I wish I’d understood that my mother was dying much sooner than I did.
Words like ‘terminal’ are hard to wrap your hands around. I was furious with the word ‘palliative’ that preceded all the treatment options that she had. “Palliative radiation, palliative chemotherapy, palliative pain control.”
I’d seen enough Lifetime and made-for-TV movies that I thought I knew how the script should go. I’d read enough blurbs in TV Guide to know how the story should play you. There would be words like, “Beat incredible odds,” and “Triumphed over a desperate diagnosis.” I was just sure of it.
My mom knew, I think, from the start that those movies weren’t going to be made about her. I thought this was depression. I remember putting a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to ‘bring her hope,’ as she grappled with her reality. And this was not a bad choice. To maintain hope in the face of stage IV cancer is always a good thing, and as things went downhill and Mom was on hospice I can remember clearly understanding that “hope” just looked different now.
Just the same, I think in my fog of denial I missed a lot of opportunities to hear my mother voice exactly where she was. I think I missed the chance to better prepare myself for what was going to happen.
I remember retorting to her when she was in a particularly foul mood, “Mom, just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you get to be snippy.” She answered back in characteristic fashion, “Well when the hell do I get to be snippy or whatever the hell I want to be, if NOT when I have cancer?”
I remember when she would brave the topic of her funeral and arrangements–a topic that I remember handling with calm that I didn’t know I could muster–that I would always tie things up with, “But remember we don’t want to have to use these plans anytime soon.”
I thought I was being helpful and positive and showing her that we weren’t going down without a fight.
Now I wonder if I only denied her a safe place to talk about what was coming. I wonder if I cheated us both out of the chance to connect there.
To be fair we were all protecting ourselves with a fair dose of denial. The doctor kept cranking out options and possibilities and Mom lit up at the idea of our spending Christmas with her (God how we both wanted that Christmas).
The weekend before Mom was signed into hospice was when it truly hit me that this was a battle we weren’t going to win. My Aunt was there and we’d started the downward spiral of waking up to some new horror every day. Mom’s mobility was lost–she couldn’t leave the house without a wheel-chair. The pain worsened. She became frail. Her body couldn’t keep up with the fluid that was building up and she puffed up, and then she quit taking in fluids and her skin sunk in. Things had changed in increments and I didn’t fully see them. My Aunt was there at that point and I’m so grateful she was there to talk me through the reality that my Mom was dying and it would be soon.
I was only 24 and my husband was on a boat far away and I had a new born baby to take care of and the thought of my Mom not being in the world anymore and not being there to walk me forward into adulthood was too much for me to bear.
And so I hid from reality. And I chirped platitudes and perkiness. No, not always (because really when have I ever been perky?). There were nights of lying on the bed with her rubbing her back as she cried and tried to writhe away from the pain, and nights sitting with her in the living room listening to whatever came into her head… The delicious breeze coming through the door, baseball games and chewing gum when she was a kid, taking her younger brother and sister to see Mary Poppins, how adorable her sweet grand-daughter’s toes were. I showed up the best I could and those memories for me are priceless. I continue to count being with her and helping to care for her at the end of her life as one of my life’s greatest privileges.
I know that I did the best I could with the information and resources I had at the time. I know I held up remarkably well. I had the wisdom of a 24-year-old who had never been through something so devastatingly massive and now I have the wisdom of a 32-year-old and hindsight to school me.
But I desperately wish I could have the memory of meeting her there in the fear and the sadness and the finality and the acceptance of it. I wish I could have loved her in that way. She needed someone to meet her there. How lonely it must have been to be surrounded by people denying the reality that was staring them plain in the face.
Hindsight is 20/20 and this isn’t exactly one of those lessons that you can learn from and go out and immediately apply to the next situation. To be honest, it’s not a lesson I *want* to apply anywhere, anytime soon. We didn’t get our Lifetime TV movie ending. Not by a long-shot and almost 8 years later all I can do is offer myself grace for the ‘Wish I hads’ that I still have lingering in my heart.
I have no pithy wrap up to this post or ‘bring it around and spin it’ that I can do. We all have our own ‘Wish I hads’ and today, when I look back, these are just a few of mine.