vivid dreams about my Mother. The reliving of memories of those times was itself very painful, the vivid dreams of Mom launched me into full-blown anxiety attacks.
My deepest regret is that I did not have more time with my Mother in order to try to mend our relationship. She and I did not have the best communication, nor did we get along very well when we spent too much time together. Yet there was a silent understanding between us that—come hell or high water—we would be there for each other in a heartbeat.
It did not matter if we had a fight and were not talking for months. It did not matter what the other one said in a period of rage. If one of us needed something, the other was there. In this respect, my Mom and I were very close. The cancer took her from us long before she died, and my conflicted relationship with her certainly reflects that.
I have chosen to “illustrate” this memoir with three different modes of expression. The first is excerpts from my Mother’s journal about me, kept throughout my childhood. The second mode is excerpts from my own personal journal. The third mode is a selection of my own original paintings.
The paintings are obvious. The selections from my Mother’s (Kathy West) journal are in a sans serif font and labeled “Kathy’s Journal, Caitlin:” The selections from my own personal journal are set in italics.
I hope that the Reader will find each of these modes relevant to the story.
Kathy’s Journal, Caitlin:
May 1992 You stripped your clothes off in the front yard and ran around the house naked.
Ignorance is bliss
When I was in the fourth grade my Mom became sick. It was also when my Aunt Peg got married, because I remember being so happy to be a flower girl. I think that in fourth grade, around the age of ten, girls start to recognize that their bodies are changing and we start caring about how we look. We want to wear that cute outfit that will get the boy from P.E. class to recognize us.
It was the week before my Aunt’s wedding. I remember being outside on the porch when Mom went to answer the phone. Dad was outside with me but as I went to go on the tire swing, I noticed he went inside. “MOM….DAD! Come see how high I can swing!”
No one came outside. What the heck—I was making a world record here and no one cared. Typical. I hopped off the swing and made my way back to the porch. I could see Mom pacing back and forth, still on the phone. Something was wrong—she was crying.
I kept asking what was happening, over and over again. They weren’t responding to me. Both of my parents were visibly upset. I remember feeling frustrated that no one was informing me of what was happening. I was the oldest, I was supposed to be able to know the things that my brothers could not know. I was supposed to be Mom’s helper and she wasn’t allowing me to be that. HELLLOOO – tell me what is happening! “Cancer,” is all Mom said. As a 10-year-old, I think I knew what that meant. I could tell it was not good because of how both of my parents were reacting, but I had no idea of what the next year would entail. Cancer would be the reason that Mom did not get out of bed for a year. It was the reason for her loss of hair, her loss of weight, and the loss of her livelihood. This cancer was the sole reason that Mom would be changed forever.
I remember reading a letter my Dad wrote to me, in which he said, “the only thing we can choose in our life is our reaction.” Life has certainly happened to us—we have battled and struggled with more than most will have to. We have to choose to be happy. It is our choice of how to feel and react that allows us to get through the events that happen in our lives.
My mom chose, indirectly, to allow this cancer to be negative and to shut down. I chose, as a 10-year-old, to ignore what I could not understand. Cancer was the reason that I had to grow up so fast. This wasn’t a conscious choice—I didn’t want this path in life. I wanted to go back to thinking about the cute boy in P.E., to go back to trying to crimp my hair and to get out of my awkward stage.
We cannot always choose our path. As the eldest child, I was proud of being my Mother’s helper. I had no clue what that would now mean for me. Throughout the course of my Mother’s illness and death, I taught myself to keep my emotions at a distance in order to cope with everything that was happening. I would reach a point, however, when I would snap and become overwhelmed with emotion.
In my family, any display of emotion was considered either inappropriate or weakness. Even today, years after Mom’s death, I am just now learning to honor my emotions. I think this may be true for most people who do not have a strong support system to handle what life throws at them.
Art, and specifically my painting, has been one outlet for me to express my emotions. At one time, drinking too much alcohol was my only emotional outlet, and a family tradition as well. Now, I write.
I write to share what I want others to understand and provide hope for those who have life happen to them. Life is not an easy process. You are loved, beaten, broken, built back up, supported, and deserted; and all that can happen in a short period of time!
Yet there can be an unexpected embrace of choices that allows you to be who you authentically are. You realize that every failure, lie, truth, and experience formed you. Growth takes time. I lost myself entirely, and then managed to reclaim myself into the person I am today.
It is amazing how ignoring emotions comes back to haunt you. There truly is no bliss in ignorance. You may experience short-term bliss in that you are not conscious of what you choose to ignore. After a while, however, your life will come full circle and bring you back to face it again.
During the period of time when I was 25-28, whenever I experienced the “360-degree return” of the issues I was ignoring, I would find a convenient hobby or project in which to sink my teeth, as a way to avoid dealing with my own feelings. I became the “go-to” person for my friends and their troubles and for my family to call to tell how much they missed my Mother. During this entire period, I never acknowledged my own feelings or how much I missed her myself.
There was hardly any outward sign of grief from me at my Mother’s funeral. How strange is that? I remember crying at the ceremony for about 30 seconds. When I became aware that everyone was looking at me, I immediately stopped. I stood up from the pew and got in line to greet everyone that came to say their goodbyes to Mom.
I put on a smile and I comforted the mourners. Every single one of them. I never gave anyone a chance to comfort me. I suppressed my feelings to ignore them—to ignore the pain that I knew I would eventually have to face.
So you see, I became expert at focusing on others, at the expense of taking care of myself. I sacrificed myself to help others in order to avoid acknowledging my own feelings and my lack of self-worth.
Grieving is a very difficult process and no one grieves the same way. How you grieve defines how you live your life. Some of us try to get back into a routine as quickly as possible, attempting to start anew. The danger in this is that you never fully recognize your loss in the present moment. Instead, emotion is delayed and ignored for days, weeks, months, and years down the road.
Some of us sacrifice emotion in the hope of being able to move forward without our loved one. We sacrifice our moment of grief in order to ignore the pain of loss. What this suppression did to me was make me into a completely different person. When I reflect back on my time in California, I don’t even recognize myself.
My lack of emotion made me a cold and negative individual who was not happy if others around me were happy. I trusted very few people and I would always end up ruining the relationship. I would either flake, go MIA for weeks at a time, and/or just stop communicating. Whenever I felt myself becoming emotional and wanting to open up, I suppressed and ignored those feelings by running away. It was easier to avoid the hurt than it was to accept it.
I was never the same again—one cannot possibly be the same after the loss of a parent. That did not, however, give me the right to hurt the ones that loved and cared for me. For most people, moving to California is about starting anew—trying to make it in the world of entertainment. For me, it was an escape. It was my way to ignore what was happening at home and how it affected me, and to bolt across the country instead.
But like I said, everything comes full circle, and I couldn’t ignore it for very long. I lost myself when I moved to California and found myself when I left there. New beginnings are never what we intend them to be. New beginnings teach us something about our will to survive and how we choose to do that.
If you want to read more of my story, I would suggest that you buy my book at one of the links below. You can buy it in e-book format, or as a physical book – which ever suits your tastes. The book gives you an insight into dealing with grief and living with a terminally ill close relative. While such experience is not something I’d wish upon anyone, you may find something encouraging nonetheless.