“What do you want me to do,” she asked, “live until I’m 88?!”
“No,” I replied quietly, “I want you to live until I’m 88.”
It was at that moment I finally realized my mother was dying.
I had been down this road with her for what seemed like an eternity. My momma, Mariam, was first diagnosed in 2000 with breast cancer. She immediately underwent a mastectomy. They even took some of the lymph nodes to be sure they got it all.
In true “Mariam-style,” she flew through recovery, no radiation, and no chemotherapy.
I tried my best to treat her like what she was, a woman with cancer. However, at 36 years old, I found out I did not know my mother very well. She was too strong to be labeled as something as simple as that. And if I did not believe it then, I did when she left to play bridge with her girlfriends the day after she came home from the hospital.
“Wow, she’s so strong” was what everyone kept telling me.
So many times, that even I believed it after a while.
Then in 2008, she fell. Now I also fancy myself as a strong woman, not one given to hysterics. But when your mom calls to tell you she fell in the yard and had been found by some stranger riding by, you tend to be thrust back to about age 10. After assuring her I would be right there, I drove some 40 miles at speeds that scared even me.
Working at the fire department, I know some protocols and was shocked when they refused to do a CAT scan in the ER. As I angrily packed her up to take her home, I made quite a spectacle of myself, demanding names and threatening to have people fired for mistreatment. In the end, I took her to my personal doctor who performed the scan. “Did she break her hip?” I demanded! “I know she did; you don’t even have to tell me.”
“Wait,” he said, “there’s something else.” And so began our journey anew.
The original cancer had traveled (metastasized, he said) to her lungs and kidneys. And the only stupid thought I had in my head was how long? How long did I have to convince her I really loved her? How long to make up for all the times I hurt her?
And I had hurt her.
Immediately it came to mind that I had let six months go by the year before without speaking to her.
We fought hard, and we loved hard.
So as I held her hand at the doctor’s office and listened to talk of prognosis and expectations, caregiving, and all the things she would need, I turned and said with a quaking voice, “don’t worry. No matter what, no matter when, I’m here. I love you, and we’ll get through this.”
Did I cry? No, not then, then I had to be the strong one.
When the tumors got so large they started pushing her esophagus out of the way, she finally relented and had radiation to shrink them. This began an endless series of “three months, at most”. We lived with “three months, at most” for the next five years. Is it any wonder I could not accept that she was dying?
Then in July of 2013, her care was turned over to Hospice. She stopped leaving the house, only venturing out for really important things, like pedicures ( insert wink ). Always a lady, she had her last pedicure two weeks before she died. I know, because I gave it to her.
True to my word, I went over every day for two to three hours to sit with her. And two women, who were exactly alike, but thought they were so different, finally figured out that they really liked each other as people, besides being mother and daughter.
On Saturday, September 8, I arrived for my regular visit and felt deeply in my soul that I should not leave. I remember telling my husband that I could not bear to leave her. After all, I had promised her, hadn’t I? So I lay on the bed with her for hours, rubbing her hands and feet and telling her how much I loved her.
My Aunt Emily, momma’s only sister, came to help me. After the first 48 hours awake, I called in more reinforcements. But it didn’t matter how many people came to help me, she wanted no one but me, and I knew I had to do it alone. I had promised her that I would be her caregiver and that I would not let her die alone.
On that Wednesday, she began to talk to her mother. I encouraged her to go with Granny to heaven, but she refused. She spent all day Thursday, soundlessly shaking her head no.
On Friday, September 13, she spent the first part of the day shaking her head yes. I knew then that this would be the day. This thought made me frantic for some reason. I began to feel panicky. I remember thinking – wait, I’m not ready! And then, I heard it, even though I was in a different room, and my mother had been semi-comatose all week, I heard her whisper, “but I am.”
Those words were as simple as a light switch being thrown. I went to her room and kissed her, and then I stepped back so my dad, my son, and my brother could move forward for her final moments.
After she passed, my aunt told me, “If it hadn’t been so hard on her, you wouldn’t have ever been able to let her go.”
It made perfect sense. Those people and things we love the most, who we cling to, are the very people and things that make us who we are. To truly appreciate the gifts we are given, sometimes we have to lose them.
And so, even now, almost two years later, as I continue to grieve, sometimes so intensely that I have to leave work, I still recognize that just by whispering softly to my soul, my momma was passing her great acceptance and grace to me. And I choose to accept these wonderful gifts.