I came to know my mother most intimately while she was fighting for her life. I studied her, watching through the retinas she gave me, becoming hyper aware of her idiosyncrasies and her mortality. Things I’d never considered paying attention to until I could no longer ignore them.
My mother’s favorite time of day was when the world still slept. When the moon was finishing her shift, passing the proverbial baton to the sun. Dawn was when she was most alive, her energy radiating as though she was a trumpeter ushering in the arrival of that powerful glowing ball of red and yellow coming up over the horizon to provide us all light and a new day for hope. As the nocturnal drifted off and those asleep stirred to life, my mother would send me a “good morning, baby!” text message every single day, her words alone radiating just like those first rays of sunlight that lit up my room. And her words, her words were seeds. My mother, a woman whose intelligence rivaled the smartest man, chose to end that good morning message with the word baby knowing that every morning I saw that, it would sink in into my psyche allowing me to never forget, as though I would, that I will always her little girl. And I couldn’t help but not be moved every single morning by that gesture of hers to always remind me that there was this force of nature out there and I belonged to them, and they were very, very proud of this.
As I ruminate on the timing of my mother’s death compared to when she seemed most alive, the juxtaposition seems fitting to me, and quite poetic of her, that she died right as God’s morning star, the sustainer of life, was passing back that proverbial baton to the moon, giving way to darkness.
Death looked a lot like life the last day I said goodbye to my mother, while she was still conscious enough to either tell the nurses how to do their job or to tell me, that she loved me and to stop studying her face and hands. Death was the black in the birds flying over me as the doors to the hospital opened, me doing the opposite and exiting, after hearing my mother say she loved me for the last time. It was the cotton candy colors of the sky beyond those birds that gave me life and hope, in that moment, while there was nothing but death and despair surrounding me, all of it, a monumental exodus and entrance of meaning.
There is a constant transformation of who we are, our roles, our essential place in each other’s and our own lives. These transformations, very fluid and cyclical, not ending at death, but circling, always perfectly, from chaos to order, destruction to growth, death… death to life, rarely linear or logical.
Four years ago, the universe decided that my mother and I should go through these transformations simultaneously, and we did the most horrific, yet beautiful dance of divine role reversals, inhabiting new selves, no space and time existing between us. There was a real sense of existential urgency, no buffet of options to choose from at our leisure, which left both of us frenzied and with no other choice but to rely on faith, and she was really good at relying on faith.
After 35 years of her unwavering support, the time had now come that she became the child and I, the parent, her the follower, and I, the leader. Overnight, she become the scared, vulnerable girl she raised, and I became the courageous, fierce, intelligent woman I’d admired my entire life. I watched helplessly as this thing decided to take residence inside of my mother and I questioned if it realized my mother was indestructible and I wanted to tell the cancer that it might want to reconsider inhabiting her body. And this monster inside of her soon found out, that indeed, it had messed with the wrong woman. Not only was she not going down without a fight, but she also welcomed the suffering, the pain, loss, all things that would lead her to wisdom and hope. It was a very spiritual experience watching my mother accept the challenge to fight for her life.
Redefining, altering, and losing control of the identity you’ve spent your entire life perfecting was a peculiar thing for me to watch my mother go through. Here was this woman, the strongest woman I think probably all of us can say we knew, becoming deduced to crying over losing her hair. What seemed so miniscule to me at the time was her watching her entire identity, her femininity, her beauty being cruelly taken from her. The forced switch of hers and my roles, inevitable for all, but forced for some, deepened what it meant to take care of my mother instead of her me.
When uncertainty caused fear in me, my mother would always tell me that we would cross those bridges when we got to them. It was only when she was gone, that first morning the red and yellow orb rose with no trumpeter alerting me of its arrival, and I didn’t receive the same good morning text I’d always received, while curled into a ball, quite literally screaming into the silence for her to come back, that I didn’t know what to do, I realized that this is what she was preparing me for my entire life; my arrival to that unknown bridge she’d talked about for so long. And anyone that knew my mother, knew all the lessons she taught were never about how to get over that metaphorical bridge, although that was very important, but she taught what you should do as your left foot has broken through the wood plank you’re standing on and you’re barely hanging on by your right hand, the bridge seconds away from collapse. The crux of her lessons, if you paid enough attention, was that strength of will determines courage but that alone doesn’t get you over the bridge falling apart. To cross it, she taught me in the silence between her words, that courage must be coupled with grace, selflessness, humility, patience, and to have a fierce belief in the moral dimension of life.
Her stories will stay with us, her smile, her laughter, her kindness, grace, beauty, intelligence, all of it will never leave. Although she is no longer with us, she has never been more alive to me. My mother has taken form in our silence, our tears, our grief, in this space.
Her courage to look death in the eye, scared but never showing it, was a testament not to just who she was in the final years of her life, but to who she has always been. She faced her mortality with integrity, grace, frail but not weak, living with hope and the perfect alchemy of agency and chance.
I told her I was proud to be her daughter before I left her for the last time. She had already been unconscious for a couple of hours at this point, but when I said those words will full conviction, I received the slightest grin from her and a squeeze of the hand in acknowledgement.
The strength I witnessed of my mother has no place staying hidden in the shadows. Her stories will be told. This world needs hope, and my mother is the giver of that.