My Mom died on December 11th, 1998. That day is significant in and of itself, but it takes on even more meaning for me this year. Today, sixteen years later, my heart has been beating exactly as many days without my Mom as it did with her. Part of me wants to elegantly tell you how that makes me feel, but writing about my Mom today feels like running a marathon with a boxing match scheduled at the halfway point so I’m content being a little more prosaic with my choice of words. I hurt and miss her in the most awesome way you can miss a person.
When my Mom died I was so young I drove my family to the funeral home in a 1991 Buick Park Avenue not with my license, but with a learners permit. I was kid. There was a missed a trip with my friends that weekend to see a pro wrestling event. Fantasy and the fun of being a kid was ripped away just that quickly.
While she was sick I’d never let myself admit she was going to die. The deepest parts of me knew it was only a matter time, but nobody ever came out and told me and I was happy to never confirm the fact all the same. I needed hope when there was none. So, I didn’t stick around the house very much. At home I couldn’t ignore what a struggle it was for her to eat even a bite of food. If I tried watching a DVD with her it would break my heart to constantly restart the movie because her medication made it impossible for her to stay awake. Watching my mom transform from someone as fierce as a lion to someone who could barely get through the most basic of tasks was hard to watch.
I can remember listening to Boyz II Men’s song Mama in my room one afternoon right before I was supposed to head back to school to get on the bus for a basketball game. My Mom heard the song playing from another room and before long she was in my room hugging me, crying, and unable to speak. Remember being a boy and trying to comfort your mother? My ride showed up, and as was tradition at the time, they wanted to know how she was doing. I forced a “She’s doing okay” to placate them, but the truthful response would have been “She’s scared and she’s dying”. But nobody wanted to hear that.
There was a Sunday she came back home after being away recovering from her initial surgery. I was down at the park playing basketball with my friends when my Uncle came to pick me up so I could welcome her home. I didn’t want to go even though I knew it was the right thing. My friends convinced me I needed to be there for my Mom, but I knew the version of Mom that left for surgery wasn’t going to be the one that came back. And she wasn’t. I had to literally use my hands to help pick her legs up as she attempted to walk up the stairs to her bedroom. The helplessness I felt sent shock waves through my body I can still feel. Somehow I kept my emotions buried that day, but seeing her like that broke me inside. The last thing I wanted to do was put any more emotional stress on my Mom and cry in front of her. Not when she needed to focus her energy on more important things.
There was another surgery she had that led to a longer hospital stay than I was expecting. I hadn’t seen her for a while and the only way to change that was to visit her. That was the first time I ever saw her in a hospital bed and it was shocking. Jaundiced skin, gaunt face, tubes, name something you don’t want to see and it was in that room. But you know what was in that room, inside my Mom, that was bigger and stronger than anything I’ve ever known in my life? The love she had for her kids. Cancer might have shrunk her physical form into a collection of tired weary bones, but it couldn’t get to her soul.
I cried that night like I’ve never cried before. I found a bathroom in the hall, locked myself in, and wept uncontrollably for the longest time. I still didn’t want my Mom to see me hurting. Eventually, she asked where I was and someone told her. When I felt like I had collected myself I made my way back out into the hall and found her waiting in the doorway of her room. One labored step at a time, she made her way through the hall so she could hug me. It’s one of the worst memories I have but maybe the most beautiful. The world was hell, but my Mom loved me and no amount of pain was going to stop her from showing me.
When I first set down to write about this, my intent wasn’t to relive the worst parts of her final year. You would think I’d want to focus on the happier times, but I’m always drawn to the time when she was sick. Cancer is cruel. Physically, it tears a body down like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed. You look at the person you love and can see the despair in their eyes. Skin and bones isn’t just a metaphor when you can see someone’s shoulder blades as clear as day from the weight loss. The body changes so much you almost can’t recognize the person.
But the one thing that cancer can’t take is the love inside. Inside there’s an unlimited supply that never gets tired, refuses to be quieted, and demands to be shared no matter how damaged the house it lives in becomes. My mom loved me until her very last breath and that’s something I never forget. The world can be ending around you, but until that light goes out there are people that need you and people you need. Love them. When the lights go out the love you gave is what lights the way for the people left behind.