It is difficult to share, not knowing if readers will receive in the same spirit in which it is given, but I wrote this shortly after my mother passed away. I hope reading it will help someone, as writing it helped me.
Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older, they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.Oscar Wilde
Mother/daughter relationships can be tricky.
Let me just say up front that I have always loved my mother. She was a wonderful mother. She had a great sense of humor. Many would call her “a character.” She was a good friend. In fact, she was so open and trusting that she made friends in a moment, and she kept her friends through her whole life. She loved jokes and Irish sayings, which she would quote in a brogue. She was active and interesting. She wanted, always, to be helpful. And she loved us.
But—and when you talk of your mom, isn’t there always a “but”? Her openness meant that sometimes she had no filter and didn’t keep confidences, which could be mortifying, especially during adolescence. Her desire to help manifested in an inability to sit still for longer than thirty seconds, and usually meant that our places would be cleared before we were done eating. As we left home, she still wanted to be involved, and sometimes that felt intrusive.
As she grew older, some of her personality quirks became more pronounced. She told the same experiences, stories, and jokes uncountable times, sometimes within the same day. She quoted little ditties and rhymes, repeatedly. The second she noticed a task to be done, she couldn’t wait to finish it, no matter what was happening.
She became a worrier; well, she always worried about her children. She almost seemed to see it as proof of her love, but she started worrying about small details and talking about them again and again.
I love my mother, but . . .
In the spring of 2017, my mom discovered cancer; the third cancer in a dozen years. In March, my parents came from Blackfoot, Idaho and moved in with me for a few months so mom could have major surgery in Salt Lake City.
Already the cancer had taken a toll. She entered the hospital weighing 110 pounds and two weeks later was flirting with 100 pounds. Her recovery was slow and frustrating for her. She couldn’t walk around much; she couldn’t be of service, which was even harder for her. She fought to get well; she forced herself to eat and put up with the indignity of having her daughter flush the surgical site. She joked and made plans. However, whether it was her weak state to begin with, her weight loss, or just the difficulty of the surgery, her immune system was compromised, and the cancer returned within three weeks.
She couldn’t have radiation again and didn’t want to lose another year to chemo. We doubted she would live through chemo again, but my parents found an oncologist close to their home who was willing to try a new experimental treatment. He was hopeful, and so we were hopeful. The treatment was supposed to strengthen and supplement her immune system so her body could fight the cancer.
And so, I temporarily moved to Idaho to help my 80 year-old father take care of mom.
Her weight continued to be a concern, so we vigilantly watched every bite she ate and every dip on the scale. However, she wasn’t hungry and very little tasted good to her. We cajoled; we were firm, but ultimately the choice of what and how much she ate was hers.
She had a treatment every three weeks. For a day or two after, she would feel worse, but then she would have a burst of energy. We would “walk around the block,” two or three blocks if she felt up to it. She would wash the dishes, even if there were only a few in the sink. She would empty all of the trash cans in the house, even though they all were mostly empty, but she would feel like she was useful. More importantly, it seemed that after the treatments, the growth of the tumor would slow down. But in the week before the next treatment, her energy level would drop, and we would see a marked growth and spread of the cancer.
And she repined. She just wanted to get well enough that she could be useful again. She wanted to go to church and visit her neighbors and serve, but through spring and early summer, she weakened and the cancer grew and spread, and the pain became ever more severe.
Mom was determined, through the swings of hope and disappointment, to do what she could. She wrote letters and cards of love and encouragement, at least a dozen every week. On one of the last walks we took, mom wanted to stop and visit her neighbor who was going through chemo. We visited; they compared cancer and cancer treatment experiences, and she joked with and encouraged this lady.
The brightest part of the summer is that each of her children and most of her grandchildren spent some time with her. My sister came as often as she could, and I would slip home for a few days. But when I returned, the change in the tumor would be shockingly evident.
Her pain intensified. The pain doctor added gabapentin, in quickly increasing dosages to the Oxycodone the oncologist had prescribed. Soon we added a fentanyl patch, then two patches.
Periods of confusion increased. She could no longer stand by herself and every move was agony. Even then, both mom and dad wanted to continue with treatment. Only after a long phone conversation with the oncologist was Dad able to begin to accept that mom would not live much longer. It was a hard acceptance and came in stages. We started home health because he couldn’t accept hospice. That seemed like giving up. He feared that they would take over care, and we both knew that we needed—we needed—to be the ones to take care of her.
When she woke now, she would say things like, “Where are we?” We would assure her she was in her own home, in her own bed. She would reply, “Why can’t we just go home? I want to go home.”
One day she was especially upset, “The children. You need to get the children out of the streets. Why are they letting the children into the street?”
And most painful for Dad was the day she asked, “Who are you?” Although, later that day, she began repeating this litany, “Ron, he’s my husband. Robin, Gayelynn, Blair, and Chad; these are my children.”
The first Saturday morning in August, all her children surrounded mom’s bed, and she miraculously rallied. She recognized everyone. She was lucid. She swallowed some soup and a few sips of water. She joked and teased. She received a blessing and understood it. For a little more than an hour, we had our mom again, weak and frail, but still, in essence, mom. She loved us; she wanted more than anything for us to be happy. She was full of faith.
Finally, dad accepted that we needed hospice. Though she was seldom conscious, she was still obviously in great pain. With hospice, we could add morphine to the other pain medications. First I administered one vial every three hours, then two vials. Finally, the pain seemed to be managed with three vials of morphine every two hours. I set my phone alarm for 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and noon, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and midnight and slid those syringes into the back of her mouth.
I’ve come to believe that extreme exhaustion has the same emotional and spiritual effects as fasting. My thinking was generally muddled, but at the same time, I experienced a unique clarity and simplicity of thought about my mother.
Through this time, as I had watched my mom wither and fade, all of the perceived difficulties in our relationship withered and faded too. She became so thin that it was as if she was just heart and bones covered by a thin layer of almost translucent skin. And, my feelings about my mother, in corresponding nature distilled down to the very essence of who she really was—at her core. All of those annoyances and quirks that I thought had made our relationship tricky became nothing. They never really existed. The only things that were real were her faith, her kindness, her sincere desire to serve and help, and most of all her love.
Khalil Gabran said, “pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Though excruciating painful, exhausting, and emotionally harrowing, those last months with my mom allowed me to know her and love her in a simpler, deeper, more true way. When I think of our relationship now, it is not tricky. I feel free and weightless in love and gratitude for my mom.