A scream rose up from the depths of my womb; that sacred place that connects mothers and daughters.
I had never screamed like that in my life. My emotions, like my countenance, had a habit of being reserved. Careful thought preceded every action. I’d always been cautious that way. I’m a Cancer, astrologically that is. For god’s sake, we approach life stepping sideways, never head-on.
On the occasion when I’ve heard other women scream or cry uncontrollably, I’ve been a bit awestruck. How do they do that; just let ‘er rip with uncalculated abandon? I was sure I would never experience that.
My deafening, hysterical scream quickly turned into a sustained sob that I thought would never stop. Heaving breath, snot and tears, and hot, hot face opening to this raw pain. I felt it in every cell of my being.
We’d been at the hospital 24/7 for two weeks. This was the culmination of her 10-year fight.
First, cancer lived in her breast. Surgery, chemo, and she’s good to go. If she stays cancer-free for six years, that’s a good indication that she’s got a clean slate. She gets a do-over.
As fate would dictate, I was on that same six-year cancer watch. I was diagnosed with uterine cancer about the same time she had her mastectomy. After my surgery and treatment, I made it to the six-year mark. She did not.
I’ll never forget the day I saw my mom without her “cancer wig” on.
She had lost almost all her hair. That perky little salt and pepper wig helped her to still feel pretty, but it made her head really hot. She would never complain. Not about that. Not about anything.
We were sitting on my bed talking about everything and nothing. She was hot, so she just grabbed the top of her wig and popped it off. Her nearly bald head had retained a few pieces of long grey hair plastered to her scalp. My measured responses to anything cancer were obliterated in that moment, and I wept freely. She held me as we did our best to comfort one another.
Mom and I were close. My two sisters were more than a decade older than me. I was her baby.
Everyone loved my mom. My friends, every boyfriend (or husband) I’d ever had, the people in our small town. She was the most loving, non-judgmental person I’ve ever known.
When cancer reached her liver, she began to decline pretty rapidly. She now needed oxygen to supplement her breathing. She got frightfully thin. She sipped at her Ensure, dutifully, even though it made her gag. And through it all, she still had that effortless way of uplifting everyone around her.
The beginning of the end came quickly. George and I had taken the kids out to visit Grammie and Grandpa. Mom excused herself to go to the bathroom. She called for me and, when I opened the door, I saw the look of panic on her face. There was blood on the toilet paper and blood in the toilet. Cancer had reached her kidneys.
She was admitted to the hospital that Monday morning. My two sisters, my daughter, my husband, my stepdad, and I became her unrehearsed death doulas.
During these final days, it got more and more difficult for her to breathe. She needed oxygen all the time and sometimes still gasped for breath. It was painful to watch.
One evening, when she was reaching for more breath, I asked the nurse to give my mom more oxygen. She said she couldn’t do that until she got an order from the doctor. He wouldn’t be in for at least another hour. I shouted at the nurse, “Just give my mom more oxygen! Can’t you see she can’t breathe!”
The nurse was clearly taken aback. Witnessing this, my mom slowly removed her oxygen mask, motioned for the nurse to come close. She took that little nurse’s face in her hands and said to her, “Please forgive my daughter, dear; she is very concerned about me. She didn’t mean to raise her voice at you.” Then she put her mask back on, smiled lovingly at me, and took my hand in hers as she gasped for her next breath. That was my mom.
I stepped out of the room for a short time. When I came back, my sisters were crying. Our mom was gone. I went to her bedside and lifted her hands to my lips. I kissed her hands again and again as I wept. “Your hands. Your hands, mom, I’m going to miss your hands so much.” I kissed my sweet mom goodbye.
It wasn’t until we got back to the house that I felt the full rush of emotion. I walked through the door, into her living room, and stood there, frozen. That primordial scream arose and reverberated against the walls of this now barren room where my mom would never stand with me again.