It’s hard when someone so woven in the fabric of your life gets torn away, because every aspect of living now feels frayed around the edges. Singed off. Raw. You jump into the rain and you remember that she cannot feel cold or wetness. You hug your daughter and struggle to remember what your own mother used to smell like. You look through your recipe book and know that you can never eat garlic prawns the special way she does them ever again. Your mouth waters with the remembering, your heart aches with the missing.
You hurt because you live and she doesn’t anymore. Not in this world anyway.
All that is grief after the fact. After the death. After the eulogy and the burial and the physical farewell.
But grief for the seriously ill starts way before the raggedy end and that last struggle for breath. Prior to my mother’s death, I’d been grieving for a year — since the day we received the diagnosis that my mother had Stage 4 ovarian cancer. And yet I had worked so hard at squelching my grief as much as I could. On looking back, I wish I understood what was going on better. I wish I didn’t care so much what others MIGHT have thought of my actions. (I’m sure most of it was a figment of my worst imaginings anyway, because I’m largely surrounded by people who love me.) I wish all these things because then, perhaps, I might have used that precious little time I had left with my mother more wisely.
The myth about betraying the cause
There were two prayers I gave continually and simultaneously throughout my mother’s illness. One was the prayer that God’s will be done and that we would all have the strength to endure whatever He allowed… and the other was what I called a Hezekiah prayer – bargaining, pleading, daring, begging. Lord, please change the elements for my mother. If it’s not too outrageous of me to ask this, O Lord, please… you know… subvert natural law. Set the sun back. Reverse the ravages of time. Heal my mother.
The first prayer was the one I needed more, and yet it was always the harder one to utter. Because every time I didn’t pray for healing, I felt like I was betraying my mother. I felt like I was already killing her with unbelief. Like most inner dialogues driven by guilt, they can be highly irrational and grossly incorrect. But they are also very loud.
I also know I wasn’t alone in feeling like this. There were times my mother had sighed. There were times I think she felt like she wasn’t allowed to contemplate death aloud, because it sounded too much like capitulation. She was urged over and over never to give up by most around her. To “have faith”, as if speaking of heaven awaiting was an act of the unfaithful. Yet there were very few who dared to broach the idea that she might not have long to live. Including myself, most of the time.
It must have been so lonely. I know it was, because I had felt lonely. On looking back, it was such a bizarre thing because I needed to talk about her possible death. I wanted to talk about it. But I think it terrified everyone else around me to do so.
I wish I had been there for her to speak frankly about her place in heaven, and to be willing to gasp and cry in contemplating our collective loss together. We did so towards the end, but I think she needed the sounding board quite a lot earlier in the piece. So I wish I had been braver. I wish I had more confidence about how deeply she knew I loved her – and that if I had brought up her possible death, it wasn’t because I wished it upon her but because we both knew there was a heavenly future to consider.
I wish I had been a stronger advocate of the turmoil she felt that came and went. Sometimes, it felt like I wasn’t allowed to speak of my mother as one who experienced doubt and fear because it seemed unfilial of me. But I knew her well and she was faithful AND honest. I wish I had honored and applauded that self-awareness by lobbying her struggles, and perhaps gently pushing back on others who told me off for apparently lacking faith in my own mother.
I wish I hadn’t been so blindsided by the desire for the physical to be healed, that I did not dare to bottle up the here and now.
One of the bitterest pills for me lies in one of ten boxes currently being shipped from Singapore back to Australia where I live. When I first learnt of my mother’s cancer, I went to Toys R Us and bought a swag of Hallmark’s record-able books. I had wanted my mother to record her voice reading these gorgeous storybooks to my daughter. I had wanted my daughter – and perhaps future children – to know what my mother sounded like.
Out of sheer denial and cowardice – for the idea of sitting down to record her voice reading to my child already made me tremble with un-swallowable emotion – I had put off presenting those books to my mother at every other opportunity I had. And I had been given a whole year. And then on my last trip over, I finally gathered all the materials I needed to document her life, her voice, her stories, her recipes… only to arrive to find her incapable of speech and much movement, cancer having now reached her brain. She died two days after my arrival.
I say all this, because there is no lens so clear as the ones you wear when looking back. And there are things I did do right. I loved her. I cooked for her. I sang to her. I made her laugh. I told her stories about her grand-daughter. I built castles in the air for us to live in one day. I prayed with her. Read scripture. Talked about church and God. Cried together. Held her. Was held by her. Wept with wild abandon. I told her I loved her, and it was never flippant.
But I still wish I had done some things better. Don’t we all.