I have a photo of her from September 1989. It was her 58th birthday. At the time, she could still speak but the tumor looked like a baseball-sized wad of chewing tobacco in the left side of her jaw. She had already lost her right eye and wore a patch. She weighed no more than 90 pounds. In the photo, she sat on my brother’s lap, ribbons around her neck, wearing a bathrobe.
By December, my mother’s monosyllabic speech was punctuated with long pauses and drool. Then a stroke wiped out her words entirely.
In those last days, I tried to visit as often as I could bear it but, selfishly, I fought these visits. I had spent most of my life without her. We had never bonded as mother and daughter. I felt more like a pet cat that spent most of its time outdoors. Taking care of her during the last four years of her life did little to bring us closer. If anything, our relationship had suffered from the drama of her alcoholism and my emotional distance. Once, in the emergency room after she had a seizure, my sister and I were trying to calm her down when my mom, sloppy drunk, slapped me hard across the face, told me she hated me and demanded that I leave. I went outside and smoked a cigarette.
Her drunkenness, her dark apartment like an airless, smoky hotel room, the absence of family photographs, of anything that signaled she loved us, the mismatched coffee cups and empty refrigerator—all of it depressed me. It kept me speechless and it pinned me to her couch, watching Murder She Wrote, avoiding pleasantries and truth. Avoiding words. I didn’t tell her I had an abortion. I lied about being in love. I couldn’t even be honest about the weather; I needed every day to be sunny.
When we moved her into a nursing home, her cancer had progressed beyond treatment. It had also defeated her alcoholism; she had morphine now. The last two weeks of her life she was barely conscious. I sat by her side and held her hand. I fed her ice chips.
It’s true that our relationship rarely seemed to bridge our mutual resentment. I’ll never know how mothers and daughters are supposed to talk. But here’s the thing: She gave me a glimpse into that sacred sliver of space between life and death. She gave me hope.
On the last day, two days before my birthday, my sister and I stood on either side of the bed; I held her left hand and my sister held her right. My mom gestured up, above–look, something holy–with her one good eye. She lifted her right arm and pointed up at the ceiling; she tried to speak. She pointed and looked up, wordlessly. My sister said, “It’s OK to let go, Mom. We’ll be fine. It’s OK.” I squeezed her hand and repeated my sister’s words because I couldn’t think of any on my own. We stood, looking up as she did, for over an hour. Maybe, my sister and I speculated afterward, she saw God.
It felt like grace.
Later that night, asleep at home, I was awoken by the sound of screaming inside my head. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. My mom had died. She had passed, wordless, from this plane to the next, slipped through that sacred sliver, found her voice again, shouted to the heavens: I exist.