Loss has left an indelible imprint on my life; a reality I have not come to easily. Grief is certainly not a linear process; bereavement takes us on many side routes, eventually arriving at a better place of understanding and healing. During my early years of grief there was a steep learning curve, a reckoning in a way. Often, looking in the rear view mirror is a more comfortable place to process. Sometimes it’s harder to recall how you felt on the day of a monumental event, the death of someone you love, than it is to remember the subsequent difficult days. The days after my mother passed were transformational. Like seaglass, the ocean waves of emotional highs and lows washed over me for years, creating less sharp edges, less vulnerability, eventually exposing a softer exterior that has come with time.
I was 24 years old when my mother passed away from stage four colon cancer. She was 53. It was, and still is, the most premier experience of my life. Suleika Jaouad provides a piercing description on cancer aftermath in her book Between Two Kingdoms, “After you’ve had the ceiling cave in on you—whether through illness or some other catastrophe—you don’t assume structural stability. You must learn to live on fault lines.” Following her death, the floor beneath me seemed to vanish, the sense of vulnerability crushing. As time crept on, there was a distinct separation between my two worlds; the one where she was living, and the day after. I kept thinking she might appear around the corner as I walked through my childhood home, but was left disheartened. In a moment of paused reality, I called her cell phone thinking she might pick up, content to hear her voicemail until that went away. Smelling the perfume reminisce left on her shirt collars and clothes, making her favorite tea, watching her favorite movie or eating her favorite food somehow brought her back to life momentarily. She was the center of my world and my biggest cheerleader. Waking up in my childhood home the day after she passed, my saddened heart ached. I had never experienced physical pain like that in my chest. My husband, whom I had married just two months prior, lovingly comforted me, tears streaming as I grasped my chest; facing the reality that it did really happen. She wasn’t coming back.
Following my mother’s death, I felt soaked in a resentment that never seemed to fully dry. How could life continue on? I remember feeling numb, and when I’d run into well-meaning family friends at the grocery store, they’d reflect that I seemed stoic. This annoyed me at the time for no particular reason other than being given a label. I felt like responding with, “I don’t know what I am, I’m just here buying a gallon of milk.” Looking back, I didn’t want my life to exclude my mother. Unaware of how to integrate back into life without her, my numbness would present as anger. Walking through the mall presented unexpected feelings of judgment, even hate, towards people I’d identify as “mothers and daughters” laughing together. It was as though I had lasers focusing on any joyful moment, ready to destroy it with my gaze. I wondered if I would ever be happy again, and when I did feel happy, even briefly, guilt would arrive soon after because it was experienced without her. Grief is a strange island where you inhabit a space of feeling paralyzed amidst forward movement in the eventual continuation of life. I was the paralyzed one, while life around me kept on going, hesitant to jump into these waters without her, no life jacket, no buoy to keep me secured.
My mother’s battle was with colon cancer. Many of us are familiar with the stages of grief following a death, major change, or loss. Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler created this model to include feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Originally created to identify the emotions a dying person is experiencing prior to death, I realized leading up to her passing, I was experiencing every stage except acceptance. It never crossed my mind until the very end that I would lose her. My mother’s colon cancer advanced to Stage 4 when I was in my senior year of college in North Carolina. The news arrived via phone, my parents on speaker, providing the details of what this meant for my mother. That same day I had plans to attend my roommates’ engagement party. The sense of excitement for my roommate was suddenly hijacked as I grappled with the news. Hearing “Stage 4” felt like a punch to the gut and I’d never felt so far away from my family in Connecticut.
In my last year of college I began applying for graduate programs. I wanted to become a social worker and was both excited and bewildered about next steps. I had the unique issue of considering my mother and my boyfriend in the decision making process. By this time I had been dating my now husband for over two years. He had been a constant support regarding my mother’s illness. When we could, we’d get out to Connecticut during breaks from school. Getting to visit home more often that last year of college was comforting to my soul, but when I returned to North Carolina, I felt deep heartache leaving my mother and family behind. I was living in two realities depending on the day. One was an imaginary world where my mother was not sick. In this world my life was the same, predictable, nothing complicated to consider. This space was saved for envisioning my future with my boyfriend, fostering friendships, my career, my education–the world was my oyster. The other world I lived in was a sharper, more harsh reality, purposely avoiding thoughts about the future out of fear. No one was saying it outright, but I knew my mother was very sick. Because I didn’t live close by, I couldn’t truly understand her condition or what she was up against. What my life might have looked like versus what it would likely become was an ever present reality. Ultimately I knew I wanted to be close to my family and my mother as she continued to fight her cancer battle.
Deciding to move to Connecticut for my Master’s degree felt right on so many fronts. The harder piece to consider was living far from my boyfriend for two years, as he would have to remain in North Carolina for his job. He was cool and calm, never wavering that everything would be okay and we’d stay together. For me, it felt like it would be the ultimate challenge for a relationship that meant so much to me. Perhaps the difference in outlook was our ten year age difference? Still I asked myself, could we deal with the distance, the heaviness of her illness and come out the other side? I wouldn’t have blamed him if he ran in the other direction.
Following my acceptance, I relished every moment that summer I got to spend in North Carolina with my boyfriend. Prior to leaving for Connecticut he surprised me, in the kitchen of his apartment, with an engagement ring. He had talked to my parents and was given his grandmother’s wedding ring from his mother. It was such a special moment that certainly helped soften the feelings of insecurity about our pending two year separation. We agreed we wouldn’t go more than a couple of months without seeing one another, taking turns traveling.
When my first semester of graduate school began I again felt torn between two worlds; my future, and my present reality. As a young adult it is developmentally normal to make your sole focus your world. It’s singular focused, but I felt like I had bi-focals on constantly. My tenure at University Of Connecticut was a positive one in that it was an easy escape from the more harsh realities of my mother’s cancer. It was a bubble full of articles to read, scholarly discussion on social injustices, papers to write, fellow students to study with or update about wedding planning. The daily hour drive to and from school gave me a space to cry freely, sing, or talk through the realities of my mother’s battle. Looking back, it was a lot to hold for one person. I sometimes can’t believe I stayed in school or completed my Masters. If I were really being honest, there’s a great deal I don’t remember about that time, so much of it is a blur.
I couldn’t wait to board the train traveling to New York City from my small shoreline town of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. I was more than halfway through my first year of my master’s program. My internship was closer to my hometown, and when I finished for the day I made my way on the Metro North train. My Dad was already with my mother at Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the premier hospitals for cancer treatment. My mother had been referred there by her oncologists at Yale where she was receiving the majority of her care. She was going to be getting an innovative procedure to place a chemotherapy box in her colon that would supply cancer fighting drugs directly to her organ. They had done the necessary scans prior to the surgery to ensure she was a good candidate. I was excited for her, and prayed that this would provide her with more time, or even better, a cure. As the train made its way into the city, we zoomed past the neighboring shoreline towns, the beach grass transforming into a blur of beige and green. I felt different, more hopeful, that my mother would survive this horrible illness and would one day return to her old self. As we got closer to the city, I noticed my father calling me on my cell phone. Excitedly I picked up, assuming he’d give me the update on how she was doing post op and how positive her team was with this new treatment plan. The tone of his voice was soft, cracking from dehydration and overwhelm, defeated in timbre“ Hey Katie. So honey, your mom is out of surgery, but they weren’t able to place the chemo box in her colon. They found cancer in lymph nodes that had not been detected in her scan, so they closed her up and won’t be able to do the procedure. We are in the post op area, you can come up and see her as soon as you get to the hospital. She’s pretty out of it and doesn’t know yet. I’m so sorry sweetie.” All of a sudden the oxygen, which seemed abundant minutes prior, was gone from my train car. I could barely breathe, the tears burning from the corners of my eyes. Unfortunately I wasn’t alone on the train car, which was packed with commuters. Jerking my gaze away from other passengers, I moved my body toward the window, pushing my face against the plexiglass watching it fog from my sudden returned breath. Wishing I could scream, I bit down on my lip, letting the tears fall. There had been prior moments that felt scary, unsure, hopeless in this journey, but now I knew my mothers fate with a sickening certainty. I didn’t need to wait for her oncologist's treatment update to confirm her diagnosis. I had become quite savvy with the cancer lingo, tough conversations, and the lack of eye contact. She would not survive this cancer, and she didn’t have much time left. I stayed strong as I ended the conversation with my father, not alerting him to the fury of emotions brewing.
When I arrived at Sloan Kettering from Grand Central I took in the vastness of the hospital building and the busyness of patients, families, and employees walking in and out. Each person passing me holding their own story, hurt, fear and stress. As I navigated my way to the waiting area, the smells overwhelmed my senses. Since the start of my mothers journey with cancer I had become a collector of scents, sights and sounds typical of a medical setting. I had sat next to my mother during her treatments–watched as a shockingly large needle was placed in her port, her eyes wincing from the pain of the initial entry. The beeps of machines pumping life saving chemo into her body. The bright lights, the warm blankets, the patient gowns, the collection of bracelets with her identifying information: Deborah Harris Seymour DOB:10/30/1953. The varying bracelet colors, a stark contrast to her pail almost translucent skin. That night, after visiting with my mother by her bedside, I made my way to an apartment in the city a family friend had offered to us. I let myself in, briefly talked with a friend and crashed finally from the weight of all the day had brought. I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the silence of the space, the peaceful break from the realities that were piling up. When I woke up the next morning I took in the beautiful views, letting what was to come marinate for a moment. How much time did I have left with her? My mother later admitted to returning from this trip to New York in a place of fear, feeling the weight of her prognosis and ultimately asking the same question.
Spring of 2005 to summer 2006 included more life transitions than 365 days should allow: The completion of my undergraduate program, my move back to Connecticut to be closer to my family, my engagement, the beginning of graduate school, my mother’s continued cancer battle, and eventually, a wedding. My fiancé and I planned to have a longer engagement and marry after I completed graduate school. Following my mothers failed surgery everything shifted. Our concept of time became much shorter and she eventually stopped her chemo treatments. Coming home after school one night, my father sat me down and said that we would need to move the wedding up and we decided on May 13, 2006. Much of the responsibilities my mother would have assumed as the mother-of-the-bride became my father’s. We went to wedding vendor events together, where he delightfully fretted over whether to have a white chocolate fountain or a dark chocolate fountain. My mother attended the events she could manage depending on the day or chemo treatment cycle. The planning process was a welcome distraction for everyone, but not one that could completely delete what was needed for my mother’s care. We all helped her track her medicines, writing down the time and date on a piece of paper in her half bathroom connected to their bedroom. Some days were better than others. Many nights I snuggled with her watching Father of the Bride or other comforting romantic comedies. She would whisper things to me like “You will be a wonderful mother one day,” and “Keep your heart open.” When she had more of an appetite she’d ask for take-out from her favorite restaurant, only to stop eating after a couple of bites due to the sores in her mouth, one of the many side effects from chemo. There were tears, laughter, medical appointments, chemo bags, food trains, nausea, visitors, highs, lows and everything in between. This time I had with my family and my mother was truly a gift.
On May 13, 2006 my fiancé and I were married in Deep River, CT with 125 family and friends who were there to support us, but also there to say goodbye to my mother in a way. She radiated that day, dressed in a purple Coldwater Creek jumpsuit, her hair natural (no wig) and beautiful as always. She worked the room, visiting for as long as she could, dancing at the reception to Dancing Queen and smiling from ear to ear. The photos from this night are treasured moments captured only a couple of months before my mother died. We would attend one more wedding in July of 2006 in Ohio for my cousin. It was obvious my mother was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Her smiles became more painful with each day, hiding a truth we all knew was coming, but weren’t ready to accept. By the end of July she was brought to Yale New Haven hospital and eventually transferred to hospice.
The day my mother passed was surreal. Sometimes I still can’t believe it happened, and that I got to be with her when she took her last breath. She was the center of my life. She brought me into the world, and I got to be with her when she left. It was a beautiful summer day, July 31, 2006, providing a predictable amount of both heat and humidity. The hospice center had a waterfront location with tall windows to view the ocean. There were large rocks framing the water that we climbed when we needed breaks. When I first visited her in hospice I felt unnerved that she was sharing space with other patients in various stages of dying. As the days passed she said her goodbyes to family and friends. Not everyone that wanted to see her got to, and she began to tire more with each visit. My memories are foggy during this time, partially due how much time has gone by since that day, but also because my brain is still trying to protect me from the painful moments. I remember we laughed in the bathroom together as she asked me to “pray for poop.” The colon cancer had spread to her liver, and in her last days she struggled with certain bodily functions we take for granted. She always smiled, even through pain, but this time was different. I remember the quiet conversations she had with her doctor where they discussed the increase of medications to provide her comfort. My father later told me that when she asked to be brought to the Yale New Haven hospital days prior, he watched her turn her head as they drove away from our home, looking back, saying her own quiet goodbyes, fully aware that she would not return this time.
On her last day, as she rested, I cozied up as close as I could get to her, listening and watching her every inhalation and exhalation. My family had just left to get some rest back at our house. I had stayed behind, as we were each taking shifts. Suddenly my mother struggled to catch a breath. As I arose from the recliner to help adjust her positioning I noticed a black tar- like substance coming from her mouth. I was horrified, shocked, and scared all at once. The hospice nurses swooped in, surrounding me and closing the curtains around us, providing privacy from the other patients. They let me know it was time, she was dying and prompted me to tell my mother it was okay to go and that I loved her. It was as if I was being fed lines in a play. I didn’t want to utter these words! I loved her, but surely she wasn’t actually going to die, and I wasn’t going to provide positive reinforcement for a premature exit. But there I was, repeating the words, watching them clean her mouth of the black tar, hearing her last breaths and eventually being told she had passed away. I am lucky to say I never suffered severe trauma as a child. As a social worker I had read how young children who experience trauma over and over describe “leaving their bodies” emotionally as a survival mechanism, our brain's way of protecting us from the unspeakable. Watching my mother’s passing was traumatic and I experienced a type of emotional overwhelm that my mind and body couldn’t comprehend, and so I left. Not physically, but mentally. The memories that follow feel like I am floating, watching them from a distance, or the corner of a room. There, but not. I wasn’t fully able to define this reaction to my trauma until years later. Following her death, the hospice staff quickly wheeled her hospital bed out and let us know they would come get us after she was moved to a more private room. Eventually we were all there; my brother, sister, father, husband, and maternal grandparents. We went into the visiting room. She was so peaceful looking, her skin a beautiful pale tone. They had placed a rose in her hands and neatly situated her bedding. Her hair, which had turned salt and pepper in her late 20's, was completely white in color. Touching it, I remember thinking it was so soft even though it was no longer as thick and full. I could still smell the lotion we had been putting on her hands to provide comfort.
Best Foot Forward
The days after July 31, 2006 were messy, beautiful, complicated, disappointing, and awkward–they were our life without her. I spent one more year at home completing my Masters and then moved to Colorado, where I still live with my husband. I was a motherless daughter who became a motherless mother. I gave birth to my son in 2010 and my daughter in 2015. My dad began dating in an attempt to fill an irreplaceable void, and one day he met Brenda, my future step-mother. She was patient with our sometimes unsupportive, emotional responses to their relationship, engagement, marriage and combining of households. I will forever be grateful for that steadfast non-judgmental ease with which she handled the chaos that was our family. My Dad, brother, sister and I remain close to this day. The journey in our relationships at times hit pot holes and there were times we avoided one another from the sheer pain of it all. Our present relationship is in a beautifully mature place–honest, supportive and unwavering.
My children call my mother Ya-Ya. We hang pictures of her and my life memories on our walls throughout our home. I sing my children the same lullabies she sang me–the woman and mother I have become, mirroring much of her essence. I take great pleasure out of my habits reminiscent of her: driving with a tea mug on the top of my car, thanking the grocery clerk unexpectedly by name, giving my children far more information than they asked for, overestimating the amount mushroom mulch I need in my garden, blasting Gloria Estafan while I rage clean, volunteering for too many things, etc. I have attended Motherless Daughter support groups, meeting life-long friends and been a shoulder to cry on for mother losses in my circle. Life continues and as the years accumulate I wonder if I will forget her voice, her face, her smell. Will I forget the closeness, the fights, the good times and bad? The answer is, you never forget. Grief doesn’t just disappear, it evolves. This evolution has led me to a more steady ground with less fear and anxiety. My mother’s presence has taken a different shape in my life. She will always be with me, never far from my mind, guiding me along as if our hands never separated, a life once shared together never truly broken apart.
About the Author
Kate Andres is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She lives in Golden, Colorado with her husband and two children. Kate has previously been published in The New Social Worker Online Magazine for her work on rapport building. Her work combines personal and professional experience providing a relatable reflection on life’s ebbs and flows.