Spring is my least favorite season. I didn’t realize how morose I got during this time of year until I had my second daughter. My first taught me how to be a woman I could be proud of. My second, well she’ s my shinning ray of hope. Of course it was absolutely fitting for her to be born one week before my mother’s death anniversary. Just like that, she brought joy and peace to an otherwise dim time of year.
But before she came along, many, many springs ago, I sat down on my couch to have a conversation with my mother’s oncologist, which was anything but joyful.
“I called because I don’t think we can make the appointment next week.” I said to him.
“Is there a reason?” he asked.
“She really can’t walk anymore. And it’s getting harder and harder for her to get out of bed. Even sitting up is difficult. I don’t think we can make it without an ambulance.”
“That could be arranged,” he replied.
“Well, it’s not just that. She usually pages me at school when she’s feeling bad and I come home. But I had to write my number on her kleenex box because she couldn’t remember it. I think her forgetting things has something to do with the lump I found on her head.”
“Hmm,” was his noncomital answer, but I had already begun to suspect.
“It’s spread to her brain, hasn’t it?”
My mother’s oncologist took a deep breath. “Yes. I think you may be right. I’m going to send a hospice nurse to your house. If that’s okay with you?” he said.
“Okay. Thank you,” I replied, even though it was soooo not okay. Hospice. Hospice was a very bad word.
It wasn’t like the doctors ever gave us any false promises, though. Actually, one of the doctors my mother saw early on in her illness was so completely frank she told her she was a complete idiot for letting the tumors get as big as they had and that she would be dead by the end of the month.
Well she lived another year, but there wasn’t much living going on. It just took her longer to die than the doctor had thought.
After months of fighting, hoping, wishing, we were at the end. Game over. Just barely a teenager, I was having a discussion with my mother’s oncologist about how long it would take her to slip from her current state of health to…dead. I asked him before I hung up because I couldn’t wait to hear this from the nurse. I needed to know what was gonna happen to her. Would she suffer more than she already had? Would it be violent? Would I go to school one day and come home to her dead body? In a time when so little was in my control, I needed these details to tether me to the here and now. I needed to be prepared. And I needed to do the best I could for my mother. You only die once, after all. You better do it right.
Morbid thoughts, I know, but this had been my reality for the last year. Being a single mother, she relied on me like I was her partner. I was never just her daughter. In this, it goes without saying that I was her emotional crutch as well as her physical one. In addition, I had become her nurse. A role I cherished and loathed at the same time.
I’m not sure what my friends were doing during their 10th year of high school but I was carrying a commode bucket to the toilet, lifting my mother up and out of bed, bathing her, wheeling her to where she needed to go and administering her medications. This is what I did day after day, back spasming from carrying and lifting her all the time. This went on for enough months that as guilty as it made me feel, and still does to this day, my favorite part of the day had become bedtime. When I could give her her pain meds and a sleeping pill and I could drift off to oblivion.
Near the end of her life, the reprieve from knowing that my mother was sedated and as comfortable as she was going to get, had become a routine and a blessing. At the end of the night when she was asleep, I could escape to the living room and watch TV or maybe talk on the phone to a friend. Just like I do now, when my kids are finally asleep. Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t a child, tucked in for the night with pleasant dreams to soothe her. No, she was dying in the other room, while I pretended to be a normal teenager just a few yards away.
I shouldn’t have been in such a rush to silence her. To silence her fears. To make her stop talking to me about all the things I didn’t want to think about nor had the answers for. For fuck’s sake, I was just a kid.
God, why? Why me? Why her? I’MNOTFUCKINGSTRONGENOUGH! CAN’T YOU SEE THAT!? It’s just the two of us, I have nobody else! How is this fair?!
No matter how much I secretly raged or prayed, I alternated between both according to how the day was going, the night finally came when my mother spoke to me for the last time. It was just another night for me. Another night when I was ashamedly relieved that I could finally put her to sleep. Unfortunately I didn’t realize it was my last chance to really talk to her. To tell her that one day I would find peace. That I would find my soul mate and have two beautiful daughters with him. That the man who she had asked to take care of me, her brother, the only person she could ask, wouldn’t do such a good job taking care of me, but that I would still, one day be okay.
I didn’t say any of this to her. I actually don’t remember what I said to her. I don’t remember that night at all. It was just another night of exhaustion and sadness. I could only hold so much grief that my brain must have blanked out memories to perserve itself. There are many things that I have no recollection of from that year or the two following years of high school.
I remember what happened the following morning, though.
She wouldn’t wake up. She was still warm to my touch and upon closer inspection, still breathing.
Thank God. She’s still alive.
She was in a coma. We never got an official prognosis, not that we needed one, but to me that was a simple enough explanation. I already knew too much about cancer from the months of doctors visits and patient care she required, but also through my favorite books, The Last Wish series’ by Lurlene McDaniel. I understood that this is what happened to someone when their body began to shut down. You could call it whatever you wanted, whatever made you feel better, but this was pre-death. The stage between living and dying.
She moaned every once in a while that day, but never spoke or opened her eyes again. Eventually the nurse stopped by and showed me how to put a butterfly needle in her arm and administer the morphine. When she moaned, I’d inject a few cc’s of the good stuff.
After two days of this, my grandmother and my uncle thought she should be moved to the hospital. I wanted to scream at them. How dare they take her to the last place she wanted to be after months of being sick at home. Months of this…suffering. Carrying her shit, dressing her open wounds, feeding her, bathing her…and now they wanted to take her to the hospital? I wanted to tell them to fuck off. She was my mother and I would see this to the bitter fucken end. I hadn’t come this far to let some stranger take care of her at her most vulnerable.
Eventually they wore me down by telling me that she would suffer and die from dehydration because she wasn’t eating or drinking anything. I wanted to say, “Suffering? Check! Death? It’s already happening! Getting her an IV would just delay things.” I didn’t say those things, or maybe I did and they just didn’t listen, because the ambulance showed up at my house and loaded her up.
My uncle and I followed behind the ambulance and I thought I was gonna hurl. I told him that I didn’t like the idea of her being in that other vehicle all by herself. There was something so surreal about being separated that way. She wasn’t conscious, but did she know I wasn’t with her? Did she know that I was taking her to the one place she hated more than anything? That she wouldn’t get her wish to die at home? Was she angry? Could she even hear me anymore?
I love you and I’m so fucken sorry, Mom.
We arrived after the ambulance and it took some time to find where she was located. She didn’t have a room. Only a curtain surrounding her bed in the ER. I will never forget the way she looked when I pulled back that flimsy sheet. Her short salt and pepper hair that was growing back uneven but so soft, was dark against the stark white sheets. Her skin was devoid of color. Her cheeks sunken and sallow. Her too thin arms like sticks next to her.
I stopped. It felt like the two of us were trapped in a surreal time warp where the rest of the world went on, but we were frozen. I was seeing her for the first time. Seeing her away from the home where pills, extra pillows, and medical supplies had inconspicuously blended into our home. Accessories of surviving that we barely noticed anymore. But here? Against this sterile backdrop, with fluorescent lighting that wouldn’t flatter anyone, I could see what the chemo had done to her skin. The blackened radiation burns on her chest and upper arms peeked out from the openings in the borrowed hospital gown. The cancer had spread like wildfire to ravage her entire body. A body that my mother had once used to it’s full potential.
A memory came to me unbidden — her trying to play tennis with me two summers ago. At 5’2″ and not very athletic she was hilarious to watch because what she lacked in coordination she made up for in sheer determination and enthusiasm. She was like a chubby version of Mighty Mouse. On crack. In this memory that played before my eyes, she was up close at the net, trying to return the balls I was whipping at her. I was showing off, laughing at how even at half strength she didn’t have a chance against me. The way she was bouncing on her toes and talking trash made me break out in hysterical giggles. Yet, she still didn’t break form as she waited for me to serve to her. She wasn’t too pleased at being beaten so thoroughly, but usually when she watched me play instead, I could see her face glow with maternal pride. She believed in me so thoroughly I never doubted that I could do anything.
Here, in this busy hospital, the fire that had burned in her eyes was hidden behind her closed lids. I wondered what I would see in them if she would only look at me one more time. Would her dark violet gray eyes admit defeat? She looked so tiny and frail. The passionate, outspoken woman I had known was nothing more than a weak flimsy thread of life in this abused and wasted body. I knew then that asking her to hold on for a miracle that wasn’t coming, was cruel and selfish.
The sterile smells, the hustle and bustle of everyone around me was too much. My mother and I were in our own private hell set to slow-mo, while the rest of the world laughed, cried, rejoiced, and went on about their day.
How dare you keep living, while she’s dying?! Stop, stop, STOP! Just wait for us. Just…just wait up. My mom can’t keep up with life. Every minute that passes, she’s getting farther and farther behind. Even if I carry her, I won’t catch up. If the world would just stop…please. Please.
I began to cry. This was not what she wanted. This was not where I could make sure she was loved and cared for in her final moments. With strangers touching her body, people screaming, crying, laughing…how could she respectfully die, here?
After three hours of receiving fluids through her IV, I told my uncle that we were leaving. I was gonna take her home, where she’d been for her entire illness. Resigned after seeing what I had known from the beginning, he agreed without much of a fight.
So we went home.
A few days later, on May 3rd, at around midnight my aunt came to my room. I was asleep and she woke me.
“I think you should come,” she said.
With my heart in my throat, I hurried to my mother’s bedroom. By this time my grandma and uncle had gathered in the room as well. My cousins might have been there too, but I don’t remember. My entire focus on was my mother, whose breathing had begun to sound less…rhythmic.
I sat down on the bed next to her and held her hand.
Bending down to whisper in her ear, I told her over and over again,”It’s okay. You can go now, I’ll be okay. I love you.”
Eventually with one final shuddering sigh, she passed on at 1:31am.