I Watched My Mother Die
I go over it in my head all the time. Wondering when I first knew that my mother was going to die. Not in the way that we tell ourselves that everyone is going to die eventually. I mean, there came a point in time when I knew my mother was going to die. And then that moment kept getting closer and closer. Until she died. Holding my hand.
Actually, I was holding her hand. And it was hard to let go. That was 27 years ago. I’ve lived more years without my mother than I lived with her. I’m older than my mother was when she died. I sometimes think back and wonder if there was anything I could have done differently. But there’s not. There was nothing I could do about any of it.
Because I was no match for cancer. I was an errant bystander in the crowd. All of us full of hope and despair. Asking questions. Providing support. Saying something. Saying nothing. It didn’t matter. None of our support fixed her. And while I’m sure she knew how loved she was, I’m also sure it demolished her to know that she was going to leave us. To leave me.
I watched my mother die. And life would never be the same after that.
When I was about ten years old, my mother told me she had to go into the hospital to get a cyst removed from her breast. “No big deal,” she said. I believed her. My ten-year-old brain quickly sidetracked to the jar of Nutter Butters in the kitchen, the unusual feeling in my nether regions for Blondie, and baseball and basketball statistics raining down on me like A Beautiful Mind.
What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to think? Why would my mom lie to me? Thinking back, it wasn’t that I was naive. I was just a child. A momma’s boy who never even had an argument with her. A boy who slept on the floor of her room, with my dogs, when she moved her boyfriend into our apartment and there was no longer room for me in the bed.
She came home a few days later. I probably didn’t think much of it. My memory tells me she was tender, but what did I know? I was just a child. Devoid of advanced introspection or guile, I just accepted everything at face value. She had a cyst removed. And I ate Mallomars all week because my grandmother was taking care of me.
I had no idea this was the beginning of the eventual end. The tip of the iceberg that would end in a slow-moving emotional avalanche. I had no idea everyone was lying to me “for my own good.” But maybe I did have an idea and it was one I didn’t want to face.
There were things that happened in between cancer number one and cancer number two, but I don’t remember all of them. I’m sure there were drops of information that should have led a reasonable child to conclude that his mother had a mastectomy. But what child wants to know these things? I just wanted to play Nerf hoop, organize my baseball cards, and listen to my Devo tapes.
A friend told me once that my mom had cancer. Because his mom had told him that. So, now my friend knew more about my mom than I did. But I didn’t even really know what cancer was. Other than the fact that it was not good. Maybe I should have said something. Maybe I should have asked. But I loved my mom more than anything. And I knew she didn’t want me to know. Because she didn’t want me to hurt. So I didn’t tell anyone what I knew.
But that was about cancer number one. And after a move from Brooklyn to North Hollywood, there weren’t many reminders. No one talking in my ear. No outward manifestations of what cancer might look like to a twelve-year-old. So, there I was again. Sidetracked with thoughts of my first kiss the summer before, intrigued by my new obsession with Hansen’s Natural Soda (Mandarin Lime and Grapefruit all day), and my head in the sand. Trying desperately not to find out what I already knew.
I don’t remember when my mother started chemo. I must’ve been told about cancer number two before she did. But my timeline is a bit frazzled. I spent the majority of my time at home, alone in my room, with one or both of my dogs nearby. And I was hiding from it, if I even knew about it.
There were a lot of reasons I left North Hollywood for boarding school. Cancer number two, my proclivity to skip school and go to Venice beach, and I was way ahead in school and repeating a grade was going to help me in school and basketball. Or shortening that all up, I don’t think anyone wanted me to watch my mom slowly die right in front of me.
They didn’t want me to watch her hair fall out. They didn’t want me to have to pretend that her wigs looked regular. They didn’t want me to want to see her be uncomfortable in the world. With herself. With her illness. They didn’t want me to see her bones get brittle. To feel any bit of what she felt when she winced in pain. No, they didn’t want me to watch her die.
I ended up having to do that anyway, just not every day. Part of me wishes I wasn’t sent away, but part of me knows that my mother wanted to shield me from her abject misery. Her sadness. Her disappointment. And her fear. I only saw my mom scared once before cancer. But after cancer, I could see it in her face more than I wanted to. It was hard to look away from. My head was out of the sand.
I spent the summers with my dad in Long Island. The amount of time I began to spend away from my mom was diametrically opposed to how I grew up. I still talked to her almost every day, but it was different. I was distracted at boarding school and then, when summer hit, I was distracted with girls, going out, girls, going out, girls, going out. I wonder if she was happy that I was busy. So I couldn’t focus on the fact that she hadn’t answered my calls in four days. Because she was in the hospital again.
I don’t remember when I knew again, about cancer number two. But I do remember when my mother told me she was going to die. I was no longer a child and I knew it wasn’t the “we all die” thing anymore. She was visiting for a week during the summer as she always did. And she was really struggling.
For a woman who wanted to put on a brave face for me at every turn, it must have been killing her to audibly recognize and acknowledge her pain getting in and out of the car. Or sitting down to eat. I don’t remember if this was wig time or not, but I never saw my mother for one second in my life and didn’t think she was beautiful. I could tell when she was sicker, but it didn’t change how I saw her.
But I could see her pain. I could hear her pain. And as we sat down to eat the lunch that I will never forget, I don’t know that it had really dawned on me that she was going to die. Like pretty soon. She wasn’t going to be cured. Maybe I should have understood that fact at the time, but even though I had taken my head out of the sand, I liked to put it back down there from time to time. It was my mom. And I was scared out of my mind to lose her. Even if I knew it was a foregone conclusion.
“I’m going to die,” she said over appetizers. Or lunch. Or f*cking dessert. I don’t really remember. Because those piercing, all-encompassing words will forever haunt that meal, and my life. My psyche. My mindset. My everything. As much as I tried to pretend like it couldn’t happen, I knew that if she was telling me it was going to happen, that it was imminent.
I didn’t cry. Not then. I didn’t ask too many questions. Because inside I was emotionally seizing. I was putting a stop to everything. Because nothing else mattered. I understood what she was saying. I understood why she was saying it at that moment. And I accepted it. But in some ways, I still don’t accept it. Because it was my mom. My best friend. The person that brought me breakfast in bed until I went to boarding school. My rock. My idol.
There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t stop her pain. I couldn’t convince the doctors that there was more that they could do. I couldn’t make her come and live with me so that I could spend every second she had left with her. There was nothing I could do about any of it.
Not the chemo. Not her trying to work. Not her divorce. Nothing. I just had to watch my mother die. From afar. From too far.
From the day she told me she was going to die at that lunch table until the day she died, it was almost two years. Two years of blur. Things moving, people doing things, life happening, college, but none of it mattered. She was in and out of the hospital so much, I never knew when I would get a hold of her. And that whole time, even after what she told me, even after countless emergency trips to the hospital, through chemo and more chemo, I still couldn’t fathom her being gone.
And then the call came.
My dad told me, “Jonnie, we have to go. It’s your mom.”
I knew what he meant. I knew what was happening. And as much as I wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening and go back to shooting hoop and figuring out how to buy more Boone’s Farm, I couldn’t. It was time. It was time to actually watch my mother die. That is if I made it in time.
I think of it as the plane ride to hell, but really I had already been in hell for years. Hell was being separated from my mother and listening to her die on the other end of the phone for two years. Hell was hoping that I made it in time to see her before she died as if she would be the mom I always knew when I got there. Hope was dead. My dad told me, “This is it.” The moment I had dreaded since she told me she had a cyst on her breast. I couldn’t put my head in the sand. I couldn’t hide. This moment was coming for me. And all I could hold onto was the hope that I would see her before she left me.
And that’s all I could think about on the plane. As much as my dad, who was literally the best father anyone could ever ask for, tried to keep my mind busy, it wasn’t working. He probably told dirty jokes. He probably asked me questions about girls. He probably gave me advice about life. I couldn’t hear anything. Because the only sound I could hear in my head on that plane ride to hell was my mother breathing.
We went straight from the plane to the hospital. Everybody knows Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. It’s where all the famous people go when they get injured. Or give birth. Or whatever the hell they do. But to me, it’s where my mother died. And I was in a race against time to make sure I could be there to see it. To see her.
The blur continued as we got to Cedars. My mind aghast with the potential horror of her passing, but also of her condition if she was still alive. I never wavered from wanting to see her. I never thought it would be easier if she was already gone. Because she was my mom. And the love I had for her transcended fear. I had to make it. I had to be there. For her. And for me.
My heart was at the top of my throat. I could literally feel it beating in my windpipe. I hadn’t spent much time, if any, in hospitals up to this point. It’s part of the reason they agreed to send me back East. So I wouldn’t spend as much time in and out of hospitals as my mother. I didn’t know what to expect other than what I saw on television. And honestly, it was pretty much the same. But I never watched a show where my mom was about to die.
My steps were fast and methodically strained at the same time. Like trying to run a mile in quicksand, I felt like I was getting nowhere. The rooms all looked the same. No one mattered around me. Sick. Well. Dead. I just wanted to get to the f*cking room. And then I did.
I don’t know if I tried to compose myself before I opened the door, but I don’t think I did. I don’t know if I had left my dad in the dust, but I probably had. And he wasn’t coming in with me. Not now. This was the defining moment of my life. And I was going to do it alone.
I pushed the door open with both excitement and untold agony. It’s weird to be excited to see your mother when you know she is about to die, but it’s just how it is. I wanted to see her. And this was my last chance. I wondered if I had made it in time. I wondered if I would be in that movie scene where the main character pushes the door open to find an empty hospital bed. And we, the audience, know what happened.
But I didn’t live that movie that day. Because she was there. A frail and jaundiced version of the mother I loved unconditionally, but she was there. And for the first time that I could remember, my mother cried. The second she saw me, she cried. Because she knew.
She knew she was going to die. But I actually think she was crying because she knew I had to see her this way. That’s the type of person she was. She would lay on train tracks to protect me without giving it a second thought. But not this time. This was our time together. Our last time together. And all previous efforts to hide the ball, the cancer, were done.
Over the next couple of days, I sat at her bedside nearly around the clock. I watched her go from being able to talk very softly to not having enough energy to even make words. I watched her go from sitting up in pain to only being able to muster the strength to motion at the cup of water with a straw in it because she couldn’t even hold the cup. So I held the cup. And helped make sure the straw went into her mouth. I was 20.
We had a couple of laughs. She told me things that I knew she would tell me, in the only ways she could at the time. She told me I could do better for myself. She told me I would go on to do great things. She told me how proud of me she was. I wonder if she knew the monumental depth of the pride I felt for her. For how hard she fought. For being the person that she always was.
I had just flunked out of college, but she knew my father had somehow arranged a transfer to a new college. In that room, in those moments, I knew I would never fail another class. Or take something important for granted. I knew that it was within my control to honor her dying wishes. And I did that.
But I just wanted moments then and they were passing faster than I could grab. Every two hours her condition would deteriorate more. She would eventually stop talking. The pain medicine would be increased, for her comfort. She would eventually close her eyes. And at some point, she would never open them again.
When you’ve watched your mother die for years, the death doesn’t come as a surprise. But it also doesn’t come as a relief either, at least not then. I wanted her pain to end, but I didn’t want her to leave me. And for her pain to end, she had to leave me. And leave her. She had to go.
And that’s what we waited for. Family gathered around a soul held together by brittle bones. We waited and watched her breathe. We watched the machines remind us she was still alive. But we knew she wasn’t going to wake up. I knew she wasn’t going to wake up. I knew that we had locked eyes for the last time.
I don’t know how long I waited for her to die that last day. But I had been waiting since she told me about the cyst, so time was really not an issue at this point. Her breathing became lighter and lighter until it stopped. And only I noticed because the noise of the machines was turned down. I knew.
With her hand cradled in my hand, I let her go. And she went. And my life has never been the same.
I watched my mother die. Both metaphorically, figuratively and literally. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Because the end of her life and her subsequent death were written by her. A story as melancholy as could be told. She sent me away to keep me from watching her deteriorate. And that was her right. And I pretended that I couldn’t hear it over the years. Because that was my right. I did it for her. Because she did everything for me.
I often think about what my life would be like if my mother was still here. If she had the opportunity to meet her grandchildren. If we would have lived near each other and done things together as we used to when I was a boy. But thoughts like these don’t get me anywhere. Because there was nothing I could do about any of it. It just was.
My mother was a beautiful person, inside and out. There was nobody who ever had anything bad to say about her. She was loved by everyone she loved. She taught me as much in death as she did in life. She’s still teaching me things, 27 years after she left me. But I still had to watch her die. And that is something I carry with me every second of every day.