Wednesday, the 27th, is the one year anniversary of losing my mom. It’s been a rough year for our family, but we’ve made it through. I’m no longer crying regularly…so that’s an improvement, right?
Mom was only 65 when she died and had been facing terminal cancer for more than 5 years. Yet up until the last 6 months or so, when she started truly dying, she did her best to live as full a life as she could. Between bouts of chemo and downward spirals, she taught, she traveled, she gardened, and she read. She chased down new treatments, since her type of cancer was rare and had never been cured, and went to conferences on her specific kind of cancer so that she could help her doctors treat her better. She got into countless trials, some of which temporarily helped. But she didn’t make that her life.
My grandmother says that when Mom was 21, she wrote home from college a letter to the effect of “Hope you are all well. I’ve decided to join the Peace Corps and teach school in the Philippines. Love.” (of course, half their letters to her included change of address cards.) She spent 2 years there and loved the country. We have some pictures of her as a bridesmaid in a Philippine wedding, though I’ve never heard the story behind that.
From there, she went to Maryland and got a job measuring air pollutants. It was hard for her at the time (early 70s), as she first got sent to interview for the office’s typing pool because she was a woman. Funny enough, that would’ve been a terrible fit, since she was great with math but horribly dyslexic.
In the mid 70s, she got her PhD in linguistics at MIT. Once, when we were driving by Yale, Mom told me her reasoning for choosing MIT. She’d gotten accepted into Yale’s program as well, but she said the departments were entirely different. Yale, she said, was full of brilliant people who weren’t happy. MIT’s professors, on the other hand, seemed to have fun with their work. That story really fit her as a person. She was incredibly smart and also loved to play with shiny objects just because they were shiny.
Or bears, because they were silly…
When I came around in the mid-80s, she retired from teaching to be a stay-at-home mother. What that translated to was a SAHM who also taught reading through literacy volunteers. Then when I got older she started teaching languages. After a point, she homeschooled my sister & me…which was a step that made her nervous. Her first choice had been private school, but a series of problems in local ones led my parents to take us out of ours and not put us in another.
I felt as much pressure to get As and succeed in college to prove that she’d done a good job as I did to keep my scholarships, etc. Before she died, she saw both her daughters graduate summa cum laude and ace their GREs. We were also reasonably happy and well-adjusted. I think that made her feel like a success. I know she was also glad to live long enough to see me get married, as she’d thought of ProfX as a son for years.
After we graduated from high school, she kept up her Latin teaching in a local private school and even took on a few private students over the years. She finally had to quit the semester before she died. She’d started losing vast amounts of weight, starving, and she and the principal agreed at the beginning of that semester, that it was probably time for her to leave. She would go on to grow distressingly skeletal and only weighed about 70lbs when she died. As it was I think her death was hard on those students anyway, since they were only in 5th and 6th grade and she was a popular teacher. We received cards and flowers from a number of them.
There’s so much more that she did, so many more places she went—Soviet Russia, because Russian was one of the languages in which she specialized; or the interior of British Columbia to help transcribe the Shuswap language, as spoken by the Secwepemc (hard to say as you’d think)—that it’d take a series of long posts or even a short book to do it justice. I think that means she succeeded.
One of my biggest regrets, for me and my sister, is that we didn’t know her as adults without the specter of cancer and the roller coaster ride that brought. I was 18 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and 19 when she was diagnosed with the terminal carcinoid. This means my little sister was 16 and 17 respectively.
Most of the time, she was perfectly mentally sound, but she would go through periods of chemo brain, or be taking heavy meds, or just be too sick to think straight. And even when she was clear-headed, it was still hard to have an adult child-parent relationship. She was such a smart woman that I wish I could have talked with her about so much more than I was only beginning to be aware of or interested in after I got out of college.
This past year, I’ve been reading her Bujold collection. She loved the books, especially the Vorkosigan novels, and wanted me to read them too. She wanted me to be in college and somehow after she was sick it just got put off and we were never able to talk about them. As I fell in love with that ‘verse, I kept wishing that I could share it with her.
So many times this year, I’ve wished I could ask her about stories—like whose wedding she was in in the Philippines, or whether the man she was dancing with there was the one she turned down before Dad. I’ve wanted to ask her linguistics questions or for details of childhood things I can barely remember. And I’ve wanted to share parts of my own life with her.
We won’t get to talk about grad school with her, or middle age, or children if we end up having them. She also never saw ProfX get his PhD, which is something she’d looked forward to very much. This is what happens to many people, of course, but it doesn’t feel fair.
Oddly, this last year has been another thing too, something I didn’t expect. I’ve felt freer. I feel like a terrible person writing that. But it’s not Mom I feel free of, it’s this weight of the cancer and of knowing she was going to die.
Even when I wasn’t actively thinking about it, it was always in my head. I wouldn’t move more than half a day’s drive away, I prioritized trips home and felt incredibly guilty when my schedule kept me down here. I was much less social offline because so much of my emotional energy was wrapped up in this.
I would take back on the weight to have her back, but I’m glad that while the grief has persisted (as it should), the drain hasn’t.