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. I would pack our giant red suitcase with clothes to move us through seasons in case we stayed long. We’d all load up into our barely-hanging-on minivan and Gabe would drive us down, stay for a couple days, then fly home to get back to classes and his night shift. It was never an easy transition, but I was grateful to be with her.
The last visit started out particularly rough. The whole family had traveled from all over the country to be together and, at Mom’s request, we spent time at a beautiful rented house near the beach. When we arrived, some people had some sniffles and by the time we left the beach house, everyone was passing around Strep throat and influenza despite our best efforts at quarantine. We cycled through lethargy and soreness under the fear of passing it along to anyone else—especially the cancer patient.
Not to mention the 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.
When it got to me, I felt sick with strep and guilt: my Gramma, who loves my children dearly and mothers like it’s breathing, picked up my slack on a normal day down there while I was the single parent to three kids under 5 and I hated it. She’s done her part for the Mother Hood. Being sick in bed and leaving everything to her, while her own daughter (and the person I was there to help) battled actual fucking cancer, felt like a crime.
So even though I had not been to a hospital the entire 6 years I’d lived in Spokane—not even for three births—and had successfully managed all other illnesses with copious homeopathics and a little bit of Ibuprofen, I ended up in the Urgent Care pleading for antibiotics.
I guess I liked the Urgent Care because I found myself there again on day 9 of my 10-day regimen when I woke up covered head-to-toe in red dots. Yep. It turns out I am p r e t t y allergic to Amoxicillin and this was when my body decided I should know about it.
It also turns out that antibiotics don’t leave your system when you stop taking them because that’s like, how they work. So over the course of the next few days, the red dots turned into just entirely red and swollen skin.
Then the itching started. I wanted to peel my skin off. After several days of progression during which I told myself (and my poor, 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 red hippie hands on those steroids fast enough.
Unfortunately, steroids also take time.
So, non-contagious, but miserable and with no recourse other than to put every ointment ever manufactured on my skin, I waited out the rash. It itched. I could not sleep. I could not wear pants. The medicines also made me fatigued and the fatigue inflamed the guilt and the guilt fell on top of missing home and… layer 2 of Hell. The one where Dante laughs at your puffy face while you slather calamine.
While I was growing increasingly annoyed by my basically harmless and now un-contagious ailment, my mother’s brain tumor was also growing and she made the impossible decision on the advice of her doctor and consultation with the rest of us 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 endured all of it with full faith in complete healing, but the healing wasn’t coming and she had to choose how to leave.
The decision came with sickening relief. When we talked about it, we encouraged her to do what she needed to. That she wasn’t a quitter, that we wanted her to feel the best she could. Ending treatment and moving into palliative care meant no more heavy chemicals that left her nauseous and sore, no more having to augment her life around pokes and prods, no more long car rides to Stanford. But it also meant ruling out a chance for more time. It was the decision to embrace what we knew would come eventually, but prayed and hoped against anyway: goodbye.
It isn’t surprising to me that Mom had so much grace around it. Nor that she had a few cuss words. She did not want to leave her family, her friends, the life she had built. It’s important that I say that because it was important to her to say it. She was mad that she wouldn’t see my daughter dance at her wedding or watch her kids live out all the life that laid before them. She hated that she wasn’t going to be here for the family she adored and the friends who loved her so well.
But she was also unafraid. As the tumor grew, she turned the focus it allowed her to keep to the joy that waited for her. “I can’t wait to be with Jesus,” she would say. She’d make promises, too. “I’m going to watch them grow up,” she’d say as my children played on the floor at her feet, “and I’m going to ask God to let me help them.” My own faith sat teetering on the edge of nihilism then, but hers brought me peace.
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.
In Her Bones
One day, during my rash-healing week, I whined about my itchy legs and started toward the back room where my assortment of creams and sprays awaited. Without prompting, Mom followed me habitually. She walked with her cane down the hall, literally dying, but setting herself on what she could do to help her daughter with the absurd and temporary ailment.
I’m not sure if she remembered precisely what was wrong with me, but she danced through the motions of her Mothering with perfect rhythm.
She smiled and joked with me and insisted I sit back to let her apply the aloe vera.
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.
She applied the balm she has applied over my whole life. Her comfort was natural, instinctive. Whether she knew in that moment or not what was wrong with me or that she was in fact dying, her actions would have been the same. It was in her bones and the cancer couldn’t shift it out of the way.
My mom was—is—remarkable and unique. Losing her vibrant presence so early in my own mothering is not something I will ever be okay with. And also… I haven’t lost what is essential.
My mother did what we do when we know, even in part, how to love. Whether tired or overwhelmed or afraid or actually dying, we mother. Sometimes our children, sometimes our friends or spouses or parents. Sometimes, maybe most vitally, ourselves.
Nurturing is elemental—we need it, we die without it or we don’t really live. We know this. Ancient texts extol maternal love because it is tender and fierce (the Hebrew mothers and their midwives sneaking life into an unsafe world, Gaia and Rhea defying their own husbands to free their children). Artists paint the sorrow-filled joy of a mother’s love, unable to prevent her children’s pain, but willing to bear it herself (Pieta by Michaelangelo). Poets craft endless phrases on the intentional, present, necessary care of a mother and burly men tattoo themselves with her name, get into physical fights over jokes on her honor.
It’s the reason that an actual mother who shirks her position is such a devastating tragedy. And that even still, her children love her, need her, will forgive a multitude just to be loved by her. It’s particular to her, no one else can take her place and also? it’s universal.
We mother and are mothered and it’s not exclusive to female parents. I know people who have never given birth or signed adoption papers, but mother when their friends are hurt or when someone makes them proud. I know men who have mothered when a moment calls for a soft nurturing. And I am learning how to mother myself: all the parts of me that need to be seen and held, need a glass of water and a gentle hand to stroke my hair and words of love to fall over what ails them.
My Mother’s Love
Everyone who knew my mom knew that love. And I got to know her in her fullest expression of mothering. What 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, got to share her DNA.
Though I miss her desperately—more and more each day as I find new ways she is gone—I am comforted that when her body was failing and her mind was fading, when so much was being lost or forgotten, she never forgot how to love. That remained whole and healing and supremely her.
Her body is gone now and I don’t know what happens to our minds when we die, but that love? Well, a mother never forgets.