When my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, six and a half years ago, it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He went into the hospital to have a heart valve replacement operation. That went well, but he caught pneumonia in the hospital and a few days later, he was gone. Turns out he had undiagnosed emphysema that no one knew about, so that didn’t help. But we never saw it coming, and I just kept telling myself “it wasn’t supposed to happen that way.”
Now, as I sit across the room from my mother, in a hospital bed in my sister’s dining room, on oxygen and sleeping a lot, I find myself thinking it wasn’t supposed to happen this way either. But it is happening. My mother has cancer. And until about three and a half months ago, no one had any idea.
She has never been a complainer, and with her memory getting worse, we figure she just didn’t let anyone know she was feeling sick. Or she didn’t know. Either way, she is near death now, and I am powerless to do anything more than watch.
Of course, it was bound to happen eventually. Parents die. We say it’s wrong when a parent outlives their child. Almost all adults go through the loss of their parents. But that doesn’t make it suck any less when you look at someone who has been there all your life, someone you’ve traveled with, laughed with, shared meals with, and spoken to every week or more, and that person is gone. The body is still there, but the person inside . . . you’ll never have them back again.
When I lost my Dad, I had all kinds of regrets. The last time we saw each other face-to-face, we had argued. At the airport. Over stupid stuff. We were fine later, but it doesn’t change the fact that I never got to look in his eyes again, or hug him again, after that last awkward time together. And I had been really close by on a school trip that took me to New York City just a few weeks before he died. I saw other family, but not Dad. Weather was a problem, and he wasn’t up for heading into the city in the torrential rain. No big deal. But, of course, none of us knew he’d be gone less than a month later.
I live on the other side of the continent from where I grew up, and where my family still lives (except for one brother) to this day. It has meant I have not been with family a lot of times when I would have liked to. It also means I miss out on day-to-day drama, and I am okay with that. However, it means I can’t be here to help when things get rough.
My son and I visited in April, before my mother’s condition came to light. I didn’t know when we would be back for our next visit. Then I ended up coming for a week in June and I am here for a week again in September. It seems such a paltry contribution. My sister and brother have had to do it all.
And it’s not like life and all its special demands suddenly take a hiatus while you deal with all the really unpleasant aspects of end-of-life care. Work still beckons. Other family members still need you. This has been hardest on my sister, by far.
So as my brother cleans out the house from its forty-five years worth of family life, and my sister juggles work, family, and Mom, I have been able to mainly get on with my life on the other coast. Affected by it all, yes. But not to the point of it preventing me doing all the things I do in my world. I’ve even managed to resist crying most of the time. It’s as if it hasn’t been as real for me as it has for my siblings.
But now, as I gaze across at my sleeping mother, cradled between the rhythmic cacophony of the oxygen machine on one side, and the Nat King Cole it desperately tries to drown out on the other, I can avoid reality no longer. My mother is dying.
I keep expecting it to happen right now, as I sit here. But my mother is a strong woman. She has always been a fighter when it comes down to it. Her life has not been easy at many stages. She lost both her parents before she was out of her teens. She came to this country an adult orphan with nothing left to lose, really. She met my father and got a new set of parents in the in-laws who saw her as another daughter immediately. She has since lost them, my father, and all my aunts and uncles save one. In response to each of these losses, she has always uncovered a bright side. They had a long life. She and my father had fifty wonderful years together, “and most people never get that.”
For Mom, though, there is no bright side. Maybe that she doesn’t appear to be in pain, and she has been largely unaware of how devastating her disease is. Or that it has happened really fast. Just a few months. Can the darkest of darkness have a bright side?
If she wakes up while I am here today, I will walk over there, stand beside her bed, and talk to her. She will not know who I am. She doesn’t understand what’s going on. But today, in the midst of all this, I understand some things I never dreamed I could fathom.