Death is a part of life. That fact is as indisputable as it is unpleasant. It is something that is inescapable and difficult to think about. It is never easy, but when it happens sooner than everyone expected, it is ruthless, it is unforgiving, and it will leave you breathless.
When I was 11 and my sister was 9, we were happy little kids living in California with our mom and her boyfriend. Our dad had followed his career to Nashville, and like many other children of divorce, we saw our father only a few times a year. We had our own pool, spent lots of time swimming, and had just gotten a new puppy. It was enough to make any child content. One night in mid-January of 1996, our mom thought she had developed a stomach virus. Later that night, she insisted she go to the emergency room. They kept her.
No one would tell my sister and me what was going on. Suddenly, extended family was flying in from all over the state. We were allowed to stay home from school, but we didn’t know why in the world our mom wasn’t coming home. Two days later, standing next to her hospital bed, my uncle would only tell me that she had “cooties” in an effort to protect us. Although I saw what he was doing, I didn’t appreciate the indirectness of everyone’s answers. I waited for him to look the other way, and then asked my mom.
“I have cancer.”
She told us the truth, and it only multiplied my questions. What did this mean? Would she get better? When could she come home?
The news was not good. She had brain cancer, and she had 6-18 months to live. Even at the time, I understood the gravity of the situation. The emotion that I remember being most prevalent was not denial or fear or anger. I felt a sadness that can only be described as heavy.
In that moment, I knew everything would forever be different. After an incredibly difficult and unbelievably fast illness, she died 6 months later to the day. I have thought about that time in my life often and would consider myself to have coped well. However, I was caught off guard by how profoundly I was affected by her death after having girls of my own.
My sister and I were born 18 months apart, and my girls share a 2 year age difference. She stayed at home with her girls, and I am home with mine. I remember days that I made long for her by not listening—like the time she lost her voice and I pretended I couldn’t hear her when she asked me to stop misbehaving because I thought it was funny. Today, my oldest was so horrid, that I had a glass of wine during her nap time.
On days like today, I feel for her, and I wish I could apologize. I think about how much of her time was spent entertaining us. So many trips to the beach, art projects, sleepovers, and always, always chocolate chip cookies when it rained. Southern California gets rain a precious few times a year, so this was a treat unrivaled by anything else. She never seemed too tired to spend time with us. Never begged us to leave her alone so she could nap. Never seemed annoyed by her complete and utter lack of privacy. Some days I do everything I can to keep our 2 year-old laughing, and I still fail. I think mom was better than I am.
I consider what she must have felt when a doctor told her that she would be leaving her daughters far too soon and that they would be moving across the country to live with a man whom she had divorced and to a city which she had never visited. I can’t fathom it. How did she keep going? Where did she get the strength to still smile when she looked at us? When I think of how shattered her heart must have been, I want to give her a hug and just let her cry. Not as a daughter who misses her mom, but as a fellow woman who, after having her own children, can better grasp the brokenness of it all.
Her best friends must have held her hand and promised to make sure my sister and I were OK—a promise they have kept. I wish she had been here to see me join the Mommy Club. I would have liked to see the look on her face when I told her I was pregnant or when my oldest girl started walking. I wish I could look at her and ask “How did you do this when we were little? Some days are so hard. Am I doing OK??” It has been a long 18 years since she left us. But by the grace of God, I have (mostly) figured it out along the way. I believe I will see her again one day. Until then, I hope she knows I’m alright. I hope she’s proud of the mom I’ve become. I hope she knows that she has two granddaughters with red hair—just like hers.