unbelievably charming

I’ve been spending all my weekdays with the kids during their online schoolwork, and all my evenings on either laundry or reading Twitter until it feels like my eyes are going to bleed. I am trying to get better about what time I go to bed, since I haven’t been getting enough sleep at night. I’m pretty stubborn, though, especially with myself, so I have to take it incrementally or I just won’t. Whatever it is. WON’T.

Last evening I was hit with a wave of depression that I was not expecting, and I couldn’t pinpoint where it might be coming from. Then today my google calendar said it was the fourth anniversary of my Mamow dying, and now it makes sense.

She had increasingly deteriorating dementia for several years before she died, and I spent about a year going to my Mamow and Papow’s house each week and spending time with her: making food and encouraging her to eat it, washing her hair, helping her get cleaned up, going for short wee walks sometimes, and even once I took her to get her hair cut and we got McDonald’s on the way home because that’s always how she did it before.

As I told one of my classmates in my death doula class — because we need to use our own experiences to understand what about death we already know and how to use that wisdom for our future clients — it felt like a holy and sacred thing to wash her hair and remind her who the people were in the photos hanging on the walls and surreptitiously clean her baby doll’s face after she spent her entire lunch time trying to feed it from her own plate. I expected to be with her as she gradually became more and more frail, less and less cognitively grounded in the now, and transitioned into active dying. I expected to be at her side as she began to die, and that I would be there when she finally took her last breath. But I got to do none of that.

During her final year, her oldest child, my aunt, died in hospice. At her funeral, my mom was a mess; she was angry that my eldest had decided not to attend because he was constantly being misgendered and deadnamed by his own grandmother; she was angry that her older sister, who had lived with a form of schizophrenia that rendered her perpetually about twelve, and who needed caretaking by her younger sister who did not want that job, was gone and that there was no way to ever make up for how that made her feel; that her mother kept forgetting her daughter was dead and kept going back up to the casket and touching my aunt’s body and wondering what happened to her; and all the other things that have hurt her over decades that she’s never resolved or been in therapy for.

At the cemetery, I wanted to share a poem with my mom to comfort her, because it was also comforting to me, but she was so angry she pushed me away with tears in her eyes and told me roughly to stop. I did, but in that moment my own ability to mourn my aunt and help take care of my own grandmother, my mother, my family, was somehow broken: like a windowpane with cracks in it that hasn’t yet shattered but only just. Her anger consumed her, and her unwillingness to address any of us (my big queer family) by our chosen names and proper pronouns led me to tell her, a couple of months later, that I wouldn’t speak to her again until she could do that.

That was almost five years ago and she hasn’t spoken to me since. And during that five years, my Mamow died, and no one told me until my sister texted that she was in her final hours. I sat on the floor with my phone, stricken, trying to logistic how I could get to the hospice in time and whether I’d be welcome at all, when I got a second text, that she was gone. It broke my heart that I was not there, and I still have a lot of personal guilt associated with that. If I had just gotten along with my mom better (as if I could have given up my own identity and the safety of my children, even for that), if I had just tried harder to help her understand, maybe it wouldn’t have happened this way.

But I didn’t, and it did happen that way, and still I can hardly believe it’s been four years since.

Time has compressed for me in that moment so that it always feels like it recently happened, even though the grief is much less dull and heavy now. And the grief is less about her dying and more my horror and agony over not being there. I never promised her I would be with her when she died, but it always felt like a foregone conclusion that I would be. I am not sure that I will ever get over how that feels.

And yet, time does seem to continue forward. My children get older, new children are born, a pandemic of dangerous illness consumes all the countries and people of the earth, governments shift and change and people take to the streets to scream and yell and cry the things that need saying, and the whole west coast of this country is on fire. Sometimes I know what to do and sometimes I really definitely don’t.

Today my fifteen year old had a Zoom meeting with his math teacher to go over some concepts that he wasn’t quite getting, and to prepare we set up his Zoom account well ahead of time (during which he got pretty stuck and nonverbal for a while), and I emailed his teacher to give her some context around how he interacts with the world and what to do if he got stuck during their session.

And, beautifully, his meeting went very well, he understood the concepts he’d been misunderstanding, he didn’t need any extra help from me, and after signing out he told me that it had been ‘unbelievably charming’ and I think that’s the best thing I’ve heard today. So I will hold the dialectical emotions of pride in my children and grief for what I have lost, and perhaps there will be other unbelievably charming things.

Nix Kelley
Co-parent to multiple kids. Writer. Death doula. Member of the Order of the Good Death. Seeker on the Path of Light. Queer, non-binary, & trans.


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