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.
Very powerful. It seems we had a similar experience with our dying mothers, but with a very different perspective. Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed it.
Thank you for reading and commenting. So sorry for your loss.
🙁 I went through this, too. I was 23… and… bless you. They don’t teach us how to deal with such a loss.
Oh, I’m so sorry, Jen. No, they don’t teach us. But we do learn. Thanks for your kind words.
This was beautiful and honest and profoundly poignant. There was so much acceptance — it is what it is, she was who she was. The ending sent chills through me.
This means so much to me, Asha. Thank you for commenting. It took me a long time to get to acceptance, but I’m so glad I’m there. <3
Oh Meg, so much you’ve dealt with. I am glad she gave you that sliver.
Me too, Stacie! It was one of the most important moments in my life. Thanks for reading, sweetie.
It’s not much easier when the parent/child relationship isn’t a good one, huh? I know that feeling. Fighting those visits is natural, even without the other stuff. Good for you for going. It sounds like you have peace. Good on ya for that, too!
Thank you, Katy. I wish I had spent more time with her but it just wasn’t in me. Really appreciate your reading and commenting.
Those last 3 paragraphs took my breath away. I am glad you found grace through this and that maybe your mother did, too.
Thank you so much for your generous words! I hope she found peace. I had a dream not long after she died where she was dressed in this beautiful gown and was led up this elegant staircase…so I’ve always taken that as a sign that she was ok.
Very glad to have read this right now. Thank you.
I’m glad that you’re glad! Just hope it isn’t something you’re currently experiencing. Either way, many thanks for reading. Hugs to you.
I always wonder this too. What would it have been like to have learned? I’ll never know how mothers and daughters are supposed to talk.” Clear-eyed, stunning.
Thanks so so much, Cindy. Honored by your comment. Sad that you, too, know what it is like to not know how mothers/daughters are supposed to talk. It sucks. Hugs.
Holy smokes, Meg. How breathtaking. I can’t really say anything else, although I tried.
Thank you, Erica. You are too kind. One of these days I’m gonna be out of sad stories and will have to write something creative. 😉 Muuaahhh.
This post has left me breathless and lost for words.
Aww, thanks, Michelle. So kind of you to read and comment. <3
“It felt like grace.” This post feels like grace. Maybe you were a receiver of grace it in that moment, but it sounds to me with this piece you are giving some of that grace back to your mom. Absolutely stunning, breathtaking piece.
So thoughtful of you to say, Andrea. I’m glad you liked this.
Wow, everyone beat me to all the good things to say – no surprise there! This was so powerful, and reminiscent for me as well. I’m so happy you felt grace, and that you shared it with us. Thank you doesn’t seem like enough.
Oh, thank you is plenty! Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Janey!
Just like you to post this and then leave town. Remember that comment I made about feeling like you were in the room whispering your posts to me but not looking me in the eye? Yeah, this.
This made me smile lots, Nate. Sorry I’m just getting around to saying that, but it made me really happy. Thank you! (And I love what you’re doing with the Coffeehouse. I want to get over there and chat…maybe this weekend.)
Meg. You gave me shivers and reached me on some level I can’t even name. This was beautifully written and contained so much wisdom and depth. Despite the sadness, you managed to convey hope – hope that even coming from fraught and difficult family situations, one can find strength and resilience and can live honourably, moving beyond one’s upbringing. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself here.
Oh, thanks so much, Silverleaf. I think 2014 will be the Big Purge for me when it’s all done. 😉 Getting these stories out of my system is a good thing, and fortunately, not many people I know in real life read this so I don’t have to feel explainy. I’m glad you found it moving. Hugs to you.
Beautifully written and very sad.
Thanks, Melanie. The good thing is that most of the sadness is in my memory and not nearly as palpable as it used to be. Really appreciate your reading.
What I heard when I read this was the actions of a strong woman[women] who had compassion despite pain & rejection. May the world be full of people like you. You are lucky to have a sister who stood with you.
When you say you wished you could have done more – visited more – we always think those thoughts. Know they are just a what if – they don’t look at what you did do, which was remarkable.
Sorry I’m just now responding to your comment! Thank you for writing. I needed to read this.