By Brian Lafferty
Last year I lost my mother to breast cancer. This column is the third of a four-part series about loss and grief from an Autistic’s perspective.
November 10, 2011 (San Diego) – I’m an optimist. I’m not a Lloyd Dobler optimist, but I rarely get pessimistic. When Mom fell ill it was emotionally hard for me to see her sick every day. But I didn’t dwell on the worst-case scenario. I refused to believe the worst-case scenario would even occur. Mom was strong. I believed she would beat it.
During October and November of last year, I noticed she didn’t get any better, but she didn’t get any worse. I kept thinking, “Her IV treatments just take time.”
This optimism was shattered around this time last year. It started innocuously enough when Mom got a little frustrated trying to organize some letters for a nonprofit organization she and Dad volunteered for. Pretty soon she was in a lot of pain. She had been in pain for the previous two months. This pain, however, was searing. She couldn’t concentrate and the letters needed to be organized and mailed on that day.
She called our neighbor from across the street and a very nice family friend to come over and help. Our next-door neighbor’s daughter also volunteered to assist. Mom was in tears. What troubled me was that she almost never cried. I was scared. I could see that she was hurting like she never was before. My mind acts like an encyclopedia where I can access information. My mental encyclopedia was in disarray as I tried to figure out what was happening, but I had no idea what to do.
With a lot of help she got the letters organized and mailed. However, she was still hurting so badly she could barely move. She went to her bed. Dad came home from work early and took her to the hospital. My oldest sister and her friend came over a short while later to be with me.
I watched all of this unfold with a combination of confusion, fear, and denial. My mind had no idea how to process it. I felt like I was in a dream. When I dream, I often feel like I’m living a second life in my mind while I sleep. My dreams are extremely vivid and feel so real that I’m aware of the surrealism that occupies them. I know that what’s happening isn’t really happening, but it feels so darn real.
That is what that afternoon felt like. Mom seemed so (healthy) that morning and in a span of a few hours she was in the hospital and the prognosis wasn’t good. It was the first time that I realized she wouldn’t make it.
At that point two of my sisters and their families came down from Northern California and Colorado. My mom’s extended family also arrived. I was so happy they all came because of what I’d been through living mostly alone with Mom (My sisters came from out of town for a week or two to help and my Mom’s friends and family had dinner with us from time to time). I needed the house to be full.
Late one evening my sisters and I drove to the hospital. We learned that Mom didn’t have very long to live. My sisters and I sat around her bed as she told us how she felt about us. I don’t remember much what she told me in front of the sisters. I wish I could. Maybe it’s because I somehow blocked out that portion because it was so painful.
After my sisters left the room, I stuck around. My cheeks were streaked with tears. Mom always had a way of saying things in a way that made me feel better. She told me something I will never, ever forget.
In her soft, slurred voice, she recalled how, when I was a baby, she didn’t know what to do. When I was very little, the doctors told her I had slim to none chances of functioning in society. She refused to accept that.
One night she prayed to God for a miracle. She said she’d do anything if God would provide a miracle for me.
Over the years the miracles turned up in the form of numerous people and institutions. From my wonderful third grade teacher, to my advocate in middle school, to The Winston School, it seemed that God had answered her prayers.
Mom kept up her end of the deal. She worked tirelessly with me. She fought for me. Her methods of getting me to communicate and function would now be called intervention. What’s most remarkable is that up until I was eleven I wasn’t diagnosed with Autism. Today many parents of Autistic children have an advantage my mother didn’t have: greater knowledge and effective treatment of Autism.
Mom came home a few days before Thanksgiving. Her condition worsened. On her last day, November 26, she was no longer herself. She couldn’t speak or move. She could only breathe.
The last time I saw her alive I buckled. I looked at her, broke down crying, and left the room. This was not the Mom that I hugged for five minutes when I was little, or took me to Disneyland, or celebrated my birthdays with. She was a shadow of her former self.
Around 5:30 P.M. my sisters came into my room. They informed me that Mom stopped breathing. Her body was taken to a mortuary where she would be cremated.
Many people say all good things must come to an end. What’s often overlooked is the inverse, which is this too shall pass. I’m still grieving, but things are really looking up for me almost a year later. I just had to navigate the rough waters of the following winter and spring, which would be the most grueling and trying period of my life.
Brian Lafferty is a young adult with High-Functioning Autism currently living in Escondido. He graduated cum laude from California State University, Fullerton with a degree in Radio/TV/Film and is also the film critic for East County Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.