I wanted to return from my travels with a fresh post about my time in Italy and how it had surpassed my expectations. My time with sir in a country rich in art, steeped in history, and incredible food far exceeded my most passionate vacation fantasies. The reality of Italy proved almost dreamlike at times. Did I really sit and ponder Michelangelo’s David? Had I gazed upon Botticelli’s Primavera amidst a crowd of people and wished I could physically press myself into its flowery details? I drowned myself in art and food while I basked in sir’s attentions. Other than daily correspondence with my mother, I was out of touch with everyone. It was surprisingly delightful. I arrived home full of foreign sights and sounds, buzzing with love and wine, only to find that life hadn’t stilled during my absence.
I came home to a sick cat who needed a trip to the vet, and my car needed new breaks. My daughter had a dentist appointment, and I used that hour in the waiting room to frantically search for a cat sitter who could come twice a day to give Catsquatch his medicine. Meanwhile I fielded emails and texts from my brother and both sets of parents to coordinate our visit the following week. Oh yes, I was leaving town again in less than seven days for a roadtrip to the motherland. There was packing to be done while I tried to catch up on work, and the buoyancy of Italy couldn’t compete. Especially with the latest news regarding my mother.
Sir and I were in Rome when I received the email. My mom had sent an update to the family, telling us that the chemo wasn’t working. A scan had showed that it wasn’t having any effect on the nodules of cancer on her lungs. Her doctor recommended switching the chemo cocktail and perhaps applying for an experimental drug trial. She had said that she remained hopeful in her message, but I knew better. I could read how she actually felt behind the sunny missive, so I choked back my fear and planned a trip north with my daughter. It had turned into the most inconvenient time to leave home when I had barely caught my breath from Italy, but I had to go. My little brother was going to meet us there, and I couldn’t postpone our departure without fucking up everyone else’s timetable. The worst part was the fear that I couldn’t shut out.
I’m running out of time.
My mother looked older than her seventy years. She was physically fragile and her movements slow. She used a cane to walk around her small apartment and sometimes a walker when she thought we weren’t watching. The chemo was a poison that killed cancer cells and seemed to be killing the rest of her too. It affected her skin, her joints, hair, and nerves. We referred to her lapses in memory and problem solving as “chemo brain,” and I silently recited my mantra of patience, patience, patience. Patience as I waited for her to slowly make her way across a room, patience to explain again what we needed to do, patience with the long list of chores that had to be accomplished before we left. I snapped at her, feeling irritated when she instructed me for the hundredth time exactly how she wanted her dishwasher filled. But beneath that bubbling anger was fear, a fear of what I will do without her. It was a pain so keen that it stole my breath.
She asked us to clean out her cabinets, so my brother installed new shelves in her pantry as I pulled out boxes and cans of food. She sat at the kitchen table with a blanket around her shoulders while my brother and I moved expediently around her, sweat dripping down into the collars of our shirts. The summer heat and humidity failed to warm her, so we didn’t turn on the air conditioning but silently melted into puddles in our shoes. We teased her about the exploded can of sweetened condensed milk that coated one spot, and I scraped away at the blackened, sticky surface. Eventually I asked her what had inspired her thorough clean-out, and she shrugged.
“Oh, you know. I don’t want to leave with all of this stuff still …” She gestured at the expanding trash bag.
I swallowed hard. She had finally mentioned the shadow that had ridden me hard ever since reading her email. I felt cracks appear in the shields around my heart, and I struggled to control the overwhelming tide of emotion. My brain refused to process the implications of her unfinished thought. I distracted myself with another task to focus purely on physical labor even though the denial was slipping from me with each moment we spent together. My heart beat with a throbbing ache in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. With some flimsy excuse, I fled the room.
I hid in the spare room with the excuse of completing some urgent work. Sir called me soon after, and beneath his gentle questioning, my armor dissolved. I related the conversation, tears streaking down my face. The scales had finally fallen from my eyes, and for the first time since she had come out of remission, I admitted to myself that my mother might never recover.
Our unspoken family motto is: if you put enough effort and energy into something, it will work. And if the thing isn’t working, put your head down and work harder. The older I got, the more I realized that this motto was not without its flaws nor did it serve every situation. Until that moment with my mama, I had been applying it to her recovery from cancer. I had believed, mostly unconsciously, that if I prayed hard enough and believed fervently that my mother would recover, then she would. That to entertain any thought of the contrary was counterproductive. So when she came out of remission, when the first kind of chemo didn’t work; these were signs that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I know it seems ridiculous that this was somehow my responsibility, or perhaps its conceit that my personal thinking would have that great an impact, but some part of my internal reasoning thought to make her better through sheer will on my part.
I can’t, of course, and with the crush of my disillusionment came a startling gift. Sir told me, “at least you know that your time is limited.” It took several days for that to sink in, and at first, a feeling of resentment swelled at the seemingly harsh observation. He’s right, though. I can see now, and more importantly accept, that there is an end to the timeline. Logically we all know it. No one lives forever, but feeling that truth is something else entirely. Feeling that truth for someone that you love with your entire being… well, it’s fucking shitty. And terrible. And somehow freeing too.
Sir’s advice was to take advantage of what I could finally acknowledge, and that I should wring every possible moment from the time we have left together. I know he’s right, and at the same time, my brain refuses to imagine a life without her in it. I’m surprised by how hard it is to sit with the feeling that our time will end and to somehow be OK. I’m striving to accept that these are the moments I have now. None of us really knows how much we actually have but we like to tell ourselves that there’s always tomorrow. I can’t keep saying that. Instead I tell myself to hold tight and love hard. It’s the best I can do.
When my daughter and I finally arrived at home, it felt like I was walking with a bubble of sadness encompassing me. It has taken the better part of a week for me to find my footing again, and running has really helped with that. I’m still processing, still crying and sad, but I’m functioning better and can feel happiness through the miasma of grief. I was on the trail the other day, pondering the universal process of coming to grips with our mortality, and a scene from Moonstruck popped in my head. I had to laugh. If you’ve never seen it, you should. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, full of messy relationships, long-lasting love, and of course, life and death.
One of the storylines is that Cosmo is having an affair, and his wife of many years knows it. Part of the movie is Rose trying to figure out why Cosmo felt compelled to cheat, and she asks different characters why they think men cheat on the women they marry. Finally she comes to her own conclusion and tells Cosmo. (At this point in the movie, Cosmo doesn’t know that Rose knows about his infidelity.)
Hold tight and love hard, my friends.