LILACS AND JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: COPING WITH DEATH AT 40

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My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer just over 3 years ago, a consequence of years of smoking. Due to the severity (or lack of) of the cancer and her previous medical condition, her doctor suggested radiation only. She sailed through the treatments, and was told by her oncologist that she would live a long life.
In April of 2016, while celebrating my 40th birthday with a girlfriend, I received an instant message that was addressed to myself, my two sisters, and my uncle. In it, my mom detailed her requests for her funeral. There was no sorrowful or flowery language, just concise, pragmatic directions. Immediately, we all replied, trying to decipher an appropriate level of concern. She simply stated that we had no cause for worry, she merely wanted to relay the information while she was thinking about it.
I immediately switched from panic to anger, a familiar companion in my conversations with her. I thanked her for trying to ruin my vacation. I complained to my friend that she was using this as a tactic to get attention, that she somehow felt neglected. I spewed resentful rhetoric about my tempestuous relationship with my mother. Then I drank and those feelings subsided.
My mother worked full-time, so it was my sister who made sure I got to school every day, and cooked me dinner most nights. My mother made horrible choices in men, exposing us to many seedy characters. I loathed her seemingly constant need for attention. Our relationship was fragile. When I became a mother, I swore that I would be a different type of mother than she was, that I would be better.
A few weeks later, I got another message. My aunt text me that I needed to call her. I was in the midst of getting ready for work, and was annoyed by the inconvenience. She explained that my mother was in the emergency room because she had fallen at home and couldn’t get back up. They had done a CAT scan to see if she had possibly had a stroke. She’d call me later to keep me updated. That call came just a few minutes later. The CT had shown that her cancer had metastasized in her brain and she had 5 tumors.
Those days and weeks immediately following were littered with a parade of emotions. I spent my days at work, on the phone with my sisters and on the computer doing research. I was reprimanded. I was accused of being distracted. Most nights were filled with visits to the hospital. My children noticed my absence. I felt isolated, seemingly the only person who comprehended the severity of her condition. I was accused of not having hope. I battled daily to think positively, but reality insisted on recognition, desperate and unyielding. I sat on my hands as she made choices for her medical treatment. My sisters and I bonded through the recollection of painful childhood memories, as if anger was a better substitute for grief. I went to the store and bought groceries and I was overwhelmed by guilt because I was cursing my way through the grocery store rather than at her bedside. I watched in horror and frustration as her hair fell out in clumps, rather than allowing me to shave her head.
I stopped arguing with my kids about going to visit her as her appearance became more and more haggard.
I resented her and I resented God for forcing me to watch her die.
I desperately missed my father, who passed 29 years ago.
After 4 weeks, the doctors admitted that there was nothing left to do for her, and recommended hospice care. She chose to receive hospice at home, rather than a facility and I balked at the amount of care expected from us. I silently deemed her selfish. I warned my family that my absences would be greater.
She was released into hospice on Memorial Day. The extended family all gathered to spend the day with her. She seemed happier, more alert. I chastised myself for doubting her decision. I went to work the next day.
I got a phone call from my oldest sister in Oregon. I needed to go be with my Mother. She had woken that morning and stated that she was tired of fighting. She was ready to go. The whole family took turns keeping vigil at her bedside. She sang songs for my nieces, and called out to my grandfather. She told me she loved me as I held her hand. I realized that I had been holding my breath for those last weeks. As I exhaled, I let go of all of the anger and resentment I had been holding on to. I had never not felt that she loved me. Whatever mistakes she made, whatever slights I felt, she still showed me how a mother loves. It’s consuming and eternal. It’s the love I have for my children.

 

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We stayed up late into the evening, waiting. Eventually, we all fell into a restless sleep. Suddenly, her noise stopped and we all were jolted awake. She was gone. She had fought all day, and only left when we were finally settled and quiet, saving us from watching those painful final moments.
At 40, I was planning a funeral for my mother. At 40, I had become an orphan. I had to stand in the front of a funeral parlor and make small talk with people I barely knew. We cleaned out her apartment. I called the utility company and her bank. I went back to work. I participated in the banal activities of death to distract me from the reality of death. Eventually those phone calls were made, those payments sent, and those papers signed, but I was not any more prepared to navigate my life as an orphan.
Some days, death is like a long forgotten campfire, orange embers smoldering quietly. The peace is precarious, as it simply could become a firestorm with a gust of wind. Other days it is a flash of heat so strong, that it sucks the air out of the earth around me.
But those moments pass, and the time between them grows.
I smell lilacs in my car, in the alley of a commercial area and I know you are there. Justin Timberlake comes on the radio and I smile at the thought of your text, alerting me to the fact that he’d released a new song. Of course, I had known that. I had listened to it on repeat already. Brady signed up to do the musical at school, and I grabbed my phone to text you. I found a plaque with a verse from “You are My Sunshine” and heard you singing it in my head. Memories of you surround me. Some days, I want to wrap myself in them like a warm blanket on a frigid evening. Most days, I hold them tightly in my hand, my connection to you.
I’ll continue to smell lilacs, and listen to Justin Timberlake, and talk to you about the boys. I’ll continue to move forward, using the strength you gave me. But I’ll still miss you. Every day.

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