Mom passed away June 4th, after struggling bravely with breast cancer for 14 years.
It’s hard to believe so much time has already passed. I think about her every day. I miss her voice, her remarkably positive outlook, her childlike wit even in the most difficult times. I miss knowing that she was there, talking to her so frequently. In some ways I suppose I miss being needed the way she needed me at the end. But I have to say that I was relieved to let her go, because she was so anxious and ready to let go. The disease had really taken a heavy toll on her in the final months, and she was truly spent—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
During the hours and days following the funeral, we had a chance to reflect on the sequence of final events. We decided that were she to script everything herself in advance, Mom would have planned things fairly closely to what we were able to provide for her. That was comforting.
Looking back on the last couple of weeks of her life, I’m really glad she was able to experience the things that she’d hoped for. She had wonderful support from her hospice caregivers, who kept her comfortable despite one of the most painful forms of bone disease. She had competent, kind, and compassionate care from the nursing home staff. She was able to visit with her friends. She spent quality time with her family. She was able to talk, reflect, reminisce, and even to laugh. And when the final moments came, around 11:30pm the evening of June 4th, she wasn’t alone. My brother and I, along with her sister, were right there at her side.
Her memorial service was simple and elegant. Jim Shelburne and Albert Maggard paid their respects and provided the spiritual perspective that was so important to Mom. Both of these ministers were very special to her, and she would have appreciated the personal touch they brought to their remarks. As I had promised Mom, I also offered some brief reflections. I was both honored and humbled to speak about the way that she’ll always be a part of all of us who knew her.
A few days after the services, I posted briefly on Facebook, with a link to her obituary on the funeral home’s site. That was really about all I could manage at the time. In December, when I first blogged about Mom’s illness, I had planned to write some more about it before the end. As things happened, that plan didn’t work out.
At first I debated using the Facebook forum for an announcement like this. Did I really want friends, extended family, and close co-workers to find out this way? Was it too impersonal?
We tried to call as many people as we could, and we asked them to spread the word. And yet we knew we were surely missing people. We felt we were fairly prepared; we had spoken to Mom and made plans in advance as much as possible to honor her wishes. And yet, this was our first experience with it, and the intense list of tasks to be completed immediately following the death of a loved one can be overwhelming.
Honestly, rather than Facebook, I would have preferred about a hundred more personal conversations. But that just wasn’t practical. Word was starting to get around. People were starting to post condolences to my wall. So I wanted the rest to hear it from me, so to speak, rather than second-hand through the Facebook grapevine. Though it still seemed somewhat impersonal, it seemed less so than not saying anything, or even acknowledging the support. And in a strange way surely unique to our generation, the outpouring of encouragement and support through the online forum is very comforting.
In the time that’s passed since then, we’ve begun to go through the things she left behind. I’m really thankful that Mom left instructions for a number of things to be passed on to those who were close to her. And yet there were a whole lot of things left. Mom was pretty sentimental, and she was very organized. She kept cards and letters, journals and calendars, pictures and scrapbooks, lists of Christmas gifts and cards given and received. There were many sentimental items—mostly pictures and letters—that we just put in boxes to go through later, deferring some of the pain in the interest of getting through the process. Some of those boxes are now here in my office, waiting for some quiet time and a bottle of wine.
I learned a lot about my biological father. He was killed in Vietnam when I was two years old. Mom saved an old foot locker full of letters, pictures, poems, newspaper clippings, correspondence with the men in his unit, his personal effects, medals, letters from Defense Secretary McNamara and President Johnson. I always knew about the foot locker, and I knew of its general contents. I knew it would one day be mine. Mom opened it with me occasionally when I was a boy, and she would just scratch the surface of its contents, sharing a few things here and there. But it was painful for her; on most of these occasions she would end up crying. And that was painful for me. Growing up, I mostly avoided it, knowing its secrets would one day be revealed.
So I allowed myself some time in this process to sort through some of this discovery, but there’s still quite a bit more to go. When I break out that bottle of wine, that foot locker is also on the list. And that will be another story to tell.
I’ll close by reflecting on an idea that I’m kicking around.
I’ve learned so much through this process. I was blessed to grow in my relationships with Mom, my wife, my brother and his family, my aunt, and Mom’s friends. I was forced to learn things that I didn’t know—about myself, about the disease, about what it means to be a caregiver, about friendship, about death.
I once suggested to Mom that she should share her experiences surrounding this disease with others who were taking the same journey. As it turns out, she did. I found out about some of her work in the breast cancer community while going through her things.
Now, I’m remembering my advice and thinking I may apply it myself. Perhaps my experience—our experience—could be beneficial to others. So I’m considering writing. What forum it may take, I haven’t decided. I may consider capturing it here, among all the other topics on my long list, and use my blog as a first draft. I may assemble notes and ideas offline, and submit a full work for publishing. In any case, I think this may be a story I can tell effectively, and until a cure is found, this may be a story that will be helpful for others. This is very early stage at this point, a thought process only. So more to come.
I’m glad this entry is done. It’s taken a little while. But I really felt I couldn’t write about anything else here until I properly captured this.