Everyone has their own month — a month that haunts us, that reminds us of the dark, that sneaks up and tries to scare us when we let our guard down for a second. Mine is October — but not because of Halloween.
October now delivers me ghosts. October is now an annual, tumultuous reset that regurgitates my life’s biggest grief that was born this month just two years ago. October now dares me to dig deep, find guts, and make myself GET UP — over and over throughout the whole damn year. In October 2017, my innocence was cursed and an ominous spell was cast that has unexpectedly carved me into a different person — with some parts better and some parts worse than the pre-existing version of me.
I’m more fragile, but more strong. I’m more practical, but more anxious. I’m a walking contradiction that’s just now starting to reconcile how to live with all of it, crashing and compounding through my days of family life.
I think back to two years ago — the unfolding events still burn my insides as though no time has passed. Each calendar week in October replays a sequence of scenes in my mind:
Standing next to my sister that first weekend that October, inside one of those child’s party places, fake-smiling and making up excuses to our family and friends about why our mom couldn’t attend her then-2 year old granddaughter’s Minnie Mouse birthday. (Truth was, we didn’t know the exact reasons why… we just knew something was seriously wrong….) That October 2017.
Getting the text on the second Monday of October, mid-day, standing in my kitchen after loading my dishwasher. It read: “Got the results. Not good. Call you later.” The screenshot is imprinted in my mind. $hit. $hit $hit $hit was all I could think. This is it. I deleted the message on impulse in a futile effort to banish bad juju away. (Now wish I’d kept that text.) A few long hours later, I sat on my patio couches talking to my mom on the same phone that brought me her awful message. It was warm and gorgeous and I can still feel how the sun was heating the top of my head. I think I had mini-pumpkins on my outdoor table. “It’s everywhere,” she said. “We knew this would come back [cancer] and I’m not going to put myself through hell just to buy a couple more months. We’re prepared for this. You will be okay.” I remember staring at my potted flowers and nodding my head, almost automatically. “Ok,” I kept telling her. “Ok.” I didn’t cry that day. I wish I had. That October 2017.
I drove home [to my parents’ house] that next weekend, the third weekend that October. We binged-watched Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders on her bedroom TV (FX, remember?) and tried to gently make sense of why she could not physically get out of bed just days after seeing her doctors. On the outside I was level-headed. On the inside I was confused, ignorant, petrified — and absolutely naive about what was about to go down in the coming weeks. That October 2017.
That same weekend, I baked my dad a pathetic half-a$$ chocolate birthday cake from an old (expired? probably) Duncan Hines box I found in my parents’ pantry — because I didn’t know what else to do — because it was his 70th birthday on the same night my immediate family would officially enter the most tragic chapter of our lives. I baked the cake, took a small square from the corner, and left the rest in the 9×13 Pyrex on the stove… only to dump the whole thing two days later because no one had the appetite to eat any of it. We went to the hospital the next day. That October 2017.
That following week, in a blur of omg-this-is-really-happening, I had a full-on panic attack — my first and only to date — in front of my dad, sister, aunt, uncle and our priest right there in her hospital room. My hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably out of nowhere, I saw bright spots in front of me and darkness closing in on the sides of my eyes. Scared the hell out of me. My heart pounded faster and faster — racing far beyond what I ever thought a heart could. They all sat me down. I concentrated on focal points in front of me to not faint. My deep breaths made things worse. I was embarrassed. Ashamed. I tried to underplay it, but I legitimately thought I was in the middle of a heart attack. The nurse brought a wheelchair and told me I should go to the ER. My aunt and uncle wheeled me down to the ER, giving me 7-Up in case it was a blood-sugar thing (it wasn’t). I called my husband, he told me to calm down. All the usual tests were ran and — guess what! — after 5 hours a kind nurse told me, “Honey, you’re under a lot of stress with your mom. Your body reacted. Take care of yourself.” My mom was entering into the last days of her life and I was an idiot having a panic attack. Guilt. Shame. Fear. Sadness for everything that was happening so fast.
(In total, 21 days of stress-filled 3-hour drives every few days went back-and-forth from current home to hometown, praying behind my steering wheel, slow-breathing and mentally-fending off panic attacks.)
That Halloween (2017), I texted her pre-Trick-or-Treating pictures of my girls in their costumes — a princess riding a unicorn (a real showstopper) and Uma from Disney Channel’s Descendants movie. She didn’t respond.
The lack of a “They’re dollies” text back was when I knew we’d descended to a darker level. Ten days later, she exited this life.
Two Octobers ago, yet still so near. GHOSTS. We’ve all got ’em.
These are just a few of the hauntings I can’t shake (and oh, there are more… but I refuse to scare you too much by sharing all of them). I’ve now learned to carry these recurring thoughts and sensations with me, in a wallet-sized compartment, through each month as it comes (compared to what felt like dragging an oversized suitcase two years ago — a metaphor grief counselors often use to help us visualize how grief evolves over time) .
Sometimes I erupt. Sometimes I gut my ghosts into a million pieces. And sometimes I let them hover over me and hang around for a bit — just so they can have their wicked way and eventually get bored enough to give me a break.
But all times, I force myself to GET UP. Stand up to the specters. I get up for my daughters. I get up for my husband. I get up for my sister. I get up for my dad. Because the one, almost-laughable treat in this particular tragic trick of life is that I truly still am thankful — how grateful I am that she was, and always will be, my mom. No matter where she is now.
So I decorate our house, make Franken-brain spaghetti, buy loads of candy and pile pumpkins on my porches.
Most importantly, I get up for ME. Find the guts. Because I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.