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I habitually panic that my dad is about to die.
Please tell us more. What are your symptom details?
It’s been twenty minutes, and Dad still hasn’t answered my text? He must have had a heart attack—he must be lying on the floor of his office this very moment, phone on his desk and out of reach, unable to call for an ambulance. The hour hand of my alarm clock has just flicked past four, and Dad’s not home yet, despite his promise that he’d be back sometime in the early afternoon? Clearly, he’s been in a car crash; maybe a deer jumped in front of him and he swerved, careening off a back country road and striking a tree at 60 miles per hour. For seemingly no reason, a sensation of dread floods me as I sprinkle some of Mom’s Russian tea mix into a mug of hot water? It must be a paranormal phenomenon, the universe telling me that I’m about to get a call from the police, a stranger’s voice regretfully informing me that my dad has been in an accident, there was nothing they could do.
I lie awake in bed at night, staring into the darkness of my room, and worry. Surely, dinner meetings don’t go this late. I toy with the idea of calling him, but the thought that he might be annoyed by the two Are you okays I’ve already texted him that evening stops me, fingers digging into the duvet in favor of reaching for my phone. I hear a car coming down our road and hold my breath, hopeful. The headlights illumine my dim bedroom for a moment, but then they continue past our house, plunging me back into darkness and dread. Dad’s still not home. What if he’s had a heart attack?
Do you have any additional symptoms?
I’m profoundly affected by innocuous things.
Please tell us more.
Yesterday morning, while rifling through the cupboards opposite the washing machine, I stumbled across the bag of eucalyptus Epsom salt I’d stashed there last spring. I pulled open the seal, and the pungent, minty scent wafted against my face like a puff of cigarette smoke; this caused me to cry. I’ve tried to finish memorizing Liszt’s Un Sospiro, but there’s a wall of deterrence in my mind which prevents me from playing past the halfway point, the eighth page of sheet music repelling me like a cross raised before a vampire. With autumn dryness now crisping the air, I’ve started to regularly lotion my hands, an action which leaves me feeling acutely empty. When I pass a hospice car on my drive into school—each painted the same uniform blue, the organization’s logo plastered across their sides, low to the ground and proficient as the RNs who drive them—I feel some unnamed thing shift deep inside me, as if a creature has found refuge for hibernation in the squishy hollow between my stomach and liver, and has rolled over in its sleep.
Do you have any additional symptoms?
I’ve started to hoard a variety of items.
Please tell us more.
Admittedly, it’s a tendency I’ve always been prone towards—stowing away the various knickknacks and haberdasheries of life that will never again be useful to me, but are too loved to throw. Lately, though, this tendency has been worsening. A couple months ago, I found a crumpled, oil-stained shopping list that had been lost behind a shelf of dusty soup cans, the potatoesand applesand corn syruptranscribed in Mom’s looping cursive. The list sat atop the other paper recyclables for about ten minutes before I changed my mind and retrieved it, placing it instead in a shoeboxed collection of yellowing newspaper clippings and timeworn birthday cards and obituaries. A few weeks later, I found a two-inch strand of fraying maroon yarn stuffed beneath a couch cushion, a scrap from the mittens I had knitted for Mom last November; this, too, went into my shoebox of treasures. Then there was the other day, when I came to a great revelation while scouring the floor of my bathroom: I can never let Dad buy a new toilet brush, because the one we have now is the same one we had when Mom was still here. Its bristles are flecked with particles of her shit, and a visceral part of me finds solace in the realization that I possess something that was once inside her.
I shouldn’t think these thoughts. I shouldn’t cherish such things.
Thank you for your answers! To help us narrow down the conditions which match your symptoms, please complete the brief questionnaire below.
1. When you panic about your dad dying, you’re usually thinking about
a. last December, when he left your mom’s bedside with the explanation that he was going to make himself something to eat before the bishop arrived to pray with them. Your sister Anna and you kept your mom company for a while. But then your mom fell asleep. This was fine at first, until you tried to wake her for her hourly dose of morphine. You started to hyperventilate when you realized that she wouldn’t open her eyes—desperate, wet, gulping breaths as Anna cried out for your dad, who rushed into the room a moment later. You think about how he wept over her, lying unresponsive in her narrow hospice bed, not knowing if she would ever come back from this comatose state. If he would ever get the chance to say goodbye. You think about how broken he sounded when he said “I don’t want my last words to her to be ‘I’m going to have some lunch before the bishop gets here,’” about how, when she finally did wake, he never left the room without his parting words being murmured affirmations of his love.
b. that night, a couple weeks after your mom’s death, when your dad locked his keys inside his car. He tried calling you multiple times, but you’d already gone to bed, the ringing muted by the earplugs you can never fall asleep without. You got up around three the next morning, still exhausted, but too restless to stay put. You think about how your stomach plunged, the moment you saw that your dad’s bedroom door was open, and realized he’d never made it home. Then you heard the beeping of the answering machine, and your entire world shattered, because you were so, so certain that it was from the hospital, calling to tell you that something had happened, that your dad unfortunately hadn’t made it. You never knew the meaning of the word gratitudeuntil the moment you pressed the machine’s play button—when you heard your dad’s voice saying that he was at his office, and could you please bring the spare car keys? You had collapsed against the wall, gasping through tears, overwhelmed by the enormity of your relief and sorrow.
c. lying next to him in your parents’ bed the night your mom died, squashed between him and Anna. You thought you would suffocate—stifling and sweaty from the heat of their bodies—but didn’t move. You think about lying next to him those many nights after, in the spot your mom used to occupy, crying into her pillow and smelling the Vaseline you’d rubbed into the reddened skin under your nose, which was chaffed after three boxes of Kleenex.
2. When innocuous things profoundly affect you, it’s because
a. they conjure images in your mind, like massaging your mom’s swollen feet in a basin of warm water, Epsom salt sprinkled in to try and reduce the water retention her medications caused. Her ankles and toes were so fat, stretched tight from the fluid beneath, her skin so incredibly dry that small flakes would float around them in the water like white specks in a snow globe, leaving a gritty film at the waterline when you emptied the basin. This should have disgusted you, but it never did. Not in these moments, which felt sacred. Not when your fingers began to prune as you kneaded her soles. Not when you patted her feet dry afterwards, rolling on the socks which clung tight to her bloated calves. This ritual completed, you’d move on to the next, helping her change into a fresh set of pajamas. In the moment of recovery she needed between taking off her shirt and replacing it, you’d rub lotion into her scaly, sore-looking back, trying not to notice the knobs of her spine. When you look at a lotion bottle now, you’re deluged with the same feeling of helplessness you’d felt then.
b. they remind you of moments you’d like to forget, like the hospice workers who would drop by multiple times each day, bringing with them an assortment of generic, sterile gifts: unscented creams that wouldn’t further irritate your mom’s already strained breathing, bottles of liquid morphine to be measured in the packaged syringes they offered next, medication to counteract the swelling of her legs caused by another medication which in turn brought its own side effects for which there was always another medication, tanks of oxygen and clear plastic tubing. A wheelchair, when it became impossible for her to walk more than a few steps. An empty paint bucket and toilet stand, for when journeys to the bathroom were too much. A mourning candle—not for her, but for the rest of your family, to light as you washed her rapidly stiffening body.
c. you have associated them with what could have been. When you sit down to play a Liszt piece, you’re reminded of a moment Before, back when you were so blissfully unaware of the things to come. You’re reminded of the time your mom and you sat together on the piano bench, arms brushing. You had watched as she meticulously penciled in the ridiculous fingerings for you, playing each measure herself as she went, testing the arpeggios before transcribing her findings above each note on the page. When you look at these notes now, you pang with longing to have that moment back. You think about the vibrant smile that would have overcome her face, if things had been different—if you had finished memorizing Liszt’s etude, and she had been there to hear it.
Answer: a, but sometimes the others, as well
3. When you hoard items, it’s because
a. they bring peace
b. they bring sorrow
c. they remind you of those last few hours of vigil, your Aunt Sue in the background, silently watching, your dad in a recliner pulled close to your mom’s hospice bed, holding her right hand, Anna kneeling on the floor, holding her left. And you, cuddled into your comatose mom’s side—just as you did when you’d climb into her bed at night as a child, small and scared—head pressed against her chest, drinking in the sound of her heartbeat like it would quench some incredible thirst. It was snowing outside; your mom had always delighted in the snow, and you wished she could see. You hoard things now like you wanted to hoard her heartbeat that day—cup it in your palms and hold it close to yourself, wrap it in a soft cloth and place it delicately inside a shoebox of cherished things, this unsteady thump that was so incredibly precious to you. You hoard things now to prevent the anguish you felt then, when everything fell silent, the heartbeat you desperately wanted to keep slipping away.
Answer: all of the above
We’ve found a condition that matches your symptoms!
Your Mom’s Death (best match)
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Your Mom’s Death
There is no cure. This is a fact you will become intimately familiar with, over the few months it will take for the cancer to fully run its course. When you first learn that it’s coming, you will write this line in your journal, over and over and over again, until it covers four pages in frantic, tear-mark-warped scrawl: “My mom is dying, and I don’t know what to do.” As you will find out, the answer is nothing.
But here is something they don’t tell you.
When the moment finally arrives, and you’ve started to calm down—after they’ve taken her body away, and everyone who was on your mom’s list of those to notify has been called, and your dad and Aunt Sue talk quietly in the kitchen, and you huddle next to your sister on the living room loveseat, in front of the Christmas tree, a cup of your mom’s Russian tea warming your hands—you will realize that you feel not sadness, but relief. The freefall of waiting has ended. You no longer have to cringe in anticipation of the ground you’ve been plummeting towards, which looked so distant at first, but then you fell further, and drew closer, and cringed harder as you tried to brace yourself. You no longer have to hold your breath for the upcoming impact, wondering what it will feel like when you finally hit the bottom—how much it will hurt when your bones shatter, your skin splits open, your skull bursts.
The exhaustive freefall of waiting has ended. Huddle against your sister, and breathe deep breath. Fill yourself with the citrusy scent of your mom’s Russian tea, and allow the relief to consume you. This is the only cure you will know.