Nineteen years ago my mother died. She had slipped into a coma hours before and then slipped quietly away early in the morning. It wasn’t a shock, nor unexpected. If truth was known, there was a sense of relief. It was three years earlier she had dropped the bombshell leading to that moment.
Three years earlier she had informed my dad she had breast cancer. She had known for sometime she had it and had chose not to seek medical treatment. She was determined to not undergo chemo nor radiation, having seen too many friends struggle through both to end up dying after all that suffering.
She was choosing to finally tell dad as she figured she was getting close to time she was going to need some help. Maybe even some pain management. Dad told me later, she was terrified that he would pull away from her because she had not attended to this illness sooner.
Dad didn’t pull away. It wasn’t in him to respond with recriminations. He was shocked to say the least. The last thing he wanted was to lose her. His first response was to insist that he would take her into the doctor to be properly diagnosed. I’m speculating but I tend to think he was praying her self-diagnosis was wrong and whatever was going on could be fixed.
The diagnosis was grim. The cancer was taking up 75% of one breast, in the lymph nodes and hot spots on all the long bones as well as at the base of the skull. The oncologist with a bed-side manner exuding the compassion of stone tried to override her wishes about chemo and radiation. Dad had to intervene and let the doctor know that he supported his wife’s choices. End of story.
A few days later she arrived at my door unexpectedly. She told me she was out for a drive and decided to stop in. I wasn’t buying it. I lived an hour away from them and mother didn’t typically wander off for a drive that distance on the spur of the moment. I waited for whatever she was there for to come out.
My relationship with her was somewhat complicated, she wasn’t an easy person to love even though she was my mother. As a form of self-protection I’d managed to disconnect myself emotionally from her. It made some of her behaviour less painful to receive. Even with that insulation in place when she spoke the words — “I have breast cancer and it’s terminal” — they were tough to hear.
The conversation which followed was calm and matter of fact. She told me her views on chemo and radiation. I was curious how long she actually knew she had cancer. She wasn’t sure how long she had known. She knew it was at least a few years. A conversation I’d had with her when my husband was dying came back to me. I asked her if she had known then, she was evasive.
The conversation had been along the lines that if she knew she was terminally ill she would just quietly end herself rather than put the family through any suffering. I had remembered those remarks rather vividly. I also remembered my shock at what seemed like her cold-hearted attitude implying that my husband should just end it. I also clearly remembered the comments that followed suggesting I should not be carrying the load of caring for him, that he’d be better in a nursing home. It was all I could do remain calm as I inform her that he was dying of heart disease, not dementia. There was no reason for him not to be in our home.
She may have been evasive because she remembered her comments or because she really didn’t remember. I wasn’t sure which. If she didn’t remember her comments several years before, I wasn’t going to plant the idea at this point.
Over the next few weeks she started phoning regularly to just chat. This wasn’t something she normally did. I guess in her mind it was her wanting to connect as much as she could with her children in her remaining time. As much as I wasn’t comfortable with the conversations, I let them play out. At the end of the conversations she took to saying “I love you”.
Now, that would seem like a normal way to end a conversation. It wasn’t. Coming from my mother the first time was like a shot to the gut. She had long before put an end to me saying “I love you” to her. She called it being maudlin. After I recoiled from the emotional blow, I realized I’d let my detachment slip. I needed to get it back into place if I was going to avoid blowing up at her. At this point, there just wasn’t a point to doing so.
Several months after her diagnosis, dad came down one day to cut my lawn for me. Mother came along. I had some work I was needing to get done on the computer. I hadn’t planned on having a guest, so I invited her to sit and chat while I worked.
At one point in the conversation, I was rather thankful I was looking at the computer and had a moment to collect myself. Out of the blue she informs me, “Your dad can be so maudlin. He says to me the other day that he hears me say ‘I love you’ to you kids and I don’t say it to him.”
I let that sink in for a moment and then asked her, “Is that true?”
“Well, I suppose so but he knows I do.”
The thoughts that was swirling in my head at that moment latching onto the anger I was feeling could have, and maybe should have, touched off a long delayed explosion. It didn’t. I did tell her as calmly as I could muster, “you know, dad hasn’t faltered since all this started. He’s looked after your every need. He’s honoured your wishes no matter what he may have thought and you really find it so hard to tell him that you love him?”
There was a very long silence that followed.
There had been a lot of those emotional time-bombs to deal with when it came to her over the years. One that is only slowly being kicked to the curb had to do with me writing. As a young adult I had submitted some pieces for publication and had managed to get a few published and paid for.
A then friend of mine was talking to her one day and told her that he considered me to be a talented writer and would love to see me pursue that. Her response to him was, “she needs a real job not pie-in-the-sky”. Now, it’s not like I didn’t have a job at the time. I was working in the engineering department of a pharmaceutical firm. The freelance writing was a side hustle.
Her comment hurt. Really hurt.
This was the women who had ended up teaching me to read when the school system was failing me in that area. The schools were teaching sight reading and I wasn’t grasping how to read. When I came home with a low mark in reading my mother got to the bottom of it and taught me phonics. I went from the worst reader in my class to the top reader.
This was also the woman who instilled a life-long love of reading in her children. I don’t think there is any of her five children who don’t read at least some. She was never without at least one book on the go. The importance of reading was not just words, it was an example she set.
Yet, the notion her daughter might be capable of writing one of those books — that was just “pie-in-the-sky” — that cut, deep.
A short time later an op-ed I had submitted to The Toronto Star was accepted and published. I was thrilled, this was the newspaper which came into our home regularly. I grew up reading it. I made sure a photocopy of the article was available when mother visited next. She glanced at it without comment, folded it up and set it aside, to read later she said. After they left I found it on the floor. She never mentioned having forgotten it. I stopped mentioning doing any writing and for a long time I didn’t write.
Some how I managed to not reach the point of hating her or becoming estranged. I guess learning to emotionally detach from her bombs helped. No parent is without faults. No person is without faults. Wasn’t like there is a parenting handbook she failed to read.
She brought her baggage into the relationship. I guess the best I can hope for is that I didn’t inherit her particular set of baggage. Like everyone else, I have my own baggage. The best I can hope for, it’s uniquely mine and not carrying on hers.
She’s who brought me into life. She’s one of those who saw to my physical needs. I never lacked a roof over my head, food on the table or clothes on my back. She wasn’t an alcoholic or a drug addict. She was faithful to her marriage. There were some things to appreciate about her like her teaching me to read.
So, on this anniversary of her death, I will pause and think about the woman who gave me life.
At the end of the day — she’s still my mother.