Once upon a time, in the infamous city of Cleveland, Ohio, there lived a happy family. There was a beautiful mother full of life and compassion, there was a loving father, and there were two innocent children. Life was simple, easy, even fun back in the good old days. That is until that same vivacious mother was diagnosed with cancer. But don’t worry, anything that starts with “once upon a time” has a happy ending, right? I’m truly sorry, but that is only the case in fictional stories – my story is real.
I was 12 years old when my mom died. With each passing day, the memory of that spirited person morphed itself into a strangely familiar image of sickness, mixed with an undeterred determination to survive. However, that is not who my mother was. My mother was not defined by her illness; that was just one small part of her.
Everyone who knew my mom tells me what an amazing person she was. Compassion, empathy, and strength are some of the first character traits that come to the minds of my mom’s friends when they think of her. And let me tell you, my mom had a lot of friends. Looking back, it seems like wherever we went, my mom would see someone she knew and stop to talk for what seemed like forever (several minutes can seem like an eternity for a seven-year-old).
She was a magnet; people were just attracted to her. It was like there was a built in navigation system deep within people’s hearts, leading them directly to her whenever anything remotely exciting happened. And she was always more than happy to help others. My mom loved helping others so much that she chose her career as a social worker because of it. She spent every day dedicating herself to assisting people with their problems until I came along. But after I was born, she and my dad had a problem of their own, because let me tell you, I was a troublemaker.
Although she did stop getting paid to be a resource for others, my mom never stopped helping those she cared about. My sister Samantha, who is now off at college, is always telling me how great my mom was to talk to, how helpful she was in discovering the problem and determining the right solution. One of my biggest regrets is not taking advantage of this.
What you need to know about my sister and me is that we are polar opposites in almost every way imaginable. My sister is one of the most outgoing people you will ever meet. There is a famous story from back when my sister was a toddler that proves this point rather well: my family had just been picked up at the airport, and we were waiting in the long line of cars to get out of the parking lot. In the back seat sat my sister, strapped into her booster seat looking out the window. Outside, there were plenty of strangers minding their own business – after all, this was a public airport. However, there was one unfortunate fellow who just happened to be within earshot of my sister’s surprisingly loud voice. With this in mind, my sister rolled down the car window and started up a full conversation with the guy! The conversation was cut short, however, by my parents. After realizing who Samantha was talking to (and the significant safety risk involved), the window got rolled up mid-sentence. Over the years however, Samantha has learned an essential lesson; not all silences need to be broken.
Her extroverted nature is what made it so necessary for Samantha to talk about her problems – and everything else – with my mom. But like I said, my sister and I are polar opposites. Although I have been trying, I am not the outspoken, friendly girl my sister is, and I probably never will be.
The funny thing about our personalities is, as time has passed, my sister and I have gravitated toward each other, meeting somewhere in the middle. I still do not possess her attention-grabbing voice or confident attitude. I am a listener, a thinker, an observer from the outside. While Samantha needs to literally talk through all of her feelings with someone in order to come to a sound conclusion, I listen to myself. I don’t rely on others for comfort; I provide myself with it.
Over the years, I have learned that although being independent can be beneficial, ultimately, it has lead me to isolate myself from those I love at times. I did not take advantage of my mom’s talents partially because at that time of my life, I really didn’t have any stressing problems that needed working out. But the main reason I didn’t is that I was just uninterested in talking to her. Consequently, as the tumors inside her grew, I felt the distance between my mom and me grow as well.
Now let me get one thing straight: I was never angry with my mom for having cancer. The distance between us came from my inability to express what I was feeling to her, which of course, is quintessential in any relationship. Looking back on it now, I feel ashamed to admit that I would purposely avoid contact with my own mother.
I have this one memory of coming home from gymnastics and quietly sneaking up the stairs so that my mom, who was resting in bed, would not hear me. Despite my love for my mom, or maybe because of it, I could not stand to see her look so helpless. So in an effort to avoid the unpleasant feelings and continue to live my life in relative ignorance, I detached myself from her. In all honesty, I guess a small part of me thought that if I didn’t have to bear witness to the relentless disease that was slowly devouring my mom, then the disease did not really exist. As a result, when my mom did eventually lose the fight, I didn’t really see it coming.
However, I believe there were other factors that played into my ignorance. When my mom first told my sister and me about her cancer diagnosis, she followed up the conversation matter-of-factly: “I’m never going anywhere” and “I am going to beat this.” She truly did believe that eventually this chapter in her life would end, making her one of the rare survivors. Somewhere along the line though, it seems my whole family realized that the odds were not in her favor. And from this recognition, an unsettling reality sank into the pits of our stomachs like a clump of indigestible food.
The fact was, we might have to face a world that did not contain my mother at the center of it. However, as I mentioned, I was the exception to the group, unable to accept the truth that was right before my eyes. When things got really bad toward the end, I didn’t really see any difference. I was so used to the same generally grievous image, that I never noticed it gradually changing for the worse.
My fairy tale world eventually came crashing down with the delivery of a single note. The week before my mom passed away, I came home from school to find my dad waiting for me and my sister in the kitchen. He told us that my mom was going to stay at a place called Hospice of the Western Reserve for a few nights. After further questioning, my sister and I learned that hospices’ only goal is to make patients comfortable; they don’t make any attempt to treat the illness that patients are suffering from.
Within just a few days of my mom being off her treatment, the hospice nurses told us we should prepare for the worst. That night, my dad explained to my sister and me what the plan was if something were to happen when we were at school. He announced that if we were at school and the nurses decided there was not much time left, then he would call the school and pick us up. A few days later I was in first period when a note came for me, and suddenly the reality of the past five years of my life was unavoidable.
When we arrived at the hospice, we were informed by the nurses that there was still some time left. At this point, my mom was unconscious, so in an attempt to distract ourselves we decided to watch one last movie as a complete family: “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” But the thing you will never be able to fully comprehend, no matter how realistic the movies make it, is what it feels like to hear that last gasping breath of air.
My heart stopped. The truth is I really didn’t know what to think besides “oh my gosh.” That night, our rabbi came over to the house to talk to us about how we should be feeling. And there was one thing he said that has stuck with me to this day. He declared that it was okay to feel happy, that we should not feel required to be doleful because that is not what my mom would have wanted.
I feel it is important to mention that the day my mom passed away was actually during the ten days of repentance, a holy period for Jews. During this time, the customary week-long shiva is overruled. Over the years, my dad has explained his idea of who my mom really was with reference to this fact. He believes that my mom was meant to pass when she did because she wanted us to be able to move on and not constantly be in pain with the not so subtle reminder of shiva. Thus, my mother’s true empathy for others was once again revealed.
If you had asked me what kind of person my mom was when she was still alive, I would probably have given you a pretty general response about her being an amazing mother. It is only with hindsight that I can fully appreciate the courageous women she was. But maybe that’s a good thing. Because of my experience, I truly believe that I have been made into a stronger, better person than I was before. I know now to cherish the ones I love and to not take them for granted. I would argue that my whole family has developed this same quality.
So in the end, this story is by no means a fairy tale. But with all of the emotional growth accomplished since that last breath, I’m not sure I would say it’s a nightmare either.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.