My mother never knew what I did. I’m not sure how it was possible. If she did, she never said anything. But I held my breath anyway. Every day.

Obviously things with Tom ended. There was no need to continue a relationship with him.

I fell into a bit of a depression after that. School, work and home; that’s all I did. I didn’t go out with any friends or even talk to them on the phone. I figured if I was going to keep this secret it was best not to talk to anyone.

A month after my appointment, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. The doctors said her tumor was the size of volleyball and they had to remove it right away. They explained that it could have already spread but she would receive chemo treatments once she recovered from surgery.

My grandmother and her third husband flew up from Florida to be with us and help take care of her while I went to school and work. Francis was around but didn’t do much. Since he didn’t have a license I had to drive him back and forth to work and to the hospital.

My mother took a while to recover from the surgery. She had a scar more than six inches, vertically, on her abdomen. Not only did they remove the tumor, she also had a complete hysterectomy.

She had a hard time caring for herself. So between my grandmother and me, we did it. Again, Francis wasn’t around much and probably figured he didn’t need to so anything since my grandmother and I were doing it. And once my mother was back on her feet a bit, my grandmother went back home to Florida.

She had chemo treatments every Friday that would last 8 hours. I would drive her there, not Francis, and I would come back to have lunch with her and then pick her up after I got out of work.

It was quite difficult to see firsthand what cancer and chemo could do to a person. She lost her hair very quickly. She could barely keep anything down when she ate. And she had no energy. Just as she was starting to feel better, she would get another treatment.

During this time my mother was a completely different person. She was nicer, warmer and even affectionate. Maybe it was because she had more time to reflect on her past now that she was sick or maybe she just didn’t have the energy to push anymore.

I noticed this change especially with her friend’s daughter, the one who she had some “choice words” for when it was revealed she was pregnant (as I mentioned in my previous post). There was no longer any anger towards her; just love and affection. She was excited for this baby to be born and they were spending a lot of time together. Ironic, isn’t it? And a complete punch to the gut — the angst, the fear, the sadness that I felt — completely washed away with her illness.

The icing on the cake? Her friend’s daughter asked me to be her baby’s Godmother. I was asked to be completely tied to this baby, to welcome this child into my life. And I had to accept, what else was I supposed to do? I had no choice.

Her baby was born in the middle of the summer, just as my mother’s first round of chemo treatments were done. She had a difficult pregnancy and after giving birth was sick and had to stay in the hospital for about two weeks. Who took care of her newborn? My mother and I. But mostly me since my mother was so sick.

And even when the baby’s mother was well enough to go home, we still cared for the baby whenever she asked. Not sure where her own mother was at the time, but my mother was happy to do it and happy to volunteer me as well.

As I look back and remember this point in time, maybe my mother did know about my decision. And this was her way of punishing me. Either way I grew to love that little girl and did my best to take care of her when I could.

Also during this time I made a new friend through work, George was his name. He was gorgeous. I remember thinking to myself “He’s either married or gay.” Turns out he was the latter. Didn’t matter though, we connected instantly. He was my anchor for a few months. He opened up to me about a lot of things in his life and I did the same. I was able to breathe. He was a recovering heroin addict and he was HIV positive. Two lost souls, we were able to lift each other up. Until he fell down.

He had a weak moment and overdosed. His friend Casey, who I had considered dating, found him with a needle in his arm. I was completely crushed. This was my first real experience with addiction. I had no idea he was struggling so much. I wish he could have seen how beautiful he was, not only on the outside but the inside too. I tried to show him, but his demons were much stronger.

When he passed, my “wonderful” step-father, Francis, accused me of doing drugs just like my friend George. It’s funny because this was the exact time that his marriage to my mother started falling apart. And what better way to deflect my mother’s anger from him to me…more on that in a bit.

As I mentioned, I was considering dating George’s friend Casey. They lived together along with another friend in a house they all rented. Little did I know it was a halfway house; Francis brought this to my mother’s attention and she flipped out on me. I had no idea. That’s how naïve I was. I knew Casey was a recovering addict from Ecstasy and their other roommate was also a recovering addict. But I didn’t know their home was considered a halfway house. Leave it to Francis to know what it was…

My mother was furious with me. And of course, she wouldn’t say a word to me why she was so upset. Trying to be confident, I asked her one day why she was so upset with me for wanting to date this kid. Her response, “I don’t want you to end up like me. Haven’t you seen the last few years what I’ve been through? Please don’t make the same mistakes I have made.”

I was shocked. She had never been so open and honest with me before. As I said earlier in this post, given the circumstances of her being sick, I think she had more time to reflect on her life and realize she made some mistakes.

Even though she was sick, the next few months with her were the best I had ever had. We spent more time together just being mother and daughter. Connecting the way we should have done years ago. It was the strongest our relationship had ever been. And all while her marriage was unraveling.

Francis appeared to have his own relapse. Drinking and not coming home. I don’t know if he was dabbling in drugs again, but I didn’t see him very often. Though he managed to make appearances for my mother’s doctor appointments. And when he was home, he treated her like garbage. He never helped her with personal things, didn’t make her meals and didn’t help around the house. I remember one night hearing her coughing a lot. When I went in to check on her I could see she had been vomiting. She couldn’t even get out of bed to make it to the bathroom; she was hunched over her bed with her head in a bucket. I cleaned her up and got her settled with her medicine and water. Francis never moved from his side of the bed the entire time. He said out loud, “I don’t even know why you’re helping her. She’s not sick. It’s all in her head. She’s just looking for sympathy.” I was furious, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to upset my mother. When I looked at her she had a defeated look in her eyes. I was thinking, how could anyone believe that she wasn’t sick? There was no way she was pretending. He was terrible to her. And so was the rest of his family, including my mother’s best friend who was Francis’ sister. I guess because my mother was incapable of doing for them anymore they wanted nothing to do with her. None of them reached out to help her.

Unbeknownst to me, Francis knew my mother was dying. The doctors had told him she wasn’t going to last another six months. But he never told me or my grandmother. The doctors would only speak to either him or my mother.

Aside from a few cousins my mother had, they helped as much as they could, but it was just me. I did everything I could to make her as happy as could be. Like I said, I had no idea she was dying. I thought she would eventually recover and I was trying to make it easier for her.

She even asked for my brother, even though they had stopped speaking almost two years prior to this. They had a falling out and my brother decided to not speak with her anymore. I don’t remember why they stopped speaking, but I knew that I had to choose sides. So yes, I sided with her. What other choice did I have? Yet again, there wasn’t one.

I reached out to my brother and thankfully he came around. I had never seen her look happier than that moment when he walked through the door. She was thrilled to have her son back in her life, even if only for a moment. And she told anyone who would listen.

Late that summer I took her to Sloan Kettering where they said they would give her a new radical chemo treatment. Luckily her regular doctor was able to administer it so she didn’t have to travel into New York every week.

I dropped her off on our regular Friday morning, got her settled and headed off to work. At lunch when I stopped in she was sleeping so I didn’t disturb her. When I picked her up that evening I didn’t even recognize her. The tiny, frail woman I had dropped off that morning was replaced by a swollen, bloated figure. I only knew it was her by the clothes she was wearing. The doctor pulled me aside and said she had a hard time with the new treatment, to take extra care of her the next few days as her body adjusted.

She never adjusted and never went back to her normal size. She remained in bed for over a week, barely being able to get up and use the bathroom. And she hardly ate anything as she didn’t have the energy to hold a fork and almost nothing stayed down. It was terrible. I felt helpless watching her go through this. And by this time Francis was gone from our home as she was about to file for divorce from him.

On the last day she was home I found her in bed staring at the ceiling. When she realized I was there she tried to sit up. As was my normal routine, I helped her into a sitting position and asked her what I could do for her. She had a look of peace on her face and calmly told me she spoke with her doctor. He told her to get to the hospital and he would make sure she was admitted so she could get the care she needed.

She held my hands and for the first time since I had known her she looked at me, really looked at me. I was afraid. She knew this and said, “Chrissy, I’m dying. I don’t know how long I have, but it’s not much time. I’m ok with it. God and I have been having long conversations and I’m ready to go whenever he’s ready to take me. But before I do I need you to know a few things. I love you. I have from the moment you came into my life. I’m so proud of the young woman you have become; of the girl that you were. You’re such a good girl, such a good person. Always be proud of who you are and remember that I will always love you.”

I was speechless. I had waited 16 years to hear these words and now here they were and I didn’t know what to say. We hugged and we held on tight for a long time.

A little while later, the paramedics came to take her to the hospital and I made all the appropriate phone calls to friends and family members.

She was in the hospital two full weeks before she passed and during the first week she was coherent. From her death bed she filed for divorce from Francis. And of course he was causing trouble, threatening to hurt me and my grandparents, to burn down our house. In the midst of visiting my mother, working and trying to go to school (which I ended up quitting) I had to go to court to get a restraining order against him for my mother, myself and my family. It was such a terrible time. The restraining order was denied, but I do believe the judge agreed to not have him visit her in the hospital. He said she should die in peace.

By this time the doctors had her hooked up to a machine to remove the fluid that was building up in her lungs. And soon after they told us that there was nothing more they could do for her but keep her comfortable so she wouldn’t suffer.

But she did suffer. And it was horrifying. Two days before she passed my brother and I decided to stay the night with her. She was on a morphine drip, but there never seemed to be enough to make her comfortable. I will never forget the sound of her screaming in pain that night. I don’t even have words to describe it, other than it was the worst thing I had ever heard in my entire life.

Finally, by mid morning the next day, the morphine started doing its job and she was comfortable. The doctors said she wouldn’t be able to respond, but she could hear us speak to her.

She had many visitors by this time. And the doctors told us it would be soon; to stay close and make sure we said our goodbyes.

The morning before she passed a group of us were sitting in the cafeteria grabbing a quick breakfast. It was me, my grandparents, my brother and a few of my mother’s cousins. There was idle chit-chat, but nothing significant that I remember. Until I felt a tap on my shoulder; I turned around and standing there, as if he belonged, was my father. The man I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I had no idea what to think, say or feel. He grabbed me in a bear hug and kept telling me he was sorry. For what, I don’t know. Apparently, someone felt that at this moment in time because I was losing my mother, that I needed my father. Or maybe they felt because she was dying, it was ok for him to come around again to try and get back into my life. As if I wasn’t going through enough, I now needed this. But being the dutiful young woman I was, I accepted it; just like that; because I always did what I was told. There was no way I could dispute it, there was no time right then. Funny thing, there was just enough time for him to tell me that he was going to have his lawyer send me a letter to tell me I was emancipated and he no longer had to pay for my college tuition…so maybe he was sorry about that too. Father of the year right there! All the grief I was feeling and all he could think about was not paying for my school and he was still not working on accepting responsibility.

I’m not sure why, but my father went to visit my mother. And while she could no longer speak, when my grandmother told her he was in the room you could see her whole body tense. Thankfully, he left shortly after.

That night we all surrounded my mother by her bed. The priest came in to offer her last rites and we all sat and prayed. I remember sitting at the end of the bed, crying, and my hand on her leg telling her over and over again that I loved her. And at 9:45 on Saturday October 23, 1999 she took her last breath.

At the same time, even though I was upset and crying, I was able to breathe for the first time in more than 16 years.

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