My mother died August 1st, 2015. Just after Thanksgiving in 2014, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She tried to be very positive about her prospects, in spite of the late stage of the tumor, in spite of her other health problems that would complicate treatment, and in spite of the fact that the doctors all but told her “There is no cure.” In the phone call where she told me, she did her best to make it sound like this was a condition she could live with for quite some time. But I have a degree in biochemistry and I am not stupid, so I knew that we weren’t going to have much time left.
We got about 8 months with her after the diagnosis. She got to see my youngest sister graduate from college. She got to see her youngest niece born. She got to see my other sister get married. We got one last Christmas, one last Mother’s Day, one last birthday with her. When my heart is breaking, I try to be grateful that, but it’s hard, because I’d rather she was still here.
Grief is a funny thing. Some days I’m okay. Really. I feel like I can function and the sadness is not overwhelming. It’s just a small pack I carry…there but not weighing me down. And some days, the weight of my grief is such a weight that I don’t know how to carry it. Some days I’m so sad that a beer and pint of ice cream seem like a perfectly acceptable dinner. And the triggers aren’t always expected. I figured I would feel extra sadness as this day came up. But you don’t count on all the little reminders and digs that pop up by surprise. A pop star’s father dies of cancer and I am suddenly teary-eyed. I was visiting a friend whose four-year-old daughter is learning about life cycles. With all of the enthusiasm and guilelessness of a not-quite-still-a-toddler, she wanted to talk all about how her dad’s mom and dad were both dead. A rational conversation about how people sometimes die is a totally appropriate conversation to have with a kid–and one I have had with children before–but it was not one I was expecting to have that night. It’s easy, especially as someone who works in the sciences, to be a little impassive about death. It is, after all, a part of life. But of course your own deaths don’t feel like a fact of life. They feel like a painful and personal insult to the way things are supposed to be.
My mother was not perfect. She wasn’t a perfect person. She certainly wasn’t a perfect mother. Growing up, there were times I hated her. (She would actually appreciate me saying so, since she hated the very human tendency that we all have to paint the dead as saints. “Every kid that dies is suddenly a straight A student,” was her common complaint about how the media reported deaths. “A dead asshole is still an asshole” I remember her saying another time. She didn’t mince words.) But she was my mother and no matter how hard it might have been to have her as a mother (as I’m sure that at times it was very hard on her to have me as a daughter), she gave me so very much. She taught me that my intelligence counted so much more than my appearance. She taught me to read before I can even remember. She was driven and smart and fierce and funny and fearless–all the things I want to be more of. I miss her just as much as I did six months ago.