We had prepared for this day, as a family. We knew what was coming. We knew what her wishes were for after. Because, there would be an after – a time when her wishes were all that was left. I held steadfast to the idea that she would outlast the numbers.
When she was first diagnosed with stage 3A ovarian cancer, I remember sitting in the cream-colored chair in our living room, my knees pressing into my chest. She was sitting on the couch across the room from me with my dad. “Fifty-five percent,” I said. “If you do chemotherapy, there’s a fifty-five percent chance that you’ll live past 5 years.”
My voice quivered as I spoke, and I tried my best to steady it. I didn’t want my mom to know I was afraid, even as the tears seeped from my eyes and made their way down my cheeks. Even as they began to soak my hair. I would be her rock. I would hold her hand. I would hug her. I would tell her the truth. At least, the truth she needed to hear.
“You’re the honest one of the family,” my dad had said. “What do you think of all this? I know you’ll tell us the truth.”
My brother was always the internal one, the quiet observer. But me? I was the loud, sometimes obnoxious, girl who had to have a say in everything. My opinions mattered, damn it. The world had to listen to me.
But when he asked such a complex question, because honestly, how the hell was I supposed to feel knowing that my mom may not make it another five years, I said something simple. “It sucks. It really sucks.”
“I think we can all agree on that,” he replied. And the world got quiet for a while as we wept, and pulled at our minds, trying to remember what life looked like only a few days before, when the world still stretched past our fingertips.
After her battle with chemotherapy, my mom lost a lot of her femininity. I remember trying to comfort her and explain to her that you couldn’t notice the eyelashes missing as much if she wore her glasses, as they detracted from her eyes. I complimented the different wigs. I kept my mouth shut when she wore a cap instead. I tried to be delicate but nothing I said mattered. You can’t convince someone they’re beautiful when they don’t believe it themselves. I wish she would have listened to me.
She was better for a while after that. Hair started growing back in all the right places, although now the hair on her head grew darker and more curly and she refused to let anyone see it. She continued wearing her wigs. She gained energy. She was present. It seemed like we’d been given a gift, she would be here. Five years didn’t have anything on mom. She persevered. She’d fought the demon and won.
I gave her tickets to Nashville for her birthday in June. We would go for a long weekend in September together. It would be a mini mother-daughter trip, before the big one that we’d always said we’d take to Greece, Santorini in particular. This was the beginning of living in the now. We knew not to take life for granted anymore. Living was more important than anything else.
In August, the cancer came back, more ferociously than before. The images I had placed in my head of my mother a year from now, or five, or ten, were soon replaced with new images, ones where I’d carry on without her. Nashville became the last trip, instead of the first of many. She spoke of her admiration of my love of traveling, of not being afraid to live my life. I held close to those words as she started dying.
October she spent the month in Mexico seeking alternative therapies, ones the US doesn’t offer. My dad went with her, acting as both lover and caregiver, roles that had become so intertwined that I knew my dad was becoming depleted. He held strong in his desire to be my mom’s everything, but one person can’t handle that burden alone without going mad.
When she came home, she was exhausted more than she wasn’t. We spent the Christmas holiday visiting family, a last pilgrimage of sorts. The air held all of our feelings, but our mouths spoke only of the good. We would cherish this time, and try not to think about what the next Christmas would feel like.
In January, she was herself again, lively and full of energy. She went grocery shopping. She chatted for hours. There was a genuine happiness surrounding her that I hadn’t seen in ages. This was my mom, the one I’d lost, the one who had escaped when the monster took over her body. The crankiness and self-doubt seemed to disappear, like it hadn’t ever been there.
Hope is a beautiful thing. We needed that hope. She needed it more than all of us.
The treatments in Mexico were working. The cancer was shrinking.
But not fast enough.
The Mexican doctors wanted her to come back every few months to continue their treatments but it was too expensive. Maybe if she could have done it, she’d still be here. Maybe eventually the cancer would have disappeared altogether. But I can’t think like that. Because grief is tricky. It’s a devil wearing a friendly disguise, telling you your hopes and dreams may have been possible, if only. But in reality, it’s just an anchor, tying you down to a time when you were too low to breathe.
When we learned my mom would be going on hospice, the nurses kept saying not to think of it as the end, but think of it as the beginning of the next journey. My mom clung to this notion, that our life is in more than one part, perhaps there’s one before us, one once we are living, and another when our soul leaves our body.
But just days before she died, my mom was laying in her hospital bed in her room, with me at her bedside. She hadn’t been talking much because she’d had a bad reaction to medication and her mouth had become swollen with sores. Despite the pain, clear as day, she says, “I’m scared of dying.”
She doesn’t look me in the eye, but instead up at the ceiling, like she can see something I can’t. I don’t answer her right away, because the lump in my throat burns, and I am just as scared of her dying as she is to die.
“You believe in God and Heaven though, right?” I finally say, because it’s the only comfort I can think of in that moment.
“Yes,” she says. “I do.”
And like a reflex, I reply, “Then you have nothing to be afraid of.”
Even after I say it, I regret it. It’s not the comfort she wants from me. She wants me to be afraid too. She needs me to acknowledge how scary this time is for her. But I can’t. I can’t open my mouth and say the words: “You’re dying. I’m terrified. You are terrified. We are all losing more than we can handle.”
Instead, I change the subject. I still regret my words a year later.
Not long after, my mom tells me that when people start sleeping a lot when they are on hospice they are closer to dying. She tells me she’s afraid because she’s been sleeping so much. My heart breaks a little. I try to comfort her and tell her it’s just because she needs strength. I’m due to leave for Ireland for three weeks soon. I’m terrified to leave, but also terrified to stay.
“I’ll hang on. You always hear those stories, Katie, the ones about someone waiting for a loved one to get there before they let go,” she says.
“You mean like how Brutus waited until Dad came downstairs before he died?” I ask, recalling the time our Rottweiler waited to see my dad one last time before he closed his eyes forever.
“Yes,” she says. “Exactly like that.”
“Three weeks is a long time.”
“I know, but I’ll do it.”
“Okay,” I say, hoping that it’s really possible.
The days leading up to my flight to Scotland prove to be harder than anticipated. I know with each passing day that I’m not getting more time. When I leave, when I hug her goodbye, it will be the last time. This realization doesn’t really hit me until I’m pulling away from her and looking into her beautiful eyes.
I start to leave the room but before I do she says, in a voice stronger and full of a clarity she hasn’t had in days, “I’ll do my best.”
Those are her final words to me, although I don’t know it at the time. And I understand her completely, no context clues needed.
My mom’s best ended up being only two days later. Jordan and I had gotten engaged the day before and my mom was too weak to FaceTime with us. My dad told me that she gave him the biggest smile when she was told our news.
She knew that I was safe, that my family would be complete and that her baby girl was going to be okay. It was then that she felt ready to let go.
We were at a restaurant in Edinburgh when I got the call. My dad texted me saying I needed to call and it was urgent. I knew immediately why, but was hoping, praying, that something else would come from the other end of the phone.
It’s funny, you know. You spend such a long time imagining what the end would actually look like and you expect the universe to shift, for you to feel the ground moving and just know that she’s gone. But in reality, nothing happens. It’s like a soft hum, one you can’t hear. One minute you have a mom and the next you’re motherless, and you don’t even know that it has happened. Because of the time difference, I never did the math. I wonder, how many minutes was I motherless before I even knew?
I completely lose it, sitting in front of a plate full of food. “No,” I say to my dad, and then my uncle and then my aunt. “No,” I repeat, over and over. “Not yet.”
I get drunk, really drunk. I pretend to be normal. I see a good friend and we drink until I am numb. And then, I throw up my guts, and spaghetti, into a stark-white toilet bowl in our 5-star hotel at 5 am, as the world sleeps around me.
I am a mess. I am wasted, in more ways than I can count.
Later, once in Dublin and I am alone, I will fantasize about death. I will imagine what it would be like to tip-toe the edge of the building above me, dancing with fate, tempting it to take me to her. I will drink a whole bottle of wine and stand on a windowsill, begging it to open more than just the crack at the bottom. I will gaze off into the distance as people laugh and smile around me, and fantasize about throwing my Guinness into their faces.
How can my world stop turning and theirs keep moving? How can I feel so cemented into the ground?
And now, exactly a year later, how can I still not know what to feel? How can I forget her voice some days? How can I be perfectly fine one day and lose it over the smell of her body lotion in a tote bag I inherited the next? How can I raise a daughter without my mom?
How do you fully grieve without forgetting? How do you not go mad pulling at all the strands of life, thinking of all the times you did something wrong? How do you forgive yourself for not being the perfect daughter?
Grief is my best friend and my worst enemy. We share a home more often than not. I’ve learned to live with the feeling of being incomplete, a hole in my heart. And it doesn’t really hurt less after all this time, you just get used to the idea that you’ll never really be fully yourself again.
And maybe that’s okay.