It’s one thing to prepare for your own death, to contemplate your own life and dying, to consider how your own passing might affect family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. It’s quite another to be brought up short by the unanticipated and untimely death of a parent.
Mom died less than 48 hours ago. She died at Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie, Ontario quietly, surrounded by members of her family, apparently without pain and at peace. Earlier in the day, even though she was physically unable to give voice to her farewells to those gathered at her side, she was able to respond to them with squeezed hands, tears and smiles. In fact, among those of us unable to be there in Barrie, she could listen on Dad’s cell phone held to her ear. We said our goodbyes in turn and she would respond by squeezing my sister’s hand. Monday morning, that was how I said a final farewell to my mother.
As I’ve written before, on numerous visits to our home in Kitchener, Mom and I said goodbye with hugs, kisses, and spoken wishes…but all in the assumption that it would be me who passed first.
Yesterday and today, I’ve been sleep walking through a dreary world, voicing my sorrow to my sons and my wife and weeping when overwhelmed. I’ve spoken on the phone to Dad and some of my siblings either by phone or by MSN Messenger, dearly wishing I could be with them, if only for a few moments, to talk about our memories. Instead, we will have to deal with the constraints of distance and my own health concerns.
Yet again, cancer has stolen something from me – the opportunity to be with those most immediately sharing the same experience, those who dwelt in the same household with me and Mom over the years. That isn’t to say that our experiences are identical. There is the birth order phenomenon, different schools, different religious affiliations and different personalities, not to mention that among the 10 siblings, only 1 was a girl.
Nonetheless, of anyone in this world it is those of us who shared a household with her and Dad, or my aunts who shared another family household with Mom, who knew her best as a family member. Friends will know her in other ways, of course, but family is special. When we are physically present in the same room, when we glance at one another, thousands of memories come flooding back. The atmosphere is charged with those memories. If those memories were threads in a spider’s web, the strings would fill the room instantaneously.
Cancer cannot steal those memories shared with other family members from me, nor can the disease steal away those memories which Mom and I alone shared. But my cancer and her untimely death have stolen opportunities for new memories. And I resent that very much. I am bitter about that loss.
Still, in my more sanguine moments, I realize that we now have a chance to build and recreate the narratives of my Mother’s life, narratives which will help us face the future with renewed vigour and strength. My youngest brother, for instance, will be able to tell L, his daughter, all about Grandma, how she loved her family and cared for us all, how she embraced her faith and encouraged each of us to find the source of all truth, of all goodness within. He will take her example and create a foundation for not only L, but for each of his children. As will my sister with her daughter. And, if we are wise, those of us slightly older and with children slightly older will still build stories of the woman who gave everything for her children.
When we gather, there may still be moments that seem abnormally still, gaps that Mom would have filled with thoughts about distant family members, about politicians run wild, about anything that occurred to her. I’m sure there will be some smiles shared then among us, recognizing her in her absence, and then each of us jumping into the gap as if accepting her implicit challenge. If we are wise, we will use those opportunities to build narratives not only about her but about all she would want us to be.