The last days that my mother was on earth were not much of a contrast to the strained and somewhat unbearably strange distance that two people living in the same home can have. It would have been a great opportunity for us to have opened up to one another, revealing our long withheld secrets to each other as a way of reestablishing the bond that only a mother and daughter can have, dissolving any pent-up resentments and judgements, and edifying me for a future without motherly love. But out relationship was not like that and so there would be not Benjamin Button-like reading of diaries in the last hours.
November 1, 2010
I returned home to Los Angeles after spending Halloween weekend in San Francisco in the afternoon, heading straight to my computer to catch up on the world at large, probably with some type of dessert or food to ease the consumption of news. It was a Monday and I always worked Mondays until 9:45 but on this particular day, I was exhausted from days of debauchery and in my pajamas. If I hadn’t been home when my mom got back from her doctor (She’d been in remission from Leukemia for about two years now and had sharp stomach pains over the weekend so went straight to the hospital that day) then I’m not too sure how she would have told me. I don’t think she would have allowed herself to cry. In the previous years that were filled with chemotherapy, hair loss, blood transfusions, a bone marrow transplant, and having to live in a lonely hospital room for months, she always cried behind closed doors. And I always allowed her. Looking back, I really wish I’d broken down these walls. If I’d knocked lightly on her old wooden door, she probably would have let me in and we could have cried together instead of me retreating downstairs to do the exact same thing as her. That is always the sad truth: One should be prepared to kick down doors to show their love to a person who would probably open it to a light rapping anyway.
Anyway, she came home and I probably left my earphones in. She approached me in a strange way and then only and only reluctantly did I remove them. The first thing she told me, and this I can never forget no matter how much else i have forgotten, was “I’m so sorry”. Tears started filling up those eyes, the eyes that I had inherited, the ones that I had sometimes been embarassed about because they were slanted and looked weird with eyeliner or something else incredibly shallow. I can’t remember how she told me because for some reason, I always just zoom in on the “I’m so sorry”and everything else becomes hazy. We hugged and she went in to her room and then I went in to mine. I cried so much that night and I tried to be as quiet as possible. I had this really silly belief that by acting stoic, I was being strong for my mother, providing her with hope that there really was nothing to cry over. Another regret.
Early April, 2011
My mom has been in and out of the hospital repeatedly but you become used to this sort of thing if you have a family member battling an acute illness. With her first bout of cancer, it was all so foreign and awful and excessively sterile. The shock of having to wear gloves and a mask every time I visited was as shocking as the fact that one couldn’t bring her flowers or her not being allowed to leave her room. It was necessary because the chemo had weakened her body so much so that her immune system had been pulverised into defenceless specks of dust. All that I’d really taken from it, after the fact of course, was that she’d survived, she was fine and by fine I mean in remission. So this time, visiting became part of a routine and if truth be told, it was more neglected than my exercise regimen. When I went, I felt like I had nothing to say because it is absolutely impossible to not become paralyzed when one of the strongest people you know suddenly amounts to a scraggly body and bald head swimming in clorox soaked hospital wear. I was an awful daughter and more the worse because I took anger upon my brother for not visiting (he visited less than I did and for the same reasons) and allowed myself to feel better because I was at the hospital slightly more than he was.
This time, she told me that the doctors told her she wasn’t going to make it. And then she added probably. She always talked about when she would get better, a sweet little lie that allowed us all to go on pretending, and even now as she finally produced honesty, she had to taint it with the uncertainty of a doctor’s diagnosis. I think that even then it didn’t completely hit me. It hurt at first, like ice being thrown at me but then it just kind of numbed down and I still didn’t see her looming death as imminent.
“Can you hear the birds singing?”. I think that when my mom said that to me, the day before she passed away, that’s when I finally knew. Her brain was going and I had been waiting for that signal. A friend had told me that when her dad died of cancer, she remembered that he started going crazy beforehand. This was it. Even though the doctors told me they thought she would die soon and should be released into a hospice, I didn’t comprehend. Even when my bosses insisted I take time off work to be with my mother, I said that I thought she was doing better and that the doctors were being cryptic. When my mom asked me that question, I knew finally what others had known all along. What the doctors were trying to tell me.
I found a bible and brochure in her night stand. My mother was an Atheist, a fact that she was proud to declare because to her it signified a break from her overly traditional Buddhist parents. I was confused. Looking back, I can’t remember if I tried asking her about it and she was unable to answer (by this point she was floating in and out, sometimes fully comprehensive and others not at all) or if I just closed the drawer quietly and told myself that the hospital had left it there. Her incredibly Christian friend who was out of the country kept calling me and saying that her priest friend wanted to help. When I finally returned one of his many calls, he told me that he’d visited my mom and she had finally wanted to seek religion or God. I didn’t believe him and tried to scare him away. It still nags at me sometimes. I don’t know if I had defended my mother’s beliefs or simply taken my anger and own inflexibility out on someone that was listening to my mother’s wishes and trying to relay them.
June 30, 2011
I’d been sleeping in my mom’s room for the past few days and the previous night i had as well, leaving around 6 am to de-cramp myself from the discomfort of sleeping on a chair by going running, eating, showering, before heading back. I peeled myself up off the sticky faux leather and saw my mother sleeping peacefully so I very quietly went over and touched her hand. I don’t know how I didn’t recognize that she was dead. Probably the same reasons that I didn’t know she was so near death in the previous months. I told her I’d be back in a little bit. More than ever, I felt our roles reversed. I felt like a mother looking at her innocent child and wishing they could stay like that forever which is a selfish and specious thought when I take into consideration how much pain she was in and how many times she was hitting the morphine button a day). Her hand was limp but i’d grown used to that. I drove home and at some point between the drive and entering the house, I got the call. The nurse thought i’d gone to the bathroom since I’d slept over and were apparently looking for me. Then she told me that my mother had died after I left. I argued that she may have been dead when I left but the nurse sternly said it was after I had left. I still think that she died before; it gives me a bit of comfort to think she didn’t die alone. It also helps me feel a bit better about myself to think that I may have been a shitty daughter but I was at least there when she died. It’s so weird that twenty minutes, five minutes, 30 minutes; they never make a difference until they make all the difference in the world. Hospital records say that she died at 7:00 am but I respectfully disagree.