This is a post about a different grief. Four years ago, my mom died.
She had cancer, but the cancer didn’t kill her. She had kidney and bladder cancer, necessitating their removal, along with a few other internal organs. Someone who was always busy and on the move, she couldn’t bear the daily dialysis, so when her doctors declared her cancer free, my sweet brother donated one of his kidneys.
It was to be the start of the retirement she deserved, but instead, it turned out that the cancer had seeded itself completely undetected inside her and the immunosuppression drugs brought it back. She’d picked up a nasty case of c-diff in the hospital during that first surgery—it nearly killed her—and it sent her back to the hospital over and over again. It became a vicious cycle—the chemo would suppress her immune system, the c-diff would flare, they’d lower the dose of the drugs to help, her kidneys would start to fail, they’d up the immune drugs and try chemo again, rinse, lather, repeat.
Ultimately, she died of kidney failure—a kinder, faster, less painful way than the cancer would have been, the doctors assured us. Which was something, but not nearly enough.
Some daughters have difficult relationships with their mothers. While we certainly had our moments, that was never really us. I genuinely liked my mother as a person, and would have wanted to be her friend. And we were friends, as much as mother and daughter. After my father left us completely in the lurch—no money, no support—we were partners, working to keep the family together. I had to grow up quickly in some ways, and that forges a bond and trust. She could go off to work three jobs, and I could keep my siblings fed, with clean clothes and homework done.
Sounds hard, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t, or at least I never thought of it that way because my mom didn’t make it seem hard (even though it must have been terrible for her). My mom believed that you just did what you needed to do, without complaining, and so I believed it, too.
She taught me important things. Like, life isn’t fair. That bad things sometimes happen to good people. That if you want something, it’s your job to go get it; no one will hand it to you. That people are who they are, and you can only control yourself. That you should absolutely play the Skip card in Uno, even on your kid.
I write that, and it seems pretty negative. But she wasn’t. She was a happy, friendly person who just loved being around other people—and they loved being around her. She wasn’t a pessimist, just a realist who refused to waste time on things she couldn’t change.
After I first moved from home, I usually saw her once a week. After she and my dad moved to NC, I spoke to her at least once a week and visited often. We had fun when we were together, or during our long chats. I know she made each of us kids feel as if we were her favorite. Or maybe, it’s just that she loved us for ourselves, and so was able to create the relationship that suited each of us best.
She was also a pretty laid-back mom, believing that she had done her best raising us, and that we’d make the choices we wanted to make no matter what—she knew us well, and knew every last one of us was stubborn, because she was, too.
But not about dying. During her last hospitalization, I flew to NC. It became obvious that we would be lucky to get her home and into hospice for her last few days. Figuring that out, dealing with the doctors and helping my family understand that was my job. I was the responsible daughter she raised me to be, the reliable one, the unemotional one, the one that knows that bad things sometimes happen to good people.
She didn’t want to die, but she really didn’t fight it, either. She was tired, and sick and in pain and knew more pain was in the future, not just for her but for my dad and all of us. I spent every night of that week in the hospital in her room. We talked, as she drifted in and out of the medication haze. We told funny, favorite stories. She asked if I was taking care of everything. She told me how much she would miss seeing her grandkids grow up.
We didn’t need to have any big heart-to-hearts. We’d always said what we needed to, all along. I sent her home to die, surrounded by my dad and siblings, because I’d done what she needed me to do. She wanted me home with my kids, her grandkids. So I told her I loved her, and left.
She died four years ago, on May 7, just a few days before her 71st birthday. And I miss her every single day.
Mom, I’m trying hard to do what I have to do, without complaining. But it’s a lot harder without you here to talk to about it. Love you.