When Death Comes In A Baker's Dozen
Approximately three years ago I was pronounced five years in remission from stage IV uterine cancer. The discovery was anything but routine and involved an emergency room visit for inexplicable pain that in the course of four hours miraculously subsided—on its’ own. Although a super miracle might have dissolved the pain before racking up a hefty hospital bill but that is another story.
As most cancer veterans know, there can be an automatic panic button triggered when the body sounds an alarm before being pronounced ‘cured’ at the 7-year mark. Because of the previous diagnosis, a scan was given which immediately revealed no signs of concern. In spite of the harrowing few hours spent in the ER, there was immense relief bordering on jubilation. I was now five years in remission—with just two to go. Without the wooziness, I might have been tempted to celebrate but decided instead to make a few phone calls.
Perhaps it is universal irony and wisdom but after noticing several missed calls and a voicemail from my sister Cathy, who had been caring for my mother during a wrestling match with her own cancer diagnosis, I heard her news.
Because my mom’s cancer had entered the brain and was no longer responding to treatment, it had reached the point of diminishing returns. On that same day it was decided, she was suspending her treatment and would allow fate to have its’ way.
I don’t recall whether it was weeks later—or if I ever told my mother my good news. I’m sure I did. But it all seemed anti-climactic and absurdly ironic. And yet it is the order of life.
Within 6 weeks my mother died with all five of her children surrounding her as she took the last breath. The beauty of her end and the love that permeated the room is indescribable and would be cheapened by any attempt to string a series of flowery sentences together.
My mother was complicated and challenging and as she told me just a year before her death, “Molly Ellen, I am not your bake cookies kind of grandmother”. This was perhaps the most incisive and insightful revelation I’d ever heard uttered by my Canadian--and somewhat Provincial--mother.
When she inhaled for the last time, there was only love (minus all the disappointment and pain she struggled with in her life) and her essence remained.
When she exhaled for the last time I recognized—for the first time perhaps--that the greatest love I will ever know had taken her leave. And while our communication deepened during the last few weeks of her life and I began to feel her presence before her physical departure, I understood intuitively there was a new language we would both learn that would transcend time and keep us tethered.
Her departure left each of us all struggling in our own ways and I would never venture to speak for my siblings. We all had different relationships with this woman we called “Mom” but without hesitation I suggest we have all been deeply transformed by her absence. And there are no universal phrases that come close to articulating what I now call ‘mommy loss’.
For the next year, grief was an intimate companion and the ‘story of me’ was a fickle narrative determined by fleeting emotions and interpretations. I was (and am) fiction in progress. Within two days of my mother’s departure, a close girlfriend/soul friend and confidante suddenly lost her father, a man whose absence seemed inconceivable. We both floundered and made futile attempts to buoy each other through disorienting tidal waves of sadness. We both had a new language to learn, separately. And there were more losses for us both.
After my mother’s departure there were 12 more who took their exits in rapid succession. Approximately every 4-5 weeks (over a 13-month period) friends and family members took their last inhales and exhales. Some much closer than others but all dearly beloveds including a girlfriend of 30 years who struggled with cancer (before and after me) and who left two young daughters and a husband. A godparent, three significant mentors and a host of friends—several with cancer diagnosis (who were way too young and funny) and a few whom I was honored to share their last words—all said goodbye.
Lest there be any confusion that these losses are personal to me or ‘about me’, they are not. The loss for those closest to all of those referred to is far greater, illusive and mercurial than I have permission (or sense) to articulate.
But what I can (and dare) speak of is after being pulled under by a wild and unpredictable current of grief--that rendered me speechless and incoherent for many months--there was an involuntary, unexpected gratitude that emerged. With enough silence and inward leaning there was space for the gift of fluency to enter. Fluency in a language I never knew or wanted to believe existed.
And so it is. When death comes in a bakers dozen, there is grace.