9 years ago at almost exactly this time of year, I was in the next to last week of performances of my first out of town theatre gig. It had been an incredible experience, those three and a half months in Illinois. In-between the 1-1/2 day visits to Texas each week to spend time with my dying mother, the artist in me was thriving.
I love being in a show. Revolving my life around a production is my happiest, most organic way to function. I could write a whole other blog about that. But at this time of year, I am remembering the other part of that period of time in my life. The time I spent with my Mom at the end of her life.
That time with my Mom was many things. It was a time of healing for our relationship, first and foremost. We had some time to make up for. There had been some difficult years where I was scarcely home or in contact; years when it was tough between us. We both knew that this was our chance to right what we could. And we were both game.
It turned out to also be a time that would bring great healing to my soul. And a time of growing up.
(But I wouldn’t know that until much, much later.)
It was a deeply intimate time. My father was my mother’s primary caregiver. I was practically estranged from him at the time we were told that her cancer had come back as lung cancer, so it was uncomfortable being all together at first. We had been learning how to be around each other again through necessity, and on her behalf, since the diagnosis.
I cannot imagine any other circumstance that would have had me home again, under his roof, other than my mom’s illness. It is amazing how Life orchestrates Her lessons.
Both of my parents’ lives had narrowed down to one end: to sustain and prolong her life for as long as possible. My father was amazing in his capacity to be there and care for her. Watching how he loved her those months through the way he cared for her, and the heartbreak that he went through as he let go of the woman he had loved for 54 years, slowly began to change my long-ago-hardened perceptions of him.
Some people think love looks like what we see in romantic movies: someone bringing roses to your doorstep, a beautiful wedding, two people gazing into each others eyes saying the words “I love you.” While it can look like that, I learned what love really looks like: it was in the black three-ring binder my Dad kept on the center of the island in their kitchen, the room that had became our Ground Zero. It was a journal of my mom’s illness, filled with intricate, handwritten notes about her medications…times, dates, dosages. Hospital visits. Hospice caregiver notes. Bowel movements. Daily status updates written out by hand in great detail.
He had been a very successful businessman with a fierce will and iron determination, which he now turned to the most important job of his life, the job of Keeping Alive my mother.
(Some time after she died, as we were clearing away the things from her illness, I had a hard time letting go of That Binder. Page after page was a love letter to my Mom.)
On the days I was home, my father gave me a wide berth, allowing she and I time alone together. I am only now realizing how generous he was to give me that time with her. That’s love too.
Through the tension that lived between he and I, we found a way to work together those days I was visiting. It was a strange unspoken dance. We were an Odd Couple, but we were united on one thing: we both loved my mother desperately and were willing to do anything to help make her time better.
We’d try to come up with foods to go pick up or make that she might have some appetite for. Smoothies. Crackers with Pimiento Cheese Spread (a Southern thing that she had loved in her youth.) Did she have enough Sudoko books? (My mother’s greatest fear was that she’d get Alzheimer’s, as had her mother, and her mother’s mother. She did Sudoko’s like mad to try to stave off that Rapacious Host. Cancer beat Alzheimer’s to the punch. Maybe there was a blessing in there some where? Maybe.)
Somehow, I found out she’d never tried rhubarb. I am not sure why, but I became obsessed with the idea that she should not die without having tasted rhubarb. I didn’t say it out loud or anything. I just got it in me that I had to find some for her to taste.
While in Illinois, I found some locally made strawberry rhubarb jam (farm country!) and got a jar to bring to her. But when I got to Airport Security, they would not let me bring it through (Thanks 9-11.) I was devastated until I remembered that on the way from the Houston airport to my parents’ house, I would pass a House of Pies. As I made my way there, I I prayed that they’d have a rhubarb pie. They did.
I burst through the door, triumphant, bearing my prize for My Queen. But the pie would quickly be forgotten, shoved into the fridge with the many other containers of leftovers of food brought by many well-intended friends and neighbors. I would later throw it out, untouched.
Things had changed since the week before. My mom’s appetite had shifted again, and was not there for that weekend, nor for much of the time after that. Attention this particular weekend went to more important things, the main concern at hand – how to help her body to have a bowel movement again so that she could be out of the discomfort she was in.
I was devastated. Not that the pie was forgotten. But that somehow, I had missed the window. How could I be so stupid? There is a window — a window of time for a cancer patient when food is still a possible source of joy or appeal. I hadn’t realized that it would one day shut forever, sometimes quite suddenly. How could I not know that? I should have known. I had missed the portal into the alternate universe. The one where my Mom beat the odds and survived cancer. Getting her that rhubarb would have changed the trajectory of it all. Like in the movie Sliding Doors.
The mention of rhubarb to this day brings a burning flush of shame to my face and a failure pit in my gut.
The mind is an amazing thing. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is so spot on.
In my thinking, it was as if somehow, if only I had gotten the rhubarb to her before That Window had closed, it would have made some crucial difference. It would have made cancer slow down, or something. Anything.
As if rhubarb could have saved my mother.
Part 4 to come.