The last thing my mother and I ever said to one another was “I love you.” About eight hours later, I received a phone call that she died.
It’s a funny thing – closure. Now, about four months after her death, I’m finally beginning to wonder if one of the main reasons I’m having such a difficult time moving on is that I never truly had a chance to tell her goodbye. My mom, growing up, always had this weird superstition of never saying “goodbye” to me when we were ready to end a conversation. “Never say goodbye,” she used to tell me, as I sprinted with one leg through the screen door as a rebellious adolescent. Instead, my mother and I used to tell each other “see you later” although, I’ll be honest, I only ever adhered to her wishes about half the time.
I was never hung up on saying goodbye as much as my mother was. She always feared that saying goodbye meant it would be the last time we ever spoke, but for me, I was naïve in believing that such superstitions didn’t exist. I ended my final conversation with her with the best three words you could ever say to someone. I often try to convince myself that those three words couldn’t have been a more idyllic way to end a twenty-six year relationship with someone who was more than a parent, but my favorite confidant and closest friend.
Much to my mother’s dismay, I wish I had ended that conversation with a goodbye. I wish that I had the opportunity to tell her all the things that I was fortunate enough to share with her mother as I watched her dying in the hospice unit: that she would be okay wherever she was going, that the last thing I’d want is for her to feel tethered to this place instead of living out her eternity with peace and a clear conscience; that eventually I’d be okay without her, and that most of all, how happy I was that she was my mom – that God couldn’t have picked out a more ideal human to guide me, raise me, embarrass me, and encourage me in every aspect of my life big or small. I wish I had the moment to understand that death isn’t the ending and perhaps to hear from my mom’s own lips that she was okay with dying. That’s the part that hits me the most.
When my mom was first diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in 2011, an intern had told her that she could live up to ten years. My devastated mother came home a hollow replica of who she was before she went to the oncology office. I told her that the intern was an idiot and that he didn’t know what he was saying. But the last year of her life was just as hollow as she was when she came home all those years ago. She spent more time in bed watching re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond than she did walking around Home Depot buying trim for the backyard patio. She spent more time as the passenger than she did driving because her double vision had become so bad that she couldn’t even walk without assistance. She spent more time going into hospitals for brain biopsies than she did at my apartment hanging out and gossiping about people we less than valued. She spent more time wishing she was better than helping me go wedding gown shopping – a task she’ll never get to do.
I was naïve for that entire year. I failed to recognize that her body was slowly giving out on her. I failed to ignore the signs, the increasing symptoms and the lackluster and melancholy mood my mother was cloaked in. I failed to notice how her voice sounded weak and distant on the voicemails that she began to leave me requesting that I called her back.
I chose to ignore what I wasn’t ready to accept: my mother was dying.
The thing about my mother’s bleak diagnosis is that I held on to this idea that I’d eventually watch my mother’s health decline and I’d get the final opportunity to say goodbye to her, grasping her hands, reliving our favorite memories as I watched tubes infiltrate her skin. That’s not what happened. She died early on a Tuesday morning from a heart attack that knocked her down onto the wooden floor in between her favorite set of French doors, with my father’s hands right beside her and an EMT working tirelessly until the effort turned futile. My father called me, his voice breaking in between panicked breaths, and I walked to the front of my parents’ house to my neighbor locking me in a bear hug, asking me to please go into her house instead. The thoughts from our conversation from the night before seemed to be etched in confusion. How could the voice of a woman who hours before joked with me, and told me how thankful she was that we’ve always had a tight relationship, who ended our talk with the bittersweet words “I love you,” be completely gone the morning after?
It’s a reality I’m currently coping with. For many I tell this to, they say that the fifty-two minute conversation my mother had the night before she died was the best form of closure I could have gotten. We talked about our relationship and what it’d be like having children. She told me about coffee that was on sale and how happy she was about K-cups that my father and I ran through the day after trying to grasp this sickening reality. My mother told me about the day I was born and how she loved me instantly from the moment she held me. I ended the conversation with an urge to buy a chocolate milkshake and she laughed, and we said “I love you” and that was it – the morning after she’d be gone and I’d be left clinging onto the memory of how life was seemingly perfect just hours prior.
Life on a morning like this is bittersweet, and I cling to the memories of that final evening because in so many words, the three smallest syllables were the perfect end and beginning to the partnership we had. I will never move on from my mother’s death. The moment I heard the news, to the moment of seeing her lie in the casket that I picked out, her eyes closed, and her lipstick a few shades darker than I’d preferred, to visiting her nameless grave because my father isn’t ready to see her name etched in stone, will forever haunt me. But the memory of that final night, when I hung up the phone, feeling light and thankful that my mother and I had been so fortunate to experience a lifetime of love, of memories, of friendship and of connection, will forever stay with me and I’m hoping that one day – perhaps one day soon – that the memories of the good and of the powerful will eventually outweigh the horrid pains of the past.