This post is part of a series of journal entries written throughout my mother’s two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer.
December 8, 2016
Snow fell the day my mother left Detroit. It was the first real snowfall of the season and it was light, fluffy and wispy, swirling through the air and dancing on the roads. You could even say it was powdery, like the snow out West, where my mom was returning to. She was teary-eyed when I dropped her off at the airport, like she had been a few other times during her visit. She was frail and slow, forgetful and nostalgic. She was sorry for our past and happy for my future, but knew she didn’t have much time left. If you heard her talk about her illness, you would believe she had miraculously been cured from terminal, stage 4 brain cancer, but I think she knew the truth. Every time I saw her since her diagnosis earlier that year, I wondered if it would be the last time. Many people are gone within mere months of their cancer diagnoses and there she was, 10 months later, aged from her battle, but otherwise well. Hell, she endured day-long travel, through three airports to visit for Thanksgiving, without complaint and on her own accord.
During her visit, I agonized internally over how to spend what might be my last days with her. We ended up spending equal amounts of time exploring and staying home, and she was just happy to have made it regardless of what we did (which included standing in frigid temperatures to watch a Christmas parade and wandering downtown with a toddler on Small Business Saturday, so while she may have been different than she used to be, she didn’t exactly seem like she was dying). I swear I heard every story my mother had to tell more than once (more than twice). She told stories for as long as I could remember, and not unlike the father character in Big Fish, it was difficult to separate fact from fiction in her tales. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. More often than not, truth is subjective, but I digress. I’m the only one of her daughters who ended up getting a full apology for the turbulent upbringing she provided. So then, what was left to be said? I figured the best thing to do was to just be. I wanted her to be happy and I think she was, save for those intermittent thoughts of the nearing end.
I was sad when I arrived to my empty home after dropping her off at the airport. While life had to go on (Toddlers are impatient tyrants, after all.), I couldn’t help but notice her absence. I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke in the laundry room and felt as if she was already gone. Like, gone, gone. Yes, even with stage 3 lung cancer, she still smoked, but not much. She would mosey onto the back deck, through our laundry room, to have a puff here and there. When she’d return inside, the second and third hand smoke would linger, like it had throughout my childhood. It was her signature scent.
My mother was an acquired taste. She butted heads with many and, especially as she was succumbing to senility, she could be frustrating after long spans of time. She and I disagreed on social and political issues, but only as she aged and grew sicker. (It was she who impressed upon me the value of civil disobedience throughout my upbringing after all.) The light topics we did discuss would be forgotten within a day, thanks to brain radiation. So both physical activities and meaningful conversations were off the table. What, then, did I want?
Long ago, I assessed that my role in my mother’s life had always been to make her happy, as wrong or right as that role is for a child. No one ascribed this to me. I had simply learned that while I was rarely the reason for her suffering, I possessed the unique ability to take it away. So during this time, I felt the weight of my duty to make this better somehow, but logically, I knew I would fall short.
I didn’t know how to “fix” the problem, but I understood that wanting to remedy one’s grief is a learned behavior. Maybe I was just supposed to feel sad. And so, for my first long winter in snowy Michigan (with a toddler, without a support system, and with the weight of my anticipatory grief), I was very sad.
My mother lost her battle with cancer on September 17, 2018. You can read part 2 here.