Today is a full month since my mother died. It’s been…strange, really. (Busy, too. Who knew there were so many things for families to do once someone is gone?)
Many times over the past few weeks I’ve caught myself running through things “I’ve got to tell Mom” in my head, only to stop and realize that our daily phone calls aren’t ever going to happen again. I guess I haven’t really fully wrapped my mind around the concept of “never again” (on this earth at least).
I’ve been talking to the girls quite frequently about Yia Yia in hopes of their grasping what’s happened while still maintaining their innocent view of death. It’s hard but inspiring to be forced to talk about my mother’s absence on earth as a good thing (because she is with Jesus, which is the best place to be). Emma Vance, of course, is the most perceptive. A week ago she randomly looked at me and asked, “Is Yia Yia’s body healed in heaven?” I smiled and replied back with forced enthusiasm that yes, she was no longer sick. Before that she asked if Yia Yia was ever going to be “done with Jesus and come back?” I wish, sweet girl, I wish.
The night my mother was taken off support in the ICU, I was able to be by her side. There is so much there — so much stuff to unpack and deal with, in time. However, despite all the images and memories I’m still trying to sort out from the two months she was ill and from that final night, I’m thankful that I was at her side as she said goodbye to everyone in our family. I’m even more thankful that I had a chance to read her a letter I had written expressing my final thoughts to her, to say goodbye along with all the things I always wanted to say during her life but never did.
I know it’s strange to think that I had even written a goodbye letter to my mother, but I can explain.
I think it’s helpful to know what happened that caused me to write that letter. Here’s an excerpt from a blog I started in order to document my mother’s illness, an entry that didn’t go much of anywhere once she passed:
About a week after E.V.’s birthday party, my mother calls me. She’s got a stomach bug, and she’s upset because my brother and his family are coming all the way from California to visit in a few days.
“You’ll be fine. Just rest and get over this ASAP,” I encourage her.
But she doesn’t get better quickly.
In fact, she’s still weak and nauseated the weekend they visit, and after seeing her in person during a family event, my subconscious apparently goes into overdrive. I have a dream that night that my mother dies from this stomach bug.
I call her in the morning and she laughs it off. “This stomach bug isn’t going to kill me. Get real,” she scoffs. Then she adds, “Besides, I feel a lot better now. I just feel bloated.”
Over the next week she can’t seem to reduce her bloated stomach, and finally decides to go see a doctor. He immediately sends her to the ER; her stomach doesn’t look right. It’s too swollen and distended to be a stomach bug.
She’s given a CT scan, and they find fluid in her stomach (ascites) and spots on her liver. The hospital admits her to the oncology unit immediately — without an official diagnosis of cancer.
The next week is full of confusion and phone tag and fear and tests — MRIs and scans and physical exams. Her brain, lungs and heart look good. Her blood counts are great. But there’s a large lump in her breast. The liver isn’t filtering like it should, causing the ascites. A paracentesis is done, where a needle is stuck into her abdomen and fluid is drained. They get a liter and a half out. She feels a bit better.
They tell her she has to check out and go to another office for a biopsy on her breast, so she leaves weakened and with an Oxycontin scribe. They take a core from the lump and send her home to wait.
A full week goes by before she meets with the doctor for the biopsy results.
During that first week that my mother was actually in the hospital, deep down I felt she wouldn’t make it. I suppose part of it I attributed to the idea that none of us make it, but I was haunted by the seemingly predictive dream I had just had of her dying. So before she even got the biopsy results, I wrote her a letter saying the things I wanted to say before she died. I carried a copy around with me all the while she was sick. The first time she was in the ICU and things weren’t looking good, I gave it to her to read. She refused. So I put it with her things “just in case,” and when they moved her out of the ICU a week later, I took the letter back and carried it in my purse.
I thought I’d share a portion of the letter here. I’m not to sure why I feel compelled to do so — maybe perhaps it will cause urgency in someone out there to say what they need to say to someone they love; we don’t all get the chance to say a formal goodbye. I am beyond blessed that I got that chance.
…Mom, I want you to know how the story ends. With everything in me, I want you to see it all, every last moment — every milestone and graduation and wedding and birth. But we can’t always get everything we wish for. So, in case you ever wonder, I want to remind you aren’t going to miss a single thing, that you already know how this story goes:
I’m married to the love of my life. I chose right. Ryan treats me better than I deserve, provides for me, speaks kindly to me and honors me — and that never changes. We are happy and in love for the rest of our lives. He and I show Cricket and E.V. what a loving, healthy, desirable marriage looks like, and one day they’ll mimic what they’ve grown up with.
We have two beautiful children together. One is named after your mother and father, and the other is named Cricket (not Crystal haha). They are so pretty; Emma Vance looks appropriately like a Vance, and Cricket is my spitting image. I never let them try a pixie cut, and I definitely never let them then also get a perm (only to then subsequently end up with chicken pox), so they always remain pretty. They’re smart and clever and kind and fun and creative from beginning to end. They have Aunt Mae’s artistic talent, and I always joke with them about how Great Grandma Vance and Yia Yia always complained that the skill skipped over them. (Although the knitting and sewing would say otherwise.)
They grow like weeds. And then, as time passes, I become…well, you.
They know “The Old Gray Cat” by heart, and by the end of elementary school it only takes me singing the first few notes from their doorway for them to hop out of bed in the morning. At night they complain that they can’t sleep and I have to tell them to “start by relaxing their toes.” We play rummikub and watch old lady shows together. We shop til we drop, and I always talk about how PopPop always bought me a new dress every chance he got. (We use that as an excuse to buy lots of dresses.) We take family trips up to Asheville each year to drop both girls at Merri-Mac, and then wait for their letters eagerly. They cry when it’s time to come home, and I’m empathetic because the feeling is still fresh after all these years with me, too. They love school and prove themselves to be just like you and me, excelling at academics and busy with extra curriculars. Every time they complain about studying, I tell them all about how you got a scholarship to Hathaway Brown because you were competitive with a boy in your class who got a scholarship first. In fact, I tell them so many times they roll their eyes and sigh, “…and she was the runner up Miss Teen Ohio. We know, we know.” ;)
The girls become teenagers and suddenly I’m not cool anymore. They give me heartache and grief and annoy the snot out of me. I nag them for saying “like” too many times, and we argue over the proper use of commas in lists. They’re on Homecoming Courts and presidents of clubs, and I’m still constantly taking pictures. (By this point I’ve probably hit the 50,000 mark in picture count.) They get baptized at church and I sit front and center to watch. They get into every college they dream of, and I couldn’t be prouder.
All the while, I take care of Grandma. I call her often just to check in. We talk about, well, the usual things — the girls, the weather, whatever. We visit her, spend lots of time trying to convince her to move up here. She’s like you, like us — stuck in her ways. She lives a full, happy life filled with her grandkids and great grandkids, including her namesake. I send her pictures all the time, and she complains that there are too many, that she has to throw some of them out. I just roll my eyes. Stuck in her ways.
I make sure Jon and Dad are okay, too. I make sure that Dad keeps working, keeps busy. He learns to roast vegetables and make Greek salads. He still watches “Spongebob Squarepants” every morning and yells at the liberals on TV. I force both men out to dinner every so often. We always choose Trattoria, and Dad orders the entire list of appetizers every time. (Once in a blue moon, when Tony and Jill and the cousins are in town we venture out to Bahama Breeze where Dad enjoys his girly cocktails.) They come to all my parties and complain about the effort I put in and its frivolity while stuffing their faces, just like it’s always been. We’ll spend the holidays together, and sooner than I’d like, Dad starts informing me of what I’ll be cooking for those meals just like he always has. (I’ll oblige; he’s my dad.) They will be with us on Christmas Eve, and we’ll always talk about the Christmas Eves past — the failed Santa ravioli and croque en bouche. Of how you always had to have a tree with tinsel, and those clanky bells on the door. We’ll miss you deeply, but I’ll make sure that we all have a good time.
And then, as time passes, I become…well, you again.
E.V. and Cricket graduate with highest honors from their colleges, fall in love and get married. I start mentioning the houses for sale near me. They politely decline, even though I promise I won’t bother them. (They don’t believe me, isn’t that strange? ;) ) They have children of their own. I’m there at the hospital to press a silver dollar into each new grandbaby’s hand as I whisper a blessing to them. As they grow up, I spoil them, and tell them things are okay “when grandma’s around.” I hand out lollipops, give them $2 bills on their birthdays and send them letters by snail mail. Cricket and E.V. roll their eyes at me, tell me that their way of parenting is best, that it’s a miracle they survived with all the cockamamie things my generation believed about raising children. I roll my eyes back at them, but deep down we know that we’re all just doing our best.
Mom, we are all going to be fine. Please don’t worry. Please. I promise. You already know how this story goes. You’ve sacrificed your entire life to make it go this way. We are going to be fine. We will miss you, for sure. I will think of you every single day until I see you in heaven. There will be a place for you at the head of the dining room table that will never feel quite right again, but when we’re sad, we’ll fill it with stories of you, of memories of what an amazing mother and woman you are. And if we’re still sad, maybe we’ll put the oil painting of you in your seat for a good grin. ;)
I love you, Mom. You were exactly the mom I needed in life. Thank you, for everything. Everything. Thank you for my strength, my intelligence, my love for old jewelry. Thank you for my harebrainedness, which is clearly directly inherited from you. Thank you for giving me life and giving me a life. I love you, and I always will.