One year ago this week our whole family gathered at the beach. We knew, barring a miracle, it would be the last family vacation with mom. And it was. She died in September, just five months later. It was a sweet time, and painful. Looking back is still hard. I wrote these words not long after coming home:
I knew she was dying when I saw her. The wasted frame and old person shuffle weren’t actually what gave it away. It was her eyes. They told me. I wanted to get back in the car and drive away, to run.
I felt guilty that maybe, just like I’d seen death in her eyes, she had seen the desire to run away in mine. So I stayed. I couldn’t do that to her. My kids didn’t seem to notice. How is that possible? She looked like a different person than their Nana. Even the sick Nana we’d seen at Christmas, who’d used a wheelchair on occasion, looked better than this person.
This Spring Break Nana was a shell of who she’d been. She should have been in her grandparent prime. Maybe my son noticed. Of all the grandchildren he’s known her longest. He also loves her best. Sometimes, I think even better than me.
His 11 year old heart pumps with excitement over their shared fascination with sci-fi movies like Godzilla. When he recalls how she used to hunt for wolf spiders in the dark with a headlamp, their creepy bright eyes dotting the hill, a twinkle glints in his blue eyes! He appreciates her flare for a good joke and her silly streak. Maybe he saw the change, but loved her enough not to notice.
My two siblings and I had congregated at the sea side with our broods of one girl and one boy each. It was our designated rendezvous, per mom’s request months ago. After the radiation and chemo, we had hoped she would be better. I, at least, had envisioned her in a floppy brimmed hat down where the water laps toes. I pictured her digging in the sand with her grandchildren, oohing and ahhing over the wonder of nature. Instead, it became holy ground, where we came to learn how to let go of life, where we began to let her die.
That whole week life and death interposed. The littlest grand-girl oozed life, as ripe as a fresh berry ready to be picked. With her dimpled hands and round cheeks she babbled at her Nana’s knee, drooling baby love and kisses. Her touch drew fading brown eyes back from a distance into the right now. The haunted look would smooth over for a moment, replaced by a smile of appreciation. As the life of her family pulsed before her I like to think it infused her with hope.
Dinner time was a chaotic, boisterous affair. Each sibling took a turn preparing the meal. My capable sister laid out a spread of tacos. Being the week after Easter I brought a ham. My brother’s gentle wife made spaghetti. On the last night dad, with the help of the capable sister, made a family favorite – low country boil.
Each night the kitchen was a happy riot of parents catering to the needs of half a dozen children. Once the little ones were settled we began our own dinner ritual. Sitting at a long table together the conversation flowed freely. We caught up on each other’s lives and new jobs, laughed ridiculously at half told inside jokes and memories. With our laughter we kept the darkness at bay.
In the past family gatherings could grow unfortunately tense. But as this week wore on, our nerves didn’t. Perhaps we had finally learned that life is unkind enough without us needing to add our own harshness in the mix.
That first afternoon I had stood on the beach with my dad, watching the tide push and pull.
“Mom looks really bad,” I quietly confided to him. I was testing the water. Surely he had something to say. Turns out he did.
“Well, she’s been in the hospital for two days because of dehydration and a fever.”
“I know, but she looks way worse than at Christmas time.” I pushed a little more.
“The oncologist she saw recently was really grave. He said it’s serious.” As if cancer isn’t. But I knew what he meant. He meant it’s gotten worse. He meant the doctors she traveled miles to see in Pennsylvania weren’t containing it anymore. “He showed us the scan of her liver from two years ago and one from that week. It’s enlarged significantly and the cancer is worse. Not better.”
I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Suddenly I felt betrayed. I’d been lying to myself all along. When I’d heard the good reports from her visits north I’d believed them. I’d heard hope where I wanted to. I hadn’t listened to the truth in her voice. Worse, I’d stayed away so I didn’t have to see the truth for myself. But I was seeing it now. My eyes were telling me that she was dying.
“Mom plugged her ears while the doctor was talking, he was so grave.” Dad choked a little. “He said if she didn’t do something drastic, start a clinical trial or a new drug or something, she wouldn’t last more than a few months.”
My heart went out with the tide. I’m still waiting for it to come back.
I touched his shoulder. “Dad, I’m sorry.” He asked me not to tell the others just yet and wandered away to take a picture of a shell or grandchild or something. His sturdy frame bent under the burden. A few deep breaths. My head cleared and I saw an 11-year-old boy, two six-ear-old girls, two three-year-old boys, and a toddler girl celebrating nature’s playground with a wild romp! Love and happiness poured into the tide pool that had been left behind when my heart was sucked out to sea. It didn’t make sense. How do life and death go together? How can children tip back the cup of life, delight running down their chins ’til they are giddy with living, while the very source of their lives is drained dry and empty? In my mouth I tasted the bitter and the sweet. It left me weary.
Off and on during the week I would come in from having watched a couple of pre-school boys and my big boy boogie board, mouths smiling wide, swallowing a gallon of sea water and hollering at the top of their lungs. And then I would catch sight of mom. Her unsteady gate and tired shoulders were a slap in the face. She’d turn to see who had come in, smile at me and ease her way back to what she was doing. In those moments pin pricks of tears burned my eyes, and I had to fight back the growing hysteria. Death felt like panic. As inevitable as childbirth, there was no turning back. Time had suddenly become more than a wearisome acquaintance, he was now a loathsome enemy.
Thursday afternoon I slipped quietly into mom’s room. We were working on a scrapbook of our vacation. It seemed odd to work on our memories while we were still making them, but I think we both felt the urgency to keep them from slipping away. The television in the corner was on softly. The show set to an old Andy Griffith rerun. We looked at each other and smiled. The world was always right when Andy was on. Nothing bad happened in Mayberry, not really.
At the end of the week, when we were water logged and ready to go home, mom came and sat in my room as I packed up sea shells and our stuff that had been flung all over the place. I curled my hair and put on my necklace.
“You look beautiful,” she said. The words were almost whispered. Like a prayer, or a hope. My heart squeezed hard. She had always said that. She had always been proud of her children. If I was beautiful, then she was too. I knew I needed to keep living for her. I would be beautiful for her and then when people saw me they would see her too, even if they didn’t know it.
I sat down beside her and she put her wasted hand on my leg. Oh, that hand. I loved that hand, had held it for years, knew it. But now it seemed strange, sickness had robbed its strength and beauty. There was really nothing to say. We were just taking a moment to be close. She had always liked to touch her family, to pull us close. Now it seemed to hurt. But she did it anyway, a little, and then pulled back. Later we drove away in our car so coated in salt spray you could hardly see out the windows. My melancholy imagination believed it was coated in grief, or tears. I couldn’t wait to get home and wash them off.
Those important days at the beach taught me two things; I am a coward and my mother is brave. I didn’t realize it at the time, but later, when I thought back, I understood that it had taken a great deal of courage for her to be away from her home, in pain, to watch people so fully alive. Of course most mothers I know are brave at some time or another.
Even I have been brave before. But I wasn’t this time. I don’t mind being a coward. How else do we face the death of someone we have loved and resented and needed and wanted? Is there a road map? I think we just do it the best we can with what we have to work with. I think it’s okay to be a coward. It’s hard to be brave if you haven’t first been afraid.
On the five hour drive home I cried silently. My husband saw me wipe the tears. He sat beside me in the quiet ache. I didn’t talk for hours. It is a rare occasion that that happens. In the evening, when the luggage was unpacked and sandy babies washed and put to bed, he laid down beside me and said, “tell me about the leaky eyes.”
“I don’t want to,” I said. And went to sleep.
In the morning he stroked my face. “It will be okay.”
I looked at him for a moment, evaluating, debating what okay really meant. Questioning if I could agree. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt,” I replied.
“No,” he agreed, “it doesn’t mean it won’t hurt.”
And it has. It still does.