Death has nothing to do with going away.
The sun sets, the moon sets, but they are not gone.
Komorebi Post– We like to think that cancer will never touch us personally. We know that it exists all around us, but we look away, avoiding acknowledgement, afraid that we may somehow attract it into our lives. It was early in the year 2000 when lung cancer snuck up and caught my mother completely unawares.
My sister Sharon called me to convey that devastating message. Cancer never chooses a convenient time to strike. I was living 8,000 miles away in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in the midst of packing up my belongings to move to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I dropped everything and flew home to spend some time with Mom.
She met me at the airport, and I was surprised to see that, although showing her age a bit more than when I had seen her nine years previously, she didn’t look unhealthy at all. Robust, in fact! Had I imagined that upon hearing the doctor’s diagnosis, she would suddenly become frail and gaunt? She smiled and took me into her arms. Her baby, at long last, was home for a visit, and in that moment she was happy.
By the time I had arrived, Mom was well into an aggressive treatment campaign to wage war with the cancer which had traveled beyond the borders of her liver and was invading her body. Chemo and radiation are notoriously rough on cancer patients, often causing fatigue, nausea and vomiting, blisters, peeling skin, and more. Yet, other than losing a bit of her hair, she seemed completely unaffected. Sharon and I would take her to the hospital for her treatment, and when she was finished, she would ask “Where should we go have lunch today?” Taco Bell was her favorite, followed closely by fish and chips. Her appetite was better than mine!
I spent what can only be described as a gloriously uneventful three weeks with my mother, albeit with the menace of her cancer looming in the shadows. I stayed with her in the little apartment that she had decorated with dozens of hummingbirds, bells, and small pieces that she had lovingly collected over the course of many years, and I woke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee each morning. We ate toast and eggs for breakfast while deciding if we wanted to spend the afternoon making crafts, or if we would rather run out to buy more craft supplies, stopping to get a chocolate dipped ice cream on the way. My mother was a world class crafter and had hot glue sticks enough to last three lifetimes, but ice cream won out more often than not.
Evenings were quiet and cozy. Mom would light vanilla scented candles while I made tea, then we would sit and watch a movie together. One evening she hesitantly mentioned Earl, my stepfather, who had passed away over ten year before.
“He was a pretty good guy, wasn’t he? Didn’t you think so?”
What she was really asking was if I had been unhappy with her decision to divorce my father when I was a child, and I could sense her apprehension in what my answer might be.
I could feel her tension dissipate into the air as I responded, “I always thought he was a good guy, and he treated me well.”
The night before I was to return to Kuala Lumpur, I sat on the floor in front of my mother’s chair while she massaged away my pre-flight tension, her hands gently kneading my shoulders and the back of my neck. Though I feared tiring her, I understood that she needed this physical contact, knowing in her heart that this might be our final visit. The next morning, with tears in my eyes, I hugged my mother and told her goodbye.
Cancer was the final victor, as it is for roughly 600,000 people each year in the US. I lost my mother in February of 2001, exactly one week before my birthday. I still miss her terribly, but the pain has softened with time, and I am grateful for that three week interlude that provided me the opportunity to say goodbye.