Birth and death are both a natural part of life. Many people highlight the intimate moments surrounding birth but very rarely do people share the beautiful moments that happen at the end of our lives. I think that’s due largely in part to the fact that thinking about death or talking about death can be really scary for most, myself included. But its a natural part of life, and much like lots of other challenges we face, the more we talk about them the less scary they seem.
My Mom was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in July of 2015. My own life at the time was utter chaos. I had just ended my five-year relationship, I was struggling to pull together the finances to keep the house I bought with my ex and I had started a new job. I had been able to keep my house, but I had essentially no furniture. I was sleeping on my mattress on the floor. In all aspects of my life, I felt uncertainty. I had two major life changes within a matter of weeks from one another. Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked once more.
My Mom had been at the grocery store when all of a sudden her leg gave out on her and a searing pain shot up her left side. After the shock, she managed to pull herself together and drive home. An example of her strength and courage that she would leverage over the next 4.5 years. My brother insisted on taking her to the ER due to her extreme pain. At first, they thought it was a bad kidney stone or infection and they did an MRI. I remember my Mom saying how annoyed she was they were keeping her there for a kidney stone. She was a busy woman, she had things to do. Then all of a sudden a team of doctors rushed in and closed the curtain around her hospital bed. One of them grabbed her hand and told her she had cancer. There were hundreds of tumors covering her bones from her spine, down her pelvis, hips, and legs. The irony is that they couldn’t find the original source of the disease for almost two days. So she sat there with fear and uncertainty about the road ahead while we thought she had a kidney stone.
I vividly remember the day she told my brother and me that she had cancer. My parents had come over with my brother a week after she had fallen to help me put together some of my new furniture. At the time my Mom was living full time in Florida for work and was home for the 4th of July holiday. After we managed to put together my new Ikea bed frame (my Dad still will never forgive me for how many drawers this bed had), we went to dinner. My parents dropped me back off at my house and insisted we all go inside and sit down on the couch for a family discussion. This was very weird. My mind immediately went to, “okay, they’re getting divorced”. My parents had been struggling with the distance my Mom’s job had put between them and the stress was taking a toll on the family. I had been mentally preparing for this conversation and I was ready to accept their decision, or so I thought. Then, my Mom told me she had cancer. This wasn’t even a blip on my radar. I had so many questions and because she had only just been diagnosed, she didn’t have a lot of answers. I held myself together as long as I could and then when everyone left I sat at the only furniture I had on my main floor, my kitchen table, and I sobbed.
Her cancer originated in a tiny milk gland in her left breast, but it was diagnosed as stage IV due to how far it had spread. At first, her treatment plan didn’t include chemotherapy because her cancer was ER-positive (meaning it was hormonally driven vs. residing in the breast tissue). She didn’t lose her hair and she didn’t look sick. The doctors said many women live 10-15 years with her diagnosis with the right hormonal therapies. So, it was easy to brush it off and continue life as usual for the next 6-months. Then two weeks before she was supposed to go back to work, we found out the cancer had metastasized to her blood. I remember when I took her to a cat scan shortly thereafter, and I stood behind the tech as he did the scan. As the image slowly appeared on the screen I was able to see the reality of her disease for the first time. Almost every bone on her back, spine and rib cage had a tumor. Her bones looked like they were covered with popcorn kernels. This was real. This was actually happening. My Mom had terminal cancer. She was given 3-6 years to live and the next four years were a roller coaster for my Mom and everyone around her. I watched as her mobility slowly declined and her pain became unbearable. The cancer spread, but the pain and torment it caused extended well beyond her body to our family and those that loved her.
Through the ups and the downs, we talked a lot about life. The life she had, the life she had given us. We also talked about death. It was easier to talk about it then because her death wasn’t imminent. Now I sit here at her bedside and her death is imminent. I’m left feeling if I did everything I could for her and wondering why even though we were given years to prepare, why I’m not feeling prepared at all.
The moments that my family and I shared during my Mom’s final weeks were some of the most intimate and special moments we’ve had as a family. It was heartbreaking and emotional, but we had conversations and talks that never would have happened had my Mom not been dying. My Mom pulled herself out of bed, barely able to stand, to hug my Dad and tell him that she loved him and she was sorry for how she had acted in the past. She stood there frail in her hospital gown as my Dad held her and sobbed. She told me she’d be dreaming of the future and of all of the grandchildren I’d give her, a girl of course because God wouldn’t be so cruel to her. She patted my face and wiped my tears dry and told me that she’s loved me since the moment she saw me. In the end, my Mom barely resembled her former self physically but through her bursts of clarity and alertness, I could see her personality shining through. It was hard to see her this way, but those moments we shared as she slowly faded away were some of my most cherished memories with her.
In her final days, close friends and family surrounded her bedside and whispered their love and gratitude for her spirit into her ear because she was no longer responsive. I looked deep into her fluttering eyes as I told her how thankful I was God had chosen me to be her daughter. Although she couldn’t respond, small tears rolled down her cheeks and I could feel the facial expressions she would have made if she could.
It’s now been one week since she passed away peacefully in my childhood home. The anticipation doesn’t make this blow any easier. I’m left feeling bewildered and heartbroken. I feel like I am floating through the days without purpose, but I know that will pass. She would want us to move forward and live our lives fully in her honor.
I hate that I’ve had to face the reality of death and mortality sooner than most, but its given me a new perspective on my own life. One of the last lucid conversations my Mom and I had was about me starting this blog. I expressed my desire for more creative freedom and I wanted to start something that addressed real issues that people face in their daily lives. I wanted to provide authenticity and relatability. As she always did, she pushed me to pursue my dreams and to travel the world, and so this blog is dedicated to her.