My Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer at just about this same time last year. She died on Tuesday.
The nurses at her hospice did a terrific job of managing her pain and I’m confident that she passed away comfortably and with dignity. I and the rest of her New England kids were there with her all day, holding her hand and talking to her.
It was really quite beautiful. I was gone for the critical moment, I’m sorry to say. Sometime a little after five, the growling of stomachs became audible and we realized that the four of us hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch. I made a sandwich run and missed Mom’s passing by literally a minute or two. But I’m told that it was very calm and quiet. The room was a little stuffy and someone opened the big ceiling-high swinging conservatory windows in her room, and that’s when Mom went.
We walked a long, long road together over this past year and I had plenty of time to accept things. I can’t speak for my sisters but personally, the day felt like dropping off your kid at college. It’s a sad event, and I’ll miss Mom terribly, but it was time for her to begin the next part of her adventure. I felt as though my final responsibility to her was to let her go.
I’ve written that paragraph many times to friends over the past week. It’s never been a cut-and-paste job, either. Each time, I think about it and try to share what the day was like. That’s always the truth.
Speaking of truth: no, I haven’t mentioned Mom (or Dad’s) illnesses anywhere publicly. Mom’s cancer was Mom’s story, not mine. Her story became part of my story, but it wasn’t my story to tell.
Also…well, my public Internet presence was like the home phone number that nobody at work knows about. When I had some time to go on Twitter or Flickr or my blog, or record podcasts with the usual crew, it was a terrific vacation from the Cancer Office.
I know that you’re all sensible people, so I needn’t explain that a blog is not a mandate to obsessively document your life, either. You’re my readers, not (thank God) fans who obsessively need to know everything there is to know about a person. If the subject is interesting, entertaining, illuminating, or informative — that is, if I think you can get something out of it in any way — then it’s a candidate for the blog. But only if it’s not something I’d prefer to keep private.
Actually, I wasn’t even sure that I’d ever want to talk about Mom’s cancer publicly. The correct answer only became clear when I realized that I couldn’t bear to either (a) never talk about my Mom again or (b) keep speaking of her in the present tense, as though all of the courage and spirit she showed in 2008 never happened.
I’ll probably be writing more about her in the future. Writing helps me to think and to understand. The events of the past twelve months have given me plenty of things to think about and process.
The funeral was held yesterday. You’ll never meet my Mom, and I’m sorry because you missed out on a real treat. But maybe you’ll get some of her perfume from the eulogy I presented at my childhood Catholic church. I’ve made a couple of minor edits for privacy.
At any family event, I’m the guy running around with the big camera. I realized a long time ago that if I was the one TAKING the family photos, then I wouldn’t have to be IN the family photos.
That’s one of what I hope are many things I got from Mom.
Mom was never comfortable having her picture taken. I was reminded of that when I got back home on the night she passed. I poured myself a glass of wine and spent a few hours going through old hard drives and CDs and DVDs, looking at ten or fifteen years’ worth of pictures of Mom. And you could almost always see that little flinch or tension in her expression.
I was searching for one shot in particular. We were on the beach at the Cape about five or ten years ago. Mom was a little sunburned and she’d left her big hat back at the cottage, and I’d lent her my favorite hat. The one I wear almost every day.
If you enjoy taking pictures, you’ll understand what was going through my mind when I saw her in my hat: I was thinking “Oh, I HAVE TO have this photo; this is the PERFECT picture; oh, I hope I hope I HOPE she lets me take her picture.”
I have relatively few photos of my Mom, because I tried to avoid making her so uncomfortable but boy, did I want that photo.
And thank heavens: she said yes.
It’s the image that always comes to mind when I think of Mom. It perfectly matches the image I carry in my mind’s eye. There was no tension, no stiffness, no unease. Just the face of a sweet woman, happy, serene, content, a source of peace and love and comfort.
At the time, I thought it was just a lucky break that the photo had came out so well and Mom looked to natural and at ease. But Tuesday night in my office, with that picture filling the huge screen of my iMac, I figured out that it was no accident.
She was my Mom. And she could instantly sense how happy she could make me by letting me take her picture there on the beach.
Mom would do or sacrifice absolutely anything for us kids or our Dad. And not out of a sense of duty or obligation, but out of love. She took joy in expressing love.
It’d be incorrect to say that there aren’t many great photos of Mom. Going through all of those pictures in my photo libraries, and all of the photos that my sisters brought for the wake, you also see that exact same ease and contentment in every photo where she’s holding or playing with one of her grandchildren.
Mom considered her grandkids to be an exceptional blessing. Nine more babies to hold, nine more kids to love.
You didn’t even have to be part of her family to qualify for that sort of treatment. If you were her friend, she loved you deeply. If you were her neighbor, she was almost as proud of your kids’ achievements as she was of her own. Even if you just saw her every now and then at work, you’d get a hug and walk away having a much better day then before you’d bumped into her.
Mom always said she was terrible at math. She was right about that. Very, very, very right.
But she knew what she did best. At the end of the service, you’re going to hear one of Mom’s favorite hymns: “Let There Be Peace On Earth, And Let It Begin With Me.” That was Mom. She understood that it’s not enough to WANT peace; you have to have the humility and generosity to always help others to find the peace and love within themselves.
I have friends who didn’t have my sort of luck as a kid. They lost their mothers before they got to know them, or just as unfortunately, they got the sort of Mom who really wasn’t very well suited to the job.
I only wish that all of them could have met my mother. To spend just a half an hour with her was to understand what true, committed, complete love is like. They would have come away knowing what they missed.
Mom fought cancer with great bravery and dignity. Even in such terribly unfair circumstances, she was the center of peace and the source of love in any room she inhabited. As she was every day of her life.
Every person she loved was another thread holding her to this earth. The only love greater, and the only thing that could have pulled her away from us, was the love of a God who wanted his daughter to finally come back home and be with Him.
Rest in peace, Mom. YASBTM.