During the 20 months of her diagnosis, I made several open-ended visits to my hometown about 900 miles from where we live to be with Mom. The last visit started out rough. The whole family had traveled from all over the country to be together. We spent time at a beautiful house near the beach. Then we passed around Strep throat and influenza despite our best efforts at quarantine so we cycled through lethargy and soreness and the fear of passing it along to anyone else. With three small children, visits to the cancer clinic, and no coffee options (because one hundred million Starbucks and a Peet’s do not count as “options”).
Three weeks of the most mild ring of Hell. That’s what I’m talking about here.
For my part, I had to cave and get the antibiotics because I needed to be not-contagious around the cancer patient and also to be able to care for my children because Gramma, who loves them and picked up my slack cheerfully while I single-parented it away from home, has already done her part for the Mother Hood and I couldn’t shake the latent guilt I felt for needing so much of her help on a healthy day.
So even though I have not been to a hospital the entire 6 years I’ve lived in our current city (not even for three births) and have successfully managed all other illnesses with homeopathics and a little bit of Ibuprofen, I ended up in Urgent Care. Then again on day 9 of my 10-day Amoxicillin regimen when I woke up covered head-to-toe in red dots. It turns out I am p r e t t y allergic to Amoxicillin. And it also turns out that antibiotics don’t leave your system when you stop taking them. So over the course of the next few days, the red dots turned into just… red and then started itching. All over. I wanted to peel my skin off. After several days of progression during which I told myself (and my worried grandmother) that it should go away on it’s own and “it’ll be better by tomorrow,” I went to the doctor for a third time and could not get my somewhat hippie hands on those steroids quick enough.
Unfortunately, steroids also take time.
So with no recourse other than to put every. ointment. ever. made on my skin I waited out the rash. It itched. I couldn’t sleep. I did not want to wear pants. Splotchy and red, I didn’t want to be in public period. The medicines also made me fatigued and the fatigue inflamed the guilt and guilt is exhausting and… Hell.
And all of this was the very least of our family’s concerns. Because while I was growing increasingly annoyed by my basically harmless ailment, my mother’s brain tumor was also growing and the hard decision was made to stop treatment after an arduous 17 month fight. She had done the surgery, the radiation, the chemotherapies, and two different clinical trials. She had done them with full faith in complete healing. She had done them while the tumor grew and she had done them until she was just done.
The decision to end treatment came with a dreadful relief. For Mom it meant no more appointments and heavy chemicals, no more traveling back and forth to Stanford and having to augment her life around pokes and prods. But we also knew this meant ruling out a chance for more time. We knew this would end in the goodbye we had desperately prayed to avoid.
She had only grace. She never wanted to leave this world – her family, her friends, the life she had built – but she was unafraid and looked forward to dying as a comfort even if she would avoid it if she could.
As the cancer progressed her short term memory was severely affected. She never forgot the people she loved, but where we were, what we were doing, surrounding events, things like that often floated away minutes after they arrived.
One day when she was over at the house I am sure I whined about my itchy legs and started toward the back room where my assortment of creams and sprays awaited. Mom followed me habitually. The woman literally dying set herself on what she could do to bring relief to her very much not-dying, comically ailed daughter.
I’m not sure if she remembered what precisely was wrong with me, but she danced through the motions of Mothering with perfect rhythm. She smiled and joked with me as she helped me apply aloe vera. She insisted I sit back and let her do it and she asked if I needed any water or a snack. When I was all lathered up she sat down next to me on the bed and stroked my hair and told me she loved me. Whether she remembered or not, her actions would have been the same. This is the balm she applied over my childhood – over all my life. Her comfort is natural, instinctive.
And she is amazing, her brand of love remarkable and unique and something we all miss, but she did what we all do when we know, even in part, how to love. Whether tired, or overwhelmed, or afraid, or dying of cancer… We mother. Sometimes we mother our children, sometimes our friends or our spouses or even our parents. There is a reason that when Jesus wants to remind his listeners of God’s tenderness toward his “children” he uses the term “Mother Hen” or speaks of a baby at the breast. There is a reason poets write endless phrases on the intentional, present, imperfectly perfect care of a mother. That men have tattooed themselves with her name and gotten into physical fights over jokes on her honor. That even the worst, most unloving mothers are my mother and the greatest tragedy is in their irreplaceability in the hearts of their children (adult or juvenile). There is inherent nurture in maternity – survival and all that – but it is not exclusive to female parents. I know people who have never given birth or signed adoption papers, but are moms when their friends are hurt or to sad looking strangers.
We mother. And she mothered beautifully. Everyone who knew her knew that love. And I got to know her in her fullest expression of mothering and that is a gift. There are two people on the planet who can claim that – who were the target of her devotion their entire lives and got to make her macaroni art. Though I miss her so desperately – more and more each day – I am comforted that when her body was failing and her mind was fading, she never forgot how to love. It was whole and healing and supremely Mother. Her body is gone and I don’t know what happens to our minds when we die, but that love? Well, a mother never forgets.