When I was 19, I unexpectedly lost my father. He had gone into the hospital for ulcerative colitis earlier in the week. What I understood at the time, was that he needed to have a procedure, but was not well enough for it. They were keeping him in the hospital in order to build up his strength for the procedure, which they hope to perform the next week.
I was working two full-time jobs at the time. Hoeing weeds in the fields by day. Taking orders and slinging pizza by night.
It was Friday night (actually early Saturday morning) after a shift at each.
I’d sent a note to Dad earlier in the week that I was coming to see him the first day I had off, which would be Saturday.
My mom woke up each one of us kids and we gathered downstairs in the family room, where she told us Dad was gone.
The next days, weeks, months, were a blur. But aside from a few moments of peace and calm–one when the bishop prayed with us that the spirit would be with us as Comforter and I felt a palpable sense of peace and comfort in the room and two–when people from all over the county–and some from states beyond–as well as a few high school friends I didn’t expect would understand at such a young age that showing up for and standing with people in such an hour has a deep and lifelong impact–showed up to honor my dad. I had previously only been aware of his immediate influence on our family. To see such a visible effect of how wide an influence one can make just by being an honest and friendly guy who was kind and who helped people. Well, that stays with me still.
In any case, what I mostly felt, once I started moving past shock and disbelief, was anger.
I was a terror.
It took the patience of a true and honest friend who had the courage to sit me down privately one night in his car and tell me how selfish I was being to wake me up and bring me around. His message to me couldn’t have come from just anyone. And it couldn’t have come without true charity and a complete lack of judgment, either. I will forever be grateful for that one brave friend.
In any case, now, though I still miss my dad these 35 years later, when I look back at that time, all I feel is the love. Our friends and neighbors (and I’m sure our family – although they were oh so far away, and they were mourning too) surrounded us with love and service that lifted us and carried us through the worst of that time. Another lesson that stays with me still.
Three years ago December, I got a frantic phone call from my mom, who lived alone in a city about 10 miles south of me. She needed a ride to the Emergency Room here where I live. Immediately.
Her cancer was back.
Sometime I will write about when she and my mother-in-law, Barbara, had the same cancer at the very same time.
But today I write a little about when my mom’s cancer came back.
It was dark. It may have been raining. I was swearing and crying and praying all at the same time. I went to her house and held her as she cried and tried to joke about it at the very same time. But the prevailing feeling–along with disbelief–was fear. We were both so afraid.
I don’t recall which room, but I recall exactly where I was sitting–in the corner, just to the top left of the gurney on which she sat, the doctor stood at the foot of her bed as he explained the results of the full body scan she’d had in order to determine the cause of her unrelenting pain after someone had rear-ended her. The cancer was back. And it was everywhere.
I took her to see an oncologist the next day. It was so bad they started chemo that afternoon.
All my siblings gathered at Christmas. She was so weak. We didn’t think she would make it through Christmas.
But then she rallied.
An entire brave and courageous year of treatments, pain, suffering, gallows humor, hospice, so many things I cannot yet describe.
I remember during that time I heard a friend of mine speak of her experience caring for her mother towards the end of her life. Allison beautifully expressed what I was learning about the offering of imperfect but heartfelt service in in the midst of heartbreak. Looking back, I think she what was really talking about consecration and sanctification. Despite helping care for three of my four grandparents at the end of their mortal existence, caring for my mother was the first time I began to glimpse the meaning of consecration and sanctification.
On January 7 I was getting ready to go in to work for a conference call, when I got a call from my sister-in-law. She was crying. And so apologetic. It would have been one of my nights to stay with Mom, but my brother had needed to switch. My mother had been sleeping peacefully. We all were in the habit of peeking in and listening at her door. My brother had just left to take his kids to school. When D’Dee walked back by my mother’s door, it was too quiet. Despite all our efforts to be there for her, she had gone just the way she wanted–slipped away quietly, without any fuss.
Shane was in the middle of teaching third grade and needed to get someone to take his class. So Zack drove me out to the house. We waited for hospice to come–grateful that Mom’s favorite aide hadn’t yet left on vacation and was able to attend to her one last time. The hospice nurses did what they needed to do, then we closed Mom’s door and waited for the funeral home to arrive. During our wait, we passed around the Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars that truly sustained her spirits through her final months and raised them together in a final Cheer! to Mom.
Mourning Mom was not as intense as mourning day. But it’s lingered longer. I’ve thought a lot about why this mourning was so very different. I wonder how losing someone you love too soon and at an early age might shape you. It certainly had strengthened my faith. Both parents were ill and had suffered, so there was still relief for them at their passing. Relief that they suffered no more. But I had been distanced from my father’s suffering, as I was away at school for most of the year and was not charged with his care.
My mother’s suffering had been personal to me. And my relief at her release was deeper.
Also, we all felt–and still feel–great peace at knowing that after so many years alone, Mom is with Dad again.
A couple of months after Mom died, I spoke with my friend about the grief of losing a mother. We talked about the stages of grief and how, while the sense of loss is runs deep, it seems unusual to have skipped the anger stage.
I’m not sure which one of us said it out loud, but we both had come to realize that when you are angry, you miss seeing beauty and joy.
It seems counterintuitive. Impossible, even. But we both had identified beauty and joy in our very personal journeys with our mothers. The same sense of beauty and joy carries us through our mourning as well.
[Day 31 of Ann Dee Ellis’ 8-Minute Memoir.]