October 20, 2013

Have you ever met an independent woman? The kind that wants separate banking from her husband, could live on her own if she needed to, turned down three engagements because she didn’t want to settle down, traveled alone while back packing through Europe, or after getting pregnant saying to her future husband, “We could get married but, it’s fine if you don’t want to I will raise her on my own,” without any qualm. That was my mother. She was strong and independent but I won’t say this was always a good thing, because it wasn’t. I won’t say she was a perfect mother, because there is no such thing, but she tried her hardest.
My mom found out she had non Hodgkins lymphoma when I was at the end of my seventh grade year of middle school. I have never been religious, but while my mom had cancer I prayed from time to time, although honestly my prayers often turned to curses by the end, and sometimes even at the beginning. Watching her go through cancer was nothing like I could imagine. I only knew Cancer by what I had seen in the movies. It did not give me hope; there were no profound life realizations that were learned; I was not proud of her bravery in facing her mortality, although I am now, and I did not feel the sudden urge to band together as a family and “get through this.” What I wanted to do was run away, and that is exactly what I did in my head.
While my mom suffered from this disease, I thought of nothing but ignoring the reality of it.
I had been so afraid of my mom, as kids so often are, but watching this woman, who had been so formidable, waste away and in the end appear as an ancient, shriveled nearly unrecognizable human being, so disturbed me that I could not face her or the disease. While she struggled with all her might, I could not even look her in the eyes. I could not comprehend the immense will it took to fight the disease until it was too late. Even though watching someone go through that was hard, the experience itself was probably heart wrenching for her. She was stripped of the person she had always been and still showed a strong face. A determination and strength I could never imitate. Even with that though, no matter how strong her will seemed, will alone could not stop the cancerous cells. Have you ever seen a piece of paper deteriorate in water? It looks fine as the paper slowly soaks in the liquid. Wet yes, maybe weaker, but not unreadable or usable if it dries, but then the paper starts to tear. If you look away too long it is suddenly ripped into a whole bunch of smaller pieces, and then smaller, until there’s almost nothing left resembling the original piece. This is how I saw my mother deteriorate and dissipate when she finally came home to spend her final days. I could smell the stale, sickly death in the room where she lay. When I finally mobilized my own will to look into her eyes, I saw no light, no spark of her former animate self. By this time, she couldn’t talk anymore, and her spirit had so withdrawn from her body that I could not recognize her as my mother anymore. I thought back to the day not that long before, when my mom was first admitted to the hospital. At the time it wasn’t all that important to me; it was just another day; my mother had been sick and it just did not signify much at that moment. But now when I think about it, it was one of the only extremely clear memories I have that isn’t muddled and clouded with guilt, self-suppression, and regret that so plagued me in the months and years that followed.
As I remember it, once my mom required hospitalization, she was lying in her hospital bed when I arrived with my sister, and after some visiting we heard noise coming from the window. We turned around to see a strange, gangly, large black bird sitting in her window. It really scared me, and I turned around to find my mother smiling from ear to ear and laughing. It seemed that they had built the new wing over a vulture’s natural habitat. My mother actually found this harbinger of death to be one of the most hilarious notions ever. When we started laughing about it, it released the tension and I sat there laughing until I cried. It was so stupid, yet the most hilarious thing I had ever heard of– vultures over a cancer wing. I looked over at my bald, fragile mother and suddenly I felt like she was the bravest and strongest person I had ever seen. She was literally laughing in the face of death. As she talked to the bird with I smile on her face, I felt like they were making a pact–a deal with death, if you will. In that moment I was sudden placed with an assurance that everything would be fine. She had struck a deal. I just knew she would be ok in the end. It seemed like that, too, for a while. She had a miraculous remission and was looking good, everything thing seemed better for a month or two, then it all fell to pieces. Time seemed to dissipate like my mother’s health. First, the doctors said three months, then a month, then a week, and then a couple days, and then she died. The night she came home with hospice I watched her carefully, finally facing her for the first time in months. I could smell it, see it, I knew it and I felt betrayed and angry with no one to scream at. I watched her dull pleading eyes fade slowly and her skin go cold. I sat there unable to register what had just happened. I sat and held her hand, and I honestly have no idea what happened next. My next real recollection was probably not till months later. I couldn’t admit it to myself that if she had made a workable deal to stay alive, that the deal was somehow broken. When my mind had finally cleared I was hit with the fact that my mother had passed after more than a year of painful struggle, and I really had not been spiritually, emotionally or psychologically present to help her at all. In fact, my immaturity and inability to cope probably hurt her. I had no one to blame but myself and my lack of support and that damned vulture that reneged on the deal.
MirAnnda Sullivan