When a diagnosis determines your fate, without any debate. Without asking permission, without hope of remission. Only faith keeps your head above water. Only the love of your son and your daughters. Only the strength of a husband and sister. Only expressing how much we will miss her. Only prayers that the suffering will cease. Only then a sacred passing in peace. ~WTR
Death is inevitable for every living thing. Death can come suddenly or slowly over time. So many of our common fears originate from our overwhelming fear of death because we know how closely it waits in the wings.
The Monday before this past Christmas I received four Christmas cards, three UPS packages, two FedEx boxes and one phone call. It was 5:10pm. My mother had stage 4 cancer.
At first I felt all the things that are disclosed as potential side effects on common prescription drugs – nausea, dizziness, swelling of the throat, headache, diarrhea, difficulty concentrating and a sense that operating heavy machinery was not a good idea.
Then I went into battle mode as I discovered the cancer community in the US has extreme deficiencies in serving its patients. Even patients who are highly educated and tenacious struggle to navigate the system. You die of cancer waiting on hold to talk to someone who will eventually confirm they know nothing about the clinical trial you are calling about even though their phone number is listed on the government website. You die of cancer while researching clinical trials on your own because of inadequate staffing at oncologist offices and cancer centers, confronted with dead end after dead end while you delay chemotherapy because the trials require no prior treatment. You die of cancer waiting for test results for weeks to determine the severity of your reactions to chemotherapy. This pressure to find all of your viable options, collect all relevant information and make a well informed decision on care and therapy while the clock is ticking and the cancer is spreading was unbearable.
Moving through this process I felt numb. I was in a dark tunnel where my normal world was muted in both sight and sound. My senses were insulated by the gravity of the diagnosis, impenetrable by normal joys like fresh flowers or a night out. I sat staring off into nowhere with no feelings or thoughts. It is the space between no cancer diagnosis and rejecting a death sentence. Whenever I was met with the reality of the situation for only a moment, the tears would flow. Not the crying I felt on the first day I heard the news. That was conscious. I acknowledged their arrival, gave them permission and felt them wash down my face. Now I had no control. If I gave into a moment of making eye contact with the diagnosis, the pain, the inevitability, my chest tightened, my stomach dropped and then I realized tears had been running down my face only after the valve was completely open. Involuntary weeping. I couldn’t find a conscious shelf for death to sit on. I could only feel it lingering in my body looking for a home.
I knew that closure was important for both of us. Leave nothing unsaid. I think that every person interprets that differently based on their personal experience and relationships. I tried to achieve the closure I was looking for two years ago at a dinner two days before Christmas. I wanted us all to acknowledge things I believed happened in our past. Events that caused me pain and that I thought created a common history among us all. I was looking for connection but was met with opposition at various levels. Regardless of the bad timing, my past and my truth were not theirs.
So what did closure mean two months before my mother’s death? I used to believe that childhood wounds that are never properly tended to by others when we are unable to tend to them ourselves create scars that last a lifetime. But do we need to cut those scars back open and watch them bleed to have them heal? Will that provide closure or is it merely an assignment of blame and demand for an acknowledgement or even more, an apology. Is that really what I needed? Alice says in Wonderland, “It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” I took that to heart. Not just that I was a different person then, but so was my mother.
So in my search for closure before she died, rather than stir up old memories and cut open old wounds, I chose to forgive the version of my mother that no longer existed and acknowledge that that person was doing the best she could at the time. I knew she was sorry now without having to replay the tapes and hear the words. What I felt in my heart I gave as a gift to the six year old version of myself holding onto the memories to heal her pain. My mother is no longer that person any more than I am that little girl. So rather than have a painful conversation about the baggage I still carried, I chose to drop the bags and free up my arms to embrace the woman in front of me and love her with actions and intention. I spent my week in February with her making sure that everything I did and said expressed how much I loved her.
This came full circle two months later when another call came. It was 3:45pm. You think death is an unfortunate reality only affecting others until it comes knocking on your door and says “it’s time.” Each day the hole grew bigger. It was right between my ribs. I felt as if something was sucking my breath from my very core. My mother was moved from ICU to hospice care with only hours or days left.
Watching the life drain from her body the last three days, the last three hours were my worst nightmare come true. There was nowhere to run from it and no waking up from it. It’s a clear memory etched onto my heart and a part of me forever. And it’s a shared memory that my father, sister and brother will all carry. Like the cancer diagnosis, I haven’t found a place to put this loss yet. Unlike fitting a body into a casket, my heart isn’t big enough to absorb that much pain and it overflows in the tears I shed.
Sitting in the hospice room looking at my mother lying helpless receiving only pain medication I again felt completely helpless. The clinical trial research, the ceaseless communications with doctors – nothing would be enough to even buy time. The wigs and new wardrobe we bought when she was wasting away from chemo induced anorexia was a mere moment of distraction, a cosmetic alteration that lifted her spirit while her cancer remained unphased.
Looking at her in that bed I saw a soul in a shell. No baggage. It was as if the weight she had lost from the chemo was her bags full of pain from a life lived in anguish and chaos at times. The weight of regret and loss. It was all suddenly gone and all I saw was the raw material and the pure love. In those moments, closure was no longer something I sought but something sacred I felt in my heart as the scars of old wounds disappeared. I felt only the purest love I had ever experienced.
So if you still are lucky enough to have your mother, whether it’s on Mother’s Day or otherwise, I encourage you to find a way to drop the baggage and open your arms, stop focusing on the depth of your scars and focus on the person in front of you. Give forgiveness a chance to change your heart, to recognize that old wounds were caused and suffered by different people, both flawed then and now. So there may be no use in going back to yesterday. Forgive and love in the present and find your version of “leave nothing unsaid” before it’s too late. Find your own heart’s path to healing, wholeness and love.
“Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.” ~ Alice Walker