It was a terrible week, a beautiful week, a week full of strife and wonder.
My mother, only 78 – but a good, full 78 – was diagnosed with the “Big C” recently, and the end came much too quickly. Hospice, three days after she had summoned her four adult children to our hometown of Melrose, Mass., to let us know that something was definitely not right with her. She knew she was sick. But how sick?
I’ve seen my mother laid out flat in more than a few hospital beds for this or that ailment. Never once did I think she wasn’t going to get out of that bed. In the past, even after having a tumor removed from her brain, she would have three loads of laundry done and the living room vacuumed four hours after being discharged.
Not this time.
For the first time, maybe ever, I saw a look in my mother’s eyes that I’d never seen before. Fear. Stone cold fear. The kind that leaves your heart pounding and short of breath, the tips of your fingers icy. Her mind was rattling, balancing a thousand thoughts, trying to focus on what she wanted when she goes. Ashes to ashes, a wake for her many friends, closure for her four children, 10 grandchildren and baby Thomas, the great-grandson. Just like the first grandson, aces all the way.
In the hospital, my mother was informed she was at Stage 3 and could go through rounds of chemo and surgery or finish out her beautiful life surrounded by an army of loved ones, comfortably numb at a hospice house on the North Shore. She quickly chose the latter. Not an easy decision for her, or anyone, dealing with the end, I’m sure. She wanted to be old, real old. Ninety-plus old, like her own mother was when she died. She had plenty of good dinners left in her. She had just purchased a new chair for her living room in Florida. She had a ton of friends she speaks to daily over a hot cup of coffee. Damn, and she loves her fruit.
So, all that is pretty ugly, right? Death stinks. Life rules, all of it, even those tricky weeks when every wall seems to be crashing down on your back. Like my mother was having. Yet, through all this, something transformative had taken place within our family, somehow making us all love each other even more than we already do, which is pretty intense overall. It quite literally takes us a good 45 minutes to say goodbye to each other after a simple barbecue. We are huggers. And we kiss, and we tell each other we love each other, always. Cousins and nephews, nieces, brothers, girlfriends, hairy husbands and wives, doesn’t matter. You’re getting a kiss. You’re going to feel the love.
Over the course of the next few days, I was humbled to witness my mother’s courage, her unwillingness to fold, to shut it all down and whimper away into the night. Like I had done days earlier when I fell into her arms as she laid in her hospital bed, crying. “This is just too fast, Ma. I mean, what happened!?”
“I know, honey,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I didn’t see this coming either.”
We pulled ourselves together, turned over a rock or two, and then I leaned back down and put my face to her cheek and held it there like I hadn’t done in 40 years. I’ll never forget that moment, the smell of her cheek, so clean and smooth. I should have done that more often. Stupid to have not.
I was humbled by the decency of my mother’s 10 grandchildren, the sheer admiration and unconditional love they have for the woman. I mean, I knew they loved her, I just never knew how much they loved her. Astronomically!
My nephew reached out to a manicurist he knew and got his “Nan” treated to a sweet shine on her blades.
My niece, knowing her grandmother never liked looking anything but near perfect, so she washed and bathed her, dried and fluffed my mother’s hair, prepping her for a full day of visitors. I stand in awe of both women, the best of friends.
Every kid in our tribe, from their teens to 30s, made their way to visit their grandmother multiple times. Eye to eye contact, real sharing, honest talks, cellphones on silence. They each have risen beyond my expectations and my heart hurts with pride.
It’s a funny thing, for years, when I thought of this day coming, I would have insisted on some answers from my mother. Not anymore. I didn’t need answers. Didn’t want them. What I needed was more time with my mother. More hand holding, more unrushed banter, more genuine love that lives, not within us, but outside of us when it’s flowing this deep.
So, float, Mom, float on this sea of love. We will all be swimming right beside you. Right to the end.
Rob Azevedo can be reached at email@example.com.