Lessons in Family

If Love Were Enough

7 Years. 364 Weeks. 2,555 Days. If you really think about it, a lot can happen in 7 years. You might grow taller, have worn out a car, have experienced nearly two Olympic games. In 7 years, nearly every cell in your body has been replaced with a new cell and you’re a completely “different person.” To me, 7 years has a very specific meaning because it has been 7 years since my mother lost her battle with multiple myeloma. May 4th, 2013, my best friend in the whole wide world left this life for the next. In all these years, I’ve sat down to write this out, to tell my story through my eyes a thousand times. I kept getting hung up. You see, the words had to be perfect. I was only going to tell this part once, at least one time that people would listen. People know I’ve lost my parents. But they don’t know. They don’t know the dark, scary details and the things that I’ve never shared. And honestly, after awhile, people stop caring. I don’t mean that callously, but it’s true. You stop caring when it’s not your life and not your story. So this time that I finally put the words together, it really has to matter and it has to be memorable. But how? Is it really possible to measure who someone was and the impact that they had on your life both while alive and after they’re gone in only 26 letters strung together in a few sentences? I don’t know that I know the answer to that question, but I have to try. I’m ready to walk through my journey with you, but first I have to take you back to the beginning.

In October of 2012, I was headed home from college for the weekend. For several months, my mom had been complaining of severe back pain. She had been to multiple doctors, was told that she needed to strengthen her core or maybe try physical therapy. My mom had struggled with her health my whole life, but she had made great efforts to get healthy. She went through gastric bypass surgery, was learning how to exercise and eat properly, and she had lost over a hundred pounds. She finally had the energy to go places and do things. She was starting to find a new normal after losing my dad just 2 years earlier. She was more confident in herself than I had ever seen; she was vibrant. But the back pain had been a nagging thorn in her side and it had gotten so bad one night that she finally ended up in the emergency room. When I called to get an update, she said that she would fill me in when I got home since I was headed home that weekend anyways. I could tell in her voice that something was wrong, we could never hide anything from each other. When I arrived at my childhood home, my grandma was there and so was my brother. Why was everyone at my house? I remember walking in the door and it felt like the air was sucked out of the room. Everyone’s eyes were hollow. My brother wouldn’t look at me. No one said a word but no one had to. My mom’s voice shook as she said that she had cancer. The back pain was due to literal holes in her vertebrae and her next step was to see an oncologist. I remember my grandmother crossing the room and hugging me. I wasn’t the one who had been diagnosed with cancer, yet everyone was trying to comfort me. In that moment we were all in shock and desperate for this to be fixed. I looked at my mom and I said, “You can’t leave me, I need you. I lost Dad and I can’t lose you too.” She smiled at me, a half smile, and said, “Sweetie, I’m not going anywhere.” The first lesson I learned from this experience, I learned that very day. It’s funny the details that you remember. After our conversation that day, my mom asked me to go to Target and I walked through the aisles in a daze. I wavered between feeling like things were going to be fine and like my world was crumbling around me. I’m pretty sure I lost my patience with the cashier. I didn’t mean to, but it taught me a valuable lesson; you never know what someone is going through. They may be rude to you in line at the store, but their life may have just been turned upside down. If you are on the receiving end, always choose to be kind, even when it’s hard. They’ll remember that kindness.

The following week was filled with appointments and tests. We learned big words that everyone looked to me to interpret because I had taken a few anatomy and science courses at college. The truth was I thought that if I could interpret these words then they wouldn’t mean they were bad news. We learned that my mom had multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the plasma cells. It likes to attack the bones and the kidneys specifically, but at this point her prognosis was fairly good. She would start chemo right away. Except what we didn’t know is that this type of chemo that is supposed to attack the cancer also attacks the kidneys. My mom had unfortunately had kidney issues over the years and this chemo caused permanent damage that led her to dialysis. And so started the slow spiral of dialysis visits, of being too sick to move, of her not wanting anything to eat because the nausea was too intense, of doctors telling us we hope it will get better, of shorter stays at the hospital that felt like taking one step forward and three steps back. All the while, I was trying to stay focused and get through school. My grandmother stayed with my mom at all times and she had constant care, but I was home nearly every weekend and would help wherever I could. I would drop my mom off for dialysis and would come back 4 hours later and she would be so exhausted. My mom started to become more dark. She didn’t want people to be around her, she was angry and depressed. I reminded her that her mental state could impact her treatment, that even though it was hard, she needed to stay positive. But honestly, it’s insulting to tell someone battling cancer that they should be positive. It’s different when you don’t have to live it.

February 8th, 2013, my Mom started vomiting blood while at home. She went to the hospital, they said they wanted to keep her for overnight observation. It was just supposed to be another short stay, but we would get through this too. But then one night turned into another and another. The nearly three months that followed were a blur of confusion, of not really understanding what was wrong but just that my mom was sick and getting sicker, yet it seemed to have nothing to do with her cancer. It was a cacophony of medical machines beeping, blood pressure readings, overhead pages, and TVs that were too loud. It was cramped chairs and waiting rooms, thin blankets and hard pillows. It was sleeping in two chairs that I pulled together to face each other because my grandma needed a night to sleep in a bed and a real shower, but she didn’t want my mom to be alone. It was cafeteria food and stale coffee, but the cafeteria staff would remember you and let you know when the best stuff was going to be on the menu. It was studying for exams in waiting rooms and trying to write papers by fluorescent lights. It was knowing which elevators to take and which was the short or the long way to the gift shop. It was kind nurses that you got to know and that cared about you and your family and it was nurses that were cold when you were looking for some reassurance that things would be okay. Maybe they were overworked or tired or understaffed. Maybe they just didn’t like their job. But we relied on them and we needed them and I needed them to care because they were the people taking care of my mom when I couldn’t. I needed them to fix it and to keep track because I lost count of how many doctors were on her case. And honestly, it’s the nurses that were human to us time and time again. The doctors we would wait for all day long to get information, to make some sense of what was happening. Some days the information would never come and if it did, it didn’t make sense. It was realizing that if a patient doesn’t have an advocate that they easily get lost in the system as their chart grows thicker. And I don’t say these things to incite anger or negativity, this was the ugliness of the healthcare system that I wish I had never had to witness, but it’s true. We’d all like to pretend that it doesn’t exist. It does.

May 3rd, 2013, I got an urgent call from my grandma, my mom was asking to see me. At this point, I had gone back to Greenville to try and finish up my impending final exams. My mom had been moved to a facility in Greensboro, which was 2.5 hours away. It was 8:00 PM. I was exhausted. All I really wanted to do was try to get some sleep. Why was she so insistent that I come? I was drinking energy drinks just to stay awake as I made the drive by myself. What I didn’t know then was that my mom knew the time had come. You see, my mom was the type of mom that always worried and she wouldn’t have wanted me to drive that far that late at night. I will never regret making that drive and I would do it again a thousand times if I had to. When I got there, it was so late. Visiting hours were technically over, but the nurses allowed me to step in the room and see her. At this point in her care, she was on a ventilator and had been for almost a month. I hadn’t heard her voice in all that time. She asked for me to hand her the picture of her and my dad on their wedding day that we kept on the windowsill, she was trying to mouth to me that she was 35 in that picture. I reminded her that she was 30 on her wedding day. I held her hand. She mouthed to me that there was an angel in the room. I know that it was my dad. The nurse tried to shift something near her bed and she wanted them to stop because she was worried there would be an explosion. Nothing she was saying made sense. Her body was so swollen at this point that she could barely open her eyes and the nurse said it was time to go as other patients were trying to sleep. I said, “Mom, they’re telling me I have to go. I love you.” Then she mouthed to me, “I love you, too.” I was confused as to what had just happened. I knew I was facing a long drive back home. I left with my brother and my grandfather and drove the hour and a half to get home and finally fell into bed at my grandparents’ house after midnight. I couldn’t make it the extra hour back to school. The following morning we got a call from the nursing staff, they said the time was close. My grandfather and I got in the car and headed back to Greensboro. Over and over again, I talked to my dad in my head. I begged him to please be there, to please be the one to greet her on the other side. Before we arrived, my mom passed away. We knew when we were halfway there. We wondered if we had left 30 min sooner if we would have made it. We knew my grandma was there alone. We held our pain in our laps because what else could we do.

The rest of that day only comes to me in flashbacks and bits and pieces. It’s like being inside a dream and wondering if any of it was actually real. To the nurse that saw me sink to the floor in the hallway and held my hand with tears in her own eyes, I’ll never be able to repay you the humility you showed me in that moment. You reminded me that I was strong enough to get off that floor that day and I have never forgotten that. To the cafeteria staff that let my grandmother eat on a running tab because they only took cash until we could get her enough money to pay the bill, I can’t ever thank you for the kindness and trust that you extended to us. You didn’t have to do what you did, but you made sure my grandma could eat when she felt able to do so. To the staff that witnessed me have an anxiety attack when we had to go back because my grandmother forgot her purse and I had to witness them wheeling my mom’s empty hospital bed into the hallway, I’m sorry that you had to see me that way but thank you for understanding. To the friends and family that were waiting for us with food and kindness when we got home, as hard as it was in that moment to have to face each of you with our grief so raw, thank you for making sure we were cared for when we couldn’t care for ourselves. To my dog, Amelia, who wouldn’t leave my side and sat awake in bed with me with her head pressed against mine as I sobbed uncontrollably, inconsolably, for 2 hours straight, please know that humans don’t deserve the love and loyalty showed to us by dogs. To the college professors who allowed me to forego my final exams so that I could properly grieve, thank you for your support that you didn’t have to show me, but you did anyways. And to you who is reading this right now, thank you for letting me tell this part of my story through my eyes, as long and detailed as it may be. Now comes the lesson.

When you first lose someone that you love, you’re not really that different of a person. I mean you miss them and you are grieving, but you’re essentially the same. But as days fade to weeks and then months, your path begins to deviate. You begin to become the “after” version of yourself and then all of a sudden, you’re not sure if your loved one would even recognize anything about you if they were standing right in front of you. No matter what you believe about the afterlife, the raw truth is that the influence that that person had on your life is so completely different and you’re now more influenced by their absence than their presence. A day will come when I’ve lived more of my life without my parents than I did with them, if I’m lucky, and it’s really not that far off. I’ve grappled a lot over the years with this question: would I still be the person I am today if I hadn’t lost my mom at such a young age? I was a month shy of my 21st birthday when my mom passed away. I didn’t even know who I was yet. If I had been a younger child or maybe an older adult, I would have either not started to become someone or I would already know who I was. But what about when you’re in the middle of becoming? Would I be a completely different person right now, would I be engaged to someone else or even engaged at all? Would I have the career that I do and feel like I’m fulfilling a destiny I didn’t even know that I had? And how incredibly guilty I have felt at saying that I like my life that I have built, that I’m not sure I would trade any of this away to have my mom back if I could. You see, that’s the thing. The hard answer. The ugly truth. The philosophical question that I find myself pondering and it eats away at me because I’ll never know. I’ll never know if there is an “and.” If I could still have my mom AND have Kyle. Because Kyle loves me for the woman that I am and have become since losing my mom. If my mom were still here, would I even be someone that Kyle would fall in love with? But you’re not supposed to ask that. You’re supposed to say that you would trade everything away for 5 more minutes. Which is true, but only if everything else could stay the same.

The lesson that I’ve learned about grief is that it is not uniform. It is not the same for each person and it’s is no one’s. damn. business. how you choose to grieve. It is personal and it is not a smooth or straight path to navigate. There is no such thing as grieving the right way. It is not open for discussion or judgment from anyone else, because trust me, someone will tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Grief is not something you move through and get over. It takes up residence in your heart and it will always be with you. But you do learn to not let it define you or to weigh you down. It becomes a familiar friend. Over the years, I’ve been asked what someone should say to someone when they lose a loved one. Like there is a club that you’re a part of now and you should know the answer to that question because you’ve lived it. But if you’ve really lived it, then you will understand that the only thing people should say is that they are there for you, that they care about you. Don’t say “everything happens for a reason.” Because to the person grieving, there can’t possibly be a reason that makes any sense. I heard, “God always has a plan” so many times that it created so much anger and hatred in my heart and it altered my faith and spiritual journey. Saying things because they sound good only serves to make you feel better, but truthfully it does more harm than you realize. Choose the words you use in these moments very carefully.

When people ask me how I’ve survived or say that they couldn’t imagine losing their parents, you’re right. You can’t. You can’t imagine that 7 years later, you still think that you need to pick up the phone to call and tell them something. You can’t fathom that voice message recordings and photographs will be all that you have to remember them by. You can’t understand the feeling of waking up in a cold sweat realizing all over again that you will never see them again in this lifetime. You can’t know what it’s like to dream about them and wonder if she was trying to communicate with you and you spend the next day analyzing it over and over again. You can’t know that every time you meet someone new and they ask about your parents, you have to deal with the pained, awkward look on their face and you’re more worried about their discomfort than your own. You can’t understand that you almost stop and question if your memories of them were even real because it feels like you’re watching the movie of someone else’s life. You can’t picture that there will ever come a day where you can continue to exist without them. I still don’t know how I’m supposed to answer this question when it arises, but I can say that most people never imagine how strong they are until being strong is the only choice that they have.

If love were enough. If love were enough, my mom would still be here. She would be excited as we start planning our wedding. She would be by my side as I try to pick out a wedding dress. She would love being a grandmother to my nephew, she would be the best grandma ever. She would have seen me walk across the stage at my college graduation. She would have helped guide me through those first few awkward years of adulthood. If love were enough, she would have been able to keep her promise that she wasn’t going anywhere. The only reason that my mom kept fighting over and over again was out of love for my brother and I. A love that intense would have been enough to keep her here. To the daughter I hope to have someday, I will never stop telling you about the absolute warrior of a woman she was and how much you look like her. The solemn truth is that love may not have been enough to cure her cancer or keep her on this Earth. But it was enough to show me that she is always with me. Every time I’ve faced a hard decision or an insurmountable challenge, she’s guided me. Over the years, I have been extremely blessed to be surrounded and loved by women who are like mothers to me and I truly believe that is her doing. She knew she couldn’t physically be here for me anymore, but she loved me enough to make sure I can still feel a mother’s love. Love is enough to get you out of bed on really hard days and to keep you pushing forward because there are people depending on you. Love is enough to help you find a reason to smile or laugh again when it feels like the darkness is closing in. Love is enough to make you believe that you are worthy of a happy life even when bad things happen. Love is enough to make you keep believing there is good in the world. Love is enough to make you keep being the good in the world.