It was August 2007 when my mother took me by the hand in her dining room and told me that the doctors had found a malignant tumor on the tail end of her pancreas. I didn’t realize that that moment marked the beginning of the end.
Denial is a powerful coping mechanism. My mother was a 20 year breast cancer survivor. She was a hero to me. In my mind there wasn’t a mountain that she couldn’t conquer. I walked out of her home that night knowing she was going to beat cancer again. My great-Aunt died of pancreatic cancer 12 years earlier, but I refused to believe the same thing could happen to my mother. I refused to Google pancreatic cancer to find out the specifics of her disease and chose to rely on my faith that she would make it out of this alive.
Oh yes, denial. It made me believe that the most important woman in my life could somehow beat Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer. Deep down inside I knew she couldn’t. That’s why my grief manifested in emotional eating. Before I knew it, I would down an entire box of Oreo Cakesters and not even taste one of them. I would put each cookie in my mouth and feel completely numb.
My mother started chemotherapy treatment very soon after that revelation in her dining room. Chemotherapy destroyed her body. It destroyed her quality of life. What could have been a short but sweet last 6 weeks or two months of life turned into 3 months of living Hell. For seven weeks my mother endured such torturous pain that she would not allow any visitors to her home. Not even her children. For seven weeks I sat in my own home, helpless, grieving, missing my mother, and eating my pain. This was a woman I spoke to every single day of my life and I was completely cut off from her. I had to mourn her passing twice.
My grief manifested into a 25 pound weight gain. I inhaled food without enjoying any of it. I wanted to act out. I wanted to self-destruct. I wanted to blow my body to pieces like I felt my brain and my heart were. It felt like every day was a fresh new batch of pain and isolation and the one person I usually confided my deepest hurt in was the one who was dying.
Seven weeks of chemo did nothing to save my mother’s life. She was given one rest week of chemo before she was supposed to start another round and ended up in the hospital. The cancer cells took the opportunity of that week’s reprieve to spread throughout her body. They shut down her intestines so she could no longer absorb nutrition. But once she was in the hospital, she could no longer deny her children her presence.
I was alone with my mother in her hospital room one night when she woke up from her Morphine-induced sleep. She was in incredible pain. I’ve never seen another human being in that much agony. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and begged me to find someone to kill her. She had a g-tube stuck down her nose because her bowels no longer worked. She had more poison being pumped into her chest in a last ditch effort to kill the cancer. There are no words to describe looking at the person who gave you life, suckled you at her breast, nurtured you through your childhood, walked you down the aisle at your wedding, and was by your side as you gave birth to you first two children, begging you for the relief of death and knowing you are powerless to stop it. Eventually the nurse came in and gave her more morphine and she was unconscious and, hopefully, out of pain for the moment.
I rode the elevator down the four flights of stairs from the cancer ward at the hospital. As I entered the lobby I passed an elderly couple holding hands walking together. The man was bent over and unsteady on his feet. They were a sweet couple and in normal circumstances I would have smiled at them and went on my way. In that moment I hated that couple with every fiber of my being. I questioned God right there in the lobby why they got to live to be elderly while my mother would never get that chance. I asked why my parents would never get to be like that little old couple and why my dad would soon be a widower way before his time. I asked why I had to live without a mother just when I was realizing I needed her more than ever.
I came home and turned the shower on the hottest temperature. My husband came into the bathroom and I started yelling at him about all the things my mother was going through. I yelled and yelled and screamed that it wasn’t fair while he held me. Eventually my screams turned into body-wracking sobs. I can’t remember if I ever even took a shower that night.
Sometime during my mother’s hospital stay I realized I hadn’t had a period in two months. I couldn’t even remember if I had taken my birth control pills every day. I bought a pregnancy test and one morning, before my husband left for work, I showed him the magic stick that told us we were going to be parents for the third time. I told my mother that same day that I was pregnant. I asked her if it was a boy we could give him her maiden name as a first name. She said she would be delighted. I was only five weeks pregnant. I found out the earliest that you can determine these things. I was not afraid of a miscarriage and telling people before I passed the first trimester. Somehow I knew God would not take my mother and my baby from me at the same time.
My mother wanted to die in the home she had spent the last 31 years in. The home she had raised her children in. The home where we became a family. Once she was home she stopped fighting and slipped into an open-eyed, unresponsive state. The day she died I laid in bed with her. I tried to watch the television but found that I couldn’t concentrate on anything that was said. I held my mother’s hand and pushed her morphine pump to give her more pain relief when her breathing got ragged. I didn’t know what to do, so I sang to her. I sang to her Val Jean’s dying solo from Les Miserable.
God on High
Hear my Prayer
Take me now
To they care
Where you are
Let me be
Take me now
Take me there
Bring me Home
Bring me Home
I was numb when my father called me at home later that day to tell me that my mother had stopped breathing. There is nothing in this life that can prepare you for the moment you become a half-orphan. There isn’t a word that has been invented that describes the sound your heart makes as it shatters into pieces.
There is a piece of me that died the day my mother died. There are parts of me that will never be whole. There are places in my soul that cry out for my mother the way I did as a child who needed comfort. There is no other person who can replace or replicate the love a mother gives to her child. A motherless daughter is a woman who walks around with a gaping hole in her heart that will never heal completely. It might scar over but there will always be a wound. At least I was on one of the lucky ones. I had a mother that, while she breathed, bathed me in the light of her unconditional love.
Take my hand
I’ll lead you to Salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To Love another Person is to see the face of God.
I might see my mother again in the ethereal spaces of eternity. Our spirits might embrace and reignite the mother-daughter love we have for each other. Until that possible time, my soul quietly waits until it is mothered again. It waits for the hole to be repaired with a mother’s love. It waits to tell all the stories that have taken place in her absence. It waits.
This I do know for certain: I loved and was loved by a woman divinely chosen as my mother. Her fingerprints are impressed into my heart, my memory, my soul. I have seen the face of God.