One year ago today, my mother died after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She had dodged breast cancer bullets a couple of times … well, not really dodged so much as taken them in the chest. But this time the bullet was a shotgun shell to her abdomen full of twelve gauge tumor pellets. Her doctors performed surgery, but with so many tiny tumors the odds of getting all the cancer weren’t good.
After surgery, the chemotherapy made Mom’s life a waking nightmare of nausea and weakness and pain. This was her fourth round of chemo, and since it wasn’t working all that well — not buying her much time — she made the conscious choice to stop treatment.
We all knew that this decision meant her time was short, but we hoped that her quality of life would be higher during what remained. And she did have a few relatively ‘normal’ months before the deterioration overtook her.
I was not prepared for how heartbreaking it would be to see the shell of someone who had once been so vibrant and full of energy. But even so, I am grateful that I and the kids got the chance to see her several times at the end of her life, and to say goodbye.
Most healthy young people conceive of life as being constant until it ends abruptly. And sometimes it does, but sometimes a life withers away, and the older I get, the more I start thinking of how long I’ll be healthy enough to do the things I love.
I’ve started thinking of life in terms of quality time left, of how long I can stave off attrition. How long will I be able to play soccer? How many more times will I be able to go hiking with my kids? When will I lose my mental sharpness and become unable to write?
How much is three months of quality life worth? Or one month, or even a week?
I fully believe that Mom made the right decision. One year of vomiting isn’t better than three months of peace, but damn do I wish she’d had better choices.
Back in March of last year, Karawynn and the girls and I traveled to Yachats on the Oregon coast for Mom’s memorial service and the interment of her ashes. Even now, nearly a year later, I find it difficult to write about. I haven’t lost many people close to me, and I’m not sure I coped very well. But then again, does anyone?
In the days before the memorial service, we stayed in a beach-front rental house with my sister and her husband, my brother and his daughter. It was comforting to be surrounded by family.
The memorial ceremony itself was simple. It rained, but we crowded into the cemetery’s small shelter, above a picturesque graveyard that overlooks the ocean. “A tomb with a view,” we had joked earlier, but there was no joking on that day. I cried when my daughter Michaela sang “Into the West,” with my brother Jeff on guitar. I think most people did.
I have over the years become less communicative with distant friends and family. I can create fictional characters and give them deeply personal narratives, but I have a harder time sharing my own stories.
I understand some of the reasons for this. Every time I moved, I lost touch with friends or family. Setbacks in my career took a toll on my self-confidence. When my ex-wife and I separated, many of our friends disapproved and chose sides.
And near the end of Mom’s life, I gradually stopped talking to everyone except Karawynn and my girls. I closed in on myself.
Mom had supported me in everything I tried. She loved me even on the rare occasions when she didn’t agree with my life choices. And because she was my mom, I took that support and love for granted.
Mom would call me. Mom would email me. Mom would send gifts. She was always reaching out. And I responded; I could match her enthusiasm. But I rarely called or emailed her first. It was only after she couldn’t reach out, after she was so bedridden and brain-addled from cancer and drugs, that I began to initiate contact.
In December of 2010, knowing the end was near, we gave Mom a big party: a gathering of her friends and family to celebrate her life while she was still alive. Even on her deathbed, Mom provided the nexus around which we came together, as she had done for years.
And you know what? It was a warm and loving time despite the sadness. I had time alone with her, and she was lucid during some of it. I said my goodbyes. She told me that she loved me and to “be brave.”
As she was dying, Mom told me to be brave.
I am trying to take her words to heart. I have been making an effort to reach out to friends and family and share more of myself. That I am writing this journal now is, at least in part, because of her.
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“Into the West” by Annie Lennox, sung by Michaela Koke with Jeff Koke on guitar.