Early last fall, my husband and I were driving into Washington after visiting family in Virginia. Our two small boys were in the back seat, already lulled to sleep after hours of playing with cousins. “You take Sam, I’ll get Jonah,” I sort of absent-mindedly whispered to Steven, making our car-to-bed getaway plans. I looked back, and the boys’ cheeks were glowing with the soft green light from the dashboard, both kids cozy in their coats, safe with their mom sitting right there in front of them.
It dawned on me then: I remember being them so very clearly. I remember hearing my mother’s voice in the front seat: “I’ll get the key and open the house.” Even though I couldn’t open my eyes, so tired from an evening of fun with cousins, I could picture her turtleneck, clip-on earrings and glasses reflecting the light from the dashboard.
My mom’s life and mine have finally dovetailed. Now, a mother of a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, I truly understand her.
But this was also the first year I had to live without her.
I’m a late-30s woman who has lost her mother. A mom who made it just past the age of 70, who actually got to meet and be a big part of all four of her grandchildren’s lives. That’s not tragic. That’s a life well lived. So who am I to feel alone, utterly sad, as if no one has ever gone through this?
There’s just something about moms, particularly when one becomes a mom herself.
This cancer thing had gone on so long, I felt as if the past eight years held a thundercloud of fear for me. What was I afraid of, exactly? I discovered this year — the year I had been dreading since her cancer was diagnosed — that without her I could be a mother, an employee, a daughter to my father and a wife to my husband just fine without her advice. But I couldn’t phone and tell her that Sam created a backyard fort today with his friend Claire out of garden stakes and the baseball blanket she had made him.
Shortly after Steven and I got married, I got a call from my dad. I was looking out the upstairs window of our newly purchased Adams Morgan house, sitting on the new blue quilt on our bed. “Your mother has breast cancer,” my dad said.
I started to ask questions: Has it spread? How big is the tumor? Radiation? Chemo? “Helen, she’s asking questions,” my dad said. She took the phone from him. Clearly, he had called instead of her because he thought it would be easier on her. But Mom was the one with the answers.
After a year or so of surgery, radiation, chemo and all the things that go with breast cancer, her doctor said she could take a break from treatment. And then Sam was born.
She was there in the first hours after he arrived. And she was back a week later, soothing him to sleep with every song in her endless songbook, telling me to get up and out of the house, walk around a little to push those baby blues out of the way.
Two months after that, I was sitting on that same bed, same quilt, looking out that same window onto the same pretty trees. The cancer had spread to her liver. “I just wanted to see my grandchildren grow up,” she cried to me.
That was the last time she really got that upset to me about her lot in life. And that was the first time I couldn’t breathe.
How could my life be my life without her? How could it be possible my children would grow up without this creative former art teacher, whose entire mission was to pamper and teach and guide those grandchildren?
My parents are optimists, and they love(d) life as everyone wishes he could. They never asked how long Mom had, because they were living every day as fully as they could anyway. So they traveled, biked, continued volunteer work, visited friends and family.
For metastatic breast cancer, particularly the kind that spreads to the soft organs, the survival rate is not long-term. My parents may not have asked, but Steven and I did. “Six months to three years,” the second-opinion doctor said. I never told my parents.
In 2009, Jonah was born during a snowstorm. Just a week and a half later, Mom and Dad made it here from Pittsburgh. I have pictures of my mom, the lady with metastatic breast cancer, years of chemo and a little fuzz of hair, up to her thighs in the snow, helping Sam make snow angels and paint Christmas cookies as we were getting acquainted with our newborn. I was frazzled and sometimes unbearably sad about her life ending. She was calm and, well, living.
Mostly, she was mother/grandma. She always feared giving advice, afraid my brother or I would get annoyed. I sometimes teased her for her guidance. She would say one thing, and I’d exaggerate it to make it sound as ridiculous as possible. It was clear she thought we were too strict with the “no sweets” rule with Sam. “If he had more sweets, he wouldn’t act so crazy every time he had a cookie,” she said once. That turned into “Mom thinks we need to feed Sam more sugar to make him normal.”
As things got worse toward the end of 2011, I visited almost every weekend, usually leaving my boys at home with Steven because Mom was too sick to be around them, and so I could focus on her.
The things that were so everyday for “the rest” of the world began to make my knees buckle. One of the last weeks before Christmas, I took her to her multitude of appointments. In one waiting room, we pored over an issue of This Old House and dog-eared the many things we thought I should do if Steven and I ever remodeled. She would never see my house again.
We laughed as we snuck that magazine out of the office. I still have it next to my bed.
Just a couple of weeks after that day, one we spent often in tears from laughing so much, we moved my mother into a hospice house.
Her last real role as my mom was during the final moments of our lives together. It was about five days into the hospice stay — and just like the length of her cancer, this had lasted much longer than any doctors expected. She wasn’t mentally with us anymore, agonizing noises coming from her mouth. My dad had told me that night that I had to go home to my own small boys the next day. “Who knows how long this will go on,” he said. “You need to go tomorrow.”
And so that Saturday night, around 10, I sat with my incoherent mom, my face just wet.
“I don’t know what to do, Mom,” I whispered. “Dad told me I have to go. And I don’t want to leave you, but the boys need me. I don’t know what to do.”
My dad and I left. As I was about to crawl into bed, the phone rang. I grabbed it before he could, knowing it would be the wonderful nurse at the hospice house. She had done her rounds a few minutes ago. Mom was gone.
It was her final, selfless parenting act. I think she didn’t want me to have to make the decision about whether to stay or go, so she made it for me, and helped me go be a mom to my own boys.
So here’s the thing. The funeral happened. The year happened. And I survived. I’m still a mom, a wife, a daughter, sister, friend, employee. I can’t get on the phone with my mom every day. She wasn’t here to help me make the boys’ Halloween costumes this year. We didn’t have our summer beach walks or our annual Christmas shopping trip, and I can’t ask her for advice that I will later taunt her with.
In the end, as she always did, I lived. And although this year without her has been hard and sad and missing something big, it has still happened.
When I started thinking about writing about losing my mom, I thought I would be able to fill pages with what exactly has been lost. But it sort of comes down to one thing that my wise 3-year-old said recently, when he didn’t want me to leave his room after a prolonged bath-books-bed routine. He grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go and whined: “But I want you forever!”
My 38-year-old self gets it. Really, kid. I get it.
Amy Joyce is a Washington Post staff writer.