Love, loss, and Carrie Fisher’s lamp
I can only imagine what the hospice nurse must have been thinking.
It was an early October evening in 2017, and I was camped in the gigantic, overstuffed leather recliner that I had delivered the previous week.
One of the problems with buying furniture online is you don't truly get a sense of the dimensions in relation to your space. I don't know what made me think ordering a piece of furniture this way was a good idea.
So there I was, in the gigantic chair that had only fit in the room because we had replaced my mother's king-size bed with a hospital bed that weekend. I had my laptop and iPad balanced precariously on my lap and frantically refreshed both, waiting for Lot Number 1004 at the Profiles in History auction in Carlsbad, California, to open for bidding.
The item I was targeting was described as follows:
1004. Fruit basket lamp. Vintage table lamp consisting of metal basket with tinted glass plums and grape bunches. Measures 11 x 15 x 10 in. Internal lighting element tested and working. In vintage very good condition. $100 - $200
My mother watched me as the nurse worked to change her clothes and get her into a nightgown. In 2013, my mother had been diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme – the deadliest form of brain cancer. At the time of her diagnosis, she had been given 14 months to live. Linda, however, had other plans. Thanks to a genetic marker in her tumor that responded well to chemotherapy, along with sheer stubbornness, she turned that 14 months into almost 48. But now, we were at the last mile of what had been an extraordinary, often brutal four-year journey. She could no longer walk, no longer had the use of her left arm and leg, and had largely lost the ability to speak. But her mind was still intact and, at that moment, was focused on me and my overstuffed leather auction command center.
When Lot 1004 went live, I spent the next ten minutes in a sweaty mix of expletives, math, resignation, defiance, and impatience. The auction was live-streamed, and I had the volume at a level not recommended for anyone who wanted to preserve their hearing. When the auctioneer hit the podium with the mallet to end the bidding, the sound reverberated so loudly through the speakers that my cat jumped straight up into the air. But his audio distress took a backseat to my utter joy; Lot 1004 – the vintage fruit basket lamp was mine.
I enlarged the photo of the lamp on my iPad and brought it next to my mother for her to see. She stared at it for a long moment and then looked at me.
"Perfect," she mouthed slowly.
The nurse came over to see what had caused all the commotion, and when she saw it, she looked a bit baffled.
"Oh! It's nice!" she said and then left the room under the guise of getting something for my mother, but I was sure she was on the phone to her employment agency, begging to be placed with a different family that wasn’t so bizarre.
And who could blame her? She didn't know the backstory, had no idea why this gaudy lamp was so important. She didn't realize that Lot 1004 – the vintage fruit basket lamp - belonged to one of my heroes – the late, astoundingly great Carrie Fisher.
When Carrie Fisher died at the end of 2016, it felt like an unnecessarily cruel ending to a year that had already taken so much from us. We lost David Bowie in January of that year. Patty Duke and Phife Dawg that March. Lost Prince in April. Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Sharon Jones, George Michael, and Leonard Cohen in the months that followed. We lost our collective sanity as a country when Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election. With only four days left in the year that wouldn't stop taking, we lost Carrie. And just a day later, her mother, the legendary Debbie Reynolds, followed her beloved daughter to the Great Beyond. I can vividly remember the look on my mother’s face when I told her Debbie had died. There was a slight double take, followed by a slow nodding of recognition. “Makes sense,” she said. Our relationship was incredibly close. We often joked that my umbilical cord had been replaced with chain link. I was an only child, and while my father was in the picture, he wasn't a very hands-on parent. Or husband, for that matter. He was a good man and a hard worker who just didn't know how to be emotionally present. So it was always my mother and me. We did everything together, and I genuinely liked spending time with her. She was warm and kind and had a wickedly dry sense of humor. She kept me tethered, which wasn’t always an easy thing to do. And while I begged her to raise her standards, she insisted I was her favorite person on the planet. We were Big and Little Edie, minus the raccoons in the attic.
Like most of my generation (Generation X, the one the media seems to forget exists), Star Wars was my introduction to Carrie. I loved Princess Leia, of course. But it was later in life that I discovered Carrie’s unsparing honesty about, well, pretty much everything but especially her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. A friend sent me a link to Carrie's blog, and I instantly fell in love with the way she wrote. She had a ferocious wit and brilliant insight that was both biting and lyrical. I ordered all of her books and devoured them, ready to make whatever deal I needed to with the devil for just an ounce of her talent. How could you not love a person who writes things like “Things are getting worse faster than I can lower my standards.” Or “No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”
For me, someone who had wanted to be a writer since birth, it was impossible. But I also craved her hard-won insight into mental illness. I had been diagnosed with depression and a severe panic disorder about 15 years ago and had read countless books on mental illness, trying to figure out the upside-down toy box that was my brain. Carrie was a relentless warrior for erasing the stigma of mental illness by putting her bipolar disorder and addiction at the forefront of her writing. When she died, I was sad our Princess Leia-turned-General Organa was gone. But I was devastated by the loss of this once-in-a-lifetime woman who put a spotlight on the darkest parts of her life so that others in similar situations might see a flicker of hope at the end of the tunnel. ----- In June of 2017, six months after Carrie and Debbie’s deaths, it was announced there would be an estate auction of their personal effects in October. I had just started redoing my office and knew instantly that I wanted something of Carrie’s for my desk. I was hesitant to mention the auction to my mother, fearing she would try to talk me out of it. The one constant source of angst between us was money. She was good with it. I wasn’t, and it drove her crazy. She thought I was wildly irresponsible and genuinely worried that one day I would end up broke. It was the catalyst for nearly all of our serious disagreements. So I had intended to keep my auction plan a secret. But while we were on vacation in Meredith, New Hampshire for my birthday (what turned out to be our last trip), we caught the documentary "Bright Lights," that had been filmed a year before Carrie and Debbie passed away. I had already seen it, but my mother hadn't. As they toured the inside of Carrie's very eclectic house, my mother laughed and said, "That looks like the inside of your head when you forget to take your Paxil." It was hard to disagree with her. I decided to tell her about the auction and my intention to find something of Carrie's for my desk. She was quiet for what felt like hours but wasn't any longer than a few seconds. “Please, no Star Wars stuff.”
She got her wish. When the auction catalog arrived that fall, I poured through it, looking for something meaningful (and affordable). The minute I came across the fruit basket lamp, I knew it was that something. It reminded me of the huge basket of plastic fruit my grandmother had kept in the entryway of her house, like every good Italian nonna. I registered for the auction and bookmarked Lot 1004. The auction felt like the only thing I had any control over at that moment. We had begun hospice care at home, and I was flailing. Nothing I did seemed to have any rhyme nor reason. I ordered a dozen bath sheets from Target, even though my mother could no longer get into a tub, let alone take a shower. I was constantly dropping things and sleeping with one foot on the floor and one eye open, watching the webcam I had set up in her room. None of these things were helpful. And when I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be able to save my mother’s life with bath sheets and webcams, I began to look for ways to immortalize her. There’s a brick with her name on it at the Jennings Hotel in Joseph, Oregon. A tiny pixel light named after her under the Wabash Bridge in Chicago. In New Hampshire, her initials are carved underneath a bookshelf in her favorite hotel. In a sense, I was doing the same thing with my quest for Carrie’s lamp. Having something that had belonged to one of my heroes had taken on a new sense of urgency.
October 30, 2017, was a beautiful fall day. I thought I had noticed a change in my mother's breathing that morning, and when the hospice nurse arrived a short time later, she confirmed it. "It will be today."
I made some phone calls, and soon the house was filled with friends and family who came to say their goodbyes. I tried to be a good host but mostly stayed in that ridiculous new recliner, my eyes affixed to hers, and the roaring sound of a freight train running through my head. There was a brief lull in visitors early in the evening, and by brief, I mean less than 20 minutes. We were alone, just the two of us for the first time that day. I pressed her hand to my cheek and told her what a magnificent job she had done these past four years and that it was time to leave that all behind. I told her what an absolute joy and privilege it had been to be her daughter and friend for 43 years and how I truly believe it made me the luckiest person on earth. I continued talking until her rapid breathing stopped after one final gasp. I put my head on her chest and listened for the heartbeat that had soothed me my entire life. But there was no sound. My mother left this world at 5:43 PM. And I know with absolute certainty that she waited until it was just the two of us, as it had always been, to take her leave.
Carrie’s lamp arrived four days later.
I had a plan for how I was going to handle my grief. I even mentioned it in my mother’s eulogy.
“…I will get up every morning, look for a comfortable pair of shoes, and put one foot in front of the other. I will do my best to do so with grace and humor, and class. She gave me an extraordinary life, and I will spend the rest of it trying to repay that gift.”
And that had been my intention. I would take a few weeks off from work to catch up on sleep, start putting the house back together and deal with her estate stuff. Then I would go back to work and start living in what would be the new normal. I’d start writing again and hope that the light from Carrie’s lamp would cast some magic onto those words. I would be sad, of course. But I would be okay because she was okay now. No more pain, no more meds, no more falling, no more frustration over not being able to get her words out. No more having to watch me bumble my way through it, running things like a finely tuned fiasco. All of that was over now. She was finally okay, and soon I would be too.
Well, that was the plan, anyway. And you know what they say about plans. You cannot plan your way through grief. You can’t drink, smoke, fuck, shop, gamble, or bargain it away. You cannot outsmart it. Believe me, I tried. And for over two years now, I have been shattered by it in a way I never saw coming. I knew that I would be sad and that it would be difficult. But I was unprepared for the crushing loneliness of it. As time went on, that loneliness turned into this quiet sort of despair. Working from home and the ability to order virtually anything with just a click allowed me to go for weeks and sometimes months without leaving the house. I became deeply ashamed of my grief because I couldn't understand what was wrong with me. Yes, I had lost the person I loved the most in the world, but the comfort I thought would come from knowing my mother was no longer sick never showed up. I was doing everything you’re not supposed to do while grieving – like beating myself up for not having my shit together in comparison to people who had also suffered significant losses. I was on a carousel of anger and sadness, profound shame and pain that was both physical and emotional. And despite having the most loving friends who would do anything for me and countless resources at my disposal, I couldn't get out of my head long enough to figure out how to get off the ride. My lowest point came just a couple of months ago. I wasn’t suicidal. But I no longer cared that much about continuing to live in my current state, which felt like it was becoming permanent.
I began trying to neatly detach myself from things. I knew that I was in trouble, but was too ashamed to ask for help. One afternoon, a friend of my mother's had stopped by my house. Out of seemingly nowhere, she said, "You know you are your mother's legacy, right?"
The words sent me into a panic. My mother had endured four years of chemo and radiation, the latter of which required a full face mask that was screwed into a table so that she wouldn't move. She slowly lost the ability to do almost everything she loved. She was a world-class knitter but couldn’t hold the needles. Her unsteady gait led to falls when she would go out with friends on Friday nights like she had been doing for 40 years. Medication that she took made her bruise easily, and she was covered in them. But she made the best of the bad deal she had been dealt. She did everything she could do to have more time with me. And here I was, wishing away whatever time I had left. Later that night, after almost two hours of starting and stopping, I sent a text to a crisis helpline.
“My mother died almost two years ago and I am lost.” An empathetic crisis counselor responded and put me in touch with an online therapist who specializes in complicated grief. I’ve met with her a few times over the past month or so, and it’s slowly helping. Am I a glittery ray of sunshine to be around? Definitely not. But to be honest, I never was to begin with. What I am now is a person who is still on the ride, but working on an exit route from the carousel. I owe that to myself. But more importantly, I owe it to my mother. I’m trying to look at grief not as something to be conquered, but something to be respected. To find a place where we can co-exist.
I’m cautiously optimistic.
Today marks the 3rd anniversary of Carrie being drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra. October 30 marked two years without my mother. If an afterlife exists, and I hope it does, I’d like to think my Mom and Carrie have somehow crossed paths. I can see my Mom calling out “Hey, Carrie! My daughter has your lamp!”
I see tiny bits of my Mom and me in Carrie and Debbie: the classy, unsinkable mother and her well-meaning, off-kilter daughter. Soft white Christmas lights and bulbs bright enough to be seen from space.
I think about Billie Lourd, Carrie’s daughter, often and cannot imagine what it has been and continues to be like for her. The world lost two icons when Carrie and Debbie died. But Billie lost her mother and grandmother. She's been incredibly graceful and generous through it all. Her essay for Time Magazine on becoming Princess Leia's keeper is poignant, funny, and has echoes of her mom’s great way with words. I hope she continues to write.
Carrie’s lamp never made it into my office. That room became a bit of a dumping ground for all of the ways I tried not dealing with my grief. But it will someday soon, as I work on trying to put the pieces of my life and my future back together. For now, the lamp sits on a cabinet below a photograph of my mother wearing Nick and Nora flannel pajamas covered in champagne bottles with a huge grin on her face.
She was the greatest, and I was the luckiest.
(If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, anxiety, and/or grief, you're not alone. Text 741741 to connect with folks who can help. Make Space Mom proud.)
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