My mom died last week. On Thursday. She was my single focus for her last three weeks. The longest three weeks, and the shortest three weeks of my life.
It all started 36 days ago when she called me from the hospital to say her doctor detected a “mass” on her liver. She wanted me to wait to come out–she in Southern California, me in Chicago–until she started chemo.
She wanted to draw on my “faith and positive attitude.” My mom had had cancer a couple times before, but this time, her words, her tone…I felt like a traitor. “Faith-filled” and “positive” were not two adjectives describing me in that moment.
The days passed, as I waited 2,000 miles away for updates. My sister saw her the next day, on Saturday, I talked to my mom for maybe 30 seconds on Tuesday, and then her husband called Thursday morning. There would be no chemo, because she would not get strong enough for that. “God told me to call you, literally,” he said. “We’re losing her.”
Much like the dramas I’ve seen depicted in movies, I booked a flight for the afternoon, crying sporadically as I packed a carry-on, forced myself to eat something, and gave random, disconnected instructions to my husband and kids. Then I headed out to be with my mom, having no idea how to do this thing called “Mom is dying.”
We sprung her from the hospital on the Monday after I landed, and for the next 17 days, longer than any of us had anticipated, but very grateful for the time, we took care of my mom (and her husband) in the comfort of their home.
A lot and very little happened in that time. My brilliant, witty mom declined day by day, with her physical decline ahead of her mental decline. A curse or a blessing, depending on how you look at it.
After a couple of days home, after a mini-party of close friends, my mom wasn’t up for visitors, in person or on the phone. So one of my roles was thoughtful gatekeeper. I listened to people process this new reality, and for some, re-process the grief of their own mother’s death.
I knew that I would have much time, afterwards, to grieve my mom. So my desire, my mission, was to be 100% in the moment and be there for my still-alive mom. I succeeded, for the most part.
There was just one time, when we were watching The Oscars–one of my mom’s funnier moments came when she cheered JLo’s stumble off the stage– when I future-tripped. As I lay next to her, we listened to Glen Campbell’s nominated song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” I quietly let a few tears slip down my cheeks. But when my eyes met with my sister’s, I had to get out of the bed, leave the room, and walk completely out of the house.
The song that will most remind me of my experience of being with my mom in those final weeks is Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now.” Three days before she died, unable to talk much, she was lip-synching the song as she danced with the only part of her body that could move—her right arm. We surrounded her bed, a captive audience, enjoying her beauty and desire to entertain, even under these circumstances.
On Thursday morning, March 5th, I witnessed my mom take her last breath. She was there for my first breath, and I was blessed to be there for her last. A few moments later, when I placed my hand on her chest, and that heart that had been beating so hard the last few days was silent, the gravity of the moment hung in the air.
On the plane ride home, I sat next to a retired nurse. She had done hospice care and as we talked, I mentioned that I was actually holding up pretty well and had been throughout these final weeks. She said—and we hadn’t talked about faith or spirituality—that was God’s grace. “Exactly!” I replied.
The verse that comes to mind is 2 Corinthians 12:9:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Many people were praying for me during this time, as I kept them updated, via texts and emails. And I will be forever grateful to all of them.
A few of my prayer warriors reminded me that God is still with me. His grace is still sufficient. Right. Yes. True. Thank you for the reminder, because as I get back into the routine of my life, and my mind and heart start to work through and adjust to this new reality, there have been moments of profound sadness enveloping me.
About a week before my mom died, breaking from her mode of keeping things light and funny, she shared wisdom on grieving her. Wisdom I am sure she gleaned from her own mother dying 21 years earlier.
“There will be moments, thoughts will come to you,” she said. “And from those thoughts will come feelings. Honor those feelings. All of them. Every single one of them.”
Thanks, Mom. With God’s help, will do.
The LORD is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped;
my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.