My dad called me just past midnight on a Sunday morning in May. “Your mom just passed away, Melissa. Come say goodbye.” We showed up in birth order, my sister, me, my brother. Our family of five was all together for the last time.
We took turns sitting with her. I sat beside her, cried, and told her I was sorry. I’m sorry you died at 56. A third of your life was taken from you.
The funeral home came to take her body. One of the undertakers was surprisingly young, skinny, and tall. I’ve never known anyone who worked in the mortuary business, and I never pictured a 6’4”, 130 pound, 18 year old putting on a long suit in the middle of the night to come collect the deceased. I sat on the chair in the living room as they wheeled her body through the house and out into the warm spring night. She was covered with a quilt which felt like love and warmth and home. I want to be covered with a quilt when I die.
Her death was simultaneously drawn out and sudden. Six years before, she had been diagnosed with stage four uterine cancer. She had been complaining of abdomen and hip pain. When she called to get it checked, she was told the next available appointment wasn’t for at least a month. She waited and I didn’t worry. My inclination in life is to assume the best. Life has proven that approach to be naive.
At the time, she was 50. She was definitely young for this type of cancer which I would later learn suggests genetics played a part. As her daughter, I may have inherited said genetics. Her young, otherwise healthy body cooperated with the treatment, though. Within a year, she was cancer free. Cancer free is not the same thing as remission. This type of cancer is never cured, they said.
Before my mom would give us news about her condition, she would speak to her imaginary publicist. They would strategize and spin the news in the most positive way. That’s how it FELT when she called five years later to say, “The biopsy came back as cancer. But I’m young, strong, and I’ll fight it again. God has a plan for this, I know.”
When we were kids, my mom would say, “I’m your mom, not your friend.” She set the boundaries of our relationship, and for her, friend and mother did not overlap.
I knew about my mom what could be observed from living with someone for 22 years. She drank a tall glass of milk with most of her meals. Sometimes, she walked on her toes. She woke early and was drowsy by 9:30pm. She didn't sit still very well, always knitting or bouncing her leg.
When we talked, we shared present day updates of our lives and the lives of people we knew. This person was having a baby. The kids were doing such and such. She was searching for something new for the house.
There is a lot about a person that can’t be observed; thoughts, feelings, memories. Those have to be intentionally shared. She didn’t choose to share very many of these with me. When she was sick, she shared updates on her health with a brave face, but not her internal struggle.
I have regrets. The last Christmas she was alive and cancer free, she told me she needed potholders. So I gifted her apple green potholders. They matched her towels, but they were still uninspired. Lame.
In January, she found a little lump inside her leg. By March, it was all over her abdomen and in her lungs. She was hospitalized in early April. My sister and I stood out in the hospital parking lot and said, “July. At this rate, she’ll be gone by July.” But we underestimated this cancer’s veracity.
My mom, on the other hand, remained hopeful. She had asked me to go by Fazoli's to get her some pasta. I brought it to her in the hospital. She was proud to be sitting up in her hospital chair. She had put her tennis shoes on and taken a walk around the floor. As she ate, she told me that they had mentioned hospice to her, but she wasn’t ready. She said, no one knew when she was going to die. It could be May but it could be a year from now. Her genetic tests were coming back soon and there might be a treatment that could buy her some time.
My mom was such a capable person. All things could be solved with just a good plan and some hard work. I loved her in that moment of hopefulness, and I almost believed her. Maybe it isn’t progressing as fast as we think.
I had to decide how much time I could give her. Were we playing a long game or a short one? If she was going to live until November, how often should I spend with her each week? What if she only had two more months? I was the mother of five youngish kids, had other responsibilities with my business and church, and my parents lived a half hour away. Plus, Stephen was having a difficult season at work that added stress to our lives.
I told her to tell me what she needed, and I would do it. I meant it. Just tell me what you need. She asked for potholders again, and I gave them to her. Her requests were minimal, and I didn’t exceed expectations.
Could I do some shopping for her? One day in April she called and sad, “Melissa, you’re planning to buy me some new pajamas, right? Remember, I don’t want anything that will be too tight around the waist and I prefer cropped legs.” I said okay, and she hung up. That was the last time I talked to her on the phone. I bought her some pajamas. After she died, I found them unworn in one of her drawers, and I returned them.
Could I come down one day a week and help during the day? I came down on a weekday, and helped her get her lunch. She was determined to eat her very favorite things; bread with a very particular butter, thin pizza with ONLY mozzarella cheese, tapioca pudding. To my frustration, we sat in silence on the couch and watched Cupcake Wars and then Tiny House Hunters. I brought her down her mirror and tweezers so she could pluck her eyebrows.
She asked me if I thought she was silly to worry about her eyebrows. No, I didn’t. I really didn’t know she plucked her eyebrows. It felt like the most open, honest moment we had that day.
I wanted my mom to shift into planning for her death, though. My siblings and I had mentioned family pictures. We had mentioned interviewing her about her childhood. She never said no, but she never said yes.
My mom wasn’t a very nostalgic person. Everything in her home was meticulously organized, her kitchen, craft drawers, and closet. Our family photos were all mixed up in one big plastic box, though. Her mind seemed to live in the future and not in the past.
This did not change when she got cancer. She remained who she was. Someone who was not particularly sentimental or likely to share tender emotions.
My parents were having a mechanical bed delivered to put in their downstairs office. It had become too much for my mom to go upstairs. Could I come be at the house when they delivered it? I showed up just as the truck did. I found my mom in a panic. She was looking for cash to tip the driver and didn’t know how much to give them. She started to cry. It had only been a week since I had seen her, but her appearance knocked the wind out of me. She had become her mother, my grandmother, dying from cancer. I had to hide in the dining room for a minute to catch my breath.
During that visit, something hit me. It’s hard to die. It’s physically and emotionally demanding work. It’s embarrassing to admit that while I understood the gravity of death, I did not fully appreciate the challenge of dying.
Twenty years before, when my grandma was fighting lung cancer, she lived in an apartment just around the corner from our house. Since she was single, my mom and her siblings were very involved with her care. I was seventeen, a senior in high school. My mom asked me to drop something off to her at my grandma’s apartment. When I arrived, I knocked on the front door because it was locked. My mom was furious. You don’t loudly knock on the door of a woman who is suffering and trying to sleep! I was initially defensive and then sheepish about my mistake.
This memory pops up as a I see my mom who had been fighting cancer for a long time, but up until that point, always looked like she was winning. But, now, it was clear, she wasn’t, and it wasn’t fair to expect her to do anything more than manage her emotions and her pain.
I know from having my own kids that one of the toughest parts of being a mom is maintaining your own identity. Claiming my own physical space, and determining that I’m going to use this time, energy, and money just for myself. Drawing boundaries between all that I long to give my kids and what I need for myself is challenging. Moms of young kids joke that they can’t even go to the bathroom without their kids knocking on the door.
The bigger joke is that even a mother’s death can’t just be about her. Her kids have followed her there, asking her to meet their needs. Can you remind me of my roots before I become an orphan? Can you give me enough love to carry me through the rest of my life?
By the time my mother was ready to fully accept that her death was imminent, she needed morphine. Morphine was a comfort to her, but also robbed her of the little time she had left. She spent several weeks mostly sleeping.
My sister-in-law is a nurse, and by Mother’s Day she could tell that my mom’s coloring suggested she only had a couple more weeks to live. On the Wednesday before my mom’s death, we met at my parent’s house to discuss the funeral arrangements. My mom slept the whole time in the other room, but before we left, my dad offered to wake her up so we could say hello. She was startled to open her eyes and find the four of us there. “Am I dying?” The fear in her voice traumatized me. “No! We just wanted to say goodbye...I mean hello.”
I don’t think she feared death. In fact, one of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was to see her die well. Her hope was intact. She knew that however life ended, mercy was waiting for her. Despite her faith, there is no denying that emotions are going to be strong when you step right up to the line and are about to cross over. That was the last time I talked to her.
At my mother’s funeral, my siblings and I spoke. I shared about the birth of my first son. I had a c-section with my daughter, but we were trying to avoid another so we decided to have him at home. We were living in Texas and had asked our friend to phone our parents with any updates. We didn’t want to have to be the ones to reassure them through labor. My contractions started on a Thursday night, and when the midwife got there to check me, I was already 7cm dilated. I was elated and surprised myself when I asked, “Stephen, Can I call my mom?!”
She was the person most invested outside of that delivery room in the outcome of the night. What a privilege it is to have someone who walks through life with you, who worries and hopes for you, who answers the phone at midnight so you can tearfully say, “Things are moving along, mom. I think baby will be here soon.”
As we drove to my mom’s grave sight, white fluff was floating in the air. It was probably just pollen making all our sinuses swell and noses run. But it was beautiful. I want white pollen to float in the air the day I’m buried.
I met with a friend in June following her death. I confided that this was not how I had pictured my year going. I was eager to get back to my everyday life. She said, “This is your life, Melissa.” But it’s no fun, and I want to ignore it. I’ve learned that about myself. I see hard things as an inconvenience, keeping me away from all the fun I have planned. My friend was reminding me that if I was willing to slow down, I would surely find some life giving treasure in even the hardest moments.
I’m sure someday, I will experience grief that rips through my life and threatens to drown me. Grief that smacks me in the face when I wake up in the morning and sits in my chest all day. That’s not what losing my mom feels like, though.
My daily life moves on, but I like to make time to grieve her. I like to cry in the car when I’m alone. I don’t want to be interrupted by someone attempting to comfort me. I want to be sad. The best way I know how to honor her, is to think about her and grieve the loss of her. My grief and I have a song. I’ve played it a hundred times since she died.
“When my body won't hold me anymore
And it finally lets me free
Will I be ready?” ….
“Will I join with the ocean blue
Or run into the savior true
And shake hands laughing
And walk through the night
Straight to the light
Holding the love I've known in my life
And no hard feelings”
If feels good to remember her just as she was. Capable. Faithful. Determined. Unsentimental. I had a mom who was real and complicated and flawed. A mom who loved me. And I hold that love and treasure it.