Some things my mother has said to me over the years ring loud and clear in my memory: “Sit up straight,” “Wear your heavy coat today, it’s cold outside.”
The little girl in me would dutifully accept her wise advice. As I grew, her words to me changed as she included me more and more in her adult world. I heard about all the things that made her life interesting.
There were the exploits of her last vacation, a recommendation for a good book to read, and an opinionated synopsis on what the pastor had talked about in church last week. This was not advice or direction for me, but actual conversation. It didn’t take long to realize she was now directing my path in other ways. We had become friends, even though many miles separated us.
My world changed two years ago, when, after a nagging pain in her side wouldn’t go away, I received the heartbreaking news that my mother had a rare, aggressive form of cancer. I was shocked. What was happening here? Mom had a long life ahead of her, didn’t she?
My father was the one who took nearly every medication known to mankind. I did not want to lose my precious father either, but statistics and probability always seemed to be on my mother’s side. Trying to comprehend, I spun into a world of questions. Why, why, why? Days and weeks went by, and our conversations shifted to the world of chemo treatments, appetite loss, wig styling and the daily question: “How are you feeling, Mom?”
And then, that terrible day, a phone call and my mother’s words to me that will live forever in my mind. Call them brand-new words I had never heard her speak before, call them words that changed a life’s direction, call them the four worst words I ever heard linked together to form a sentence, call them the equivalent to dropping an atomic soul bomb.
“I think I’m dying.”
That was it. Not a question to me to see if my thoughts equaled hers. Just a plain and simple statement spoken for the first time aloud. What should I say? As a child, I readily understood her words to me. But what about this? What should my adult answer be?
“Mom, we are all dying, aren’t we?” I said.
Was this my attempt at making her feel better? I assumed the role of family cheerleader and added, “You’re doing great mom. Think positively.”
When she uttered those words to me, why, oh, why, didn’t I drop everything I was doing and run to her side? I wish I would have responded in a way that would have validated what she was telling me. Instead, I had tried valiantly to gloss over the inevitable.
Her last months should have been spent making more memories. I wish I had cooked her all her favorite foods and tirelessly, without complaint, rubbed her back without being asked. Days could have been spent looking over family photos and organizing them. What pictures did she like of herself, and should we display them at the funeral? Would she like to hear the words I was writing down to deliver as a eulogy when that terrible day came?
Months went by and my mother died the day after Christmas in 2011 after spending two weeks in a hospice facility. Sitting with her those last days, watching her slip further and further from me, there was little or no talk. The woman who had verbalized the meaning of life to me was leaving.
She had needed me much more in the recent past than she did now. Her time to die was a private affair. The need for advice and comment was long since past. Only the memories of her living would remain, and I wish I had created more to soothe my loss and validate a life well-lived.
Janice Mazur is an administrator at the MUSC Dental School and lives in Summerville with husband Bob. Her mother, Doris McVay, was the inspiration for her story.