By Kate Spencer
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An empathetic read, The Dead Moms Club covers how losing her mother changed nearly everything in her life: both men and women readers who have lost parents or experienced grief of this magnitude will be comforted and consoled. Spencer even concludes each chapter with a cheeky but useful tip for readers (like the “It’s None of Your Business Card” to copy and hand out to nosy strangers asking about your passed loved one).
You’re about to read a bunch of stories about the most difficult time in my life, told how I remember them. Some of the names and identifying specifics have been changed to maintain privacy, or because I’m a wuss and don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.
Also, there will be swearing. Sorry, Mom.
Hi there. If you are reading this, it most likely means you are a member of one of the crappiest clubs in the world. I would love nothing more than to revoke my own membership to the Dead Moms Club and to turn you away at the door. To rip up our Dead Moms Club ID cards and throw them in an incinerator. But alas, once you’re a member of this club, there’s no way out. Also, I have no idea how to even find an incinerator, so we’re definitely stuck.
(And if you’re not a member of the Dead Moms Club yet, don’t worry! Chances are you will be someday. And regardless, I’ve bet you’ve experienced deep loss and grief in your life, whether it be death, divorce, a pet passing away, or the end of Six Feet Under. The Babysitters Club had junior officers, members who were welcome but not quite at the level of Kristy, Claudia, Dawn, Stacey, and Mary Anne. That’s what we’ll call you.)
Remember how awful your stupid high school literary magazine club was? How insufferable every meeting felt? That’s a walk in the park on a glorious spring day compared to this. I would sit through a lifetime of teenagers discussing their poems about the Beatles if it meant getting my mom back. But as we both know—because, you know, our moms are dead—life isn’t fair sometimes. Also, poetry about the Beatles is almost certainly going to be awful. These are two things I know to be true.
No one asks to be enrolled in the Dead Moms Club, but since you’re now a member, you deserve some support from someone who’s been there. Someone who knows just how god-awful it is. Someone who’s made it through.
That someone is me.
See, I’m not just the president of the Dead Moms Club. I’m also a client. Wait, no. That dated ’90s joke doesn’t quite work. But you get what I’m trying to say, right? I have a dead mom. I have been there and done that. I know just how bad it really is. I’ve been in the Club for a while.
My mom died when I was twenty-seven years old.* It was pancreatic cancer; it was fast; it was a nightmare. Just months before her diagnosis, she visited me at my tiny studio apartment in New York City. She slept on my couch, and we went shopping and split bottles of wine. Everything felt right. We were exactly where we needed to be in our relationship: true friends. When the weekend was over, I sent her off up Eighth Avenue, watching her walk toward Penn Station with her tiny suitcase rolling at her side. The next time I saw her, she was in a hospital bed in Boston, cocooned in faded white sheets, a tumor hijacking her pancreas.
After her diagnosis I quit my production assistant job and moved home, back into my childhood bedroom. My younger brother, Andrew, did the same, and together with our father we served as my mother’s caregivers until she died in the middle of an icy March night. We were huddled at her feet, sleeping around the hospital bed we had installed in my parents’ bedroom. She took a few last sips of air, and then she left us.
Her illness and death transformed my life in extraordinary ways. It changed everything. For one hot second there I even entertained the idea of becoming a social worker, because my life felt so completely meaningless. But then I realized I would make a terrible social worker, and I snapped out of it, sticking to the stable, lucrative career of writer and comedian instead. It’s what my mom would have wanted.
Knowing my mom, she’d probably also have wanted me to turn my grief into something more than just a pyramid of snot-soaked tissues.* Because let me tell you, when it comes to gut-stabbing, endless sadness—the kind that feels like a Chuck E. Cheese’s ball pit that you can’t seem to climb out of—I have been there. I’ve logged my ten thousand hours of weeping, making me a Malcolm Gladwell–approved genius at sobbing into an Ikea couch pillow. I have fallen into the deepest of lows—horrible, dark places from which I thought I’d never escape. And yet here I am, typing these words right now to you. I am even wearing actual pants, so you know I’m doing all right. (Okay fine, they’re leggings. But still.)
I made it through. I have lived through the loss of my mom and survived, and you can, too. Do I still have unstoppable bouts of crying after watching Stepmom? Of course, I’m only human. Everyone needs a good Susan-Sarandon-and-Julia-Roberts-inspired sob fest every now and then. But still, I’m functioning. I’m making it. And that’s what I am here to tell you. You got this.
The Dead Moms Club is my story of dealing with my own grief, as well as all the weird, unexpected things that came along with it. (Disordered eating! Who knew?) I can only venture to speak to my own experience, since I’ve only had and lost my mom, Martha Spencer, amazing listener, occasional grudge-holder, lover of Days of Our Lives and Oprah Winfrey, proud feminist, and caring human who bought birthday cards in bulk so she’d always have one to send. Good Lord, I miss her.
Still, despite our different moms and experiences, this is also a book of commiseration, support, and the occasional survival tip on how to make it as a member of the Dead Moms Club. Through telling my own story of loss, I hope to help you get through yours, too. Or at least make you feel a little less alone. Because no matter how varied our experiences may be, we can all agree that losing your mom sucks, right? RIGHT?
Most importantly, this book is a safe space for you to grieve in whatever way you want. Read a page, put it down, and come back to it when you’re ready. Devour the whole thing in one night. Let it sit on a shelf for years, or use it as a coaster until you’re ready to give it a read. Kill a cockroach with it. Whatever you need, I’m here.
Now, hold these.
[Hands you a giant glass of your drink of choice, a bowl of the saltiest potato chips imaginable, and a Snickers bar the size of a pillow.]
See, the first rule of the Dead Moms Club is that you may stuff your face with whatever the hell you want, whenever you want. If you want fruit, it’s in the fridge behind the endless supply of brie cheese. Gluten-free bagels are in the bread drawer next to the gluten-full loaves. The Nutella is in the bathtub. Yes, that’s what that tub full of brown stuff is. Come on, what did you expect? Grieving takes up a lot of energy. You’re gonna need it. Also, please blow your nose and wipe your tears on whatever you want around here. That’s the second rule of the Dead Moms Club. Because after all, this is a safe space (for cry-snot, especially).
The third rule: grieving is best when done however you want to do it. It’s up to you—and only you—how you get through this.
Rule number four: take all the time you need.
And the fifth and final rule of the Dead Moms Club? You’re totally allowed to side-eye all people who say, “At least she’s in a better place now.” Screw them.
Welcome. I’m so sorry you’re here.
* It should be noted that up until this point my life had been a relative cakewalk, marked by the usual traumas that come when you’re a mega-tall, shy extrovert who developed boobs in the fourth grade.
* Though, come to think of it, that would be very impressive and probably result in instant D-list celebrity status and a lifetime of free Kleenex. Hmmmmm. *Adds tissue pyramid to to-do list.*
She’s Dead. So Now What?
My mom died at 2:04 AM on your average March night in Massachusetts: bleak, black, and so cold that the air freezes your snot to the walls of your nose the second you step outside. On her last night on earth, my dad, my brother, Andrew, and I slept at her feet like dogs, loyal and desperate for her love and affection until the very end. We had started hospice at our house a mere two weeks prior, but it felt as if I’d been doing it since birth. We were living on animal instincts alone: eat some lasagna; administer an extremely high dose of morphine; cry hysterically; return to administer an extremely high dose of Haldol; eat more lasagna; chug a bottle of wine; refresh Mom’s water; finish the lasagna. Repeat.
When we started hospice, we were all naively hopeful it would give us a few more months together. “I just want her to live long enough to hear the birds in spring,” my dad said wistfully as we washed dishes together one night. My mom was asleep upstairs in her new-spangled hospital bed. This is the true sign that someone is nearing death: the closer they get to the end of their life, the more your house fills up with items straight out of a medical catalog.
First it had been the shower chair. “Just one last thing to worry about!” we’d said with a forced excitement that comes with caregiver territory. But then came the toilet chair (“Less bending over!” we’d cheered), and the walker (“So much safer!”), and the strange, smaller items, like the tiny mouth- swab sticks that we were constantly dipping into cups of water and smudging against my mom’s gums to keep her hydrated when she became a comatose shell of herself.
Soon our house was chock full of these gray, plastic, sterile contraptions, a wall-to-wall reminder that “Someone Is Dying Here.” But nothing signals that the Grim Reaper is on his way like the arrival of the hospital bed. If a house with a terminal cancer patient is a museum of death-support tools, the hospital bed is the Mona Lisa, the pièce de résistance.
There had been no miracles for my mom. She had terrible reactions to the first chemo regimen she tried—a strange red rash that made her skin look like the outside of a strawberry—and it did nothing to stop the spots on her liver from spreading. The second chemo kept everything stable for a couple months as summer shifted to fall, willing us to get sucked into the magical feeling that is Hope. But it was short-lived; come November, a sepsis infection caused her gallbladder to collapse, and the whole ordeal sucked the pounds off her body like liposuction gone comically wrong. Her hair went from full and dark to thin and gray. Her transformation into shriveled old lady happened almost overnight, and she returned home from the hospital with tubes draining bile from her stomach, too weak to continue with chemo.
But hospice. This would be the thing to keep her alive! Hospice. The word even sounds soft and cozy, a promising whisper on your lips. I felt giddy about it. Hey, we may not get to keep her forever, I reasoned, but hospice will give us some months to soak up each other’s essence, to swap life lessons and stories, to marvel at the circle of life as spring blossoms around us. I was high on my own denial, trying to haggle cancer into letting us keep her around for just a little bit longer. Maybe, I thought to myself, she’ll even make it to summer! We can just go on and on like this, keeping her barely alive and showering in a gray plastic chair from season to season.
Sometimes it’s hard to see through your sorrow at just how much illness and death changes your life. “This is all totally normal!” you sing, twirling on your mountaintop of hospital stuff like Maria in The Sound of Music. But then you blink, and you see it: nothing is normal. Your parents’ queen-size bed is gone, shoved into a corner of the basement. Your mom’s bedside table, once home to a precariously stacked collection of Sue Grafton mysteries, is now just a forest of pill bottles and cups of ice water. Your dad sleeps on a cot on the floor. You and your brother curl up in a pile of blankets at the foot of the hospital bed, waking at four AM to douse your shell of a mother with morphine. You deliver each dose through tears, panicked that the pain meds might kill her before the cancer does.
This time when life crosses into death is dark and raw and, frankly, terrifying to revisit. Ten years later, and it is still one gray blur of the deepest, most bone-crushing sadness I have ever known. I can still feel the despair pouring out of me, like some sort of viral illness. And the memories are tinged with shame, because I so desperately just wanted her to die during the last week of her life. I wanted this awful misery trapping my family to be over, wanted my mom’s suffering to stop. But I also hated what the cancer did to her. It stole her away, sucked the life out of her—her body tossed aside, an empty cup. In those last two weeks of her life, she was gone but still alive. She was not actually dead yet; she could moan, and breathe, and sleep. But the woman who’d sometimes still climbed in bed with me to sing lullabies, even though I was long out of college, was gone. The woman who’d bought thirty air fresheners at the hardware store “just in case,” even though we only needed one, was gone. The woman I’d watched cook dinner with the phone tucked under her chin, laughing to a friend as the endless, curly phone cord wrapped slowly around her waist as she moved, was gone. Just like that.
My mom had left the building, but her body was still there.
I did not like the creature left in her place. She was zombie-like, her eyes stuck half-open, her mouth ajar, her breath rattling in her chest like a tiny Salvation Army bell ringer. If you have been through this purgatory of They’re Not Dead Yet but, Holy Crap, They Sure Aren’t Alive Either, you know what I’m talking about. (If you haven’t, that means your mom died another different but equally awful way, and I am so very sorry.)
With the arrival of this Zombie Mom, I stopped sobbing desperate pleas of “please let my mom live” into my pillow at night. Now, I desperately wanted her to die, for her body to join the rest of her, far away from this misery.
When you start hospice, someone—a nurse in white clogs, or your social worker in her bejeweled glasses—will hand you a little blue booklet with a crude drawing of a boat on it. Receiving this book, Gone from My Sight, is a rite of passage, like some sort of induction ritual into a death sorority. It is the What to Expect When You’re Expecting of dying, detailing what will go down the closer your loved one gets to death. There’s the way the body can be both bony and swollen, the limbs blue. There’s the death rattle, that terrible name for the short, violent, fluid-filled, end-of-life breath. And then there’s terminal agitation, when the dying person can suddenly become delirious, confused, and restless, with bouts of strength and energy. And it is, simply, awful to witness.
One night, she tried to escape. For days she’d been muttering “I’ve got to go,” while constantly trying to get up and down out of her bed. She demanded we change her shirt, all day, over and over again. I was sitting next to her on the edge of the mattress during one of the wardrobe changes when she suddenly jerked upward. With the strength of a thousand Olympic sprinters, my mom, who had previously needed help to walk to the bathroom just steps from her bed, stood up and ran into my bedroom, climbing into my bed. “I’ve got to go!” she shouted at me. I screamed to my dad for help, and he charged up the stairs, my brother close behind. Somehow he managed to calm her down, moving her out of my bed and back toward her room. She stopped in front of the bathroom in the hallway. “I need to pee,” she insisted, even though there was barely any liquid left in her body. She was leaning on my dad now, her strength gone just as quickly as it arrived. As he lowered her onto the toilet, she put her hands to her head, moaning. “What’s happening to me?” she whimpered softly. “Am I dying?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice cracking. “I think so, and it’s okay.” The three of us began our 8,683,596th bout of ugly sobbing as we stood in a semicircle around her. Our hospice nurse had instructed us to give her permission to go, let her know we were okay with her leaving us. But the words still sounded crazy. “You can die,” he assured her over and over again. “You can die.”
But she didn’t. That night, her rambling continued. “Good-bye, good night,” she said, over and over again, tucked into her bed. “I’ve got to go.” Then she told each one of us that she loved us and demanded we leave her room. “Just go,” she said.
The three of us got to the bottom of the stairs and collapsed as one blubbering conglomerate on the stiff, pristine black couch in our living room, the one we only sat on during Christmas. The three of us so worn down by cancer despite our bodies being totally fine. When the tears let up, we wandered into the kitchen, unsure of how to proceed. Do we go upstairs? Do we give her space to die? No one knew what to do, so we did the logical thing and got slightly drunk while watching American Idol. When we finally went back upstairs, she was still there, breathing.
She lived for five more days.
Growing up, when the humid swell of July reached its sticky, miserable peak, my friends and I would fill water balloons and hurl them at each other. We lived in an ancient time before Minecraft and YouTube stars, and we could only watch You Can’t Do That on Television so many times before we started to get antsy. We’d stomp into the house in our jelly shoes and our jelly bracelets (the ’80s: a terrible time for fashion, a great time for jelly), balloons in hand, and yank their bright, rubber mouths up and around the kitchen faucet, filling them with water until they bulged, their skins stretched. They’d be so full we could barely tie them, our fingers getting tangled in the middle of the knots as we scrambled to secure our weapons. The balloons were huge in our hands, until that sweet, satisfying moment when they hit the ground, dissolving into shreds of blue, green, and red in an instant.
This is how it is when death finally comes. Your fear, anxiety, and sorrow stretch and expand, but you make room for the pain in ways you never thought possible. And then suddenly, it all hits, explodes, and you are decimated. Soaked in it. And there is nothing normal about what follows: the quiet in your house, the shifting of schedules to adopt all the things she once did, the cold, gray hospital toilet chair, now collecting dust upstairs.
The weeks that follow stretch on forever, like those minutes you spend waiting for a first date to show up at your house. You create chores for yourself, fill the time cleaning out Tupperware drawers or examining the strange cans of things your mom left in her obsessively overstocked pantry. I would stand with the door open, weeping at the site of can after can of Jolly Green Giant peas, angry that I now had no one at whom to yell, “Girl, why the hell do you have all these gross peas?”
A couple weeks after we buried her in a cheap, wooden urn in the rock-hard New Hampshire ground, a massive snowstorm hit New England. We’re talking two feet of thick, wet snow blanketing everything in sight. The kind of snow that sneaks into your boots even if your boots come up to your shoulders. The kind of snow everyone who grows up in Southern California dreams of experiencing, only to be completely horrified the first time they live through it. The kind of snow that eats up the world around it, like a fungus. New England snow.
It was April, or as we Yanks like to call it: The Month When Spring Is Supposed to Start But Instead We Just Got Two Feet of Snow. The blizzard had finally stopped, and it was a terrible time to hit the roads. They were slick and icy, and hardly plowed. But I was headed back to New York City soon, marking the official end of my nine-month-long Dying Mom Sabbatical. This would be my last time in a while to “see” her. And so my dad and I hopped in his four-wheel-drive-less sedan, flipped the seat warmers on, and headed off, swerving our way along the not-quite-plowed streets to the cemetery.
She was buried on top of a hill overlooking the green, sloping hills of southern New Hampshire, just a few steps south of her own mom’s granite headstone. This was her hometown, the place of her birth and childhood. My parents owned a second home just down the road; it was where they’d planned on living after retirement. Now she was getting an early start.
It was a beautiful spot, but one you had to gun your car up a fairly steep hill to get to. She’d only been buried for a few weeks, and so she had no headstone yet, just a small marker stuck in the ground noting her burial spot. Now it was completely covered in snow. Wait, did I mention everything was covered in hard, wet snow? I did? Let me say it again: THERE WAS SNOW. EVERYWHERE.
But nothing could stop us. We were sad warriors, determined and on a mission to be… more sad! Besides, we had already vacuumed the house, like, fifty times. We needed an activity to keep us busy, and our favorite hobby was grieving. Who cared if the dude on NPR was encouraging people to stay off the roads because of the ice? Off we charged into battle, weather be damned. For as the old song goes: You gotta fight! For your right! To awkwardly cry with your dad in front of your mom’s new graveeeeeeee!
The place was packed with other families who had braved the snow to mourn their loved ones. Nope, just kidding—it was empty and silent and dead like the people who occupied its tombs, because the rest of the world was a hundred times smarter than we were and reserved their public displays of grief for days with better weather. The tombstones around us might as well have read: Here Lies Joe Smith. His Family Is Sane and Only Visits When It’s Above 40 Degrees Outside.
“I don’t know about this,” I said as we passed under the large stone-and-iron gate that welcomed visitors into the most depressing place on earth.
“Kate,” my dad said confidently, his voice laced with the smugness of someone who’d driven this cemetery road a lot in the past two weeks. “We’ll be fine.”
Undeterred, he wove the car along the road, which curved by the older tombstones that seemed to be sinking into the earth, with dates like 1836 carved on the top. He blasted the gas as we hit the bottom of the hill, and the car began to fly up the road. Mom! I cheered to myself. We’re coming! We’re almost there! We’re—
The tires whirred against the ice and gravel, but our car was firmly stuck in place on the road, about three-quarters of the way up the hill.
“It’s fine,” my dad said, sensing my immediate judgment.
“We can just turn around,” I suggested, unconvinced. “Or reverse down the hill?”
“No, no, if I just…” My dad shifted gears and stepped on the gas. We didn’t move.
He tried this for five minutes, gunning and stopping and turning, gunning and stopping and turning, until he eventually sighed in defeat. “We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
“You think?” I agreed, forever the family know-it-all.
He shifted the car in reverse to back down the hill, per my original, brilliant plan. We slid slowly, evenly until—“Goddamn it!” The car shifted sideways into the snowbank behind us. Somehow the car had twisted itself at an angle, splayed out across the road like a diagonal win in a game of tic-tac-toe.
“Well, this can’t be good,” I snorted, because in addition to being a know-it-all, I am also a snarky asshole. My dad glared at me through his bifocals. He tried to slowly do a fifty-two-point turn on the road but just kept getting the car more and more wedged between the walls of snow that bordered the road like some sort of Game of Thrones hellscape. “Call your brother,” he growled at me. “And tell him to bring a shovel.”
As we waited for Andrew to arrive, my dad attempted to stomp the rest of the way up the hill toward my mom. He first tried just to walk up the road, slowly placing one foot ahead of the other. But it quickly became clear that the ice beneath his feet was working against him, sliding him back down the hill with every step, like a kid walking the wrong way on one of those people-moving walkways at the airport. Plan B: he straddled the snowbank and heaved himself into the snow. On paper this was a logical plan: he’d walk through the graves to where my mom lay a hundred feet north of him. But snow makes every pragmatic idea real stupid, real fast. He pounded his foot down, and suddenly he was up to his knees in powder; he could barely lift his leg out to propel the other one forward. What would be a two-minute huff up a hill in the summer now felt like a trek up Everest. He turned back around, defeated.
My mom was so close, but the snow made it feel as if she were a million miles away. Which she was. She was everywhere and nowhere. She was just up the hill, but she was also gone. Completely gone.
Fifteen minutes later, my brother’s car peeled in under the gate and sped toward us up the hill. And from about twenty yards away we heard the familiar whir of tires spinning against gravel and ice.
He was stuck, too.
“Goddamn it,” my dad said again, but this time he was laughing. My brother leapt out, lifting his hands in defeat. He had driven over expecting to simply drop off a shovel and head back home, and he was not dressed for winter rescue. He popped open the trunk of the car, grabbing the requested shovels, while Dad retrieved a couple of ice scrapers from his trunk. The three of us got to work digging out both cars, chipping away at the snowbanks so we’d have room to turn both cars around. We dug and picked and scraped with fury as my mom watched from her icy perch above us. Sad warriors, defeated. It was the first time since her death that the four of us had been together—just the four of us. Misshapen, beaten down, and different, but a family, still.
In those early days, the grief was overwhelming and all-consuming, a black hole sucking everything away so that nothing was left but hot, swirling pain. It was all I could think about, like a middle school crush. I woke up consumed by my mom’s absence, moved through the world hypnotized by it, then fell asleep to the lullaby of my tears. I was desperate to encounter her in my dreams, but my sleep was heavy, empty, and dark—proof that there really was no getting her back.
I thought about her during every single interaction. The more boring and mundane it was, the more I felt her death hovering over me.
“Would you like room in your coffee for cream?”
- "Kate Spencer is the BFF I wish I had when my mother died. I had dear friends, mind you. Just not the kind who'd also been rocked by grief and could make me laugh-until-I-cried about it. Well done!"—Allison Gilbert, author of Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive, Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children, and Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents
- "The most tragic things are also the ones we most need to laugh about. Thankfully Kate Spencer is here to lead us to those laughs with grace and charm."—Chris Gethard, author of A Bad Idea I'm About to Do
- "This is the perfect 'how to' book for the unimaginable, and Kate is the dearest friend you could want beside you the whole way. She will become your new cheerleader."—Casey Wilson
- "This book destroyed me. But not in a 'It made me so depressed!' kind of way. It destroyed me because it was just so deeply relatable. It made me remember my own mother, and made me wish I had met Kate's. I spent the entire book not only laughing and crying, but just so pissed Kate's mom couldn't read it herself. She would be so proud. It's incredible."—Chris Kelly
- "Although her memoir is a raw and moving account of a daughter's loss, Spencer's comedic wit prevails."—Booklist
- "Improbably-and irresistibly-funny"—People
- "Heartbreaking and hilarious."—BUST.com
- On Sale
- Nov 21, 2017
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Seal Press