None of us thought we’d die before our “time.” I think it means our presupposed allotted lifetime into old age, perhaps our 70s or 80s. Seeing grandchildren grow. Watching as our bodies change with age, seeing our partners creases form around the same eyes into which we’re used to gazing. Death from stage four cancer didn’t occur to me as my ultimate decider. It did erased the path to the future I’d laid out in front of me. After diagnosis I could find no place to land my next footstep.
I miss my parents these days. The path I’m on no longer leads home to them, either. Their presence represented home for me, which I only realized after they died. No longer could a path carry them back to me, either. The warmth of parental love would be welcomed. That love a parent usually feels for a child no matter what age or stage in their relationship. Death ends an irreplaceable bond and the only unconditional love most humans will ever know. So different from the lives we chose.
A parent’s love, unchosen by us, although m not always healthy but biologically necessary in childhood, becomes evident at some point in our adult lives. Hopefully we work out any resentment or negative emotional turmoil and reach a mature understanding of one another before they die or as in my mother’s case, before memory becomes only the child’s to remember, as the parent may no longer recognize heir own. Perhaps in some way Alzheimer’s and dementia take down the open door and board up the portal to the past leaving nowhere to find our common experiences.
My mother died from Alzheimer’s just before her 74th birthday. Too young for my family, and too soon for me. Money somehow takes over the priorities in many families. My family exhibited no exception in behavior. My younger brother kept me from finding out about my mother’s death. My ex husband sent me his condolences but too late to travel to arrive in Florida from California in time for her service. She wanted to be cremated, and many times in my life had me swear I’d not bury her. Mom was terribly afraid of being buried. My brother and my mother’s sister tried to stop her burial after a text message from me alerting them to her wishes. However, it was too late and the cemetery had already embalmed her. The embalming process made cremation no longer an option.
There’s a bond between a first born daughter and a mother. At least that’s what mom told me. Do you ever hear yourself speaking your mother’s words or her idiosyncratic phrases sometimes? I know I think to myself, “god, I sounded just like Elaine!” And I look like both of my parents. There’s no doubt a genetic blender swirled them together to create me. But they had very different deaths.
As different as their lives.
The strong relationship between my father and I went through its share of turmoil and warmth. We were much more alike intellectually and culturally. He handed me Kurt Vonnegut when I reached 10 years of age, Stranger in a Strange Land at 12. He fed my curiosity and introduced me to art and jazz and rock n’ roll. Never did I doubt his love for me until after his first, and only, 18-hour operation to remove about 50% of a huge benign mitochondrial tumor. The big ugly thing grew slowly and lodged itself against his brain stem. It also grew tendrils that wrapped themselves around his cochlear ear bones making balance a trick – and showing us the need for an MRI. Those tendrils seemed to reach out and give us the finger giving new meaning to #fuckcancer as if it were tweeting #fuckhumans – as if. Brain surgery takes away parts of a person’s personality and can leave anger where once was joy and humor. His anger was directed at me and my brother took full advantage of the situation. He fed my dad’s anger like my father once fed my curios young mind. Lots of influence where a blank picture of me once showed his favorite kid. I took second pole position.
I flew to Miami after a rousing bout with prediabetes and an annoying loss of mobility of my left foot. A neurologist asked if my blood sugar got tested and if diabetes ran in my family. Yes it ran rampant on my mother’s side and my sugar tested 265. I dropped 25 lbs and looked rather grayish. A swift change of diet and no more wine (gasp!) took care of that problem.
But my family is prone to rumor mongering. My brother used it as an opportunity to convince my relatives that I had to be a drug addict and they’ll choose to believe a good yarn before the truth. Most of them doubt I have cancer, so on some level it’s conceivable. Hey, you know it’s easy to hold down an executive level job for nearly three decades as a full time drug addict.
It’s not easy being a woman in a male dominated field and my long and successful career abruptly ended the day of my diagnosis. Dense breasts kept me from early detection and stress spoon fed cortisol to the hidden tumors growing beyond my breast and into my bones before it was caught. Now four plus years later, my mother has been dead for about half of this time, I consider why she was told it would be too upsetting to see me and I was not given any information about the facility in which she lived. If my life were any indication of overcoming hardships this wasn’t one I could put up a fight for from way across the country and without any family willing to support my need to see her. I never intended to relate my cancer to her, but somehow I believe she’d have known regardless of her brain turning her into someone who might not even recognize her own daughter. Maybe it was for the best I didn’t see her that way, but I’ll never know.
I do want to say this: terminal cancer allows me to clearly see through fine tuned lenses the importance of love and forgiving. And if you cannot find forgiveness then to let go and forget. I’m equally as imperfect as both of my imperfect parents. And long ago I forgot those wounds left unhealed. I forgave my own foibles as I forgave them theirs. And as quickly as that — my wounds surfaced and began to heal. As I am the delicate mix of those two who raised themselves more so than me, both abandoned me at different life stages, they also tried to return to heal their guilt, which I admit now I was not ready to completely forgive. But if they saw me now I know they’d both be very proud of me. Grace under pressure exhibiting empathy for others and a spirit of giving where there’s need.
I leave these words in this blog, and hopefully expand it into a book that I hope to leave as a legacy if for no one else but myself and as a gift for my beloved partner of 12 years – C. Yet inter-spaced between the lines and words are my parents. Having closure with them came to me as I’ve taken a long time to think about what to say in this time of my life about such a difficult topic as this. Closure happens as it should when we are ready and cannot be forced by funeral, cremation, burial or memorial. It may happen while they’re living or not. Either way closure happens for the living to lessen sadness and soothe our senses of loss because the dead, as far as we know, have their final closure with the exhalation of their last breath. There’s no forgiving us anymore. We can only forgive ourselves for them.
My father wanted a party for his memorial. He wanted me to insure it’s success, and what a success it was. My mother and his later ex wife both attended. Both commented that my dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. This was just as I knew as his medical custodian what he meant when he told me how he wanted to come out of his surgery and when to say no to life support. I thankfully never had to make that decision. I also know the gift he gave me were much more meaningful than money and more dear than any object could posthumously express for him. Giving me those responsibilities showed his confidence in my intellect, his pride in who I am as an adult and his unconditional love for his daughter. I can still feel it as I can still recall so brightly the 250 or so people at his memorial singing with me, “Joy to The World,” by Three Dog Night.
Closure with a parent may take years to happen. The end result of such healing can be expressed by his favorite song: by easing loss and sadness and leaving better memories to give, “joy to you and me.”