Today is the day my mother died in 2005. Today it is ten years she’s been gone. Such a strange milestone. How can it be? How can there be things like Facebook and smartphones and Donald Trump running for President, and my mom isn’t here to see? How can I be a mom now, and I don’t have a mom?
I have a journal of my mother’s that she kept when I was a baby. I was her first. In one entry, she wrote of glancing up from her daily tasks and noticing my prescription bottle on the shelf. She wrote of how significant this felt, that she and my dad had made a child, a separate person with her very own, separate prescription number. She and my dad had been two but were now three: “never alone again,” she said.
I thought of that entry the first time I noticed infant Poppy’s shadow. It was the middle of the night, and Poppy and I were awake for a feeding, and the lamp light cast a shadow on the wall of her wiggly little baby arms and head. How strange. This person was brand new with a brand new shadow that would follow her movements all her life. This shadow did not exist before this person emerged from me, and it was hers, not mine. Poppy, though my child, is not my possession, any more than I was my mother’s. We each are distinct beings who have our own shadows and our own prescriptions.
“Never alone again.” I think of how prescient those words were when 25 years later I would be sitting beside her hospice bed, along with my sister and aunt, when she took her last breath.
It was very hard for a good, long while after my mom died. Hard to accept that she was dead. It wasn’t fair; she was too young, and the cancer was too cruel and took her too quickly.
It is still hard, but naturally, it is less so. As the years lengthen between her last breath and mine, so do the moments that feel hard. The sighs; the tears. The world is becoming gradually separate from the world she last knew. So are all of our lives. And it’s hard, and it’s sad, and it’s not fair. But it is.
It is strange to have these memories set in Advent, this pre-Christmas season of hope and longing. It is strange to glance at a Christmas tree in an unlit room and be suddenly transported to a darkened waiting room in hospice where I stretched out on a couch and blankly watched the glowing volunteers’ tree as I tried to sleep. Strange to remember that the expected event ten years ago was a death.
Poppy and Ace never knew her. It isn’t fair that they never knew her, but I try to make sure they know of her. This time of year, for them, is only what it’s supposed to be: hope and anticipation and joy. And they invite me in with them.
Never alone again.
Ten years ago, the experience of watching my mother die changed me. And it wasn’t fair, but I did find peace amidst that trauma. I hope she did, too. I’d like to share something I wrote back then, 9 days before she died.
Sometimes when I feel confused about turns in my life or interactions I’ve had with people, I tell myself it’s okay because it will all be clear one day. I hope that one day, I’ll die, and I’ll understand everything that happened to me and every interaction I ever had with people. I’ll understand my parents’ relationship, and I’ll know why kids were mean to me. I’ll know the far-reaching consequences of all my actions, what I meant to people and how I hurt them. I’ll know where everything I lost went. I feel like that would be Heaven to me: final understanding and acceptance of every detail of my life–and everyone else’s.
I wonder if in death my mom will understand me completely. I wonder if she’ll see me or come back and tell me secrets about the afterlife. Whenever someone dies, I always think, “Now that person knows. I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering, but now that person knows.” She will know soon. I wonder if she can tell me.
She tried so hard. Now, we have Sylvia and the other Hospice nurses who come in and ask first, “Do you have any pain?” Their mission is, first and foremost, to make her comfortable. Does that mean she’ll be knocked out when she dies? I don’t know if I want to be knocked out when I die. I want to know it’s coming. I don’t want to be in a lot of pain, and I don’t want to be scared, but I do want to know it’s coming. But numbness of pain is what they call “peace” in the medical world. I certainly want my mom to have peace, but I wonder if she truly can. She must feel that so much in her life in unfinished. She just bought all that new furniture. She told me when she was diagnosed that she was ready for me to have a baby and make her a grandma. She’s only 53. How can you fight tooth and nail for months, clinging to all you have to live for, then really die at peace?
I wonder if she will understand me. I feel as though in the past months, I’ve grown to understand her better than I ever imagined I could. A year ago, whenever she called, I cringed at the sight of her name on the caller ID, because I knew she was going to go on about some boring computer stuff I didn’t care about and that she’d similarly tune me out if I tried to talk about school or writing or something. Now, I sit in her hospital room and knit or watch some random TV channel she’s selected or play cards with my aunt. I just hang out. When I help her with the meal tray or stand by her bed to talk to her, I see her face as she looks at me, and nothing from the past is there. I see her confusion, her bald head, her sunken eyes, the streaks of marker on her skin where the radiation technicians noted their place for treatments. I don’t have any new revelations about her. I guess I just see her in the present now. I think I was seeing the past every time I looked at her before.
I couldn’t have done this if she weren’t dying, but somehow it doesn’t feel wrong or weird to be glad it’s happening. Not the dying part or the suffering part, but the understanding. I have my own kind of peace right now. I don’t expect it to stay consistent through all the rest of this. She will die, perhaps very soon, and I imagine some new level of understanding and horror will come out of that. Then sorting things out and trying to put my own life back on a normal track again… I know it’s going to be hard, and I do feel unrest about the immediate future. But I’m not questioning what I’m doing right now. When I first heard the “six months to two or three years” prognosis, I asked everyone what they would do if they had only that much time to spend with their parents, and the main sentiment seemed to be that they would want to spend a lot of time with the parent, or forgive the parent. I didn’t know what to do at the time, but takings everything step by step, I’ve wound up just where I know I’m supposed to be. I didn’t set out to do any forgiving, but somehow I have. On that level, I feel peace.