When I was 6 or 7, my mom moved out of our house. It wasn’t the first time, but it would be the last. I remember bits of it as clearly as if it were yesterday.
Mom and Dad came home from work with groceries, as they did every payday; then Mom was fixing dinner. Spaghetti, I think. I remember vividly that she was standing at the stove when, as happened sometimes, my younger brother and I started fighting. Except I didn’t really fight. I usually tried to defend myself, but ended up screaming for my momma. I don’t see the point in fist-fighting, and I didn’t ever want to hurt someone who I loved.
This day was no different. For whatever reason, Dave was mad, and I was his target. Again. (Probably because our older brother or sister would knock him on his ass without a second thought!) I may have deserved the beating I was being handed, I don’t remember. But nevertheless, there we were. And Mom seemed oblivious to it all.
“Mom! Tell him to leave me alone!” I pleaded.
“You’re the oldest, YOU make him stop” was her reply as she turned and glared at me. And then she said: “I can’t take this anymore.” Without another word, she walked out of the kitchen, put on her yellow and blue coat and walked out the door. She didn’t even close it behind her. I remember that because it was raining, and I thought that maybe God was crying, too.
I seem to remember Dad going after her for a minute, standing in the doorway or on the porch; I don’t remember if they talked or not, or if my dad had any idea what was happening, but the four of us kids were dumbfounded. And then the tears came. First from my sister, the one who was always closest to Mom; and then from Dad, as he tried to comfort her. Then my brothers and me and soon, we were all huddled together, hugging each other and trying to understand. Maybe she was afraid that talking to us about it would have made her change her mind; maybe she didn’t think it was any of our business, or maybe she was running late. I have never asked Dad whether he knew in advance. Whatever the case,she didn’t even say goodbye.
The actual story, according to her, is that she bought a month’s worth of groceries that day after work “to make sure you kids would be fed”. She planned it all and knew exactly what time she had to leave to meet the man who would become my step-father, who was waiting for her down the street.
This was all explained to me when I was about 21. In my memory, she blamed me for having to leave. She can’t take the fighting? Can’t take me asking for help? Can’t take…ME anymore? I finally decided to ask: “Mom…did you leave because of me? You looked right at me and said you couldn’t take it anymore. Was it my fault you left?”
She was quiet for a long time. We were talking on the phone and I couldn’t see her face, so I was terrified. And then she explained that she and Rex had planned when and where to meet, told me that she bought extra food to see that we were taken care of, and finally, that it had nothing to do with me. And I believed her.
March 5, 2014 was my first day back to work after a week off for a hysterectomy (I was bored and didn’t want to take 6 weeks off, what can I say?). As we pulled into the driveway after work, my phone rang. It was Mom. Just a little bit of back-story; my mother and I didn’t talk much after the divorce, and when she called, it was usually with bad news. “Oh, shit, who died?” was my first thought. I answered the phone apprehensively. “Hi, Mom!”
She called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with Breast Cancer. She said that she had elected for a mastectomy, and that she would be starting treatment soon after that. She said that the conversation with the doctor was kind of a blur, but that he said “stage 4 something”, and that I had better make sure not to ever miss a mammogram ever. I promised I would take care of myself, and tried really hard not to fall apart.
I never knew what the “right” reaction was with my mom. It seemed that I could never say the right thing. And I’m quite positive that this was no exception. I didn’t cry or beg her to get treatment; I just accepted the news and told her that I loved her. I told her I would support whatever decision she made, and that I would be happy to accompany her to visits to the doctor, or pop over on a Sunday afternoon just to talk, or whatever she wanted. “I’m here for whatever you need. Or don’t need, even.” She said none of that was necessary, that my sister’s daughters were always available to help, that she just wanted to let me know.
Maybe I should have run to her right then and just let her talk. Maybe I should have let her hear me cry. Maybe I should have…something. I don’t know. I still don’t know. Maybe, when my sister called to tell me that my step-dad had shot and killed himself two months later, THEN I should have gone to her. I asked my sister if I should. “I don’t know what the right thing is to do”, I said. She didn’t know either.
I called Mom the day after Rex’s suicide. She told me what happened and said that my sister and her kids had done a great job of cleaning up and, while she was sad, she also was a bit relieved. Rex had been having seizures and other medical problems for several years, and she took care of him. Now, she said, she could concentrate on taking care of herself and getting the treatment she needed.
During the conversation, I recounted something she and Rex told me when they first got together. It wasn’t mean, just a memory, but as is typical, it was the wrong thing to say. It set her off, she shouted at me, and then found a way to end the conversation. I guess I’m glad I called instead of going over. That would have been awkward for both of us.
February 2015: Mom calls while I’m at work. It was a Thursday. I wanted to be able to talk as long as she needed, so I waited until I got home to call her back. This time she called to tell me that she was dying. She said that she had seen the doctor that afternoon, and that he told her that the cancer had metastasized to her lungs, and that she had two months to live. And that’s IF she got treatment. She said that she couldn’t see extending her life by two months just to spend those two months getting chemo treatments. “I’m not going to wait that long”, she said, meaning that she was going when she decided to go, and no doctor was going to set the date. She told me that she was signing Power of Attorney over to my sister, and that my sister had clear instructions to divide everything between “my four kids”.
And then I asked the question I had wanted to ask for years. The one that I knew would piss her off the most, but that I needed an answer to: “I’m not trying to be a smart-ass, Mom, but…what do you want from me? Do you want me to be there?”
Silence. For the longest 30 seconds of my life to date, I waited. And then…
“You do what’s best for you, Becky.”
She was angry. She was probably hurt. She yelled. My husband heard her from the other room. I knew this would happen, and that it really would be my fault that she was upset this time, but the last thing I wanted was to make her uncomfortable as she died. I persisted.
“Mom, please understand. This time it really IS all. about. YOU. If you want me to be there, I will be there. If you need me to stay away, I will do that. What do YOU want?”
Another silence. “You’re my daughter. I love you. Of course I want you there.” This time, I wasn’t sure whether I believed her or not. But it was the answer I wanted to hear. We made arrangements to see her on Saturday afternoon. I asked if she wanted me to bring anything and, after a bit of discussion, she decided on a pineapple shake from the best shake shack in the state of Utah. Yum.
Saturday morning, my sister called to say that Mom had been rushed to the hospital and was in ICU. She was having a hard time breathing, and they couldn’t do enough for her at the rehab facility where she had been for the last few weeks. We got ready and headed to the hospital.
I walked into her room and took her hand. I told her that I hadn’t brought the shake because I didn’t know if they would let me bring it into the ICU. “I can have anything I want!” She declared. So off we went to get her pineapple shake. My gosh, I have never seen anyone so happy to have ice cream! She sat herself up in bed, pulled the bi-pap up a bit and started eating. She ate almost all of it in a very short time. She smiled a lot, and that made me happy. I just sat with her, talking about nothing important, holding her hand. She drifted in and out of sleep, told me that she was at peace with one of my nieces who was having some problems; “No matter what anyone says, Keesha and I are good. Don’t let them tell you different.” I went home after a couple of hours and when I went back the next day, she said “You just sitting there holding my hand yesterday…that meant the world to me”.
On February 26th, as I left work to head to the hospital, I got a text from my sister: “Mom just passed”. We rushed to the hospital and I fell apart at her bedside. She was still warm. She really did look like she was sleeping, unlike any other person I have ever seen after they pass. I was fortunate to have time with her, but wanted to let her do all the talking, and so…once again…I never really got to say goodbye.