My Mother (1941 – 2019)

My mother, Christine Wendig, passed away a week ago today. And though I usually rankle at that phrase — “passed away” — it feels somewhat appropriate here. I note that sometimes death feels like watching someone drift farther and farther from shore, with you standing on the land, and them on the water, and ahead of them, a bank of fog. You know that at some point, they’ll float far enough away that they’ll enter the fogbank and be gone, but until that time comes, you keep talking to them, keep trying to make them laugh, keep giving them ways to be comfortable out on that raft of theirs. But every day they move closer to the fog, sometimes by a few inches, sometimes by a few feet. It was like that with Mom, watching her go. She was diagnosed with small cell stage 4 lung cancer on September 11th (another reason to hate that day), and died three, four weeks later. The disease swept in quick and the decline was fast, but enough where we still had time to visit with her and let her know we loved her, and with her letting us know we were loved in return. We thought this past Sunday would be the day, so a lot of people came by one last time to say their goodbyes — but, to our surprise, she held on. And when she passed on Monday, she did so with my sister and I present in the room, and nobody else. She drifted into the fog, and was gone, as peacefully as could be expected.

It’s hard.

I expect it will continue to be hard.

I keep wanting to call her and talk to her about it, which is as absurd an instinct as there is — “Hi, Mom, can you offer me advice for when my mother dies?” — but it is what it is, I guess. As if life was not complicated enough, we bought a new house in the hopes of being closer to her, and then in spectacular irony, she was diagnosed a couple weeks later. We settled two weeks ago, moved in last Friday, and by Monday, she was gone. She never saw the new house.

It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s so damn hard.

The grief is strange — it comes at unexpected times. A thing triggers the memory and you don’t expect it and next thing you know, you’re tearing up and feel like someone punched you in the middle. I wanted to call her the other day to ask how to clean something — just a stupid question, but I couldn’t, and the loss of that simple exchange gutted me for a moment, just ripped my middle out.

Her obituary is here, if that’s the sort of thing you care to read.

But I also think that obituaries are limited — there’s a format and not a lot of wiggle room.

So, a few more things about my mother that an obituary could not so easily contain:

When she was younger, her and my father were self-described “hellraisers.” They talked about racing motorcycles and jumping a ravine in a snowmobile. My mother used to shoot pennies out of the air like Annie Oakley. She more or less retired her hellraiser ways as she got older, though my father did not, as much. (It took him a lot longer to mellow out.)

She first put fantasy books into my hand — Narnia, then The Hobbit. She didn’t like that sort of thing, to be clear — but she thought I would, even young, and so that’s what she read to me early on. (We did not make it too far into the Narnia books, just two or three deep.) She was a reader and her love of reading passed along to me. (She often read those kind of thrillery type of books. If a book had the name ‘Robert Ludlum’ on it, she’d read it.) She was supportive of me being a writer (though first I wanted to be a cartoonist and she supported that, too, even going so far as getting me a copyright for my comic strip) all throughout my career, from snout to tail.

(She did love Star Wars, though.)

She liked to cook, but not so much to bake. One of my favorite things she made was apricot-glazed chicken. She would make that for me whenever I came home from college. Baking, she could do, and do well, but though she liked having recipes, she also seemed to handle the chaos of cooking better than the orderly operation of baking. (True for me, too.) My love of cooking comes from here. She was a fairly brave eater, too, with the exception of sushi. When it came time to talk about what things of hers we wanted, her recipes was chief among them for me. Precious recipes, kept on endless notecards. I’ll scan them, too, to have them, but the artifacts themselves are all their own.

She loved pierogies. If the menu had pierogies, she ordered the pierogies.

She was incredibly particular about the cleanliness of her home and the arrangement of things. My friends and I would play a game growing up where we would find a knick-knack on a shelf (for example: one of our many wooden ducks), and move it just so. Not even so dramatic as turning it all the way around, but maybe a 45 degree shift. Then we’d time how long it took her to notice. It was always alarmingly fast, as if she were a spider who noticed a vibration at the distant edges of her web.

One of her favorite phrases was, “Whatever, whatever.”

She went by “Chris” but apparently once went by “Tina.”

She had a love of small dogs. Her latest and last was an elder chihuahua named Mabel, who was a very poor example of a chihuahua in that she was quiet and friendly to nearly everyone and super chill, not yappy. Mabel was by our side when Mom passed. (My sister has her, now.)

She loved the Jersey Shore. Long Beach Island, in particular. In an act of Unrecommended Parenting That We Loved Anyway, she and her sister, my Aunt Mary, let my cousin and I drink wine coolers there. We were probably like, 12 years old — so, you know, don’t do that, obviously, but it was great and we loved it. (We never felt anything because wine coolers contain approximately four alcohol molecules in a bottle of wine-flavored soda.) It was at the shore that she bought me the first Chronicles of Prydain book, and also my first Garfield collection. I’d sit on the beach and read.

She became more progressive as the years went on, counter to how some get older and grow more conservative. Mostly she just seemed comfortable enough to let people live their lives however they wanted to, or had to, live them. She was disgusted by Trump, which, honestly, thank fucking god.

She was an accent sponge. Proximity to someone else’s accent had her picking it up in an hour or less. It never lasted, obviously — but she had no barrier against accents, they just, shoomp, became part of her for a little while, like a borrowed superpower.

When I went away to college, my mother and father separated — they loved each other, I think, but were ultimately too similar and knew exactly how to push one another’s buttons. A curious thing happened when I moved back after many years in NC — they got back together for a short time. And then we went on our first Mom-and-Dad family vacation since I was like, two years old (that early one, to Tampa, then Disneyworld). We went out to Colorado. It was a good trip. Strange to find that in my early 20s, but it happened, and it was nice. Not long after again they separated once more, and officially divorced — he wanted to move to Colorado, she didn’t. That was that.

She became a walking, talking menu of various diseases — Rheumatoid Arthritis, Osteoporosis, COPD, fatty liver disease, diverticulitis, probably a couple more that I’m forgetting. She almost died twice in the last decade — once when her liver tanked, and second when a bad cold almost wiped her out. The liver, she got back to relative normal by, of all things, drinking coffee. Amazing thing, coffee. An important thing we learned during this time was that, with the liver entanglement, she had to get off pretty much all her prescription drugs — and for many years, we wondered if mild dementia was setting in, because she’d occasionally seem loopy, or ask the same question multiple times. She got off the prescription drugs and clarity came rushing back. A weird blessing in disguise, that liver.

If you require a comparison to what I think she was like, especially as she got older, it’s Carrie Fisher, or General Leia — tough, but witty, and with an occasionally foul mouth. (One of the first times she met the woman who would one day be my wife she dropped the f-bomb, fuck yeah.) She was uncompromising but kind. Weary but still wonderful, especially in the presence of my son, to whom she became a great grandmother.

She wanted a humble end — a cremation, no funeral, no obituary, and we tried to oblige by her wishes, though obviously we felt the need to write an obit. She paid for everything ahead of time and got all her affairs in order: a kindness for us, a hardship for her. She settled on allowing us a small luncheon of family and friends.

She was a good Mom, and I’ll miss her every day.

I hope I was a good son to her.

Love you, Mom.

As noted in the obituary, in lieu of flowers or gifts, donations instead should go to Last Chance Ranch, a wonderful local shelter where my mother got Mabel. (Also where we got our two dogs, Loa and Snoobug.) You can donate here.

My mother on the day she got Mabel: