I remember the end so vividly. It was surreal, the most surreal thing I’ve ever experienced. Mom was tough and letting go was hard for her. She had been unresponsive for over a day, so I wasn’t spending every moment by her side like I had to when she was constantly needing help. Every time I walked by her bed, I put my hand on her hands and whispered I’ll be OK. We’ll all be fine. It’s OK to let go. as though those were true statements. Surely she didn’t believe my cracking voice.
Late that morning, I started crocheting a hat with a dusty pink skein of yarn I found in the office. Mom taught me to crochet over Thanksgiving break in 2008. I had mastered scarves and decided it was time to learn how to make a hat. She never taught me the names of the stitches — I could do them, but following a pattern was impossible without the terminology, so I just fumbled my way through, guessing at the details it takes to make a hat. At the end of every row, I’d glance up at mom from across the room to make sure she was still doing OK and not in too much pain.
Suddenly, I became aware of her breathing. It got raspy out of nowhere. The hospice nurse told us this would happen and that it can be like that for days before someone dies. Something about it seemed peculiar to me though, so I went over to her and held her hand. It was immediately obvious to me that it was time. I could feel it in my gut. I ran to get my brother, sliding across the wood floor on my socks for speed. This moment is incredibly vivid over 9 years later. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the floor sliding underneath my sock-covered feet, my hair blowing back in the breeze. The second I reached the top of the stairs, I called for him. The sound of my voice scared me. He knew what it meant the second he heard his name and called our younger brother, who happened to be on our road on his way home. I ran back to my spot next to mom and held her hands. We were all there. It’s OK, mom. It’s OK. I love you. I was trying so hard to sound calm and reassuring, but I’m not even sure the words were intelligible through the tears.
Just like that, the last breath left her body and for the first time in her existence, another never came. I remember reading somewhere that hearing is the last sense to leave after death, so I just kept telling her I loved her until I couldn’t anymore. It was instantaneous, however, the feeling that she was gone. There was a palpable feeling when her soul left her body. Her body was a shell without her in it, and I didn’t feel like lingering. I honestly don’t remember looking at anyone else. I don’t remember if they were crying or where they were standing or if anyone else said anything. I just held her hand and cried until I was done. And then I got serious and called the hospice provider who called the coroner and that was that. I waited in the dining room. I didn’t like looking at her because it didn’t feel like her any more. I sent a simple text to my friends and boyfriend. She’s gone. There was nothing else to say.
I seriously contemplated asking if the coroner could remove the tumor that killed her. I wanted to see it. I wanted it in a jar so I could see what ugly thing had sucked the life out of her. It was creepy and morbid and there was nothing I wanted more. When he showed up with his wife, somber-faced and professional, I thought better of it. I couldn’t ask for something like that in front of my family or they’d think I’d lost my shit. I didn’t even know if that was a thing the coroner could do, and shouldn’t I be sad about mom dying instead of thinking about the cancer in her dead belly? I thought about it many times over the next week anyway, wishing I had asked.
I didn’t want to watch them move her lifeless body, but once they had the bag around her, I watched him pull the zipper all the way up over her face. There was such finality. That was it. I would never see her alive again. Death is strange. It felt like the earth had screeched to a halt, now suspended in the Milky Way, unmoving. Not even the gravitational pull of the sun would be enough to make things seem right again. Everything looked the same as it had that morning, but it felt different, heavier. Nothing would ever be the same.
When we started making the other calls we had to make, I realized I’d better call mom, since she wasn’t there. And then I remembered the news. I called her phone anyway, just to hear her voice. I hadn’t heard it in a couple days and it already felt far away.
The time before her funeral was a blur of tears and hugs and awkward encounters. No one knows what to do with grief. They say awful things that are supposed to be comforting.
Everything happens for a reason. The reason is cancer. It swallowed her whole and now she’s dead.
This is all a part of God’s plan. Oh really? God’s plan is for my 50 year old mom to be dead and your 92 year old mom to be alive? Please tell me more about this magical plan that benefits you and not me that you seem to know so much about.
She’s in a better place. Yep, but I’d rather she were in this shitty place with me so I didn’t have to have this awful conversation with you.
Everything will be OK. Yep, everything will be OK for you tomorrow because your mom’s not dead. Mine is. It’s not going to be OK for a very long time.
One woman even told us that if we ever needed a mom, we could call her. What the FUCK? This was not a close personal friend saying that if we missed mom, we could call her any time. This was a barely-acquaintance offering to BE a substitute. Fuck you, lady. I have a mom thankyouverymuch and she’s dead and I can tell just by you saying this horrible thing that nothing about you would be comforting, now or ever.
I said none of this to anyone. I smiled as though I were grateful for their “kind” words. At least they showed up. The funeral was a blur. I remember Pastor Dennis reading the words I had written. He was so sweet and got choked up at parts, but all I could think about was how I could have worded things better if I had more time. I don’t remember much else, but I remember who was there. I remember who took the time off work, who drove for hours, who showed up to do the hard thing of being in that deep grief with us. I will never forget. It’s the reason I never miss a funeral to this day.
I stayed with dad and the boys for a few days after the funeral, but without mom there, everything felt wrong. I was ready to go home. When I opened the front door, I was so relieved to be away from it all. I immediately saw my stack of mail waiting on the counter. Right before I left weeks before, I had gotten a letter from mom. I ripped it open and then remembered I was leaving to see her, so left it there on the counter. I opened it and read over the familiar cursive writing. It was so mundane. She had done some baking, was working on some craft projects. She had no idea she was about to die. I broke down right there, sunk to my knees on the laminate floor, salty tears running down my face and neck and dripping onto the letter and blurring her pen marks. I saw the smudges through my tears which only made me cry harder, but while holding the letter away from me so as not to ruin the last letter I’d ever get from her.
In the weeks that followed, I was numb, save for the moments I’d be overcome and everything felt fresh and raw. I became obsessed with remembering details and moments — last week at this time I was on a walk with mom. Two weeks ago today she told me she loved me for the last time. It’s been 10 days and two hours and 47 minutes since she took her last breath. It was a month ago on this date that we found out her cancer was back. I poured over photo albums and tried to find every picture of the two of us in existence. There weren’t many. I scoured her Facebook page, read every comment she’d ever left me, every photo she’d ever posted of us. I took screenshots of everything in case the internet ever collapsed. I thought about every mean thing I’d ever said to her and replayed the moments over and over in my head. I noticed every single thing she had ever given me and made mental notes about what was left. She gave me that tube of face mask cream and I can make that last for at least a few more months if I don’t use it as often. She gave me that black scarf, and if I don’t wash regularly, it’ll last longer.
Dad disconnected her phone the week she died. I was irrationally angry that I hadn’t thought to record her voicemail message. It was the only recording of her voice and it was gone forever. I called her phone number on a regular basis anyway, hoping that somehow a portal would open up to the universe she was in and she would answer the phone and we could talk. I had a lot to tell her. Every night I’d wait until my boyfriend fell asleep before sobbing myself into a light slumber. I dreamed vividly of mom every night and every night, I’d wake up in a cold sweat, realize it was a dream, and cry myself back to sleep only to repeat the cycle over and over for months. I fantasized about all of the ways she could still be alive — like maybe she’s just at home. If she were, I wouldn’t normally see her every day, so she’s probably just there like normal. I’ll go see her this weekend.
I went out for dinner and bowling with friends in an attempt to distract myself. I cried the whole way there for no reason other than that life felt empty and hollow without mom. I tried to make myself look like I hadn’t been crying for 3 weeks straight before going inside. At dinner, I looked up and saw a woman walking towards me from across the room. Mom! She made eye contact and walked faster in my direction, but also in slow motion, and I felt the hope welling up inside of me. I had so much to tell her and I couldn’t wait to hug her and know she was real. At the last second, I realized this woman looked nothing like her. As not-mom walked past and the air behind her wafted over me, I was brought back to reality. She was older and taller and then I realized mom would never be older than 50 and my eyes welled up with tears. How soon would I be able to be out in public and not be a crazy person having visions of dead people? I choked back my tears and rejoined the conversation like nothing had happened. I felt so much pressure to be strong and I wanted to spare everyone the annoyance of watching me cry every time they saw me. When I felt fine, I felt guilty for not being more sad.
I was back at work, staring at my computer screen, trying to figure out how robots can be productive and emotionless. That’s what I needed to get back to normal. I had only been at this job a month before I look a leave of absence to take care of mom, so I was still figuring everything out. My boss came over and asked how I was doing and I just blurted out, I’m fine, I’m going to therapy and didn’t realize until the words had escaped that she was asking how work was going. I didn’t even care. It was true and it was all I was thinking about and I wasn’t even sure I had done anything productive in weeks.
I spent a lot of my time in the car and I spent it either listening obsessively to any song that reminded me of mom on repeat [I’m looking at you, Gnarls Barkley], or deep in thought. Life felt so different in the months after mom died. Nothing felt as important as it had before. I thought about every detail of everything I was doing in my life and considered ending it all — not my life, but all of the things in it. I thought about breaking up with my boyfriend. I loved him, I lived with him, and I wanted to marry him, but in the shadow of her death, it felt like a hollow joy I didn’t deserve. The one small comfort I had at that time was the warmth of another human, comforting me in the middle of the night, cuddling me as I sobbed myself back to sleep. It was the single string that kept me from unraveling and losing myself in a deep pit of depression. This is how things were for months. I wish I had known that all of this — ALL OF IT — was part of the process.
No one talks about grief because it’s uncomfortable and awkward. I’ve thought some pretty fucked up things I’d prefer no one ever found out about. Shame is why I don’t have mom’s tumor in a jar on the mantle. It’s why no one says this stuff out loud — but in the last five plus years, I’ve learned that we’re all just guessing at the details, trying to figure out what it looks like to put all the broken pieces back together.