Tag Archives: mother

one year without her

Last year, my mother was dying– slipping from the hands of those she loved, carried away on an invisible current, far beyond the horizon.

Those final days were busy; turning Mom and medicating her every two hours around the clock, caring for Grandma too, coordinating family phone calls, cooking food, cleaning house,all while grieving hard. I would gaze at my dying mother with a broken heart, filled with regret for all that she would miss, all that I would miss. Some moments I would rage and shake with body sobs that emerged from the abyss  and other times I felt like a shell of a person, and if a strong wind blew my way I would crumble to ash.

Mercifully, it was gentle:  She fell into a deep coma and on December 13th, as we held her hand she took her last breath.

Anger comes and goes like the weather, and at the moment my fury of a few weeks ago has drifted away. I am sad, and there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t miss her.  But I also feel  peace and comfort, as though she is sending me a hug from beyond. I can’t explain it, I can only accept it.

025 - CopyPerhaps she is still here, among us, in the flowers and the birds and the water and the sunshine.

a return to San Antonio

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The Riverwalk snakes through the heart of San Antonio. Dotted with waterside cafes, it is a romantic, lovely place to visit. I escape from the worlds premiere conference on breast cancer to sip Pinot Grigio in the sunshine while aggressive waterfowl vie for breadcrumbs.

This isn’t my first experience in San Antonio; I was here 20 years ago. I skipped along the river, as free as the ducks scrounging at the cafe. My sister and I frolicked in an amphitheater while my mom took pictures of our spontaneous dance.

Click, click, click.

I was a girl. I believed because it happened once, it would happen again. Unfortunately I was too naive to notice how special the small moments are, too innocent to know I might not return until I was grown up, old enough to sip my wine quietly and listen to the slapping of the water along the riverbank while I bask in the sun.

Life is full of so many beautiful moments that are gone in a flash, never to return. I know I can never hold on to them, but I hope to be awake, aware, to soak them in like I do the sunshine.

the trappings of December

Not even 36 hours into December, and it already feels like a long month.

Last year around the first of December, my mother asked me if I thought she’d live to see Christmas.  I told her I didn’t know, with a not-so-hopeful tone to my voice. Her shoulders fell, and she turned her gaze downward- she mostly communicated with her body language; her gestures  betrayed the feelings she so rarely voiced. I quickly added that I hoped so and gave a weak smile, but it was too late.

I wonder why I needed to be so brutally honest in that moment.  My mother loved Christmas.  The holiday music, the tacky sweaters (she owned at least 6), the family gatherings.  I wish in that moment I had held her hand, and looked into her eyes and said something upbeat, like “why not?” or “Christmas with you would be wonderful!” She would have done something like that for me.

She didn’t live to see Christmas, but she almost made it; she died on the 13th, and she got to enjoy part of the holiday season. Christmas of 2011 was nothing like Christmas Past, but her cousin artfully decorated the inside of the house, and we strung multicolored Christmas lights along the roof that cheerfully twinkled in the long, dark nights.  I found CD after CD of Christmas music, and played the familiar tunes softly for my mother as she was unconscious in her bed.  The machinery of thoughtful friends and community members kept us fueled with sugar.

This year, the holidays have returned to semblance of the norm. I participate in the holiday parties,the home decorating, the gift exchanges. I unfurled dusty decorations that haven’t seen the light of day in two years; my husband hung multi-colored orbs from our mesquite tree that sparkle in the Arizona sunshine.

Holiday rituals bring me joy, but I feel her absence so acutely.  The songs that ushered her out of this life fill my ears and I long for that which has slipped away on an invisible current.

I will always remember her padding in the kitchen, making cider or cooking up a beef dinner for her relatives wearing her latest Christmas sweater acquisition, jingle-bell earrings flashing under the fluorescent light.  She would flash me a big smile and say without words that yes, this is the best stuff of life.

Christmas 2008

Christmas 2008

the last thanksgiving

Thanksgiving 2011 was the last holiday my mother lived to see. I hear Grandma’s voice in my head (regrets are as useful as tits on a bull, Katy) but still, I find them creeping in, uninvited guests that stay long past their welcome.

It was a special day, the last Thanksgiving.  My coworkers gave us a full Turkey dinner, more than enough delicious food to feed the family for days on end.  Mom was strong enough to eat a little and enjoy the company of her dear ones. The day was full of gifts from start to finish.

But I was tired.  I was angry.  I was overwhelmed with the relatively simple task of reheating our Thanksgiving feast from AJ’s. I tried to coordinate everything seamlessly, and never before had it been so difficult to ensure all the food was simultaneously hot to be served for our 10 or so family members.  I had mixed success, and it frustrated me. Thank god I didn’t try to actually cook. When I wasn’t feeling full of gratitude and surrounded by love from all directions, Thanksgiving found me to be an irritable bitch.

I know Thanksgiving also carried sadness for Mom. She always loved to cook huge meals for her family members during the holidays, and she always make it look easy.  Her eyes grew glassy when she saw me running around the kitchen and she said softly “I’m sorry I can’t help.”

I was sorry too, profoundly sorry.

I know I told her that day that I loved her, I was grateful for her.  But I was fearful, and the months of protracted loss had chewed me up and left my insides looking like a seasonal squash.  I was angry that I was sharing my last Thanksgiving with my mother.  I had lots of expectations to let go of- years ahead of beautiful holiday dinners, perfectly prepared, cooked with her at my side.  I did the best I could do, but I wish that I could have released, let go, allowed myself to be rooted in that special day, that special moment, and feel the joy of having her with me, of being her daughter.

She knew my heart as well as anyone, and she knew I loved her.  I just wish I could have done things differently. It would have been more enjoyable for everyone involved.

This Thanksgiving I miss her, but I have also done some recovery. I have a wonderful life, full of blessings.  Today my heart isn’t like a the limp guts of a stringy squash; rather my heart is full of gratitude for a multitude of things, but especially gratitude that my life started with this tremendous woman, that I was able to know her and call her “Mom” and share my life with her for 31 years.

Thanks for the wonderful memories, Mom.  You were incredible.

the last Thanksgiving, 2011

a sign of the times

Only now, well into November, are we starting to feel the chill of Fall in the desert. Long nights descend, and although full of sunshine and 80 degrees, the days are short, and temperatures quickly plummet under the heavy blanket of darkness. At high noon in the warm sunshine, it can be easy to forget when and where we are in our path around the sun. Not fooled by the heat, the fig tree hears the silent call in waning daylight.  Her brown leaves flutter to the ground and remind me, the native Midwesterner, that yes, Autumn is here.

I had different signals in my childhood, and one of them was freezing my ass off at the bus stop every morning after about the third week in September.  But if that wasn’t enough of a hint,all I had to do was look at my grandmother’s door.

She was not a devout person in a religious sense, but she believed in corn. Every year she hung dried ears of corn to mark the season, the colorful kind commonly referred to as Indian Corn before such titles were considered potentially offensive. She hung it on the door to her double wide when I was a young girl, her apartment when I was a bit older, and in the hallway in her assisted living facility when I was older yet. Year after year, despite her changing circumstances, the corn reappeared.

Last year at this time, my mother had been discharged to hospice.  She was dying, and it was the last autumn she would ever know.  Her legs were swollen with fluid and she walked with a wide, awkward gait.  But she pulled out a managed to pull out a trio of colorful ears from a storage box and waddle out the front door.

“What are you doing?” I cried.

“Hanging some corn” she replied.

This year my mother is dead, and my grandmother is plunging deep into her dementia in a group home in Sun City.  She doesn’t have a door to hang her corn on; she doesn’t remember this old habit that was part of her annual routine for decades. Fall is here, and for the first time in my life I want some corn for my front door.  A thread to tie through the generations, despite being severed by illness and death; an organic symbol of where I came from.

 

the magical compost pile

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two of our compost piles, hard at work.

The most magical place in our home is the compost pile. With open arms, it takes the dead, the rotten, the leftovers.  Add in sun and water and the hard work of slithery creatures and dutiful microbes, the compost is transformed into rich, black dirt.  It feeds our plants and flowers.  The micronutrients are reborn into something beautiful and often delicious.

I can see why people several hundred years ago thought life was formed from invisible particles that float in the air.  It seems as if God breathes onto our muck and turns it into something of inherent good.Things transform quickly. One day an apple core, the next day something new.  The building up from the breaking down, it seems divine.  But its just life, the everyday miracle of existence here on earth.

I wouldn’t say that God is decomposing the waste products from my thorough cleanout of the chicken coop this weekend, but this humble pile has taught me a spiritual lesson or two.

I will let the losses in my life transform me.  I will become stronger and healthier as I absorb the good from all whom I have left me, and all I have left behind.  That which I have lost is still with me, in the same way that the molecules in the flowers my mom sent me for my birthday last year will be reborn into this winter’s lettuce crop.

I want my mother back.  I want to sit next to her, drink coffee and feel her hand in mine.  But that is not possible. I have choices, though.  I can cultivate the gaping holes in my heart so something new can flourish.  I can grow.

my mother’s autopsy

Prior to her passing, my mother chose to donate her body to research.  I met the physicians who would do her autopsy and tissue collection about 10 days before she died.  They signed up to bring us pasta on our meal donation website.  Mom had told me that they were from the Banner Sun Health Research Institute, but it didn’t occur to me that they would be slicing into my mother’s heart, holding my mother’s brain, until they were visiting with her in our living room.

They were kind. They enjoyed her in health (she had helped them raise money for a new facility while she was still working), and they were devoted to her with death looming near.  They knelt before my dying mother and held her hands.  They looked me straight in the eye and told me they would take care of her.  It wasn’t until then that I understood the depth of generosity in my mother’s donation, and the importance of helping these special people, so suited for the difficult work that they do. Mom, as always, chose well.  I trusted them, and with the intimacy of their task at hand, I started to think of them as family.

Yes, take my mother’s body, I thought.  I would give it to no one else. 

The first phone call was to the research institute after she took her last breath.

Her funeral was nearly a month after she passed.  Those kind doctors came.  She was cremated, their work complete. I gave them a big hug, and knew nothing else to say other than thank you.  Thank you, for helping others learn from my mother’s cancer.  Thank you, for slicing into that big heart, for holding her brain, for dissecting her tumor and sending it to the four corners of the earth.

Today, 8 months after her funeral,  I received the autopsy report.  When I checked the mail I was stressing out over a scheduling mix up over a certification exam; small shit, really. Its funny how quickly one can revert to shallow concerns after months of worrying about life and death. The letter was in a nondescript envelope, but it was thick, and I knew what it contained.  My anxiety about my test fell away.

Reading the report brought up mixed emotions. At first, I felt a little bit like a kid at Christmastime.  Mom’s brain weighed 1404 grams, who knew? But then I felt disappointment.  Coming from an oncology background, I want to understand her cancer on a cellular level.  Why it was so drug resistant.  Why she wasn’t cured.  Part of me was naively hoping there would be some striking insight from her autopsy on why she had to die, on that rainy December day at the age of 58. There wasn’t one.

I didn’t learn much from the report.  Her abdomen was full of lymphoma, but it had not infiltrated her kidneys or her brain like I thought it might have. It still seems unclear what kind of lymphoma she had, exactly. The report didn’t tell me why it was, to quote my mentor and friend, “the world’s worst lymphoma.”  And now, I will learn nothing more from her physical body.  The days of pouring over her CT scans and lab reports and now this final document are done.

I must accept that she is gone, and it will never make any sense.

Mom’s body has been turned to ash, but her tumor is preserved in a tissue bank somewhere.  Perhaps someday those rogue cells will give up their secrets to researchers someday.  Perhaps those researchers will use the knowledge gained to to save another mother’s life, somewhere. I hope they remember, as they hold the cold slides in their gloved hands, that this cancer was terrible and powerful enough to take a most perfect soul, and break the hearts of those that loved her.