Breath of Heaven – One year after losing my mom to cancer

December 2, 2017 was the last day I spent with my mom.

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You know how after you have a baby that you say, “No one told me half of the stuff that was going to happen.” The movies don’t show puking during labor, blood clots afterwards, no one tells you that after your third baby the postpartum cramping can be worse than the labor contractions themselves.

When someone you love is dying, there’s even less advice given. Most of us haven’t helped ease someone from one life to the next, so we base the dying process on what we see in movies. Forrest Gump’s mama sitting up in bed propped by pillows saying she’s sick. Susan Sarandon calling in her kids one at a time on Christmas in Stepmom. In movies they speak weakly from bed some poignant words and then close their eyes and simply stop breathing.

Everything about my mom’s last ten days on earth was the complete opposite of what Hollywood paints death to be like. It was much more like caring for a new baby. We took shifts, we were melting down medicine and measuring out syringes to push in her feeding tube, we snuggled up next to her while she slept. But this wasn’t the beginning of a new life, it was the ending of life of a woman in her prime. 61 and just a few months earlier biked around Dublin on our trip to Ireland. 

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway

Every day she faded from us more, while at the same time trying to get up and “go” somewhere, and telling us she needed help. We would ask her over and over, “What do you need help with, mom? We’ll do it!” and the night before she died she finally answered,

“the dishes”

“the dishes are done, mama”

“the bird feeders”

“they’re full, mom! the birds have food, they’re taken care of”

But still, she wasn’t ready or able to leave us, and it was pure hell watching her struggle to stay here with us, while her body was failing her. She stopped talking, making eye contact, responding to touch or our voices, but she stayed.

At the worst part of it, the night before she left us when she was so restless and upset, and I was sleep deprived and incredibly mad at God and cancer, and fell to my knees at her bedside and ugly cried. Hard. We had been trying to not cry around her for the past week but I couldn’t help it. My mom was gone, her heart was still beating and lungs still working, but what was left of her wasn’t here. Or so I thought. As I was pouring out my grief with my face buried in the mattress by her side, I felt her hand lift and rest on my head and my breath caught. She hadn’t touched or looked at me in days. My head flew up and I grabbed her hand and she looked right at me and brought my hand to her lips and kissed it.

That was the last bit of mothering I’ll ever have, and it was such a powerful moment to me. Death was so very near, she was barely conscious but hearing her daughter cry summoned her enough to push back that veil for a brief moment and console me. Mothers are powerful forces of nature, and I witnessed just how strong a mother’s love is on my knees by her side, and less than 24 hours she would be gone.

In the Harry Potter movies (which ironically my mom hated), only certain people can see these creatures called Thestrals, winged horses who are terrifying to look at but extremely gentle. The only people who can see them are those who have been touched by death, and if JK Rowling didn’t nail it on the head with that analogy. Once you’ve been inducted into this horrible, awful club…there’s a sort of brotherhood/sisterhood between you and others who have walked the same desolate path. Death changes you, being a part of someone’s dying process changes you. You see the world differently, and there may not be Thestrals, but there’s a definitive shift in your world and life. There’s the before and the after.

Thankfully, my after has been surrounded with the most amazing people. From Nick who ran our household for eight months as a virtual single dad, and let me ugly cry on him daily while I never even once considered his loss and sadness over losing my mom. To my friends who had lost parents before me and knew exactly what to do, whether it was to let me word vomit every awful memory I had from her dying or completely ignore the fact that my world had been flipped upside down and take me out for a beer and watch football.

Our family went from a family of five to the closest knit family of four you’ve ever seen. After reading The Dead Moms Club (a book I highly recommend to anyone who has lost a mom, especially to cancer) that’s now our slightly-morbid nickname for my sisters and I. My dad, I can happily report, is doing absolutely fantastic. Like really good. He’s heading off to Ireland next year for a month by himself just because he can, and he’s okay being alone.

It’s been one year since that middle of the night kiss on my hand and looking back at that Rachel, I wish I could tell her it was going to be okay. Because the thing is, when you lose a parent, or someone so vital in your life, in that moment the future seems awful and impossible. My mantra all year has been that I’m going to live the absolute heck out of my own life, because she didn’t get that chance. She would have given anything to be here, to see the sun rise and hear the birds sing, to watch her grandkids grow and travel the world. So I refused to let myself sink into a pit of despair, and instead opened my eyes to anyone around me who was suffering. It’s amazing how focusing on helping others is the best way to find healing for yourself. 

This blog post has been bouncing around in my head all week, and it came out this weird, jumbled up mess of feelings, but that’s exactly how the last 364 days have been. <3

 

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