Death began as a distant hypothetical since the word “cancer” was first uttered two years before. Acknowledging the word early was perhaps my brain’s way of beginning to protect itself from the weight of an ending that could, and in my mother’s case, ultimately did occur. Still, it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment she crossed a point of no return, when all other avenues darkened and left only one final and inevitable lit road my mother had left to take.
Her cancer, as with most other situations in life, arrived accompanied by a host of possible outcomes. The idea of my mother dying, unpleasant as it was to acknowledge, stood on equal footing along with all other probabilities, prognoses, treatments, and outcomes. It all became like a party our family was suddenly and inescapably tasked to organize, Death being one attending guest among many. Like all the rest, I welcomed it. What other choice was there?
Throughout the months, we made our rounds to get to know each guest. This treatment was attempted and that chemical was injected and that other method was employed and still that other was discussed and pondered.
Like all gatherings, these different guests slowly exhausted their stay. They offered all they could possibly offer and began to make their way out. In the end, only the one guest remained. Silent. Sitting patiently. I recognized that ultimately this was its house and the rest of us were the guests. There was nothing left to do but to acknowledge it.
The only thought that remained . Defeated and accepting.
In the end, Death was not the nemesis. We did not come to see it as some frightful specter to be feared. In those last days, I learned that Death had the soothing face of Mercy.
There’s a Scent
Medicines on the night stand. Body ointments rubbed over and under and throughout. New bed frame, new mattress, new bedding. Drip line and packaging plastic. An inactive body. Equipment on and humming. Washing of the body. A stranger in the room nursing, doing her job; a stranger in the room nursing, as if to her own mother. Modified diet served in smaller portions. New patient gown, old patient gown. Latex gloves. Coming and going of visitors. Opened bottles of tequila. Emptied glasses of brandy. Food containers. Pots and plates in the sink. Chemicals. Worry. New folded towels, old wet towels. Tea bags in cold mugs. Half finished water bottles. Baby food. Closed windows. Illness breathing. Life dying. The peace of release.
The house, the bedroom – there was a scent. Not foul. Just different.
It went away a few days after she did.
Small Things Are Now Big
She died in the morning, which meant that she left us the whole day to make and take phone calls, to accommodate visitors and plan plans. The house filled quickly. Around midday, the kitchen sink did as well. I began to clear the rack of dried dishes before washing the rest.
She had the not-so-amusing mannerism, when searching for a specific cooking pot, of loudly and indiscriminately moving everything around in the bottom cupboard until she found just the one she wanted. Early mornings were a special delight for this — a quiet and sleepy house was roused with the sudden metallic whack and slam of pots being tossed and banged together.
In clearing the drying rack, it was opening the bottom cupboard that gave me the small stop. The pots and pans stacked quiet and still. Lifeless.
Two months after she passed, my father was going to entertain a visitor. The head of the company my father retired from always liked him well and seeks him out for food, drink, and conversation whenever he visits. This being the first time my mother would not be around, my father wanted us there.
After drinks and talk in the backyard patio, everyone gradually moved inside to the dining table for dinner, continuing their conversations from outside. Sitting there in the kitchen, an uneasiness began to grow in me, dim and slow. Something wasn’t right — a sense similar to the moment right before realizing that a picture frame was misplaced in a room you’ve walked through all your life. Something was off.
Slowly, it came, blurred at first: no one yet was eating. A moment or two later and it was all completely clear: no one was eating because no one was serving. Like the pots in the cupboard, the space in front of the stove was still and empty.
As with all people, my mother was obviously more than just one thing. She was more than a provider of food for the family, more than just the space in front of the stove. The kitchen, however, was always the heart of the house with my mother its constant heart beat. She was not there anymore.
I got up, brought out dishes and utensils in an uproar, and started serving dinner. It’s what she would have done.
I’ll Remember Words
The Last Unprompted Words She Offered Me
A friend of my parents stayed at their house to help for a few weeks before my mother passed. As my dad continually mentioned to me, she as well as a few others, became indispensable in caring for her.
Valdo. Do you see her? This lady?
You don’t know but she’s an angel. She’s an angel.
She’s my angel.
My mother was not one to be expressive or to freely and easily offer her inner most emotions. She was more comfortable not doing so. Ever since I was old enough to be aware of such things, however, I knew there was always a conversation within her. When she said this, it was unprompted and unexpected. Even her voice was different – the chemo left her mouth and throat blistered.
It wasn’t her speaking, the mother I had always known. I felt like it was that person she’d always kept inside her; near the end, she’d found a way out. It was strange and slightly terrifying.
The Last Words I Heard From Her
I’m in her bedroom by the front yard window. She’s in bed laying on her side, wrapped in a sheet and facing away.
We’ll be back, mom.
Her weak body gives a slight perk.
¿A donde van?
We have a meeting with a specialist to see if we can get you some other help.
She releases the perk. Her body folds, sinking back slightly.
There’s a Plan
The memorial service. Plans needed to be made. Contact the mortuary. Select a memorial service plan. Line item the mortuary services for the final cost. Choose the time and date. Choose the program language. Choose what portrait to use. Would you like to be at the incineration? Announce the date and time on social media. Reach out to family and friends. Select the tie to go with the suit. Agree and sign the final contract. Make sure they have that one photo for the video. Would you like to be the one to transfer the ashes into the urn? Do a final walk-through with the mortuary. Arrive early. Shake hands. Give hugs. “Thank you.” Sit with family. Watch the video. Shake hands. Give hugs. “Thank you.” Stand in the back to greet people. Help bring out more chairs; it’s overflowed. Direct people to empty seats. Direct people to refreshments. Shake hands. Give hugs. “Thank you.”
My wife, shortly before leaving to the memorial service. I must have had a face.
Why are we doing this? This service is not for her. How could it be? She’s gone. This is for other people, people that are still here.
“This is stupid. I hate this shit.“
After the rosary, the moment to give the eulogy arrived. My father had offered it to both my niece and myself. I wasn’t able to make notes before so I told her she could handle it fine on her own. And she did. Her words had presence and meaning, her tone wavered only slightly through the tears, her delivery was fluid and natural, her message was poignant and meaningful and humorous and heart-breaking. It was everything a eulogy, a good eulogy should be.
There Is No Plan
It was probably best, I thought afterwards, that I did not speak at the service. Beginning with her passing the previous week, up to and including my niece’s eulogy that evening, people offered one of these two sentiments attached to their condolences: 1) It was all for a reason, for some plan and/or 2) She will be watching over you / You will be with her again. The sentiments are well-meaning but it was probably best I didn’t speak. I was ready to throw a chair across the room by the last time someone offered this.
1) It was all for a reason, for some plan.
Not two years before, at the first uttering of “breast cancer”, she willingly and stoically removed one of her breasts and was told she was in the clear. Not eighteen months before, she insisted we meet at the downtown cathedral to be with her as she fulfilled her end of a bargain she had struck , leaving flowers and a kneeling and tearful “Thank you!” at the feet of a Virgin Mary statue. Not six months before she was in my living room, singing and dancing during Christmas Eve. Now it was June and she was gone.
If I’m wrong, if there is indeed a plan to it all, it has to be said that it’s a fucking shitty one, sadistic and mocking, nowhere near worth anyone’s praise, much less their recognition. It’s either an awful plan or, quite possibly…quite probably, there’s no plan at all.
2) She will be watching over you / You will be with her again.
I can think of no worse fate for anyone that just endured the thrashings of breast cancer than to spend an afterlife looking over others. I’d like to think they earned a well-deserved vacation from all of this.
I don’t know what ‘you will be with her again’ means. Which ‘me’? The boy? The teen? Me on the day she died? Me on the day I die? Which ‘her’ would be with me? The child? The bride on her wedding day? The woman through the fires of menopause? The matriarch in the joy of grandchildren? The young, fresh girl with flowers in her hair from that picture I love? In each instance, these would be different people with different essences.
Better to leave the notion alone. Better to simply say that when she was here, it was good and I appreciated her.
That’s a good plan, a better plan. I’ll keep that one with me.