In honour of Mother's Day I wanted to release a Chapter of my book that I have been drafting. This small piece is my life unfolding in the first week of losing my mother. This book is intended to be raw, unfiltered, and unedited version of my story. This first chapter are snippets taken right from my journal in real time and thoughts that lingered in my mind during that time.
Chapter 1: Pages of Nin
“Someday when my pages end I know that you will be my most beautiful chapter”
August 12, 2018
My mother wrote this to me on my birthday on August 12, 2018, it only felt fitting to start this book off from my favourite writer, her.
Death and loss are inevitable so why do we as humans run away from it? There will be a day when our chapter ends, completely out of our control. That day might be when you’re 85 and had a bosturus life, or it could be when you’re in your 50s and your life has just begun. But that's the funny thing about life, you don’t get to choose where your story begins and you surely don't get to choose when it ends. I believe life is capable of the most beautiful things, and more often than not beauty wears a mask of trauma. Who says trauma can’t be a resurrection story? A pinnacle point in life where you recreate yourself and amend your broken pieces. Media everywhere paints the picture that heartbreak is a death sentence and learning to love yourself is all too tough. Allow me to guide you down a road where a pothole paves a beautiful road ahead. In this memoir I hope to paint you a picture about traumas resurrection story.
Now let me add some foreshadowing. My mother told me a story one time about how her and my father went to a psychic that told them many predictions of their life. Two predictions that I recall from that story are, 1. My father would work for a company with the letter M and 2. If he didn’t change his way of living he would die at 50. For many years we joked about how if my dad didn’t change his health he was going to die, making light of the prediction that lingered in our mind. By his 50th birthday this prediction had made its way through extended family and many groups of friends. Perched on the edge of our seats April 29th 12:00 AM strikes and he’s outlived that flawful prediction, he's 51. I guess all predictions about the future can’t be true? That’s what I thought until November 2019 when my mother was admitted to the hospital. It took me many months to piece the clues together. My mother went into the hospital at age 50 and never came back home. Was this prediction about her all along?
November 6th, 6:00AM
My father's white Cadillac pulls up to the front of Mississauga Trillium hospital and we pile out as a family, my father, mother, and myself. Of course we were early, my mothers never late for an appointment, we purchased some Tim Hortons and made our way to the elevator. Everyone seemed levelheaded and calm, nothing felt unusual. Waltzing over to triage I checked my mother in for admittance, surgery was scheduled for 9:00AM, now my hands are marked with quittance. We sat and awaited our call, my father taking photos trying desperately to make my mother laugh. That was his favorite attribute about her, but by no means was it a Hollywood laugh. “Anita Coleman?” the nurse calls out, my mother springs to her feet as if prepared for what is to come. She is pulled away from us for a moment's time but we are sent to the lobby to wait. She slipped into her hospital gown and had a smile drawn from ear to ear, as if everything was falling into place. I thought we would have more time before we were separated for a few hours, but the doctor ordered goodbyes and “I love you” crept through my lips with a kiss on her head, oh how I was misled. I hunker down at Tim Hortons and begin studying for my exam in a few days, after all we would probably be waiting for a while. The hands of the clock shifted but no words were gifted, my father becoming enraged as communication was vague. Loved ones began to arrive, after all visiting hours should have been by now.
November 6th, 12:00PM
Scouring the neurology ward we track down the doctors on my mother's case. There's a certain panic in his eyes and shortness in his breath, my heart leaps to my throat as my mind begins to whirl. “We couldn't proceed with surgery but she is in recovery. You can see her shortly,” the surgeon said. The tension in my neck started to lessen as my breath climbed down to a steady state. Family was moved to the ICU to await our reunion, only to be greeted with hours of confusion.
After sitting aimlessly in the ICU for hours, the surgeon returns with more news to bear. The surgery was in fact not a success. But we already knew this? Our faces beg for good news as our ears are warned to expect the worst. The surgeon returns bearing news, he asks to speak in a private room. Being an avid Greys Anatomy viewer I know this only meant bad news. Our loved ones link hands as the surgeon begins to tell us that
“things got complicated. The route we anticipated to take to the AVF was blocked and all our options were exhausted,” he informed us.
This only stirred more confusion, “and how come we can’t visit her?” my father asked, “I thought she was in recovery?”
What the surgeon failed to mention right away was that she did in fact wake up after surgery and was speaking of her head throbbing, something common after brain surgery of course, but then she slipped into a coma. A coma? One of those deep sleeps they show in movies where the patient never wakes up? They had rushed an urgent CT scan and found a brain bleed on the other side away from the site the surgery took place.
Educating us on what happened he continues to add, “her brain is hemorrhaging and the pressure inside her skull is very high.”
What does this mean? Is my mother dying? Tears began flowing down everybody's face, no words were exchanged, the room fell silent.
“We inserted a tube to pump out the blood hemorrhage but she is in a coma.”
He informs us that we will know more soon and we can see her shortly. But there were a jumble of words I remember vividly that the surgeon said, something you should never hear about your own mother, “the drain may not work, actually it is quite fatal.” Now we sit and wait.
“She's stable, you can visit now,” a nurse tells us. My father, brother, and I all grab hands preparing ourselves to what we may or may not see, understanding she is much different than when she went in. The nurse leads us to room 10, my father and I smirk and hold onto fate, since after all that is our lucky number. The nurse pulls back the curtain to unveil a woman I've never seen before. She appears to be yellow in pigment and hooked up to a breathing tube. The charts say Anita Coleman but that's not who I see. Everything didn't feel quite the same and I wasn't sure who I should blame. The surgical team commences and informs us she is in a medically induced coma, they don't want her to wake since she's had severe trauma to the brain. Imagine someone uttering the words, ‘we don't want her to wake’ about your mother. We were advised to head home for the night since nothing would occur for the time being. Departing the hospital after 16 mentally draining hours, my gut wrenched as I felt tremendous levels of guilt for leaving my mother by herself. If I were in her shoes she wouldn’t leave me, so why should I leave her alone?
I grabbed my journal once more before calling it a night. We had just walked in the door and I melted to my bedroom floor in complete disbelief. I cried for my mother, stuck on the floor in a full fledged panic attack.
My father picked me up off the floor and just held me, no words were exchanged. I wrote that night everything I still believe until this day. “I don’t know where to begin. I don’t know what to say. What I know for sure is that I must be the backbone of this family and I am fullwilling,” I knew she was in a coma but those words the doctor muttered about it being fatal stuck with me. Of course I would be optimistic, but I wasn't going to be foolish.
I had a realization tonight, I think she knew the severity, I think she anticipated this and prolonged the surgery date to prepare us. What 20 year old has this epiphany? Sitting on my bedroom floor with welted eyes I felt this deep stomach feeling of grief and connection. My mother was my best friend, she knew me better than the back of her hand and vice versa. And what do you do for your best friend? You protect them. That is all she had been doing in my 20 years and I translated it as helicopter parenting and manipulation. It took me until it was too late to realize this.
November 7th, 5:00AM
My brother, father, and I all gather in the kitchen after a sleepless night. With what little slumber we had we grabbed our things and rushed out the door to see our mother. We sombered to her room where progress was informed, “she is breathing on her own as this ventilator displays.” It felt nice to hear something positive.
We stayed in her ICU room for the majority of the day, shifting our eyes from the monitors, then to her, to the doctors, then back to the monitors. We were hoping for a jolt of life to enter the room, but nothing happened. Hours crept by and the same noises lingered in the room. Compression sounds of air flowing in and out of her respirator, beeping sounds showing her heart rhythm, and the involuntary moments where she rustled the sheets.
I held my mothers hand today and memories began to flood my mind. I remember the matching scar spanning 2 inches on our left arms, I rolled up her sleeve and laughed as I recalled the ridiculous turn of events. Let’s take a trip down memory lane shall we. It was Fall of 2013, I was showering and listening to some god awful punk rock music on my new Blackberry Curve. I pulled back the shower curtain and grabbed my phone to pause the music. I tossed the phone onto my pile of clothes on the bathroom floor and watched in slow motion as the phone slid off my clothing and into the bathroom air duct. I panicked, I shoved my arm down the vent in an attempt to fish it out, no luck. It was time to call mother in here and reap the consequences. She came in, very displeased, and stuck her arm down the vent. Both subsequently cut our forearms on the sharp metal leaving a scar down both of our arms.
I snap back to reality and find myself back in the hospital room. I move her hospital blankets out of the way and uncover her ankle, Genesis 28:15. A tear rolls down my eye as I flashback in time again, it was Summer 2016 and we decided to get matching tattoos. We knew we wanted it to symbolize the battle we face everyday with mental health and the bond we share as a mother and daughter. She always admired the semicolon symbolism that was floating around at the time and a bible scripture was something that resonated with her. We settled on a semicolon butterfly and Genesis 28:15 inscription.
“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
The butterfly holds connotations of change and transformation attributing to a butterfly's ability to move from one state to another. The semicolon symbolizes a continuation, a symbol popular in the realm of mental health stigmas. She battled hard in her fight with mental illness, something I will touch upon in later chapters.
November 8th, 11:25AM
The day my brother and I were supposed to write our midterms, obviously incapable of stringing concepts and ideas in order to circle a scantron. I had already emailed our professor and asked for an exemption of some sort. Thankfully the University was somewhat understanding, this just meant our final exam would now be worth 80% of our mark, just a little stress to add to the fire.
By this date we knew every path possible to our mothers room, take elevator J and make a right turn, take elevator H and follow the long hallway left. Once in her room we were greeted with gloom, although days progressed her health digressed. The day prior we were given a glimpse of hope, but today that was reversed. She was breathing entirely by the ventilator. We were also informed that she was no longer in a medically induced coma, she was in fact not waking up on her own yet.
A social worker pushes back the curtain and introduces herself, “Hi there, my names Claire, I’ve been assigned to your case.” Right away I realized this isn't good news, why would a social worker be assigned to us if my mother had vitals and a plan to go home. The only person we have seen that gave us some perspective on what is to be expected next. She spoke to us about resources we may need, notes to be written to our university institutions, therapist contacts, and help lines. From our hour long conversation the only thing to stick was “suspected brain death.” It wasn’t a doctor that told us, it was the social worker. She managed to take what little hope I had and squashed it. She advised me that it was most likely my mother would be deemed brain dead. The three of us hold it together as best as we can but how do you accept the end? Maybe if she were sick before or ridden with old age we would be somewhat prepared, but she was neither of these things.
You aren't sure what to do with yourself when someone you love is lying helpless in a hospital bed. You want to be at their bedside for the miracle that may happen because if you're at home all you're going to be thinking about is what is happening in that buzzing room. Each day I walk into her room, grab her lifeless warm hand and squeeze it in hopes she’d wake up with an ‘OUCH that hurt!’ but nothing. Her beautiful hazelnut eyes were replaced with pupils the size of dimes and her body moved with a breathing tube as if she was still in there. But I knew she wasn’t. There’s this sixth sense you get when your best friend is hurt, you feel it. As my mom floated out of her body and into her afterlife I felt as if I did too. Every fiber of my body trembled as if I was gone too.
November 9 - No visit
After three long seldom days in the hospital, filled with non-stop visits and repetitions of how ‘well’ I am coping, we decided to take this one day away from the hospital for our mental wellbeing. Trying to distract ourselves from the typhoon in our life, we mend ourselves with people who know not to ask how our mother/wife are doing, rather they sit beside you and provide you with a safe smile and comfort. In the back of my head all I could see was my mother alone in the hospital and how guilty I felt to be taking a day to be okay when she wasn’t. I wore a fake smile and pretended I was a regular 20 year old, something I will never be again.
This is the day my social anxiety set in. Everyone knew what I was going through as if I was wearing a bumper sticker that read “motherless daughter.” I went from the girl who you couldn’t get to shut her mouth for one second, to the girl that no longer knew how to speak. I had responses in my head with replies I would articulate in my mind but my lips wouldn’t move, I became mute. This feeling carried on for months, even years past the week of her demise.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming we make our way to ICU 10. Surgeons and nurses inform us this is the end, there's a “one in a million chance she’d wake up.” But how long do you wait for a miracle? How long do you somber to the hospital at 6AM and leave at 10PM to sit beside a lifeless body? It takes a toll on you, one you’d never considered before. I acknowledged my gut feeling that my mother's infectious soul would not be touched physically by everyone close to her again. So I did what I thought would remember our best memories of her. I grabbed my journal and passed it around the ICU to the loved ones around, I asked them to write their favorite things about her, something that defined who she was to them. The array of answers I received brought me such joy, she surely was meaningful to everyone she met.
“She was one of the best listeners, she always made me feel safe and at home… She helped teach me how to be a good friend, and how important friends are above all else… She taught me how to make a house a home, and the importance of always being surrounded by family,” my best friend wrote.
“Christmas Dinners were always memorable, Zia would always rat on Jake and Zio for all the mishaps that happened this year… She was always the life of the party, you told her you were on your way and she threw in a lasagna and cracked the wine open,” my cousins said.
“She carried her rosary beads with her everywhere, praying for everyone else who faced an obstacle that day,” my nonna wrote.
“I remember her praying at my hockey games with her rosary beads and storming out of the building because the games were too intense for a hockey mom… Always celebrated and cried when I received good news like being accepted to University and making a USA hockey team,” my brother said.
“I am grateful I got to meet you and your beautiful family, although our time was cut short and I have many unanswered questions, may God be with you till we meet again,” my partner wrote.
Planning a funeral before someone dies is an odd thing to do. We sat around a table, my father and brother, my uncle and aunt, and myself. Pouring 5 glasses of wine, much needed to discuss the end of your wife’s, mother’s, or sister's life. As we arranged the service something didn't sit well with me. The thought of my mom having a traditional funeral and visitation was not something she would have wanted. My mom was joyous, bringing happiness into a room no matter where she went, I wanted this to transmit onto that day. I gave my two cents, “the services are to be carried out with colour, preferably yellow, that was her favourite,” I told my family, “there is to be no black, no traditions.” By no means was my mother traditional or by the book, she was a rule breaker, a risk taker, so why would her end be such? Arrangements are made and with just a day from her birthday, we decided that her birthday is her parting day, November 11th 2019.
Today is her birthday, but instead of her wishing on 51 candles it is us wishing for a miracle. Basic responsive tests were carried out each day to test if there was any brain function, these are the cranial nerve reflexes. Test one was the Pupillary light reflex, where they would test the dilation of pupils, dilation would be a clear indication of brain function. Test two was Corneal reflex, where the corneal would be swiped with a swab, if she blinked then there was brain function. Test three was Oculo-vestibular reflex where ice-water was injected into the ear canal and eye lids would be stretched open to search for slight movements. Only after the failure of a few days of these tests, with no progression, was it time for the final indication. If she would take a breath on her own when disconnected from the ventilator. We were given the overview, the nurses would disconnect the breathing tube count to 2 minutes, only after seeing no efforts to breathe the patient would be pronounced brain dead. We stood at the foot of the bed and watched as her body made no effort to breathe, we were begging for a miracle but she was already gone. The timer ran out and the machines were turned off.
It was quite eerie when they power downed the life support, it was as if her soul left her body and kissed the world in snowflakes. A storm began whirling outside, of course it was her just waving goodbye to the world she adored.
It never feels the same when it snows now. To me it was always a sign that my mother was close by and guiding me until the end.
November 14th, Visitation
It was visitation day and my family left it in my hands to choose her graveclothes. Rifting through my mother's wardrobe casting an overwhelming sensation over my body and mind, I want her to be comfy, but I want her to be in her favourite outfit, but it's an open casket so there's obviously a dress code. I chose this white and yellow dress she owned and this black cardigan, I swear she was the queen of cardigans. I knew yellow was her favourite colour and I wouldn't bear to dress her in all black, even though her closet was 95% black. I remember that dress vividly, we wore it on our trip to New York City together years prior. We took photos in it at the MET when we pretended to be Blair and Serena from Gossip Girl.
She laid in her casket with her confirmation necklace that Nonna chose for her, her dress, a bracelet enclasped around her wrist that my brother and I had bought her for mothers day, and of course her fuzzy slippers on her feet. I’m sure they thought I was crazy handing them pink fluffy slippers but anybody who knew my mother knew she left the house by accident in those slippers almost daily.
Prior to the visitation I was asked by the funereal staff if mom would have wanted any type of extra gestures to be kept with her and all I could imagine was that mom is very big on words. The end of my mother's life was very quick, unanticipated, and because of that nobody received closure. There were many things left unsaid or things we wished we could take back.
With that being said I told everyone that feels they have something left to say to her, whether it be a memory, an artifact, a thought, or a photo, to write it down and bring it to the service. On the day of the service, I created two boxes at the funeral home, one that will be left with her and the other to be kept by our family.
That day was overwhelming, the funeral staff was confused and overwhelmed by the amount of people that attended to pay their respects. To us, we were not surprised. My family and I were aware of the tremendous impact Anita had on people. They always say it takes a village to raise a family and everyone that attended that day had their imprint on my brother and I in some shape or form. The sign-in book to the visitation was overflowing with names, funeral staff were scrambling to print off more pages and running out of paper to scan more memorial cards. We originally had two rooms for the service but they quickly became jam packed full of people that funeral staff needed to open a third room for overflow. She truly had a village of people.
November 15, Mass & Burial
I don’t remember much about this day, maybe I blocked it out, maybe I pretended it was a dream. But from what I do remember is that it was early morning and my family met at the funeral home, we pile into the black limo and were escorted to the mass and service. It was held at St. Mary Star of the Sea, my mothers church growing up and the church my parents were married at in 1993. The church has beautiful stairs that lead to two giant wooden doors. Our limo sits outside the doorway as we watch family and friends flood into the church. I step out of the limo, swallow my emotions, and grasp my brother's hand. We fall into file behind the precession and walk with the pallbearers, all of which were chosen by my brother. My body went numb and my mind went into auto pilot as we entered the church. Focusing on one foot in front of the other trying not to make eye contact with the rows and rows of people that lined the church, I quickly became overwhelmed as I looked up from the floor and scanned the church all the way to the cathedral ceilings and note how it was bursting at the seams, there weren't enough seats to accommodate everyone in attendance. The mass began and my mind was still shut off, masking my emotions so I can tend to my loved ones that need my strength.
After the mass everyone piled back into their cars and made their way to the cemetery for the burial. I wasn't sure how to pay respects to my mother, I knew I wasn't expected to but I also knew I had to. I had this duty to uphold my mother's honour and share from my point of view why her demise is a lesson in our eyes. So, I crafted a eulogy over the days leading up to the burial and I read:
I’d like to start by thanking everyone for your condolences for Nin. I think we can all attest that Nin was an important part of every single one of our lives. And what I find interesting is that if you asked another person in this room how long they’ve known her and where they know her from, it’s always a different response. It's important to keep in mind that the duration of your relationship does not quantify your love. One of my mom's best friends Lisa said to me, “your moms a Chameleon '' she had a different personality to every single friend and was whatever they needed: whether it was a personal therapist, a crazy adventurer, or a cuddle buddy. She was so adaptable. She is so right, even in our own relationship my mom filled 100 different roles.
Now I’ve been asking this question to a lot of people. What do you think of when you think of Nin? Many people said her laugh- and by no means was it cute, but it was memorable. They said they think about her hospitality, she was always the best house guest, you told her you were driving up to the house and she threw in a lasagna and cracked the wine open. And more often than not, I hear that she was selfless. She countlessly put others above herself. But you don’t need me to stand here and tell you everything she is because you already know this. So how about I tell you how this will shape us all going forward. I think we have a thing or two to learn from the pages of Nin.
One, do everything with your full heart. If it’s not with the best intentions you will not succeed. My mother always taught me that if I couldn’t put 100% of my heart into it or it didn’t bring me joy, I shouldn’t waste half the effort on it.
Two, family is forever. My mom forged relationships with people so simply, and these relationships felt like family. You need to hold them close and reassure them often. When the days get hard and the walls close in, it's important to know who has your back and will be looking out for your best interests.
Three, appreciate others. Show people you care. Nin was the person to go above and beyond for the people she loved just to prove her appreciation for them. If you told her you needed a favour she dropped everything and did it, no questions asked. She was a people pleaser.
Four, forgive. My mom was not a dweller, she acknowledged problems, complained about them, then fixed them and moved on. She made peace with everything and everyone and never held a grudge. She could most certainly be mad at you but that blew over in a day.
Five, be THAT person. I think everyone has that one person they run to when shit hits the fan, or they’re on the high of their life. My mom was that person for everyone. She was your first call. Whether you were a 17 year old kid running from a mistake or you’re in the middle of your mid life crisis. If Nin was your person, learn to be THAT person for others.
Six, don’t take life too seriously. My mother was a free spirit, she acted like a 13 year old most of the time but she did everything with joy in her heart. Let your dreams run wild and let curiosity take the wheel.
Seven, never pass up an opportunity. My mother seized every chance to try something new and see others. She never skipped plans or bailed on people, she kept up her end of the bargain. She never said NO… unless it was Dave.
Eight, leading off that, you’re allowed to say NO. My mom had a bad habit of bearing everybody's weight on her shoulders and burdening herself to lessen the load of others. Remember going forward that you can care for others as far as your limit allows you, but always look out for yourself.
Nine, be everyone's biggest fan. Nin would never miss a sporting event. She came to every school or rep sport game, meet, or tournament and she was surely the loudest fan there. You could hear her whistle from a mile away. She also wasn’t afraid to stand up for your team in the stands, she got into a few altercations, I’m sure of it. But she always had your back.
Finally ten, speak up and speak out. Nin taught us to not put up with anything we didn’t deserve. She often taught people to speak up about things that bothered them and enact change by making a difference.
A close friend of mine recently said “grief is like waves in the ocean, they come at you hard and then they recede”, Nin was often most of our life preservers when these waters got rough, hold onto that relationship. But now go and become the person Nin was for people outside this gathering. At the end of this we need to remember that although she is not tangibly here, she’ll ALWAYS be one step ahead of us.
xo love your little Bee