The part I left out was that I should've done this sooner than I did. And it's one of my biggest regrets.
I was about thirty when my mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Her early doctor's office chemotherapy sessions were short and hopeful. At the time, I let my dad do all the caretaking. I was petrified of seeing her in a chemo chair. Somehow it meant the doctor was right and that I could potentially lose her. I wanted no part of that reality.
I was staying with my parents off and on because I'd just moved back to L.A. from New York (when I wasn't at their place, I was with friends). No matter how hard I try to forget, I continue to remember one morning after I'd spent the night in my childhood bedroom:
I was getting dressed when my mom came out of the bathroom with tears in her eyes because a clump of her hair had fallen out in the tub. She walked into my room with her curly brown hair, crumpled and wet, in her hand. She sat on the edge of the bed and cried. I hugged her, but stayed stiff. I drew from all of the sad cancer movies I'd seen and told her that's what happens with chemo and that it sucks, but it's the thing that's going to make her better. She told me I was right and then began to talk more about how she was feeling. I stood up and moved around the room, trying to change the subject. She was close to admitting fear and sadness (for the most part, each person in my family kept their game face on the entire time my mom was sick, convincing ourselves that she would be the female Lance Armstrong).
But I couldn't listen to her fear or sadness or vulnerability. She was my momma. And mommas are your rock, your shoulder to cry on, your support, your life line. When the world shakes, they make everything okay. I couldn't let her be human like she needed me to because that meant letting her be sick and die. And that felt like letting the very ground beneath me crack up all around my feet and crumble into nothingness, taking me with it.
I did not know how to exist in or imagine a world without her in it.
So that same morning, I continued to move around the room. I packed some things and chit chatted about meaningless thoughts. She asked me what I was doing and where I was going. I told her I was expected at a friend's house. She teared up again and asked me why I wasn't going to stay and take care of her after she'd taken care of me all of those years. At the time, I became angry and reiterated the fact that I had to go. But later, I felt like the biggest asshole coward on the planet because she was absolutely fucking right.
I wish that in those early days of my mom's illness, her pain out-weighed mine; I wish that I let her be a person with cancer instead of my mom. But I didn't. I'd stopped taking full breaths and hearing full sentences and thinking whole thoughts. I was a bundle of raw nerves that had two speeds: flee intermittingly or spiral into sadness. I chose flee intermittingly more often because feeling sadness, again, meant admitting to myself that my mother was going to die.
I left that day and was somewhat gunshy for the next few months.
My mother's disease worsened and eventually, she began to really need me. She needed our whole family. My dad couldn't do it alone. So I spent long, weekly chemo drip-filled nights next to her bed on the floor of Cedars Sinai--she never spent a night alone in that cold, zoo-like hospital. I washed her hair and applied her makeup. I held her hair and plastic tubs for her to vomit in. I went to bed with her and woke up with her and spent as much time with her as I possibly could.
We were closer than we'd ever been. We became friends as much as we were mother and daughter, and we enjoyed our more adult relationship for only nine short months.
I wish that in those nine months, we could've walked together under autumnal trees and breezy, blue skies, talking about how dramatic I once was and how busy she used to be. But that was impossible then because, well, the L.A. skies are a suffocating brownish grey and she was confined to a wheelchair. But I pushed that wheelchair along the beach and watched the waves with her. I pushed it along sidewalks while she picked roses from people's yards. I took her shopping for things she didn't need and talked and laughed with her during regular lunch dates we had together. We ordered food and wine that we never ate or drank because she was feeling too sick. But it didn't matter. Those lunches were significant because I was still able to sit across from her--and I was finally letting her be vulnerable and sick.
My dad says he's thankful that I stepped back at first because it let him be alone with her and give everything that he could. I'm ashamed of my initial chicken response. I will always regret not being her rock in the beginning.
But I'm proud that I was glued to her side for the rest of it. And that I was the one who rode in the ambulance with her to the hospital the night before she died; and the one who rode back home in the hospice van with her when she'd begun to die. And I, with my sisters, held her and lay next to her for almost six hours straight, until she took her very last breath. Those were the hardest, saddest, most painful moments of my life. But I was there. And finally, I wouldn't have been anywhere else.
|Image via Observando|