I lost my mother twice. Once to cancer, once to a drunk driver.
The first time felt evident, an eventuality that I knew deep down was going to happen. We were borrowing time but we were good at it, for a while at least.
She was 52 when she got the news, I was 18. I had freshly graduated from high school and it was the summer before I was to start college. Where most were leaving the city and going away for college, I stayed home to remain close by.
I walked around with this gnawing feeling in my stomach at all times. It was worse when she had appointments early in the morning.
You see, my mother worked from home, and she worked really hard. For 18 years, this meant that she would have been awake working long before I first awoke in the morning. I could slip from my bedroom, tiptoe my bare feet on the cold floor, and follow the warm light that lit her office, like a sailor making his way to a safe harbor in the darkness.
After she was diagnosed, we tried to go on with life as normal. She did a better job at this than I did. Perhaps this is because she had unwavering faith, where I looked more towards science and statistics. Both were important I suppose, but hers brought her peace and mine just brought anxiety.
In fact, for a long time, you couldn’t outwardly tell that she had cancer. I thought of my friends whose parents had cancer. The moms who had had breast cancer, whose bald heads and lymphedemic arms revealed something was happening below the surface.
But my mom was different. She had all her hair, her skin was often glowing, and she loved singing to ABBA, at home or in her car with the top down. She baked cookies called Nieman Marcus’ and met me for lunch between classes. She fully decked out our home for each Christmas, and my strongest memories of her revolve around snow. She was delighted excessively by it, and every time snowflakes floated and swirled over our quiet street, she would burst with delight like a young child seeing it for the first time.
But again, it was those mornings that showed something was amiss, if only to me. The house was cold, dark, and empty, a snapshot of what life was going to be like one day without her. She would schedule all her doctor’s appointments and radiation appointments first thing in the morning, so she never had to take any time off work. This wasn’t because she didn’t have the ill time to take, she just didn’t want to put anyone out.
I would wander a bit like a zombie around the house those mornings, half-heartedly shuffling from room to room to get ready before class. Eventually, I would make a point to stay at a friend’s house the night before these appointments, so, unbeknownst to them, I wouldn’t be alone.
Over the next few years, I eventually moved on to living a semi-normal version of life for someone my age. I had a great roommate in a nice home, and with her came a wonderful dog that would come cowering into my bedroom when it thunder-stormed, a pale-yellow room that always brought brightness when I couldn’t muster it myself.
I became busy, between the demands of working full-time and attending college full-time, as well as trying to work out and stay healthy and have somewhat of a social life. But I came home often, to have dinner as a family and do our little routine of Sunday grocery shopping together.
Everything in my life held itself in suspension for a few years. But everyone knows that things can only be suspended in mid-air for so long before it all starts crashing down.
The cancer tests started coming back concerning. Stability was lost, new growths were apparent on the films. New treatment approaches and drugs were tried. Hair was lost and spirits were dampened.
Then one night I got a phone call from my brother, to come to check on mom, that something was off. A few days prior we had celebrated her birthday. We had had dinner, a nice cake, and I got her a pair of dark blue jeans she had been eyeing for a while now.
I noticed her confusion when I got to her house that night, and also an unusual out-of-character anger towards me. She seemed to be weak in her left leg too.
Despite her protests, I took her to the emergency room where they had found swelling in her brain, a side effect from recent radiation treatment.
As the doctor explained this to me, I could tell she thought we were overreacting, as if we were both forming alliances against her. I could also tell, though it pains me to write the words, that she didn’t know who I was that night.
That was the first time I knew I had lost her.
I did what the doctor recommended, which was to admit her to the ICU. This angered her more, and I could anticipate the venom that would be soon directed towards me. But somewhere deep down I knew this decision was right.
After a few days in the ICU, she was back to her normal, kind self. They had got the swelling down, she felt leaps and bounds better, and she remembered who I was.
Later that day when I took her home, she slipped back into her bedroom to change her clothes. She came out wearing a light purple short-sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans. She turned to me and said, “I love these new jeans, but I don’t remember where I got them from.”
On the night my grandfather died some years ago, the sky was a strange purple color. I stared up at the foreboding, tumultuous scene from the bottom steps of his back porch, listening to the thunderclap. I was young at the time, 11, but I was old enough to know that death sometimes comes when the weather is amiss, as if the sky is opening up to make room for them.
I walk out of my apartment on my birthday. It is May, the air unseasonably warm and it was snowing. Not the cold kind — but the cottonwood fluff that floats and swirls in the springtime mimicking its winter counterpart — and as I turn the key to lock my door, I know deep inside that this will be the day that my mother dies.
Two weeks earlier, I had been awoken in the middle of the night by my brother pounding at the door. He told me there had been an accident and that I needed to come quickly.
I had looked down at the stitches and bruises on her forehead that the other driver had caused. I had noticed the splatters of white paint on her bare feet. Not 6 hours earlier she had been painting her and my dad’s bedroom. That’s when I saw her last.
Those two weeks went by and she never woke up. During that time, she was moved to a hospice department within the hospital and began receiving comfort care only.
Today, on my 24th year in this strange, strange world, I sit with her in her hospital room alone. The cottonwood is continuing to swirl outside, I could see it from the tall rectangular window in the corner of room. I stay close by.
In the previous days, months, or perhaps even years, I had gone through the stages of acceptance. I knew her death would eventually come, but I didn’t think it would be quite like this. And while I knew many people were quietly thinking how horrible it would be that she might die on my birthday, I almost welcomed it.
We were so close that I knew the pain she was feeling, even when she didn’t share it. Deep down I knew how tired she was no matter how many things she took on in the course of a single day. I finally understood what it meant to let someone you love go.
I turn to her to tell her this, that it is okay if she went today, but she had already quietly slipped out the window, twirling and dancing, light as a feather, joining in with the other snowflakes of cottonwood.