She never cried. She never yelled. She never complained (or almost never).
And like a gentle wind blowing steadily from behind, my mother was always there, supporting and guiding me without telling me what to do. I knew I was at the helm, sailing wing and wing, arms outstretched with the horizon clearly in sight, though not quite defined, in the distance.
But on a cloudy October day in 1966, my voyage was about to change. The sound was muffled at first, as I awoke and tried to focus on it. Clarity emerged slowly. It was the sound of someone moaning, calling my name, asking for help. Not in a desperate tone, but in more of a deeply drawn out, aching kind of tenor. After several seconds, it sunk in and I lay there stunned.
It was my mother.
This made no sense. She never asked me to help, never complained, never moaned like that – ever. My heart raced as I got up slowly and walked toward her room. What was going on? I was filled with anxiety and uncertainty – and didn’t know what I would find when I entered her bedroom.
When I walked in, she was lying in bed, with the sheets rumpled all around her. Her face was so pale. She looked at me intently. Her eyes were red and seemed to be overflowing with sadness through the pain in her tears.
“Call the doctor,” she said with a deliberate, yet weak, voice.“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked. “I have a lump in my breast.” she said, and then she looked down at her chest, and then away from my face.
With my father long gone (a plane crash had taken his life when I was 9 months old) and my two brothers off at college, it was just the two us in the house that day. She had known about her cancer for years, I later found out, but chose to keep it from us all, to minimize the trauma she believed it would inflict on our family. Thoughts of her own needs and well being never entered the picture in her conscious decision to ignore the signs of cancer when they first appeared. Her only regret, she told my aunt, was that she wished she had been older, so that it would not have been so hard on me.
One week later, with only a single suitcase of my first 15 years beside me, I was on my way to New Jersey to live with my aunt. A far cry from the small town of Fayetteville, New York, which was upstate in every sense of the word. And on Halloween, no less.
Suddenly, it was all gone. New Jersey was as foreign to me as China must have been to Marco Polo eight hundred years ago. BMW’s, Corvettes, nose jobs, designer clothes – everything seemed so materialistic. It was all about the façade, academic competition and GPA’s – or so it seemed to me at the time.
At my aunt’s home, my mother continued to fade. We were building an addition on the house, knowing there was no room for my mother in the floor plans or in our lives much longer.
I sat with my mother each day after school, talking about what had happened, droning on about trivial things I can’t even remember and avoiding all talk of her pain, suffering and imminent death.
I don’t know who avoided it more. Clearly my mother was uncomfortable with the subject of her death. Whether it was the culture of her generation, her personal barriers, or her desire to protect me from them, I’ll never know. As a teenager, I was ill equipped to go there either. How sad, in reflection, that we never dug down deep enough to realize the value in those precious moments.
She died in early January at age 51, leaving behind my two older brothers, our dog and two cats, and me.
Surprisingly, my grief was subdued. After all, I was raised to be strong and independent, to think for myself and take care of myself. The inconvenience of sharing a room with my aunt seemed as difficult as the loss of my mother at the time, or so I thought. I managed to finish the school year, making friends slowly, and gradually began to find renewed balance in this vastly different corner of the world.
Truthfully, it wasn’t until years later that the full weight of the loss really hit home. The conversations we could never have. The laughter over silly things that she would never know. Her pride in my getting a Ph.D., the pain through my divorce. Opportunities for connection and continuity lost.
However, through my subsequent grief and tears, the resilience of her spirit emerged. I grew up, I clarified my values and beliefs. I found new direction, built from the strength of her character and love. And I carried them with me then and now.
Her values permeated our family and were obvious, once I thought about them, not because she lectured about them, but because she lived them everyday. The ones I gleaned and cherish the most are these:
- Grow. Learn. Read. Laugh. Experience life to the fullest while you can.
- Be kind and patient. Look for solutions, not problems.
- Be independent. Think for yourself.
- Be open and honest but balance that with the sensitivity of not hurting others when they are most vulnerable.
- Help the underdog. Support those who are less fortunate. Deplore discrimination in any form.
- Focus on what’s inside not outside because that’s what really matters.
- Live your values every day.
Additionally, my experience as an adult and my reflections on my mother’s life and death forged two additional values:
- Take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Don’t be a martyr. Actively pursue a balance between your needs and those of others. And, as a two time breast cancer survivor myself, I likely wouldn’t be here today unless I forged this value and became determined not to be the martyr my mother had been.
- Build confidence and competence in others. Help them find their pathways in life that will lead to personal growth and fulfillment.
In the end, my mother’s core values continue to support and guide me as they always have. And yet I know I am creating my own destiny too, one where I can cry and laugh, compliment and complain, yell and whisper. And one where I can openly speak to the very heart of things that matter – things that were so unspoken in my early years.