Two Things I Like About You

October 20, 2012

When I was younger my mom would crawl in bed with me when she was saying good night, and we’d take turns telling each other two things we liked about the other person. I could never come up with anything other than, “You’re a great mom,” or “You’re a great Girl Scout leader.” My mom, Deena, was more than that, though. Everyone loved to be around her because she had an enthusiasm that made other people joyful, too. She always knew the right thing to do. She loved to try new things, like bunco and tractor pulls. Looking back now I might say, “I like how you explain your blood charts to me and Katie,” or “I like how one time you used your cancer as an excuse not to buy something from a telemarketer.”
I never thought to mention anything about my mom’s cancer during our bedtime talks because it wasn’t a big deal to me. My mom was diagnosed with Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer in April of 2003. Initially, I was terrified. What if she needed surgery, the scariest possibility from my eight-year-old perspective? But one day soon after our parents told me and Katie, I was in the bathroom with my mom while she was relaxing in the bathtub. She asked me if I wanted to feel the cancer. She showed me where it was. The warm water licked the sides of the tub as I touched the hardened spot under her skin. “I feel it,” I said. I settled onto the linoleum floor. I asked when her surgery was going to be. To my ingenuous relief, Mom told me that this was a kind of cancer that couldn’t be fixed by cutting it out. She would need medicine instead. My burden was lifted, and for the next four years, our parents hid the fact that Mom was actually living exponentially longer than Dr. Carol expected.
Mom never wanted Katie and I to see how tired she was, or let cancer affect the quality of her mothering. We never noticed when my mom was fatigued, nauseous, or maybe a little forgetful. But there were times when my mom’s struggle became apparent. One October day, Mom, Katie and I went to the Halloween store to pick out costumes, an event my sister and I had long-awaited since September when the commercials came on. We were finally parked outside the store and my mom reached down for her purse. She sounded so disappointed in herself as she said, “I’m sorry, girls, I left my purse at home.” Katie and I cried out in upset. “I’m sorry, girls,” she said again, “this chemo has just made me a little forgetful lately.” And the three of us cried in our minivan outside the costume store because we hated disappointment and because we hated cancer for bringing it upon us. But other than occasional events like that day, or the dinners brought by friends, my mom’s cancer was uneventful for me and Katie.
Life was normal for the McIlroy girls for a while. But sixth grade was bad. I was twelve years old, which should explain everything. Starting a new middle school, puberty and homework were enough for me. And Mom’s cancer was getting worse. Her body was either dehydrated and bony, or her feet were swollen with fluid. Because of that, I had not wanted to go on a week-long school camping trip in May to Bowman Bay in the San Juan Islands. I would get to spend the whole week with my friends, hiking, learning and playing. Conflicted because I knew my mom was in bad shape, on Sunday night I cried about how I did not want to go. My mom assured me that she would be fine while I was gone. On Saturday, I finally got some down time after the long week. I came home from a sleepover that I had left the house for shortly after returning home from the camping trip. I had barely picked up my book, when my mom called me downstairs. I sank into the family room couch, my sister next to me, my dad on her other side, and my mom in the rocking chair to my right.
I don’t really remember which parent said what, but they told me and my sister that Mom’s medicine wasn’t working any more. My gut came to the conclusion, but my head tried to push it away.
“But, they have more, right?” I asked, my voice quaking as I tried to sound nonchalant and sure of myself. I would make them say it, even if it was painful, and then I would be able to believe it. I didn’t want to assume that she was dying if it maybe wasn’t true. My mom had a look of heartbreak on her face.
“No, Honey. They don’t.” And that was truth enough to send me falling into her arms, my sister into my dad’s. Katie had been silent as I was asking questions, typical of our dynamics as sisters, but now we were both sobbing, completely crushed. I literally felt physical pain in my stomach. Even if your mom has cancer, hope keeps you believing that losing her is still nearly impossible. My world had exploded, debris raining down on our devastated family.
I thought of all the people that prayed for her. I felt so cheated by God. My mom said that God has a plan for us that we don’t understand right now, just like how Mom and Dad have a plan for me and Katie that doesn’t always make us happy at the time. “But we have to trust God that he’s doing the right thing.” It was hard to accept, so mostly I was just mad at God.
The worst memory I have, of my mom’s cancer, of my childhood, is a prolonged haze of the last few weeks of her life. When your mom is dying, you don’t remember individual days, you don’t remember in what order events happen. It all seems like the longest day of your life where you skipped school to lay in the hospital bed that the hospice brought to your living room and read Ella Enchanted to your mom who was attached to an oxygen tank and fed water with a dropper.
There were so many people! We were in the process of re-carpeting the upstairs, and while the carpet guys were hammering away, the other adults in our family were helping Dad repaint the front entryway. While not what one might envision as the typical environment in which one passes away, I now understand that my mom had insisted these tasks be completed and she would not rest until they were done, an irrational bucket list of sorts. In addition to family, many of my mom’s friends came over to spend time with my mom and help our family through the end of her life. Our front door was withstanding more traffic than I-405 at rush hour.
One day my Aunt Marci brought my cousins over. She stepped over the threshold and I collapsed into her arms, saying in a quiet voice, “There’s too many people here.”
“I know, Honey,” she said sympathetically, “I’m sorry.” And she took me out for Starbucks, a big treat when you’re twelve years old. I had an iced passion tea.
As high school friends, PTSA moms, Girl Scout friends, and many family members came to say good bye, my mom was becoming increasingly weak over a span of a few days. She only wore sweat pants and cozy shirts and relaxed on the couch with my dad devotedly by her side. At first, she was forgetful, which then turned to loopiness and we really started to lose her. She was not herself at all. Then, she needed a wheelchair because she was too weak to move around the house by herself. Eventually, they brought the bed and oxygen so that she could pass at home. Pastor Tom from our church came with a can of grape juice and prayed with her and Dad. Her lips were dry and cracked, her hair had not been washed in days, and I dropped water into her slightly open mouth. It was an awful sight for a daughter, but Mom looked more peaceful than she ever had.
The long haze ended when Dad woke me and my sister up after midnight on May 20, 2007 to tell us that Mom had passed and we could come see her if we wanted. I said, “Oh,” and tucked my head back under the covers. After so much going on, for that moment I didn’t care that my mom had died, and I just wanted to sleep. But I soon walked downstairs to my dad, aunts, uncles and grandparents, and softly announced that I wanted to see her. I held her cold hands and kissed them one last time.
For many nights after her death, I would ask my dad to stay in bed with me, crying. The pain was unbelievable. I missed her shining smile, her warm hugs, her presence. My dad gave us a list my mom had written for me and Katie to read:
I am not afraid of dying, but of leaving you and Dad.
Remember that after I die, or even Dad dies, you will always have each other.
If I could, I’d give you a big, squeezy hug right now.
While Katie, Mom and I had talked about these things, it is always a comfort to read that handwritten list if I’m feeling sad.
On May 20th, it will have been five years since my mom died, and nine years that my life has been changed by cancer. When someone you love dies, it is hard to imagine living without them. The pain, unbearable for a long time, somehow lessened a little every day, and life has finally gotten to the point where not having a mom is normal for us. That may sound sad or depressing, but I am so proud of our family for it. It is a feat that I would never want anyone to have to achieve, but when one does, it is amazing. I feel stronger every day and while I am excited for the day I get to see her again, I am savoring the time that I am spending with my family and the moments I see her in myself.
My dad is incredible, too. We could have been stuck with a jerk that ditched when life got hard or scary, but my dad has always been there. On top of running the household, he goes to work every day and ensures that Katie and I have anything we could ever need, including someone to talk to when we’re upset. Believe it or not, dads give excellent advice about boys! But when I need to talk to a woman, my aunts, grandmas, godmother, sister and Girl Scout troop are there. We have a lot of people in our lives that love us and miss Mom, too.
My experience with cancer is unique because Mom and Dad hid the fear from Katie and me. Mom worked very hard to make sure we did not remember her as being sick. I can attest to her success, because my sweetest memories include snorkeling with her in Hawaii and the time she took me out of school on my 11th birthday to get my ears pierced. There were occasions like the Halloween store, but for the most part, Katie and I were never scared or sad until the end.
I had a conversation with my grandma the other day about her daughter. She said, “She was truly an amazing woman. She did exactly what she set out to do.”
“Which was what?” I asked.
“Protect her children.”
Hannah McIlroy