The Hardest Part

A photo of me and my mom, Beverly Miller DeKeyser, dated July, 1991

A large portion of this was written May 14, 2013, when I was exploring my thoughts around a NY Times piece that Angelina Jolie wrote about her decision to get a preventive double mastectomy and the online chatter I had noticed around it. Considerable edits made on January 24–25, 2017 with parts pulled from other Tumblr posts made on November 3, 2010, December 28, 2010, May 1, 2011, and June 2, 2011.

Mother’s Day 2007 was the last time I spoke to my mom. On June 2nd, 2007 her cancer caused massive organ failure and she died in a hospital bed in Virginia. The death certificate lists her death as a result of “metastasis in lungs and organ failure.”

The idea of speaking to her carries a certain sharpness in my heart, and there is likely a good reason why it’s something I keep coming back to when I think of my grief and pain around her death. A few years ago, I found myself not being able to remember what my mom sounded like. I’ve forgotten her voice. I can cobble together something I think is close, but I really don’t know anymore. It’s gone. There’s a memory I have from when I was a few years old of picking out home movie VHS tapes and playing them on our TV. I watched a few that featured my grandmother, my mom’s mom who had died not long before. I sat and played them one after another until my mom rushed in, crying, and turned them off and told me to stop it. I don’t have video of my mom. They're somewhere, maybe, but her voice is lost to me after years without it.

My friend, someone who also lost her mom in her twenties, told me how sad that made her. That she had memories of her mom calling her name, how that feeling is invoked sometimes just walking down the street. She later wrote something beautiful around the idea. I, for better or worse, do not have that. And even more recently, I came to the conclusion that all my mental images of her are really just from the few pictures I have laying around. Memories are there, of course, but the face is something I’m taking most often from the picture of her I have on my chest of drawers.

But the last time I heard my mom’s voice, I was living in Tokyo, Japan for a study abroad program at Sophia University. My mom’s breast cancer came out of remission in fall 2002- it affected her in small and large ways for the next four years as the cancer’s growth first slowed but then eventually moved into her bones by fall 2006.

After that, my mom had good weeks and bad weeks. Before the end of the summer, she had decided to finally stop teaching elementary school, the job she did for over 30 years. Some weeks she could carry on her normal life. Others, she would be stuck in bed, tiring out just from walking down the hall. This was about eight months after she had done more rounds of radiation therapy. I say “about” because I’m sketchy on the timeline around here. I’m an unreliable narrator here and it’s one thing I can’t blame on my grief! When she came out of remission, I was also a 16 year old kid who was just starting dating and going through my first breakup and it was a weird time for us all. So back to the fall. Her hair was just starting to grow back, but she was back on chemotherapy and on the bad days, she couldn’t eat and couldn’t do much. We had a bell system to help her when my dad was at work since I lived on the opposite side and floor of the house.

So when I left for Tokyo, a four month semester, I knew my mom was not great, but not terrible. We had a very frank talk that summer about death- she was ready for it. She was religious, but had some doubts about what “heaven” really was and that she accept that at some point, she could close her eyes and then nothing more. The entire concept still gets me to a near panic attack. It happens at night sometimes, right as I fall asleep. I think about waking up and then I can’t understand “not” waking up. It’s too final for me. But she accepted with grace and understanding. She was not morbid- she did not wait for death. But she knew what it was and knew it was there.

I had known something was going on before I left. She had told me about the cancer in her bones, but didn’t lead on how bad or uncontrollable it might be. She had also said that because of the cancer or drugs or combination, she had lost all sense of taste. It was gone and her doctors told her it most likely would not be coming back. She started to enjoy the consistency and feel of food more, which I always found funny. She tried dozens of new brands of yogurt.

But these were Things That Happen When You Have Cancer. They weren’t, in my head, Things That Happen When You Are Dying. Not yet. I don’t know if I even had that list ready in my head. The first time she had cancer, I was young. Seven or so. And it went into remission within a year and half. That barely registers to me. My mom’s mom also died around this time, so I can only imagine that coming to grips with grief for the first time has made my memory spotty at best. But this time, the cancer became a part of our lives. It was there from my junior year of college to my junior year of college. So I left for Japan, and my mom was my mom. My mom with cancer, but she had been that for so long, the two were one in the same. There was a moment, I remember, the day or so before I left where I had a small nagging feeling. I was packing my suitcase. “What about mom? What about her and the cancer? Isn’t it worse?” came through clearly, lingered, and then left.

But it never bubbled up again. After a few weeks in Tokyo, I had figured out how to use Skype (and more importantly, figured out how to get my parents use it) and spent about 4000 yen buying two USB mic headsets because the first one broke and I didn’t know enough Japanese to return it. On Sunday, May 13, 2007, Mother’s Day, I had called my mom at home in Virginia and talked about little things. I told her about the trip I had gone on, and how I had seen the Atlantic ocean and watched my new friends drunkenly swim in it at 5am.

She mentioned that she and dad had gone on a trip with some family friends to Williamburg, VA the previous week and how she felt weak and didn’t have much of an appetite. They had to cut the trip short, but otherwise she was doing well.

Not long after, my dad had called me directly on my Japanese phone. He has never done that. It was Thursday and he has taken my mom to the hospital earlier and told me to get a plane ride as soon as I could. “She might not last until next week.”

That morning, I had to make arrangements to leave class for some time. I crammed into to same the extremely crowded rush hour train I took each morning because I had to go to school to do everything in person. I found myself then in-between the Arai and Numabukuro stations having to put on my sunglasses because I started crying when I heard “The hardest part is loving somebody that cares for you.” I remember that clear as day.

If the song was on shuffle or if I somehow found myself in the mood to listen to the album that morning, who knows. The other songs in this piece were among the small handful I found myself listening to once I got back. I must have listened to them, eventually ordered in a small playlist to give it order and meaning, a couple hundred times over the following two months. I didn’t put much thought to why. They just evoked something, anything worthwhile, something I cared to feel over and over. But thinking about it more, I think it has to do with the fact that all these songs are about experience raw and naked emotions- both good and bad, love and loss and fear and anger. And having an outlet where I could find artists that were expressing emotions I could relate to, even if they weren’t exactly what I was feeling, but at the very least I could stand behind the force of the emotions, I found cathartic.

Towards the end of the day I spent slowly, methodically squaring away classes and time off, my dad called me again. He had booked me on a flight for the following day. He did so while was by her side. While not in great shape, she was first talking and acting fine, and then was gone within hours. Late on Friday night. After that, my dad went home and looked at their wedding photos. I called him as I boarded the plane, early Saturday morning for him, to ask how she was doing. He told me he didn’t call because he didn’t want me to sit with my sadness for the 15 hour flight. With that now unavoidable, I put on my sunglasses again and cried in the middle seat on the plane. Surrounded by all the passengers, I decided to let my grief be present and unavoidable. And that sometimes is the hardest part.