When I was little and the world was quiet, I would lie in bed and think about the earth and how big it was. Then my mind would shift to the solar system, and how we are constantly floating around amongst other planets and countless stars. Then I would think about how there was even more beyond that, perhaps beyond anything a single person could imagine. I would begin to feel dizzy, and would have to roll over and consider something on a smaller scale. That’s how I would describe losing my mother. It’s something that I know happened, but it’s not something I take time to regularly consider. And when I do, it’s weird as [email protected]#k. And despite how big the world is, with all its winding roads and hidden places I haven’t visited, and how many launches we are making into space, my mom isn’t there. I wont find her anywhere. Not around the corner of a noisy street market like in some art film, and not on another planet that we’ll eventually colonize like some sci-fi twist. She’s gone.
My relationship with my mom is one that I feel very lucky to have had. We were two peas in a pod. I considered her one of my best friends, even in my "teen years" when people told me I would inevitably end up disagreeing with my own mom. We liked to bake, watch tv together, and were mistaken for one another more than once. At one point I had traveled 8 hours south of my hometown to attend a camp, and someone who knew my mom in college picked me out from a crowd just from our shared looks. I had just passed up my mom in height near her last few years, something she liked to jokingly metaphorically shake her fist at me about. My mother was a precious soul, she never had a bad thing to say about anyone, and everyone who had the opportunity of knowing her loved her as well. While very private in a lot of ways, she was one of the most giving and generous people I knew.
My mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer when I was elementary school. My siblings and I were too little to fully grasp the situation, but we did know that we didn’t like going to the hospital to visit mom. It was bright and smelled weird, and the frail lady in the bed wasn’t Mom. Relatives came and went and got us to school, and eventually we were coming home to mom again. She was tired and sickly, but she gained strength and spirit those next few months. She showed us the incisions on her now empty chest and we stuck magnets to her, thanks to whatever they had implanted where her breasts had been. Humor has been and always will be a helpful way of processing fear and grief in our family.
We carried on as young families do, spending the days in school, the evenings fighting bedtime and dessert caps, and the weekends at sports tournaments. She taught special ed at a local middle school, but even after a full day of working with challenging children, she was happy to return to a house full of her own. Challenging children being a term I use of my own accord, my mother being so incredibly patient that she never spoke ill to or of a student once. Life felt busy and full, and mom supported all four of us siblings with every moment, word and spare penny she had. Until the summer after my senior year when we discovered the cancer had returned. That was an anxious transitional time for me, having my mom be sick again and facing the prospect of being shipped off to college for the first time. Try as I might to stay home to selflessly support my family (aka totally give in to my anxieties), my mom vowed she would send me to school, if it was the last thing she did. I am so grateful that she did. I am even more grateful to say that she made it to my graduation a few years later.
It was when I returned home from college that things began to decline. The cancer had became increasingly aggressive in just a short amount of time. I watched my cheerful busy body of a mother become tired and sick again. She went to San Fransisco weekly for chemo and testing, and spent most of the time at home in her room resting. I think often she was too uncomfortable to sleep. I have fond memories of sitting in the kitchen at 2 or 3 in the morning making food or playing on my computer and having a random visit from mom as she made her trip downstairs for the night. I could tell she was wary, but she still would joke with me and chat before making her way to her room again. That is one of the biggest things I miss about my mom. She is the only person who would ever be 100% genuinely interested in anything I had to say, just because I was saying it. Moms are magical like that.
I remember one morning I got up for work and mom was downstairs waiting on the couch. She told me she had a doctors appointment and was waiting for our neighbor to drive her. I felt like something was off, so I checked her calendar and texted our neighbor. There was no appointment that day. I helped mom back into her bed and left for the day. Later that evening I got a call that my mother had been admitted into the hospital. She was low on sodium and that had caused her to be very confused. Apparently after I left for work, my mother solicited my younger brother for a ride to the doctors. Halfway to the doctor, my mother turned to my brother and said “what concert are we going to?” My brother, horrified and confused at the situation, called our friends for help and went from there.
My mom spent a week in the hospital. After being put on fluids she became more stable and herself, but she wasn’t getting any strength back. By the end of the week, the doctors presented us with two options. We could attempt to start my mother on another round of chemo, or we could take her home on hospice. The doctor basically was asking if we wanted to try putting my mom through more treatments, or send her home to pass away. That is not a question that my liberal arts degree had prepared me for. People told me to be positive, there were solutions, but they hadn’t seen what I had seen. My mother was wasting away. It felt almost cruel to try anything more rigorous than raising and lowering her adjustable bed or making her drink a bland protein shake, let alone pump her full of chemicals that had already made her so miserable (despite her best efforts at hiding it).
I went home with my mind swimming. Up until then, everything felt so up in the air. She had beat cancer before, so surely she could do it again? But at the same time, how many times can your body face such intensive treatments and situations without permanent and rapidly declining damage? It was then I remembered an odd call I had received the morning before my mom was sent to the hospital. My boyfriend at the time had called as I was waking up and asked if everything was alright. Confused, I confirmed that everything was as usual. On the island where he was from, dreaming about a wedding signified that someone was going to pass away very soon. He told me that he had a dream that I was getting married, but I was crying. I assured him everything was fine, and got ready for the day. As I thought back to that phone call, I cried for the first time since this whole ordeal had begun.
My mother signed the papers to return home the next morning, and passed away the day after returning home.
I remember running into a friend a few months into my mom being gone, and one of the first things they remarked was “Wow, you look good.” My dark knee jerk response was to say something along the lines of "Yeah, emotional trauma will help you shed a few pounds," but I kept that to myself. That being said, I can’t think of one thing someone has said to me about this that has made me uncomfortable or upset. In fact, I feel that in an effort to avoid that from happening, people chose not say much to me at all after the "main event." Of course, when news breaks, people will reach out over phone and text. Bring meals and hugs. Pray for you and sent you cards. But when the dust settles, everyone goes back to their lives. It’s almost as if they feel their permission to address the subject expires after a certain time. Of course, I can’t say I didn’t play a part in the downplaying of my need for human contact. While others worried wether or not they were saying the right things, I worried about putting people in a situation where they would have to worry wether or not they were saying the right things. And so the cycle continued…
Every person is different, and every grief situation will be dealt with differently. Some people need to isolate themselves in order to retain what little energy they have, but the isolation I experienced was not necessarily my choice. So any advice I have for someone trying to address a grieving family member or friend is that you're going to feel nervous, silly or inadequate. And thats okay. Because you are not here to solve whatever is happening in this person's life. You are here to show compassion and support. You'd be surprised the kind of therapy a listening ear can provide.
When asked how I feel I have grieved, my answer would have been at one point: not at all. I’ve successfully managed to avoid any sort of breakdowns, inactivity, or anything else one would imagine losing a loved one would involve with this one easy method: carry on. Continue every day as it comes upon you, and fill it with busy work and superficial distractions. You won’t necessarily feel a purpose, or emotional depth, or satisfaction in whatever efforts you make, but at least you wont feel sad! Sound off? I thought so too. So I joined a bereavement group, along with five other girls around my age who had experienced significant loss.
I entered that group mainly wondering what was wrong with me, and what to do to honor my mother and her passing. Over my weeks of chatting and laughing with these girls, making art projects, and discussing theories of grief and therapy, I left this group with a knowledge that there is no one right way to grieve. I accepted that part of my lack of crying was just who I was as a person, not to mention probably a salute to my own mother's strength that she displayed under countless pressures and disappointments, and did not necessarily mean I was an insensitive or shallow person. I realized that I was less impacted with symptoms of shock and denial because this is something I had, sadly, been subconsciously preparing for for probably a very long time. I also came to terms with the fact, that just like most things in life, grief is not an uphill climb with an end goal. More like a trek with steep slopes and jagged rocks, and peaceful meadows and rests along the way. And as nice as those rests are, it isn't a place to set up camp forever. So I march on.
I still have to make myself disconnect from the world and tune into a specific memory in order to feel something sometimes. I still am figuring out how to engage someone in a conversation about my mother without feeling like I’m somehow burdening them. When someone awkwardly says "I’m sorry" after hearing of my mothers passing, I still say "it’s okay" even though it's not okay.
My mother was the closest to saintly that I think you could achieve in her position. Of course she wasn’t perfect, but even her flaws just seemed to round out and compliment what a wonderful and humble human being she was. Her faith was incredibly important to her, and she held it with firmness and hope in her darkest times, as opposed to becoming bitter as many would feel justified in doing so. The only solace I can take from this is that if anyone is going to any sort of celebrated tier or destination in whatever after life there is, it will be her. Meanwhile, she is kept alive and vibrant in the memories and stories that I feel obligated and blessed to share of her here.