As She Lay Dying

How a hippie chose to die


My mom died when I was 19. She fought a ten-year battle with breast cancer, refusing to ever see a doctor, dying at home. A hippie, vegan, homeschooler, she didn’t believe in Western medicine. Instead, she relied on ineffective herbs and potions to rid her body of cancer. I was one of her caretakers, along with my late sister and my dad.

A lot of the things involved in taking care of a dying person are surprisingly mundane. Before my mom lost her voice to paralysis, she’d ask me to change the channel on the TV (usually the soap opera, All My Children) or bring her some water. We’d sit for hours, just being together. Once blindness and paralysis set in, my challenge become all about meeting her basic needs: turning her from side to side in bed to relieve pressure on the enormous, angry bed sore that plagued her. Moving her feet so they didn’t atrophy. That sort of thing.

I tried to pretend I was a normal teenager. I had a boyfriend, I went to high school most of the time. I did other “teenage things.” The neighbors knew something was amiss at our house, but nobody ever stepped in and took control of a very unusual, dark situation. My dad was “going along with your mother’s wishes,” he told us as my younger sister and I screamed at him to call a doctor.

When you’re living in an upscale neighborhood, in a big house next to Topanga State Park outside of Los Angeles, people “live and let live.” Or, in our case, live and let die.

So that’s what happened. I lived and my mom died. Despite my repeated pleading with her to hang on, she didn’t. Sobbing hysterically, I threatened her that I wouldn’t make it without her. She assured me I would. I didn’t believe her. I still don’t.

After her death, I dragged my broken soul to U.C. Berkeley. There, as other students freaked out at their newfound freedom, doing crystal meth, and changing their majors from pre-med to English, I lost myself in books and the staggering intellect and kindness of a few professors.

Today, I’m a mom whose greatest fear is that something will happen to me and I won’t be there for my kids. This is the legacy of losing my mom as a teenager. It’s not an abstract notion. It’s the reality I live with daily.

I honor my mom’s memory in ways that surprise me. My childhood home was in a stunning, rustic canyon. Recently, my husband and I moved to Coldwater Canyon, in the hills above Los Angeles. I want to give my kids everything my mom gave me.

The most profound and moving example of a mother’s love I’ve ever heard is represented by a 2010 interview on National Public Radio, where Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s project to collect artifacts for the National Museum of African American Art And Culture discusses unique items the public donates to the museum:

“Somebody brought a pillowcase that was embroidered. And it turned out to be a pillowcase that was embroidered by a woman who was enslaved, who was about to be sold the next day. So, she embroidered to her daughter saying, in this pillowcase you will find a dress, you will find some biscuits but what you’ll find is that it’s filled with my love. And though I may never see you again, always know how close you are to my heart.”

My mom, a strong African American woman, didn’t leave me with a real pillowcase filled with treasures. Instead, she left me with a metaphorical one, filled with the life skills and determination to make it in this world without her.

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