It’s turning into fall and although my Mother is always on my mind, she is especially so this time of year. She fell ill 30 years ago on Labor Day and we quickly realized that her illness was going to be terminal. We had always counted on our Mom to be the one to pull us altogether as a family, to keep us connected and of course to always cook the turkey for Thanksgiving. In an instant, life as we knew it was about to change in a way we couldn’t fathom.
Since we had lost our Dad in a tragic accident over 20 years prior to our Mom getting ill, we weren’t prepared for her sudden illness. In fact, she had the energy all her life of a rock star. She could out dance, walk faster and work harder than all of us combined. She would never sit still and her gardening skills were of legend. She would stick a branch of some plant or other and boom! it would turn into a beautiful wisteria vine or a poinsettia that grew to 8 feet tall. She was amazing in every way, our protector, our guidance counselor, and our main chef for all family holidays and of course, our Beloved Mother. She was it.
So when we noticed her pallor and her quietly sitting rather than walking, we knew something terrible was wrong. We traveled to UCLA, USC and when they didn’t give us the answer we needed to hear, we flew her to MD Anderson in Houston for a cutting edge experimental cancer program. For two weeks, all of us would crowd into that small hospital room and color, crochet, and try to keep our minds busy, all the while listening to our sweet mom reflect back on her life and tell us stories of her growing up on a farm. She was the 7th sibling of 14 children, 7 girls, 7 boys, 7 brown eyes, 7 blue eyes. To hear her talk about her childhood memories was so wonderful. She had this lilting voice that always hid a smile and a humor that was evident in her telling. She was just so beautiful. We all felt that these precious few moments would have to somehow last us for the rest of our lives and so they would.
In looking back, we somehow managed to get our frail, beautiful mother back home after the treatments had ravaged her once energetic body. She just wanted to go back home. The doctor treating her had sat on her bed and told her what a beautiful spirit she had. He said he could see it immediately when he first met her and he could see it shining in her eyes. But he said that he had to tell her in truth that her life was ending and it was important to have, at this stage, quality rather than quantity. She said she understood and that she really appreciated his care of her and that in entering into the experimental program she hoped she had helped to save others. I remember looking at her for the first time separately as my mother and seeing her as the strong, courageous woman that she truly was. I remember thinking I didn’t know how I could live the rest of my life without her. I was 30 and I needed her so much. There was so much more to do with her that we hadn’t even done. She was my best friend and I realized then that I would have to go a lifetime without hearing her laughter and sweet voice.
When we arrived back home we all decided to put our lives on hold and take this precious opportunity to stay with our mom for whatever time was left. One of my sisters was gracious enough to let us all move in with her family and so we did. All of us slept on the floor or couches, wherever they was a place and for the remaining few weeks of my mother’s life, we bonded in a way that none of us could have foreseen. We went shopping together, cooked meals together, we laughed and we watched our mom as she took all this in with her knowing smile. She could no long talk as the cancer had metastasized so quickly but her graciousness and her quiet dignity shone out of her like a beacon. In a strange twist of fate, a brother of hers had also fell ill and half of her siblings had come to stay with us and half had gone to be with their sick brother. Time had stood still. What we didn’t understand then was what a gift that we were being given with this time spent together as a family. We all had our own successful businesses and life had been hectic prior to this. We saw each other as much as we could but this brought with it a sense of life-altering change. We knew but didn’t know the depth and width of what we would experience and the intensity that would change us and how we would look at life and each other differently from that point on.
On the morning of 11/4 our mother’s spirit rose and as fate would have it, her brother that she was closest to and had loved so dearly, died exactly 8 hours later. It would be comforting to know they were together once we allowed ourselves to grieve their loss. For me, the process would seem like forever as I stumbled through my own life. This was the beginning of so many changes and one of many losses. It took me a lot of soul-searching before I could regain my footing after losing my mom. As the first stages of grief passed, I only felt the tremendous loss and emptiness that only losing my mother and going through a separation simultaneously in my marriage can bring. I had to start over and see myself in a new way. I remember having the thought that I was no longer anyone’s daughter without having the understanding that death doesn’t change or end relationships. But I started to grow as a woman and without my mother’s support, I had to find my own way through the mist of grief and pain. I emerged through this process a much more compassionate and wiser soul. It made me, no forced me, to take stock of so many things in my life and I can say with certainty that without going through that particular life experience with my Mom, I would not be who I am today. I might have not learned the life lessons I needed to move forward in my life. I might have stayed stuck in a one-note life and kept going around and around the mountain of uncertainty of who I was as a woman and as a mother. I learned to let go of behavior that was no longer serving me and to really take a long hard look at who and what kind of life I wanted to have. That didn’t happen overnight, in fact, it took many more life altering events that nearly broke me, to have me put myself back together again.
Reflecting back over the years, I see the bigger picture with so much clarity now. I sense my Mother’s presence in my everyday life so strongly. It’s as if she has never left me and I know we remain deeply connected in ways that can’t be seen but only felt by the heart and the love that we share. Those two weeks in my sister’s house have born gifts that have truly lasted a lifetime. I learned my family is solid gold. I learned that death is only a word and our spirits live on. I learned love is eternal and it finds a way to speak to us through time and space. I learned that life’s lessons sometimes, in fact most times, have to be learned the hard way and that if you are strong enough and love enough, life will give back to you tenfold. But mostly, I learned that I am so very glad I am my mother’s daughter.