Three years ago today I watched my mother die. I know it is cliche to say “I can’t believe how much time has passed” but I really can’t. My mom was a big part of my life and we were very close, yet when I think of her now it is like watching an old movie I saw long ago. At the same time, I have moments when I think “oh I should call my mom and tell her…”, as if she were still alive and only a phone call away. I envy not only my friends but everyone who has a healthy parent in their lives.
Grief has presented itself in so many different forms over the years. I think I was grieving as soon as my mom told me she had cancer in 2000. I had been in fear of her death until she died. Death was always looming, and I was always questioning its arrival. I was not sure I would be able to emotionally survive the loss of my mom. Once my mom died, grief turned to shock. My life was surreal, and I was surrounded by people who didn’t understand. I only wanted to be with those who had lost someone dear to them. Only they knew the pain I felt. Sadness took over, the kind that feels heavy on your shoulders, and lives deep in your bones. The kind of sadness that traps you in one place, not allowing you to move forward. It hinders your ability to get out of bed in the morning, to enjoy the sunshine, and those around you that are still alive.
Three years later, I know I survived. I am still grieving. I still miss my mom. I keep my grief close to my heart. My grief is wrapped in defeat and acceptance. My mom came back many times during her illness. She was often the victor but in the end death won. I am unable to change that fact, and unable to bring her back. What I can do is appreciate the wonderful relationship I had with my dear old mum. I can be grateful that I had the love and support from an amazing woman whom I was lucky enough to call my mom.
I was and still am humbled by death. It did not defeat me, but it made me brutally aware that there are events in my life that I have no control over. There is a time to fight, and there is a time to let go. Part of me has let go, but part of me will carry my mom with me everyday in everything I do. I am who I am in large part because of my mom. For this, I am forever grateful.
I am going to repost the essay I wrote a few months after my mom died. At the time, I was drowning and unable to breathe. Writing helped me catch my breath. When I wrote this essay, it was the lowest I have ever been in my life. The only way I got to where I am now was to crawl through the despair. I am reposting this essay because someone reading this right now is grieving a loved one just like I am. I want you to know that it is possible to survive.
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.