Thursday, August 16, 2012

Twenty Years Ago Today



Yesterday I told you a little bit about Elvis Presley and how my mom was such a fan.  So, it is somewhat ironic to me that each August 16 now brings the anniversary not only of the passing of The King, but also the passing of my mother.  Yes, 15 years to the day after the passing of her idol, my mom also left this earth behind.

My mother—Mama—was the best mom you could hope to have.  I know there were times in my youth that I didn’t believe that, but I’m thankful that I can honestly say those moments were few and far between.  She was the kind of mom who would make me feel better when I was sad and make me feel great when I was happy.  The kind who would laugh with me, cry with me, talk with me, just be with me.  She would help when I needed it, whether that meant working on math, trying to explain boys, or giving me a firm swat on the butt.  But most importantly, Mama loved me.  Every day, every minute.  I never doubted it.  Even in those moments when I wished she weren’t so strict, or when she was cranky, and, yes, even when she was spanking my butt.  That kind of unconditional love is an amazing thing to grow up with, and I know that I’m blessed to have had it. 

The beginning of the end happened in the early months of 1991; that’s when Mama was diagnosed with cancer.  Those months were also another kind of beginning for me; shortly before Mama’s diagnosis, Brian and I had learned we were expecting a child.  Such a conflict of emotions during those months—the best news ever tempered by the worst. 

Her cancer had originated in the gallbladder—highly unusual, and highly lethal, generally because it’s often found at a later stage of development, which was the case for Mama.  Her doctors estimated she had 3-6 months remaining.  I was selfish; not only did I not want to lose my mom, I really did not want to lose her before I became a mother myself.  Who else was going to teach me the most important of lessons in how to bring another life into this world?  I prayed every day that she would survive long enough to see the birth of my son, and that prayer was granted.

Mama with Billy newborn

Then I prayed that she’d still be with us for Christmas, then the new year, her birthday in April . . . on and on.  The prayers were granted for so long, it was a miracle.  She proved the doctors wrong, at least in their timeframe, and lived eighteen months after her diagnosis.  That gave her more time than she’d expected—time to spend with those who mattered most, to return for a while to the job she was passionate about, time to travel.  Really, just time to live, and she did.

As a nurse, she had seen the pain and suffering brought on by cancer, but she had also seen the suffering brought on by cancer treatments.  And she had the knowledge and experience to know that any treatments for her particular disease were likely to be aggressive yet unsuccessful.  She made the decision not to spend whatever time she had left in hospital rooms, more debilitated by the medicine than by the illness it was designed to cure, so she did not pursue treatment.  That was a hard decision for me to accept, though I absolutely believed in her right to make it.  Then and now I feel the same: yes, it was her choice to make, but what if?  I told you I was selfish. 

Still, eighteen months.  And in those months I have memories that I will cherish forever.  And, it was eighteen more months of quiet confidence that I was loved unconditionally by at least one person in this world. 

At first, you might not even have known she was sick.  The changes in her energy and daily life were only noticed by those who knew her best.  Like I said, she was living.  But by spring of 1992, that was changing.  She was slowing down.  She felt unwell often.  It was no longer possible to believe that the doctors had been wrong.  Our miracle was coming to an end. 

In the last month or so of her life, my prayers had become less specific.  No longer did I ask, “don’t let her die until___________”, I simply said, “Make her well; don’t let her die”.  I said it a lot, and fervently.  Don’t let her die.  I’d had over a year to come to grips with losing the most important person in my life, but I was nowhere near ready.  But, really, how do you get ready for that?  My dad had died very unexpectedly, and at the time I thought how much worse that was for the family, with no time to adjust, no time to say goodbye.  I know now that it doesn’t matter how it happens.  There isn’t really any adjusting, there’s only going on. 

The last week was hard.  She was at home, the way she wanted it, but mostly unconscious.  Brian and I—along with our not quite one year old Billy—were essentially living at her house, because I needed to be there every minute that I could.  It seemed clear that this was the end.   When I went to bed on the night of August 15, 1992, my prayer was different yet again.  This time, “make her well” was not followed by my normal plea.  Rather, “don’t let her suffer anymore”.  I remember repeating those words in my head until I fell asleep that night.  Please make her well, but if you can’t, don’t let her suffer anymore

By the early hours of the 16th, she was gone.  I was devastated, lost.  Honestly, I think if it had not been for Billy—the responsibility of caring for another person—I might not have survived.  And in the midst of the loss, I was wondering about my selfishness.  Had my prayer that final night caused speeded up her passing?  Or, had my earlier prayers prolonged her suffering, kept her hanging on until I was ready to let her go? 

I’ve mostly come to grips with that guilt in these past twenty years.  I am confident in the knowledge that whatever part my prayers did or did not have in the timing of her passing, Mama does not blame me.  I’m peaceful in the certainty that she knows all of my doubts and fears and still loves me anyway. 

So now it’s been twenty years that I’ve been without her.  I always wish that she’d been able to see Billy grow up.  Not just because she loved him so much, but because he would’ve loved her.  He missed out on a lot, and I hate that.  I only hope that I’ve managed to instill in him the quiet certainty that he is loved, no matter what.  It is the single most important thing she did for me, and I pray that I honored her memory enough to do that for my child. 

And though it’s been twenty years, I still miss her every day.  I used to wonder how long that would last, but I understand now that the answer is forever.  Or at least, forever on this earth.  Even after twenty years, there are moments when I think about calling her to share something about my life.  Flashes of some happening or another that make me think, Mama would love that.  Those moments invariably stop me in my tracks, as I’m faced with the loss again, and for a second or two I’m frozen, wondering how I’ve managed to make it without her this long, and how I will go on again.  But then I remember the one unwavering truth in my life:  Mama loves me.  Her love was the foundation of my life; there’s no reason it should change.  Not now, or even in another twenty years. 

Mama and Me