Mother’s Day is usually a time of reflection for me. If you don’t know, my mom died when I was 16 after a long battle with cancer. I was very close to her, and give her credit for anything good that there is in me today. Most of my best childhood memories involve the fun things that mom and I used to do. We traveled to New Orleans and Disney World together. She taught me to play the piano and not to give up just because it was difficult. She enrolled me in computer lessons at the library when 90% of the population had never even touched a computer. She insisted that I do well in school. When I did well, she insisted that I do better. She threatened, scolded, cajoled and rewarded me according to my behavior. She was always fair. She led me by example.
I visited her grave today. The cemetary was in a terrible state. The lawn was unmown, and there were weeds growing everywhere. You would think that of all days, they would make an effort to tidy the place up for Mother’s Day. Anyway, I noticed that my brother James had visited before me, and had tidied up her area, and planted some flowers. He’s always been good that way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about losing a parent today, especially since my good friend lost his dad a couple of weeks ago. It’s well-known among our circle of acquaintances that they didn’t have the best relationship, and I know he greatly regrets not having made amends with his father before he died. That has got to be very difficult, and I know he’ll carry some of that with him for many years.
For my part, I never got to say goodbye to my mother. Dad said that she was very adamant that the family be protected from her suffering, which meant that she stayed home until two days before she died, bravely hiding her pain from us. Dad told me tonight that during her last few weeks, whenever he’d ask how she was feeling, she’d say, “Let’s not talk about it.” She always had a brave smile for us kids, even though she was obviously in great discomfort. Dad said that she never moved from her chair for the last week of her life, because she couldn’t get to bed and she couldn’t sleep, even if she did manage to get there. I never had any clue.
In the last couple of days, she told my dad he should probably take her to the hospital. When he checked her in, the doctor showed him the x-rays of her lungs, which were completely consumed by the cancer. It was no wonder she couldn’t breathe. They put her on oxygen. She told him she didn’t want us to see her like that, but he brought us anyway. He didn’t tell us how dire her situation was, though. My last memory of her is that she looked healthy and strong, with rosy red cheeks from the oxygen. She couldn’t speak too loudly, but she was smiling.
The next day I came home from school and saw a half dozen cars in my driveway. My heart sank before I even opened the door. Something told me there was terrible news waiting within. My father met me inside, in tears, and told me that she was gone. I remember the shock. She had so convincingly hidden the extent of her illness from us kids that we thought she would live forever. She had fought back cancer for over two years, making seemingly miraculous recoveries, one operation after another. She survived chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Her hair fell out and grew back in more than once. While she was bald, she used to goof around with us, wearing her wig in silly ways. Why should we believe that she wasn’t going to continue fighting and surviving?
I remember running out to the garden after hearing she had died, irrationally angry that it wasn’t me and not her that was dead. I also felt cheated. There has long been a sense within me that there was something unfinished. There were things left unsaid. I haven’t until now connected my anger with my regret for not having had the chance to say goodbye. I’m not sure yet if there is a connection, but it’s quite possible.
Yet, in all of this, there was a lesson. In all the years since she died, I’ve been continuously conscious that those around me should know how I feel about them, to resolve our difficulties if we have any, in case I never see them again. Life is not fair, and death is part of life; being open and honest with those you love can at least soften the threat of those two facts combined. Accepting death is never easy, but it can at least be less difficult if you have made your peace.