Yes, you read that correctly–it was not a mis-print. I did not mean 9/11–a day that rocked the world. I meant 9/10–a day that rocked MY world. September 10th 2001 is the day my mother died. She was 48.
In 2000, she was diagnosed with cancer, which by that point had spread to her liver. It was controllable for the time being, but not able to be cured. I lived 3 hours away and started to go home to visit more than I had in the past. It took something like that–the big C–to make me get in my car and visit my family on a regular basis. And keep getting in my car. And keep driving back home to see her.
After spending most of her adulthood on various pills for various illnesses and issues, she had been worn out and worn down by pills and doctors. Even though she was now faced with even more pills and more doctors, finding out she had cancer is what it took for her to appreciate her life, accept her fate, vow to make peace with those around her, and live what was left of her life to the fullest. And keep living. And never show the fear of death to anyone around her.
At first, there was no noticeable deterioration. She had more life to her than she had had in years, it seemed. As time went on and her condition seemed to stabilize, I went home less and less. Instead of every week, it was every other week, and then every third week. After working a 50+ hour week, sometimes it seemed like too much trouble to get in the car and drive 3 hours. To fight traffic. To spend all that money on gas and tolls.
One day early in the summer of 2001, my father called and said that my mother was getting worse and had actually been admitted to the hospital. He never said the words, “Come home.” He’s not the type of man that would ever come right out and say it. We got off the phone and I decided right then that I needed to go. I didn’t call him back to tell him I was coming. I threw some clothes in a bag, got in my car, and drove straight to the hospital.
The woman in that room was a fraction of the woman my mother had been. Chemo had sucked the spirit out of her, sucked the weight off of her, sucked the hair off of her head, and made every breath an effort. It took everything I had to pretend that she still looked like the woman she had been, that she was still the mother I had always known. The woman that I had played “dirty Scrabble” with while I was at home on a break from college. The woman who had to pull the car over one day because we had a laughing fit over something and she couldn’t drive. The woman who gave me life.
She could still talk and was fairly lucid, although she tired easily. She cracked jokes about the bandana on her head and how she needed a cigarette. From that point on, I went home every weekend.
Although it didn’t seem like it was even possible at the time, she got worse. Quickly. The changes I noticed from week to week were bizarre. She went from eating small amounts of food at the table, to having to be wheeled to the table, and then was bedridden. After another stay in the hospital, she was released to go home. Hospice came to help administer her medicine and my grandmothers and grandfather would spend a lot of time there, but I always felt that my dad, my brother, and I were on our own in some ways. No matter how many people came to help, they weren’t there to hear her moaning throughout the night, delerious sometimes. And the nights were the worst.
One night when my father was away from the house for a few hours, I wheeled my mother into the living room to watch TV. She stared at it blankly, and asked for one cigarette after another. Which I gave her. I gave her whatever she had the strength to ask for. I would have given her a trip to the Bahamas if the words would have come out of her mouth. That night after I got her into bed, she decided that she had to go to the bathroom. The house was small, the corners tight, and the toilet was tucked back into an alcove barely wide enough to sit down in. It took all my strength just to get her there. She cried while I wiped her, and as delerious as she sometimes was, I knew that she understood what was happening and was troubled that she was putting me through it. I cried too, knowing that we had come full circle. Twenty-seven years earlier, it had been HER wiping ME.
I somehow got her back into bed, careful not to touch the bedsores that got worse each day. Her stomach had become oddly distended, and her skin had the yellow hue of someone whose liver was slowly shutting down.
The next weekend, she had become completely confined to her bed. A kind neighbor who was a nurse demanded that she be the one to change my mother’s diaper and clean her up. She knew that my mother would appreciate that someone outside of the family was doing it, that’s what she told us. I later realized that she was sparing us, not my mother, from the difficulty.
The weekend after Labor Day, I was sitting with my mother alone while my father was in the garage working and my brother was sleeping. My husband was sitting in the living room watching TV. Each breath she took, she held for what seemed like minutes. And with each breath, I silently prayed that it would be her last and that she would be released from her pain. I realized I hadn’t really said goodbye to her. I had talked to her about medications and visitors and sponge baths and bed sore creams, but I hadn’t said much of any consequence.
So while I was alone with her that Sunday night, I said my goodbyes. I told her how much I loved her, I told her that I would miss her. And that she would always be with me in some way, just not here next to me. I told her that it was OK to go. That I would take care of whatever needed to be taken care of. That she was free. I walked out to the living room and looked at Mike. Without a word, he stood up and we walked out to the car. We drove back to Pittsburgh.
The next day, September 10th, Mike started a new job. That evening, we had just finished dinner and were talking about his day and about how he didn’t think the job was going to turn out to be what he wanted. The phone rang. I froze. Mike answered and then handed the phone to me. It was my father, calling to tell me that she was gone.
Even though I knew that the day was coming eventually, it didn’t make it any easier. I cried as if I had found out that she had suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack. I shook uncontrollably, in shock. I was 27, married, a homeowner, and had a steady job. But I was mother-less now, and I felt nothing but young and unstable. I needed my mommy.
Later that night, I realized that she had waited for me to say goodbye. She had waited until she was alone with my father to pass peacefully from this world. She had waited until I told her that everything was OK and that I knew she would always be with me.
And she is.