love letters from my mother

From February 2019.

“I’m not afraid to die,” she said.

“You’re not? That’s good to know. It actually makes me feel so much better to know that.”

“No, I’m not. I know that everyone has to die sometime,” she said, as she sat wilting on the living room couch just seven or eight Saturdays ago. “I don’t want to give up but, at the same time, I know that I can’t go on. I can accept what’s happening, Jan. I have to.”

After months of skirting the inevitable, the proverbial ‘door of hard things to say’ opened that Saturday morning. It was familiar to me, and I took it. I kicked it open wider, asking her if she really wanted to do the next round of treatment, scheduled to start the following Tuesday.

“I’m just so tired. I don’t want to hurt anybody – especially not you kids, but I think that I’ve done all that I can do. I think it’s time for me to say good-bye. I didn’t want to tell you that.”

Even now, the tears ache from their origins in my throat as I write that. Not because I didn’t want to hear those words from her but because, in some strange way… I did. 

“Mom, we knew. And we didn’t want to tell you that we knew.”

“See, it was hard for you, and it was hard for me. But, we know now.”

And so, right then, we admitted what we had each known to be true in the secret chambers of our hearts for several months…that we were at the end. Her life was rapidly coming to a close. She had no regrets, she said. She felt she couldn’t have asked for a better life. She didn’t want hospitals. And, more than anything, she didn’t want her kids to see her suffer.

I wish I could say that we didn’t. I wish I could say that every fear I ever had — right from day one of her diagnosis in the summer of 2007 — didn’t come to pass. But, for the most part, it did. Those were strange days, which I can’t fully write about or process yet, when everything about life revolved around death.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing the dying process often related to terminal illness but it seems to me to be designed for very specific purposes. In the end, God seems to send you just enough suffering so that you will want to leave. Where a couple of weeks before, she was still saying she wasn’t ready “to go”, that week she expressed over and over that she just wanted to “sleep away” and be with her mom. And, for us, there was just enough suffering to push us to desperately want what she wanted for herself.

I have thought about those snippets of conversation with her, and so many others that we squeezed in that last week, almost every day. They play like tapes in my head. Snippets of life before death. Interrupting whenever they feel like it. In the middle of the night. In the middle of conversation. In the middle of the boardroom. They are keeping grief real. And making healing possible.

I took copious notes about the things I saw and heard in the week that she lay dying. That probably seems like a weird thing to do, but it was all I could think of — to preserve some of the last words we would ever get a chance to say to one another. At least this time around. 

Because words are so precious to me. As they were to her.

Mom saved every birthday, Mother’s Day and Christmas card. There are boxes and bags of them in the spare room. Everything ever given to her meant something. She found precious in what most of us found ordinary. There are mountains — an entire closet, floor to ceiling — of photos chronicling our family’s life, most of them lovingly taken by a mom who thought almost every moment with you was worth capturing forever. 

It’s funny, and beautiful, to me how some things can only be seen in hindsight. I never thought of those things while she was using her disposable camera to take another picture of me. And, I didn’t think of them when I was picking out a birthday card I knew she’d love. I see them only now. And I let them fill me up like the warmth of that last embrace as we stood next to her bed — the same way it fills me up now to see how much we are alike in our love for words, and family. 

I think that, mostly, it’s loss that teaches us about the worth of things. 

As we sort through her life these days, we’re finding newspaper clippings, poems, things she wrote in the brief journal she kept the summer she was diagnosed, and quotes she had written down on the back of old recipes, or cut out of some Reader’s Digest. We’re finding them tucked away in likely, and unlikely, places. You know how those things always turn up when you seem to need them most. Well, at least, I hope you do.

I’m certain she didn’t know when she saved those precious words that, one day, they would feel like love letters from her. But I like to think that she planned it that way.

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