“If you’re still listening, if this still means anything, please, help me to be present.”
I sat on my bed, suitcase flayed open beside me as a familiar harbinger. We’d just seen the scan that showed a new and inoperable growth. Mom’s brain cancer was spreading.
The clock ticked loud and cruel. I wanted to squeeze time like a lemon to get all the juice out. I wanted to stretch it into eternity like taffy, keep rolling it and rolling it to make more because she was running out and I had barely found my stride. And here I was, stumbling, racing toward the edge of a cliff after the woman I could not imagine life without.
I was about to spend weeks? months? trying and failing to be a mom, daughter, and caretaker while grieving losses I couldn’t name and anticipating one I couldn’t conceive. I felt small and decidedly not ready. A mild panic sat next to me: that I’d already squandered too much time fretting over appointments and pills and possible cures in an attempt to make it all less awful when maybe I could have just enjoyed what was there to enjoy with her instead.
My husband drove me and our three small kids a thousand miles south. Again. I prayed my plea and watched all the familiar landmarks out the window, noting through my knotted nerves and random tears that the next time I’d see that tree or this hill, I wouldn’t have a mom on the earth anymore.
The familiar sights became strange in anticipation.
Presence does not come easily.
I have preferred to worry myself out of this moment, thanks. Why soak in now when there are so. many. possible other nows and previous nows just begging to be examined and reexamined and planned around and shamed for. Nobody prepared me for the overwhelm and boredom, drama and banality that would come with my mother’s terminal illness.
I worried that she didn’t understand how bad it was, that she wasn’t taking it seriously enough. And I also worried that the seriousness might swallow her up, that she might succumb to despair. Which, looking back, were probably projections, but at the time I wanted to take charge and get things done when there was nothing—really—to do.
I’d favored concern and logistics and rationale about data when I could have deferred to her unreasonable hope and joy. I chose my to-do list over just being with her. I worried over the same disease and death that she, the diseased and dying, wasn’t worried about. I wasted time which was now running out. What had I done?
Really, this was nothing new. My mom always saw the silver linings where I saw the clouds. Sometimes I was scared she would get hurt and sometimes she did, but she was fine. I’m the one who worried about it. She showed off her broken leg.
I wouldn’t say I’m a pessimist—her positive outlook was the soil I grew in, after all. Even when I’m sure the worst is happening, I’m also sure it’ll be okay at some point. Maybe not always for me, but in some sense that matters, I’m sure. It’s annoying even to me.
My bright side is never far from the shade. But my mother lived fully in the sun, tanning oil ready.
She was present.
My mom should be here. I should be able to call her and send her photos. She should be at the birthday parties and holding the new babies. She should be comforting my friends who have shit moms and need her to mother them, too. I was 29 when she died and I know that means I got some time with her, but it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t done here. I feel stronger, the sting dulls, but it never becomes okay to me.
And I’ve given up expecting anyone to understand the wound it left. “Parents die before their kids…” but not this before. “At least…” is still least. It’s rare that anyone gets along well enough with their mother to empathize, much more rare they consider themselves actual friends with her. I don’t know why that is, but it makes it so that people aren’t sure what it means when you say your mom died.
Unless they do. It seems like most of the people I know whose mothers were also their closest friends have had to grieve them. I don’t know why that is, either.
I get gifts now. I have perspective.
I know what it’s like when the worst-case-scenario actually does happen.
I know that it is infinitely more awful than it was in your head, and that worrying about it before doesn’t fix it.
I know that time is not something we can bargain for, that its eternal and finite all at once and demands respect, presence, a little trembling.
I know that love is a hard rock bottom. You will smack flat against it when the floor and foundation both give and you can stomp your hardest, but it won’t budge.
I know that some people are committed to being terrible and you don’t have to be the one to save them with your compassion.
I know that loss doesn’t have to be tragic, but when it is, the world goes dark for a bit.
I know that the light comes back.
And they do not make it worth it, but I will take them. Because presence may not be what comes easiest to me, but she taught me well and it comes deep.
I got there after the long drive down. And those final months with her were hard. There was enough to do to get lost in. But not long after I arrived I sat on the couch with her and she grabbed my hand and held it between us. And all the things I could have said didn’t matter. I was there, fully, and she was, too. And we are still stretching out the taffy of that moment.