I respect the power of migraines. I have spent the majority of my life living with people who suffered regularly from them, and I believe that they are as close to dark magic as is possible to exist in our world. I’ve always have and always will feel privileged not to have experienced them very many times.
This morning, though, was one of those times. I felt bad yesterday and I shoved that aside but in retrospect — recovering, now, with a slight tension headache and having drunk enough water to piss like a racehorse all night — I realize it was my subconscious gearing up for today.
September 15, 2014.
Twenty years ago today, my mother died.
This is as personal an anniversary as is possible to get, no flags at half-mast or newspaper editorials reflecting on the horror or television specials featuring experts in psychological trauma. Just me and my migraine.
I associate migraines with mother not just because she got them every few weeks, but because my very first migraine materialized the night I realized she really was dying.
I had driven from DeBary back to Sarasota, where I lived, to pack up my independent (if somewhat directionless) life in order to move home to take care of her. I had friends — Tim, Phi, Chris — hovering around me and dealing with their own form of shock. They took me to Barnes & Noble on S. Tamiami Trail (is it even still there, I wonder?) as a way to relax after dinner but like an idiot I settled myself in the medical section and researched colon-rectal cancer. This was in 1992 so the Internet was not readily available to me, I didn’t even know it existed as such yet, so it was bookstore or library, a familiar form of research practice post-college. Book after book told me the same thing: at the stage the cancer was at, Mother’s chances of survival for longer than a year was about five percent.
She wasn’t sick, not the way I had thought, like it was a bad thing we had to confront and conquer.
She was sick, and she was dying.
The sledgehammer hit my brain on the drive home, the migraine appearing so agonizingly fast that I had to pull over and let someone else drive the final mile. I knew what it was, even though I had never experienced it before. I knew what I was in for that night, and also what I would be dealing with when I moved home. Hopelessness lurched through me like flood waters filled with debris.
Phi tried to feed me, Tim radiated peace and compassion, Chris held me. I curled up on the living room floor of Phi and Tim’s apartment and whined, covering my eyes, reduced to child-like efforts to hide from the pain. My mother was dying, and my helplessness to do anything for her or for myself ripped my consciousness to shreds.
This morning, I was reminded of that pain and helplessness as I woke up to the sharp-needle teeth of a migraine gnawing on my brain. It’s a fact that the brain itself cannot feel pain, but the experience of a migraine is that your brain is choking on agony, short-circuiting every thought and sensation.
I managed to crawl to the kitchen for water and aspirin, and stood shaking by my desk as I emailed my boss that I would be out for the day. Only then did I look at the calendar gadget on my desktop and realize, what the FUCK, it’s been 20 years. I kind of don’t remember going back to bed after that, but I did, because that’s (thankfully) where I woke up several hours later.
I have no patience with platitudes but we fall into traps of believing them because it’s just better than being cynical and bitter all the time. However, for every “time heals all wounds” there is “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Twenty years on, many of the co-dependent and broken aspects of my relationship with my mother have been acknowledged and dragged into the light of day to make way for a weary and sentimental affection, just as so much of the daily horrors of her slow death have become faded shadows of once sharp pain. Part of me is shocked and appalled that it has been twenty fucking years since she died. She would 72 years old now, if she were alive. I can’t even wrap my brain around that, because in my head and in truth she stopped aging at 52.
But two decades have passed, the majority of those years spent spinning my wheels of grief and self-loathing. There were good days, fun times even, but to me now it’s all just a blur of wasted potential. Mother would not approve, but she sure as hell would understand.
The migraine has lifted, leaving me looking at the calendar again with a sense of frustrated wonder. I’ve been floating for the last two months, really, since I had to put my cat down on July 18th, and I think it’s been one long roiling ride through grief leading up to today. I’ve been a little absent from all parts of my current life to a disturbing degree, clawing my way through the daily grind and surfing the internet for amusing memes and bad fanfiction to distract myself from feelings. So of course it all builds up behind my eyes for a 20th anniversary migraine. Of course.
The fact that I’ve been dealing with this grief for this long will never not be stunning. It doesn’t feel like success, or triumph, or even coping. It’s a long narrow corridor of loneliness and sadness that just gets longer every year. Most days it’s easier to look thought the windows to the real world happening outside and not think about her death at all, until the light and the pressure builds up and everything shatters into shards of agonizing pain that is so shocking yet so expected because this is what my brain does when the situations is compartmentalized to the point of cracking the box.
I hate migraines. I hate what they represent for me even more. It’s been twenty years, and I still fear my grief and pain more than I fear the consequences of acknowledging it.