I lost my mom last week. Fifteen months of battling lung cancer that spread to her bones and kidneys, and it finally became too much for her. I knew on the very day of her diagnosis last year that this would take her, and the manner in which it would do so, and so I began to prepare. We all watched as she dealt with the side effects of her chemotherapy, losing a startling amount of weight, her hair, as well as her normally endless energy. We almost lost her last year after her first round of chemotherapy left her so weak with pneumonia that I still don’t know quite how she survived it. I often felt frustrated at the universe for giving my mom so many “sick days”, when I would see other women out shopping with their friends and daughters, clearly battling some sort of cancer, but healthy enough to enjoy life regularly. My mom didn’t get that. I remember telling her that, and her getting upset, having taken what I was trying to say the wrong way. She thought I was blaming her. I wasn’t, I was trying to communicate my sadness for what she was experiencing, but that was the nature of our relationship. Contentious, edgy, misunderstanding each other around every corner.
I never understood who she was, thought she had no interests or hobbies, wondered silently throughout my life why she didn’t “get a life”-go out with friends, cultivate interests, be her own person. In turn, she often felt that I was uptight, had self-absorbed interests and ideas, and I believe that she often thought that I believed I was smarter than her. In fact, she said as much to me, a few years back. During what I thought was a pleasant conversation, she suddenly erupted, “You think I’m stupid, that I’m not as smart as you are.” I remember confusion being replaced by shock, and my dad quietly suggesting to her, “That is your thing, not hers. She’s not implying that.” Our conversations were frequently a near-miss.
In all the horror of her illness and death, there was a beauty in learning about who she truly was. My mom DID have interests, joys and hobbies-her family and friends. She loved my dad with her whole heart, and never wanted to be a day without him. And each of us, even me-she worried endlessly about our happiness, even if it came out wrong sometimes. “Call or text me when you get there”, she say to me as I left town for work. I would roll my eyes, and say, “No, Mom..I’m a grown woman, I’m not going to do that.” I wish now I had just appeased her anxiety, and said, “OK, Mom”. Her passion and caring often erupted from her in a loud voice, and I would shut down, feeling “yelled at”. She was just trying to convey how much she felt what she was trying to communicate. In the last few months before her death, I spent many days caring for her, and while it broke my heart to have to remind her multiple times about why she was taking medication, or to wash her bald head with “that soap that smells so nice”, I feel so lucky that I had that time alone with her, for us to really connect for the first time, to talk about life and what her greatest joys were, what she would miss. She worried endlessly that she wouldn’t meet Dempsey, and it made me so happy on the day that she was able to rub his little head and kiss him. I feel at ease knowing that she died knowing how much I really did love her.
In the days after her death, there was an outpouring of stories from my mom’s friends, family, co-workers and students about her impact on them. The common thread in all of them was that she made them feel cared about, accepted, worth something. Despite all our differences, I always knew that my sense of social justice, of inclusion, of doing the right thing came directly from her, but I was humbled at the far-reaching impact this seemingly simple woman had on so many people throughout her entire life. I can only hope that I’ll have half the impact on others that she did, that I will raise Dempsey to be a man of strong moral character, with a heart of love to offer the world. Those were her gifts to the people that she loved, and even now, I can feel those things all around me.
To everyone that has shared their love and support with our family over the past year and a half, and particularly in the past week-thank you. You will never know the gratitude that we feel. Each of you has been a beautiful tribute to my mother, and her life.