Me and my mom, Mary Frances Moran McLaughlin

One Year After my Mother Died

by Cathy Corcoran

I observed the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death by getting a root canal.


I was going to say, “I celebrated the one-year anniversary,” but no one celebrates the anniversary of a death.  No one celebrates a root canal either.


I’ve always been a baby when it comes to dentists.  My early experience with dentists was with old Dr. Kendrick, a man who didn’t believe in novocaine, and who’d just as soon yank a kid’s tooth out as look at it.  He also liked his whiskey, a fact I learned only after I became an adult and moved out of South Boston, far away from the reach of his evil forceps.   


My current dentist is the exact opposite of Dr. Kendrick.  She is kind, gentle, funny, and she deals with my irrational fears with wisdom beyond her years.  Her high tech equipment is marvelous, showing not only x-rays, but 3D images of my teeth, color-coded according to their condition.  Still, the minute I sit in that big chair, I can feel an anxiety attack comin on, so I told her that, before she started in on the root canal, I wanted to be numbed from the neck up.


She gently “pinched” my gums with the novocaine and I lay back in the chair and hooked up the earphones to my IPhone.  I’d loaded it up with lectures from Eckhardt Tolle on the soul’s spiritual journey.  Suitable fare, I thought, for keeping my mind on higher things and off the drama that was about to take place in my mouth.


While Dr. W, and her assistant fiddled in my mouth, I listened to Eckhardt Tolle’s calm voice talk about the drama of the ego, and the urge to see itself as a victim.  The ego is always looking for attention, he said, and having people feel sorry for you is heady stuff, confirming all along what the ego really wants, which is to feel special and apart from everyone else.


I pondered these thoughts as Dr. W installed a dental dam - a piece of blue rubber - around my tooth.  “This isolates the tooth so I can concentrate on just that,” she said.  “Mmmm hmm,” I said, which was the only thing I could say with all that stuff in my mouth.  


Isolation in place, I turned back to Eckhardt, who was also talking about isolation, but he called it the false belief that we are separate from other people.  We are not separate, he says. We are all one.  That got me thinking.


A year ago, my whole family was shocked by the death of a young man who was very close to our family.  Michael took his own life in January and we were all stunned.  I spent two weeks out of town with my family and his, stumbling through the days, stumbling through incredible pain, asking “why?”


A few days after we returned home, my mother came down with pneumonia.  She’d had pneumonia before, and we didn’t think it was serious.  The first day I saw her in the hospital, she was having trouble breathing, but she was joking around with me, laughing at the meat loaf that they’d served her for dinner.  When she accidentally spilled gravy on her bed, we both howled with laughter.


“Her numbers aren’t good,” the doctor said.  “She has bad lungs anyway, and at her age, she may not be able to fight off pneumonia.”


Intellectually, I knew my mother was old, I knew she was sick, but she’d been in and out of the hospital a dozen times. She'd bounced back over and over again. I’d bought a black dress eight years earlier, thinking she was dying, but she’d rallied again, leaving the doctors shaking their heads. The dress was buried somewhere in the back of my closet, unworn. 


My mom had pneumonia, but she was in good spirits. She was knitting a hat for her new great grandson, born just a week earlier. She’d bounce back again.


But no, she went downhill quickly. Within a few days, she had slipped into unconsciousness.  We sat by her bed, holding her hand.  I felt numb, disbelieving, despite what I was seeing with my own eyes, that she was really dying.


One night, we sat up all night with her, thinking she was going, but at 5AM,  the nurse told us she had stabilized and she could stay like that for several days.  She told us to go home and get some rest.  My mom died a few hours after we left her for the last time.


I wore the black dress to the funeral.  It was a blessing, everyone said. My mom was over 90, she had lived a long full life, she was sick only for a week and she went quickly.


In the weeks and months that followed, I knew I was in shock, but that was another thing I knew only intellectually, from the neck up.  


Lost in my thoughts, I was surprised when Dr. W said I could sit up and rinse my mouth.  “You survived!” she said. That’s what numbing can do for you.


I barely got out of the dentist's office before I started to cry.  I miss my mother. I miss my mother.  I miss my mother!  My face was still numb from the novocaine, my nose was running.  I was a mess.


I walked through those awful weeks last January and February numbed up to the eyebrows.  I moved through my days feeling sorry for myself, certain that the double whammy of Michael’s suicide and my mother’s death made me special and apart.  Poor me!


But now, a year later, the numbness was wearing off.  Like the numbness in my mouth, feeling is returning gradually and now I guess, real healing can begin.


A friend told me she still misses her mother, 17 years after she died. I know I am no more special, no more apart, no more a victim than anyone else who has suffered the death of a loved one. 


We all lose loved ones. We all feel pain, and yet we go on. We are all one.


Novocaine can’t last forever.  At some point, we have to feel the pain.


But we're all in this together. We don’t have to feel it alone.

I guess that's why I'm sharing this with you.