A Grief Remembered
The day my mother died was a rainy one.
My dad later told us that it seemed like every significant day in their marriage minus their actual wedding had been a rainy one. I remember how disgusting that day was. The rain was heavy and the humidity made it feel like you were swimming through the air.
Today marks a year since that day. It occurred to me that I had not reflected on what it was like in the days leading up to and including her last day here on this earth.
A few weeks before she died, shortly after Thanksgiving of 2016, my mother lapsed into a comatose state. The doctors had been giving her pain medication, but the cancer that ravaged her liver had slowed down the processing of those medicinal substances. The comatose state was the result. We had to wait for her liver to filter the medicine. I had driven down from San Marcos for the weekend when my father told me her current state. I sat in the hospital room, listening quietly while the family members around me softly cried and tried talking to my mom. I had tears in my eyes, too, but my allergies were extraordinarily bad that day. Nevertheless, it seemed to make my family feel better that I was crying with them albeit not for the same reasons.
Different family members and friends came in and out of the hospital room trying to get my mom to respond in some way. At one point it was just my father, my brother, our next door neighbors, and me in the room. My father asked me to sing to her, that maybe she would hear and respond. I didn’t think it would, but it didn’t hurt to try. I began to softly sing “It Is Well with My Soul” as I stood by her bed and held her hand. The next door neighbor joined me after a verse, and she sang a lovely harmony. My father had tears in his eyes. My brother began to sob and left the room. My mother remained unresponsive through the final notes of the song.
A few days later, she woke up.
Just A Smirk
My father told me that the doctors had recommended no further treatment, as her body was already too weak and the cancer had spread too far. They gave an incredibly vague timeline of three days to three weeks before she died. He told me they were sending someone over to talk about hospice options later that afternoon.
When the hospice attendant came, he began talking and I stopped listening. The majority of our immediate family was in there; my grandparents were listening with tears streaming, my father held my mom’s hand and smiled softly, my brother just stared at the man. But I caught my mother’s eye. I smirked at her. She smiled weakly back at me. I don’t know what she took from my smile. I had meant to convey all the love and affection that I held for her, telling her with a smirk that everything was going to be okay—even as her body was ravaged by cancer and death lurked at the door. Later that evening, I took her hand in mine. I don’t remember the conversation that followed, but I do remember toward the end of it she said, “I’m going to miss you, Michael.”
In hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t burst into tears. I think I responded with something like, “You won’t even be worried about me. But I’ll miss you.”
Finally, she was moved to hospice. My father opted to not take her home that she could have twenty-four-hour care from professionals. I think it was also on his mind not to place a greater burden on my mother’s parents. I think I was able to see her twice at the hospice facility. Both times, I walked in to see her in her bed, free of wires, tubes, and IVs, hopefully, a little more comfortable.
For roughly six months, she had greeted me with “I love you.” This day was no exception, except that I finally understood why when she whispered it to me that day. She didn’t know how much longer she was going to be able to see me, or how many times she would get to tell me that she loved me.
I don’t remember the final words my mom and I shared. I only remember helping my grandmother clean as my mom got sick, my dad’s constant presence, and holding her hand as we both fell asleep. Time was up, however, and I had to work the next morning in San Marcos. I kissed my mother, hugged her, and (hopefully) told her I loved her. And then I left, never to see her alive in this world again.
Two days later, I woke up to rain. I got up, made my coffee, and headed to church. Everything was normal, but it didn’t feel like it. When I finished teaching Sunday school, my best friend asked if she could come with me to see my mom. For whatever reason, I said, "No, perhaps another day." Something about the day didn’t feel right.
So I drove in the rain. Fast—what my mom always said not to do. I was hungry. I texted my dad, told him I was almost to the hospice facility and asked if I had time to stop for food. When he responded that they would wait for me, I asked again, “Do I have time to stop for food?”
“No,” he said.
I pressed the gas pedal down a bit further.
When I arrived at the hospice facility, the lot was empty. The only two people standing right outside its doors were my father and brother. And that’s when I knew for sure. I quickly got out of my car and walked up the stairs to them. Neither greeted me, my father only half smiled through tears, and then both he and my brother buried their faces in my chest, sobbing. I held their heads against me, trying to control my own breathing.
A minute passed, and I walked into the facility, past the front desk, past my already mourning family, and into my mother’s room. I choked back a sob and grabbed her hand, alarmed that it was already cold.
A host of things followed. More family came through, some of my brother’s coworkers came by, and some of my friends came too. One brought me a bottle of chocolate milk.
I remember excusing myself to use the restroom, whereupon I collapsed on the floor, unable to stop the tears and sobs from exiting me. Believe me or not, it was at this point that I forced myself to whisper the Gloria Patri:
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.”
Perhaps it was a bit sanctimonious, but I had to force myself to say it. I truly meant it, and I could feel unbelief wanting to corrode the hope I had in the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body, and the eternal life that my mother had already begun to share in. Despite pain, anger, loneliness, and grief, I felt a joy that my mother was no longer in pain. So I had to confess with my mouth.
We finally took our leave of the hospice facility and returned home. I arrived first. With a friend’s help, I began to clean out our refrigerator which had begun to smell in due to the absence of my family. More family members began to arrive and a man from my old church brought Bill Miller’s for us eat. I don’t even remember if I ate or not, I just remember having a couple beers.
For some reason, they chose to go into my parents’ room to return some items that my father had with him, and to sort through some of my mother’s jewelry. I remembered that when I was young, I had bought her a pair of clip-on earrings from a thrift store that were gold colored and set with fake sapphires. She never really wore them, because she was a grown woman who didn’t want to wear clip-on earrings, and she preferred wearing silver jewelry. I searched for those clip-on earrings that night in every nook and cranny in her dresser and couldn’t find them. I broke down in hysterical sobs, truly uncontrollable this time, as my hands scrambled to find the stupid little gift I gave my mom.
I don’t remember much else from that day. The last memory I have is falling asleep between my father and brother in my parents’ bed.
The next morning, I was sitting in my adolescent psychology class at 11 am. I still had assignments to complete, finals were the following week, and I had offered to plan, sing, and speak at my mother’s funeral. But the week flew by, and everything got done, by the grace of God.
And suddenly, a year has passed by.
Not Left Orphans
I miss my mom. I feel very lost some days. Her death has left me in a dark mood for a whole year. I’m told that doesn’t go away but recedes some. She left a gaping hole in my family, at her job where it took three people to replace her, and in my own life. As a son who has lost a mother and the deep ache that I still feel, as though a part of me is gone, I cannot imagine my grandparents who have lost a daughter, or my father who has lost his wife.
The monotony of my life in the last year has almost driven me mad. The silence in my life has almost done the same. Her death was a catalyst in my life for many unfortunate scenarios.
I couldn’t help but feel and utter those terribly selfish words “Why me?” I am but the youngest of those who knew her well, which means, to my utter dismay, that I had the least amount of time with her. My grandparents saw each of her 52 years. My aunt had 44 years, my father had over 32 years, and even my brother had 25 years.
I think of the twenty years I was able to spend with her, despite being cognitive for even less time, and I feel slighted. But then I remember a friend of mine from childhood who lost his mother around age 6. I remember the friends of mine in high school who lost their mother sophomore year. Or another friend who lost their mom just after they had graduated. They all would count me more fortunate than them for the additional years I was able to share with my mom.
A year later I feel more like a child than I did when I planned her funeral nearly alone. I feel less equipped to deal with prolonged loss and grief than the immediate shock when I was forced to act. I am trying so hard to not wallow in the grief of “why me” to the extent that I forget the grief of my family who need me. I am trying so hard to remember that I need them as well. I am trying to fit into my mother’s shoes, helping my family where I can, being with them where I can, and mediating where I can. But I am twenty-one. And I am scared of the future. I still have so much to deal with in my own mind, how can I help those around me?
Or perhaps these must happen simultaneously.
I am told by those who have lost their parents that the first year is the hardest. And it has indeed been hell. But despite my wandering heart and the incredibly incessant wave of depression and unbelief, I have hope. I struggle to keep it, but I have it. Of course, I do not worry about my mother. She is beyond all harm and woe. But for my family, I have hope that we might heal. I have hope that we might grow in Christ and with each other due to this tragedy. I have hope that we might delve deeper into the truth of what it means to be Christians, bonded both by baptism and the blood flowing in our veins. I have hope that we might be kept steadfast in the faith, that we might see Jesus and my mother when He raises us from the dead.
I can no longer run to my mother for hurt, help, or a hug. She is no longer able to defend me like lioness of a mother that she was, nor is she able to counsel me with her incredibly sharp mind. Once upon a time, the idea of not being able to help her family would have driven her crazy. But even her faith has been made perfect in death. And I have this image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Theotokos, greeting my mother as she came into glory and reminding her that I, too, am entrusted to her Son. And that is the safest place I can be.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” – John 14:18-19
“His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.” – J.R.R. Tolkien