Two years ago today my mother died. It’s hard to believe two years has passed. I can’t seem to come up with the words to describe how wonderful our relationship was. I am so lucky to have had Jane Hawkins as my mom. Nobody gets to choose their parents, and there is a wide array of parental quality out there. I won first place prize in the mom category, and frankly she did fairly well in the daughter category too. She was full of love, laughter, kindness, gratitude, and was plain old fun to have around. I miss her dearly.
I recently joined a series of memoir writing workshops specifically to write about my mom. I have many writing projects in my head, but can’t seem to get to them until I survive writing about my mom. I feel the need to write about my life with her and her death. It is an absolute horror and privilege to watch someone die. I didn’t get that chance with my father, and am so grateful to have been at my mom’s side as she died. But I need to get that experience out of my body and onto the page. Yet it is so painful to write about, I simply put it off. Our first in class assignment was to write the first paragraph of our project. Mine went a little like this:
I almost missed it. I was hungry after being up all night, uncomfortable in the upholstered fold out chair all hospital rooms have. “Her breathing has slowed” my aunt said quietly. I sat back down on the bed, too afraid to take my mother’s hand in case I interrupted her death. We watched in silence, as my mom took one, two more breathes and then just stopped. Only my aunt and I knew what had happened. The rest of the world shamelessly kept on with their mundane tasks. Cars continued to roar down University Avenue, doctors hurried by, and other patients had the audacity to keep living while my mother was dead. As if on cue, the hospital janitor arrived and asked that we leave the room so she could tidy up. After I resisted, she promised she wouldn’t wake my mom. So my aunt and I left the room.
We had a month to write the next 5-10 pages of our assignment. I wrote nothing. It was hard enough to read that first paragraph out loud to my writing group. I was barely audible as my hands shook and my mouth dried up. It is a very supportive group of about 11 women and one man. Interesting enough, the gentleman in our class was friends with my mom about 30 years ago. Instead of writing something new, I shared the essay I wrote a few short months after my mom died. It is the same one that I posted on my blog one year ago today. I’d like to share it again as other special people have passed within this year, and I hope reading this will help those currently grieving.
I wonder if there will be a day when I don’t think about her. At each celebration, will I forget that she should have been here to experience it with us? If I need advice or want to share my day, will there be a time when I don’t reach for the phone to call her? I wonder if the time will come when I don’t relive those last few days in the hospital with her — knowing the end was coming, wishing it would come quickly, and not wanting it to happen all at the same time.
I was always very close to my mom. She was full of adventure and laughter. She was the kind of mom who would melt orange cheese on toast and cut it into pumpkin shapes for Hallowe’en. She would sew matching dresses for me and my favourite doll. She would pretend that she was a kissing monster and chase me as I ran screaming around our apartment. Often we would go on long hikes in High Park and nearby conservation areas. My mom would pile as many neighbourhood kids as we could fit into our broken down blue station wagon. The horn on our wagon needed to be fixed. It would go off unannounced for an undisclosed amount of time. My brother and I would slouch down below the window in embarrassment, while my mom would laugh and wave as people stared. She could always see the humour in every situation.
We didn’t have much money growing up, as she left an abusive marriage when we were young. Not once during my childhood did she say a negative word about my father, even though there were a few to say. She never let us know that the child support cheque hadn’t arrived, or that money was tight. She wanted us to be happy, and to have it all. When we moved into our small two bedroom apartment after the divorce, she let my brother and I both have our own rooms. My mom opted for the couch in the living room for her bed. She gave us the best she could give. We were taught to be grateful. There was always someone in the world who had it worse than us, and therefore there was no reason to complain. Everything was attainable if we worked hard. She supported everything we ever did, and truly believed that we could do it all.
My mom had a long fourteen year battle with non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, with a little thyroid and skin cancer thrown in. She had a brief period of remission, and then got Leukemia as a result of her past cancer treatments. We would spend our hours together at the hospital doing the crossword puzzle. We had our system down pat. If she was well enough to walk in, I would drop her off, park the car, and return with our morning coffees and the paper. When she was unable to walk, I would wheel her in and run from the car park to her side. Once she was settled, I would bring her her coffee. It was never drunk on those days. I didn’t need to hear the doctor tell me that her blood counts were too low, or that she had an infection. I always knew from the untouched Tim Horton’s coffee. We got to know the other patients in the Hematology clinic, not by name but by symptoms. We would talk about how the overweight guy who always wore overalls wasn’t looking very well, or the skinny lady with her chatty husband was walking and not using her wheelchair, or that young mother who sometimes brought her daughter no longer needed her IV. If one of the regular faces wasn’t there it was never discussed. I think we both secretly hoped that they had miraculously been cured. There was an unspoken desire for everyone to get well. If they could beat cancer, then there was hope for all of us, both the ones in the waiting room and the ones yet undiagnosed.
My mom did countless rounds of chemotherapy, and radiation, in addition to a stem cell and bone marrow transplant. She lost her hair and her sense of taste many times but they came back. My mom always came back. She was a fighter until the day she died. She never gave up until I told her she could. One of the hardest things I ever had to do was tell my mom that she was dying. She didn’t need to have her blood work done, or take her medication. She didn’t need to eat or drink. It was ok to let go.
She died the next day.
There is relief in death that is seldom spoken of. I am relieved that my mom no longer suffers, that it isn’t a struggle for her to eat, swallow, breathe. All the things that healthy people take for granted every day become near insurmountable challenges when you are fighting to stay away from death’s door. I am relieved that my mom doesn’t have to watch the seasons pass through a hospital window. She was such a lover of nature. She found pleasure in the simplicity and never ending beauty of all animals, and flowers. She drank it all in. She would marvel at the intricacy of an insect’s wing, and be equally awed by the expanse of a colourful sky. I am relieved that she is no longer tired, or nauseated, or just sick of being sick.
I am also relieved for myself. Most caregivers don’t allow themselves the freedom to be relieved after a loved one has died. My mom was an oncology nurse for 18 years. She saw death every day, and knew the anguish those left behind endured. There is no shame in relief. It does not negate the love you feel for the one you lost. There should be no guilt. We need to tell ourselves and others to let that relief flow. We need to allow ourselves one soft landing in a world of sadness.
I did all I could to help my mom while she was alive and while she was dying. But I am relieved. I am relieved that I don’t have to spend countless hours every week at Princess Margaret Hospital. I am relieved that I don’t have to watch her struggling to suck liquid up her straw because she lacked the strength. I am relieved that I don’t have to watch her skin slowly turn dark yellow from liver failure. I am relieved that I don’t have to wipe her mouth when she can’t. I am relieved that I no longer have a front row seat at death’s dance. I am relieved that I don’t have to put my life on hold for her illness. I am relieved that I no longer feel so helpless. I am relieved that I don’t have to demand that the doctors do something, anything to stop my mom from dying.
I miss her.
I’ve dreamt of my mom twice since her death. The first dream was the night before her funeral. We were at the Art Gallery together, laughing and rushing to the next installation. “You know mom, they told me you were dying.” My mom looked at me with a mischievous smile and said “Well then, I’d better go see a doctor,” and ran off, taking her smile with her.
The second dream was just last week. I was in my daughter’s room while she was sleeping. My mom flew through the door, and past my head. “Mommy! Mommy!” I cried out. She paused briefly on a window sill very high up, looked down at me and disappeared.
I have been told that grief gets easier with time. It is true in a way. It changes. The shock subsides. My daily phone calls with my mom have morphed into thoughts of her. I no longer reach for the phone. There are days and sometimes weeks when I feel normal, not happy, but normal. Then it returns. Grief goes on vacation but it always comes back. It’s harder to get out of bed, to enjoy life, to get outside. I understand that these periods without grief get longer. That one day, grief just doesn’t return. It finds a fresh wound to thrive in, leaving me and my family room to heal. I’m still waiting for that day. I am not convinced it will come but trust the counsel of those who have taken this journey before me.
I try to live the way my mom would have if she were here and well. It is hard. I am not sure I am fully up to the task at the moment, but I plan to be one day. I try to take my mom’s advice, pretending she is by my side and whispering it in my ear. Go outside, laugh, walk your dogs, be kind, forgive, iron your clothes, have fun, play a mean game of Scrabble, love, read a good book, go on an adventure, water your plants, do a craft, and most of all be happy,
These are words we can all live by, except maybe the one about ironing.
I will be taking my mom’s ashes to England this April, and scattering them on her birthday. She spent a lot of time at Bradgate Park as a child with her parents, siblings and cousins. We went there together 6 years ago. We had a wonderful day hiking with my aunt and my kids, and had a picnic near the old tower. I want my mom ashes to be scattered by that old tower, so she can frolic in the park and dance in the wind forever more.