My mother died of glioblastoma in May 2002. It’s the very same kind of almost-always fatal brain cancer that U.S. Senator John McCain is now fighting.
In the few short months between Mom’s diagnosis and her death, her illness took away all the things that made her a person — first, her sharpness, then her empathy, and then her logic. And then nothing, because in the weeks before her death, my mother — a longtime and much beloved college administrator — stopped talking altogether.
To be diagnosed with cancer is to be propelled into the rhetoric of the “fight.” But those whom I have seen undergo treatment might describe the fight as more of an acquiescence to a painful, debilitating and sometimes unlikely “cure.” My mother did not struggle with this irony because once she was diagnosed, she lacked the capacity to understand her illness. One of the few times she reflected on it, she told us that she had “spaghetti in her head and the doctors were going to remove it.”
When her hair started falling out from the chemo and I matter-of-factly cut it for her, the woman who had spent most of her life as a bottle blonde and never traveled without a full set of hot curlers, said nothing. I then took her to order a wig that we would never pick up. Afterwards, we ate pizza; she ate hers ravenously. When I tried to get her to leave, she informed me repeatedly that she was leaving, but never moved her body. I had to lift her and get her feet to start moving.
We were, as a family, unable to accept the reality of her diagnosis. On the day of my mother’s death, she was in the hospital receiving palliative care to treat her symptoms. I was there for a regular visit, not to say goodbye. But when I arrived, one of the nurses looked at me, shook her head and said, “I’ve been doing this a long time; this is it.”
I was shocked, unprepared. Can you even be prepared? I don’t know. We believed in the rhetoric of the fight — and had hopes for a remission.
I was 27 when my mom died, and I almost never speak of her death. Friends who have met me since sometimes remark that it is as if I had no mother at all; as if I emerged from a robot womb. But my silence is not disregard; it’s the opposite. Mom’s death hit many people extremely hard, me perhaps the hardest.
The dichotomy between her public persona and our private relationship is one reason why I have chosen silence. My mother was profoundly loved and admired. At her funeral, people spoke of her warmth, her tireless compassion and her unrelenting optimism, and told stories about how she had changed their lives.
Our relationship was different. Except in the months before her diagnosis, when my mother released her hold on me. I did not know at the time, but this was the first stage of her illness. The decline in her sharpness was coupled with a dwindling of the pressure she had long put on me to succeed in whatever arbitrary form she fixated on any particular day: dating, career, sartorial choices. I did not know what had happened. I only knew I could speak freely without a multitude of judgments masked as care and advice.
I went to visit my parents during Hanukkah, and Mom didn’t argue with me about how I planned to get to their house, or at what time, or how long I would stay. We ate dinner and laughed about the Thursday night TV lineup. When she brought up my being single, as she inevitably would, I reminded her that she was more concerned about it than I. After receiving no negative response, I gathered my courage and also informed her that it was no longer a matter up for discussion. And, just like that, she agreed. I thought perhaps I had finally convinced her to let me figure out my own path. To experience my mother at 56 with early-stage cancer was to experience her in relief, a photographic negative, a woodcut. My mother unknowingly dying of cancer was the mother I always wanted. Then she died.
To be free of the person who continuously, tirelessly attempted to dominate you is to be in a constant tumble of remorse, pain and glee.
Life is punctuated by death; and too often one’s life is defined by the manner in which one dies. The memories of gray, failing bodies, rather than of lives well-lived, stay with us. But which mother do I choose? The mother in relief, who was kind and supportive, or the mother with whom I grew up, a mother whom I adored and who adored me, but with whom I shared a fraught relationship? And then there’s the mother who was too profoundly ill — and yes, out of her mind — to know the difference.
This post is part of a series supported by MJHS Health System and UJA-Federation of New York to
raise awareness and facilitate conversations about end of life care in a Jewish context.
To learn more about the role of hospice and its value to patients and families click here.