As I will probably never get to accept an Academy award (I don’t want to say definitely… you just never know), I’m going to dedicate this blog post to my sister, Lori, the best Mom I know. If I ever do anything right as a mom, it’s because I saw her do it and immediately stole the idea.
You already know how I feel about cancer. And you probably already know it’s because I lost my Mom to a rare form of cancer in April 2003 after a tough three-year battle with the disease. And you have maybe figured out from the context clues that, like so many other Moms who have lost their Moms as well, Mother’s Day is complicated for me.
I want to be able to enjoy the day without pause – to request breakfast in bed (i.e. Starbucks and candy) and fawn over homemade cards and macaroni necklaces without a nagging sense of void, but honestly, I have a hard time doing it. Instead, I ask KJ to take the kids out of the house and then I cry (boo) and make plans with friends to drink (yea!).
I don’t want to do my kids a disservice. They’re awesome and I’m super-psyched that I landed them in the Kid Lottery. Hopefully, someday they’ll feel the same way about getting me. Even after I’ve taken away their video games iPhone super-cool futuristic screen gadget 1,392 times.
But here’s the thing. For me, one of the hardest parts of BEING a mother, is doing it without HAVING one. (That, and the lack of sleep. That sucks the big one, too.) These two things – being a Mom and having a Mom – seem to go hand-in-hand, so to celebrate me when I don’t have her, just doesn’t seem right.
A few years back, I submitted an essay to a contest (of which I did NOT win… whatever) answering the question, “What was the most important day of your life?” I’m going to share it with you today as a way to honor my Mom. And as a way to express why this damn Hallmark holiday is so fraught with emotion for me.
Please note: the following essay is not particularly funny. It’s not written in the voice of this blog to which you’ve maybe become accustomed (i.e. sarcastic). But I assure you, I did write it. And I do stand by it. But you might be bored. So if you’re the reader who’s thinking, “C’mon tell us more stories about your kid’s addiction to the iPad,” or saying “Geez, where’s the Us Weekly dish?” then this is probably not for you. Just close the window or email now and come back in a few days. I totally understand and I promise to lighten things up next week. I may even write about Jessica Simpson’s 12 lb. baby named Maxi[Pad]. (Well, at least that’s what the kids in school are going to call her.)
What was the Most Important Day of My Life?
April 11th, 2003. The day my Mom died.
I know this is not an original or creative answer, but it is honest and true. The day my Mom passed away after a three-year battle with cancer is the day that divides my life into the “Before” and “After.” It is the day that seems both recent and distant; I can sometimes recall every detail, other times it is all a blur. It is the day I lost a part of myself and grew up. It is the day that impacts every other day. It is the Most Important Day.
Of course I considered the answers “The Day I Got Married” or “The Day My Daughter was Born” but I took a more honest approach (although it may be slightly less popular with my husband!). If the adjective had been different – Happiest, Joyful, Exhilarating – than my answer would have been one of the above. But Important is a different kind of adjective. Important is Consequential. Pivotal. Life-Altering. And nothing changed my life more than losing my Mom to cancer because nothing shaped my life more than my Mom.
My Mom taught me to tie my shoes, wrap a present, sew a button, iron a shirt and write a thank you note. She took me to my first day of kindergarten and college, and saw me graduate from both. We spent every single one of my birthdays together except for my 30th, because she was too weak to come to the surprise party she planned. She defined herself and measured her life’s value – perhaps, at times, to her detriment – through her family. She supported my siblings and me emotionally, financially, and unconditionally. She always loved us completely.
Then she got sick. And that’s when I really learned the meaning of family.
The first thing you might have seen when you walked into my Mom’s house post-cancer diagnosis was that half of the wall dividing the kitchen and the family room had been knocked down. My Mom had it removed because when she was stuck on the couch in the family room after a treatment or surgery, she couldn’t hear every single word that was being spoken in the kitchen. And she did not like not hearing every single word that was spoken in the kitchen.
If you kept on looking, you would see the press releases about my brother’s recent promotion, the countless photos from my sister’s wedding, the magazines she knew I liked, her Christmas list (the list of presents she would buy for others, that is) which had an even number for everyone so that nobody would feel hurt, the grocery list for Sunday’s BBQ, the marketing presentation that I worked on for two weeks, and other miscellaneous hosting and bragging props.
Some people called my Mom over-involved… okay, that was me. I called my Mom over-involved. She had opinions and advice and answers about everything. And yes, it annoyed me a lot of the time, including after she got sick. But during her three-year battle with cancer – countless hours of “quality time” with her on her couch – I witnessed first-hand what it meant to be family. Her generosity and pride were inspirational; her caring and consideration were monumental. Even though she was the sick one, she spent most of her time thinking about her family. In her house, we were home; we, not cancer, were always her top priority.
Mom promised her doctor that she would not give up her fight against the disease until the day he told her there was absolutely nothing left to try. So she received chemotherapy and kept her sense of humor about how absent-minded it made her, calling it “Chemo Brain.” She underwent a risky surgery that was supposed to take eight hours and knew immediately that it was unsuccessful when she woke up in the recovery room after only two.
She bought wigs when she lost her hair, ate Hostess chocolate cupcakes when the drugs killed her taste buds and joked about how it was lucky that she had needed to lose a few pounds in the first place.
She planned my sister’s wedding from her hospital bed, literally; she redecorated her house from her couch; and she bought all of our Christmas presents online when she became too weak to shop.
After three years of trying every treatment possible, including risky surgeries and experimental drugs – her oncologist told her that she was out of options.
True to her word, Mom died one week later, four days after her 61st birthday. On her couch, in our home, with her family by her side.
April 11th, 2003. The Most Important Day of My Life. I knew right away that nothing would ever be the same, but I didn’t realize that nothing would ever be the same everyday.
I had no idea that my Mom was so strong. I would not have predicted that she would be a fighter; I had never used the word ‘courageous” to describe her before she got sick. Again, these were things I learned… After.
A lot has happened in the five years since my Mom died; it feels like we’ve lived a lifetime without her. My brother’s career soared and he recently married a wonderful woman. My sister endured two difficult pregnancies and now has two incredible daughters. I, too, got married, gave birth to a beautiful daughter in 2006 and am now expecting my second child, the first baby boy for the family. Life’s happiest occasions – or not. (Editor’s note: a lot more stuff has happened since then.)
I never really knew the meaning of the word “bittersweet” until the day I got married without my Mom.
My Mom’s absence continues to affect every day of my life.
There are the big things – the holidays, the birthdays, the achievements.
But there are also the small things, like how to cook brisket and do I need to wear stocking with this? And what is this rash on my kid’s back? All of these little, but not unimportant, parenting questions that come up every single day? Mom would know the answers.
My sister and I often discuss (agonize) over how we can be good mothers without our own Mom’s guidance, opinions (yes, even the unsolicited ones), and expertise.
We ask each other questions, shrug our shoulders and say, “Mom would know…” and then we cry. We try to be Mom for each other, but we can’t even come close.
So we live without Mom. But we live with her knowledge (some of it, anyway). We live with her memory. And we live with her lessons.
There are the lessons I learned about hope and courage; about priorities, pride and optimism. I’m wiser and ultimately, because of my Mom, I will be a stronger wife, sister and mother. I’m also grateful… even if my joy will always taste slightly bittersweet.
My Mom’s death drew the line between “Before” and “After”– she defined the Before and her absence affects everything that comes After. What could possibly be more important than that?