February 29, 1988. An oddity, Leap Year. It comes every four years, then departs without a trace. Not for me. The pain of that day is seared in my memory. That’s the day that cancer took my Mom, when she was 59 years old. That’s the day that I lost a part of me forever.
The obituary page…so impersonal. Facts: names, dates, places, times. Nothing, yet supposedly everything. How can Mom be a statistic in black and white to them, her whole life listed in capsule form? Yet they know nothing of her, nothing at all.
Mom. Quitting school at 16 in order to bring home money for the family. Falling in love with a sailor in his dress blues, marrying him at 18, and working at 41 years of life together. Two daughters, a business, long days. Always saving for a rainy day, postponing trips “until we are retired.”
Memories. A cool hand on my forehead whenever I had a fever (it comes full circle, Mom; I did the same for you at the end). My favorite meal. Unending words of encouragement and support. Holding my hand tightly whenever I crossed the road on my way to school. Sitting together on a swing under the tree, having morning coffee together. (I didn’t even like coffee, but I liked the time with you.) Going shopping and having lunch together. A blinding smile that lit up the Academy of Music: “My daughter, the Doctor.” Waking up in the hospital after all four of my surgeries, and seeing you at the bottom of the bed, waiting. Trips to Europe, and cruises with my own cabin. Christmas Eve, filled with Italian dinners and hours of opening presents.
Alex. The child against the odds, as I had been for you. My Alex, your third grandson, who you greeted every morning for 16 months as if he were a king. You showered him with the same love you had given me. Now, he asks who you are in family pictures. His beloved Mimi. He was barely 2 ½ when you left. How can I be a Mother to him, as you were to me, when you’re not here to guide me?
June, 1987. Cancer. Dr. Friedman’s office: lumpectomy or mastectomy? Point-blank: “Theresa, what would you do?” As if any of us can outsmart cancer. But I know better. I know how poor a woman’s chances really are. 1-800-4-CANCER. Very supportive, very optimistic, very wrong.
Chemotherapy. Six long months of pills and injections; you were node-positive. The cancer cells will die (so will you). Doesn’t chemotherapy kill the healthy cells, too? You told me losing your hair hurt more than the nausea and vomiting, and I believed you. The wig was rejected, a turban grudgingly accepted.
Change. You’re different, Mom. You’re giving up. You talk less, you care less, you take longer to heal. You’re too sick to tell jokes or have a beer or yell at Dad or give advice. I don’t know you, and I’m impatient because I want the real you back. I’m selfish, and I feel guilty for thinking you should be better.
Super Bowl Sunday, January, 1988. I am depressed. You’re too sick to come to the annual party (you started this tradition, Mom; you have to be here!). The doorbell rings, and you’re at my front door in a long, navy blue bathrobe, turban on your head, bedroom slippers, and your stomach swollen like when I was 9 months pregnant. But you’re here, and my smile lights up the foyer (you always said I was pretty when I smiled). Later, I realized that my house was the last place you would visit before your final trip to the hospital.
February 1, 1988. The first day of the last month of your life. First, removal of several liters of fluid from your stomach, then surgery to implant a porta-cath, followed shortly by exploratory surgery. “Did it turn out all right, Theresa?” “Yes, Mom, it’s okay.” Really? No. Half of your liver is gone, the cancer is strangling your intestines, spreading throughout your body cavity. Six months of chemotherapy. For what? To make the time you had left more miserable?
Roller coaster. The doctors have elected me as the family spokesperson, the person to hear the news and disseminate it to the rest. I cringe every time I turn the corner in the hallway of the hospital, and hear the latest test results. Where there’s life, there’s hope, daughter Theresa says. Mom’s spirit will beat this. But Dr. Theresa knows there’s no chance of recovery. A constant battle; which person do I believe?
Warren Hospital. Your window on the 2nd floor…it’s easy to find from outside. It’s the one with hundreds of cards taped to the window and walls. Doris, the nurse’s aide who helps you sip iced tea, says she’s never seen this many cards for a patient. It’s the room with 29 days of non-stop flower arrangements, brightening those dreary February days, helping to mask the ever-present smell of cancer.
Hospital furniture. Adjustable bed and wheelchair. IV tubes, blood transfusions, catheter, oxygen, stomach tube, intestinal feeding tube. A water mattress to cool your body temperature, a fan blowing on your elevated legs (blood clots, remember?). A washcloth on your forehead, Depend undergarments (full circle), hospital robes, blood pressure cuffs, electronic IVs. Beep, beep, beeping…STOP! I want to rip them all out, this is barbaric. I want to end your suffering (or is it mine?) with an overdose of morphine. I ask Dr. Friedman for extra morphine. “Theresa, you don’t know what you’re saying.” Or do you?
Doctor’s words of wisdom: your mother will not leave the hospital…I almost cried when I opened her up and saw the extent of her cancer…if only we could get back some of her spirit, she might have a fighting chance…it would be merciful if a blood clot loosened; it would be quick…should we write a “Do Not Resuscitate” order?…you may have to make the decision to stop feeding her (starve her???)…give her as much morphine as she wants…there are good ways and bad ways to die, and your mother has shown more courage and dignity in her death than I’ve ever seen…I’m sorry, I wish there was more that I could do.
You knew, didn’t you, Mom? You told the nurses you didn’t want this to take too long, that your family was suffering too much. At your request, a priest administered Last Rites…we had no idea. “Are you mad at me, Theresa, for refusing more chemo?” “No, Mom, (choke) I’d do the same thing.” You told us where all of your jewelry was, and what clothes to have Dad wear at your viewing and funeral. You wanted to be in a pink or blue nightgown. Pink? I never saw you in pink. We got you blue, Mom, and the saleslady at Sigal’s offered her deepest sympathies.
Saturday, February 27th. It snowed, so Steve drove Alex and me. You were delirious, but you were coherent enough to want to see Alex. Yes. “Dee dee (your pet name for him).” Alex was afraid of you and the tubes, but your frightened look makes me keep him there awhile longer. You fought the morphine to stay awake, and wanted us all by the bed. Peach schnapps? Okay, Mom, we’ll make sure everyone is offered it at the house. You waited until we left to close your eyes, taking one last long look at your family. You slept peacefully, and Dad didn’t even try to wake you to say good-bye.
Sunday, February 28th. The hospital called us…were we coming? Of course; Dad hadn’t missed a day. The hospital bed was lowered (don’t the blood clots matter any more?) and someone had placed your rosary in your hand. Your breathing was ragged, the machines pumping and beeping, the flowers the only bright spot in the room. June, your favorite nurse, cried in my arms in the hall. She told me that this was how it ended. This is how it ends? All those years of joy and sorrow, hopes and dreams…they just stop? (Is this really happening? I’ll wake up from this nightmare soon, and everything will be all right.) They said hearing is the last sense to go, so I held your lavender rose close and said good-bye, thanking you, loving you, telling you it was all right for you to go. The nurses came at the end of their shift to say good-bye, forming a circle of love around your bed. You continued to touch people, Mom, even at your worst. If only they had known you at your best!
Monday morning, 3am. The phone call. Good. It is done. No more suffering. So many details and decisions, so many people with so many kind words and so much food. Steve makes the trip to the hospital to take down all of the cards. Your room was empty when he got there. The bed was stripped of you, as was my life.
Tuesday, the viewing. Wednesday, the funeral. Numbness. Would you believe we’re trying to comfort others in their grief? A woman kneeled with her head in my lap, her tears soaking my dress. (Or were they my tears? No matter.) It’s not really you in that casket, Mom. You’re in a far better place. We got you slippers because your feet were always cold, and I put on your glasses so you could see. The funeral director is amazed at the number of floral tributes; they circled the room many times. Soon, they would grace the rooms of those back in the hospital, and the nurse’s station as well. By Wednesday evening, all is over. My new life without you has just begun.
March, 1989. A year has passed one day at a time. My frequent bouts of grief have given way to less frequent bouts, but when they come, they are just as deep and painful. The thing I miss most is talking to you every day at lunch time (how long will it be before I no longer catch myself reaching for the phone to tell you something important?). This is all so unbelievable; you’re just away on vacation and you’ll be back again, soon. I still get angry when I see older couples holding hands, and I put up a Christmas tree even though I didn’t have the heart for it. I did it for Alex, and for you. I am his mother, as you were mine. That’s what mothers do. I couldn’t go into a Hallmark store at Mother’s Day; maybe someday I’ll be able to pass the cards without crying.
I miss you, Mom, as a mother, and as a friend. Everyone tells me that I’ve been elected to take your place. Silly people…no one can do that. But your memory lives on in my heart, and those parts of you I passed on to Alex will live on in his children, his children’s children, and beyond. Every time I make seafood on Christmas Eve, read a book you would have enjoyed, give Alex a hug, make potato pancakes for Dad, help someone in need, keep watch over the family, say a prayer of thanksgiving for you…at each of these times, I will celebrate the memory of your being.
I miss you, Mom. But if I look around, you are everywhere, in all things. And most of all, in me. You will be with me always, and I know from a deep, abiding faith that someday, we will be together again. Until then, I will remember you, and keep you alive in my heart. I will live as you would have wanted me to, and I will do my best to remember to treat people with dignity, honor, and truth, as you taught me.
Thank you, Mom, for my life.
Thank You, God, for my mother.
May You grant her everlasting peace.