A Letter to Mom
Written May 7, 2009
I’m sitting here, Mom, reflecting over the past 20 years. I can’t believe you’ve been gone for so long. When I think back to who I was back then, and who I am now, it seems like it has to have been a lifetime ago, not just a generation ago.
While you were still here, I was still confident, sure of myself and my beliefs, just starting out in life but feeling like I knew it all. Yet you had faith in me – you knew I’d find my way. At the time, I didn’t know any better than to not question that. How many times over the years I have wanted to sit down and talk to you; to tell you about my life, to ask you for advice, to have you hold me and stroke my hair and tell me that everything would be allright.
Once you were gone, I learned of your greatest regrets – that you wouldn’t live to see me (and Jay) graduate from college, to watch me walk down the aisle, to hold your grandkids. Mom, Joy is you reincarnated. I give Nana so much more credit than I used to (not that I ever didn’t) – from the stories I’ve heard of you, and from knowing my daughter, you had to have been quite a handful as a child! What perspective 20 years brings. You were only 47, young by anyone’s standards. And 20 years later, well, ok, just shy of 20 years later, Dad has joined you. And although everyone says he was so young at 66 to be dying, we know that he was the lucky one, the one who lived a full life. You gave him the perspective to go in peace. He said frequently in his last years that he had lived a full life, had done everything he wanted to do. He watched us graduate from college, he watched me walk down the aisle, he held his grandkids, he had the two best wives anyone could have wanted. You gave him that – and he did that for you – he was able to enjoy what you weren’t granted enough time to do yourself.
When I look at all of the changes I underwent over the past 20 years, I sometimes think that you wouldn’t recognize me, the person I have become, the person I am today. But I know you would – you’re my mother and you’ll always be inside of me and around me, watching me, guiding me, loving me. As proud as you were of me 20 years ago, as confident of the way you’d raised me and happy at the young woman I was becoming, you would be (and I like to believe are) even more proud of the woman I am today.
When I find myself struggling with the eternal perplexities of raising good kids (not to mention their high spirits and stubbornness – gee, I wonder which one of you (BOTH!) passed on that gene) I remember hearing from Aunt Amy after you were gone that at one point during your brief but oh-so-long illness, that she asked you to whom she would turn for questions on raising her children. Apparently, you’d done such a good job that she asked you for advice. And you told her to ask Margie. What faith you placed in me even then. (Somedays I wish I had that confidence in my own mothering skills – although I know that I am a good mother – how could I not be with you as my guide?)
When I was getting divorced and wondered where I would find the confidence I would need to stand up for myself and my children as a single mother, you were there. You made sure to give it back to me, in spades.
I miss you so much, Mom. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years next week. Somehow, it feels like only yesterday, yet at the same time, another lifetime ago. I remember so much about my childhood, so many things you did for and with us. The strength and values you instilled in us. I remember how smart and talented and creative you were, how confident and loyal. I also remember so much about those 4 1/2 months that are somehow frozen in time. Coming home from Virginia Beach over winter break to be told you had a tumor on your lung. I can almost feel myself sitting in the car, in the dark of night, with Dad driving and telling me and trying to give me hope. I remember going with you to the hospital for the needle biopsy. I remember that fateful Friday the 13th afternoon when the doctor called with the results, you on one phone and Dad on the other. I remember holding you and consoling you when you were scared because you’d been diagnosed with cancer. That was the only time I ever saw you cry. I remember telling you it was just a word. Cancer. You were stronger than it was. You could beat it. But it’s a scary word, you said. I know, I replied, but you can do it.
I remember packing to go back to school, just 2 short days later, despite my uncertainty. Against my better judgement. Would it have made a difference? Would I somehow have been able to help you more or provide you comfort or ease your pain? But you wanted me to go back to school, even though you didn’t want to see me go. You didn’t want me to give up, or even postpone, my education. So I went. I left with the promise that you would call me home if it got to that point…….little could I have known then that if the semester hadn’t ended when it did, you would have done just that.
I remember coming home over Spring Break – how could I have not known at that point? How could you have gotten thinner than you were then? I remember sitting at our kitchen table, talking about when you got better and could come visit me at school, Dad sitting there saying I would come home to visit, you saying, no, you’ll come visit me. You had to have known, were trying to help me stay positive and keep our future in sight.
I remember coming home the day before Mother’s Day, after the semester ended, and Dad taking me out for lunch – how did so many of these fateful conversations occur in diners over food? I remember Dad telling me you were in the hospital, getting over pneumonia. I know that, I said. He said, she looks bad, Margie. She’s gotten very thin. I said, I know, Dad, she was tiny when I was here in March. But I didn’t know.
The next day, Mother’s Day, we went to visit you in the hospital. How I hope I put on a good front for you when I saw you, how I hope you didn’t see my despair. I remember excusing myself sometime later to go find a bathroom, and going in there and crying and crying and crying and feeling like my world was falling apart and not knowing how it had come to this. And I remember splashing water on my face and smiling back into your room to put on a good front for you. Knowing now how my eyes get so puffy and red after just a few tears, it had to have been obvious. But you didn’t say anything.
I remember riding home in the ambulance with you, in what had to have been the longest ride of my life. How excruciating that ride was – for both of us. For you, every time the ambulance turned, slowed, went over a bump or anything, you cried out in pain. For me, watching you, feeling so helpless even though I was in there to help you and to be there with you.
I remember hospice finally coming out, we finally let go of hope, didn’t we, Mom? We couldn’t avoid the truth any longer, and that was good, because you couldn’t hold on any longer. The nurse came out in the late afternoon and examined you and then told us in the living room that you wouldn’t make it through the night. No, I cried out, she’s not going to die tonight. The nurse told me that I had to accept that she wasn’t going to make it. I know, I said, but not tonight.
That evening, I wanted to go buy more lollipops for Jay for his student government campaign. It was raining out. We were all gathered in “your” room, our dining room. Remniscent, huh, of Dad in my house at the end? And you wouldn’t let me go. With what little strength you had, you were adamant. And I just wanted to get out of the house for a little while. It was so hard to watch you like that. That night you couldn’t talk anymore. Jay and I were telling you we loved you…it was all you could do to get out “I love you” back. One time. We told you it was ok, even though it wasn’t. It still isn’t. But at the same time it is, because what can you do? I told you you had to try to get along with Grandma Sadie this time. But honestly, if I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have bothered.
Uncle Ricky slept on the couch that night. I stayed up until midnight to give you your morphine. You couldn’t even drink all of it, you didn’t want it all. In hindsight, you were on your way out and didn’t need as much since you weren’t feeling as much pain anymore, being half in both worlds. I went upstairs to my room, my window opened a crack, with a towel on the ledge to catch the little bit of rain blowing in. I cried myself to sleep, cried harder than I think I’ve ever cried, hurt more than I ever thought was possible, desperately not wanting this to happen and knowing there was nothing I could do. Finally, drained from crying my heart out, I fell asleep. I awoke at 2 to an eery stillness. And a strong sense of peace. I knew you were gone, no longer in pain. I tiptoed downstairs, around the room in which Uncle Ricky had fallen asleep with the tv on, and crept to your bedside. You’d pulled the oxygen tube out of your nose and the mask off your face. Your eyes were open, staring ahead, and you were at peace. I kissed you, told you I loved you one last time, and went back to bed knowing you were now safe.
Fast forward 19 1/2 years, to when Dad’s lung cancer (can’t seem to get away from that awful disease) started to take him. Just the hospice part of his illness was longer than the 4 1/2 months you had from the day you were diagnosed to the day you died. In his last 5 months in hospice, I took care of him, day by day. You know that was in part for you, since I’ve always felt that I wished I could have done more for you. What I hadn’t been able to do for you, I did for Dad, for both of you, and I think he wouldn’t have made it as long as he did without my love and care. (During the whole 3 long years of his illness, not just the last 5 months).
So in 20 years, we’ve come full circle. You and Dad have been reunited. I know that someday, hopefully many, many years from now, I’ll see you both again. And in the meantime, I’ll dry my tears, hug my kids and hold my head up high, following my path. I’m thankful that I had you for my first 18 years, but also wish that I could still have you here, physically. But I know that wherever my life takes me, you’ll be right here with me.
I love you, Mom. And I miss you more than words could ever express. I can see your deep brown eyes and your almost-smirking smile. As I re-read those words, I realize again just how much like you Joy is. Thank you.