We read a lot about strong women these days – usually some mover and shaker who challenged perceptions to become the CEO of a mega corporation. These modern power players get profiled, but strong women have been around for ages. Mother’s Day reminds me of one.
My mother was modern in some ways, but old fashioned in others. She was an RN, who gave up nursing to live on a dairy farm with my father. They had eight children, of which I was the seventh.
When I was eight, our barn burned down, killing the majority of our herd. Two months later, my father had a heart attack and died. My mother could not dwell upon her grief at having suddenly lost the love of her life. She was left with children ranging from kindergarten to college. She found a job at a nursing home and rented out the corn fields to neighboring farms.
When my father died, my greatest fear became losing my mother. As I aged, my great fear slid to the back of my mind. It was always there, but everyday concerns pressed it to the back. One minute, high school girls were confounding me; the next, I was trying to figure out where to go to college. My mother let me sink or swim with the girls on my own, but she had something to say about college.
She walked eight different tight ropes, balancing between steering us to become productive members of society and giving us freedom to be who we wanted to be. By the time her last child reached adulthood, she had earned a life of ease.
She didn’t get it.
I was 22, and living on the opposite side of the country, when my mother told me she had cancer. She said it calmly; it was just another hurdle to overcome. Everything would turn out all right.
I moved back home. Everything was not turning out all right. Treatment seemed ineffective. She got thinner and weaker. Sometimes, she asked my help in walking. I, or rather my old fear, chafed at this. She had to fight harder; she was giving up too easily. For almost a year I pestered her to eat more, walk more, do everything that hurt, because she was trending in the wrong direction and I couldn’t deal with it.
One morning, my mother woke up in excruciating pain. She was admitted to the hospital. A few days later I got a phone call from Hospice. They wanted to arrange for a nurse to come home with my mother. I hit the roof. Hospice was for hopeless cases. We hadn’t given up hope. I hadn’t. My fear wouldn’t let me. I told them what they could do with their nurse.
Exactly one week after we’d taken my mother back to the hospital, the hospital called. The message was simple: Come quick. Things had taken a sharp turn for the worse overnight. It was an hour drive. I wiped my face the entire time.
Walking into the hospital room I stared my greatest fear in the face. All my hope had been pretend. I was running from fear, and the running was over.
Lying in the bed was the shell of everything my mother had once been. Even that shell was fading.
Throughout the day, my siblings trickled in, one by one. As each of them came through the door, I relived, in their faces, that first moment when I had come in. A new wave of pain came with every one of them.
The last, my brother, needed a ride from the airport. I volunteered to get him. When we got back to the hospital, I didn’t follow him into the room. I couldn’t watch that face again, the one I had worn in the morning, and had seen so many times throughout the day. I waited in the hall.
A minute later, my sister came out. “Mom died about five minutes ago,” she told me. My brother had missed her by a few minutes. So had I. I felt bad for him, but not for myself. I had already been there for as much of the end as I needed. Damn the end.
We went back inside and all gathered around the bed. All of her children – very different people as adults, but all devoted to the one who had raised them in their different molds. All of them equipped to make it on their own, without her, because of her.
A doctor came to talk to us. His single comment that I remember was this: “I’ve never seen anybody live so long with so much cancer in their body.”
The comment made me angry. I was angry at myself for having pushed her to fight harder when she was already fighting harder than I could imagine. I was angry at the doctors for not letting me know the enormity of the foe she’d been battling all along.
We made the necessary arrangements, then piled into cars to drive back to the house in which we’d been raised. I was still battling with my old fear and my new anger.
On the country road we traveled, we were stopped by a sight that was familiar to us all. A farmer’s fence was down and his cows were in the road. How many times, in the olden days, had our parents taken us young farm hands to round up our own cows who’d gotten out? It seemed like a message from them both. They were together again, and things were just how they used to be.
It was hard to be angry after that. My fear-come-true receded as well. I began to realize that I was strong enough to go on. To me, as to all of my siblings, she had given a piece of her strength. As much as we might want her help, we no longer needed it.
That was 23 years ago. I still miss her every day. But I miss her because of who she was and what she brought to our lives, not because of any old fears.
She made me face my biggest fear, and she gave me everything I needed to live past it.