Shortly before Mother’s Day in 2004, I flew from Stockholm to New York, not to wish my mother a Happy Mother’s Day in person, but to say my final goodbyes as she lay dying of pancreatic cancer. The cancer had spread quickly to her liver and lymph nodes; the doctors told us she wouldn’t make it past May. I had given birth a month earlier to my second child, a son, and my mother wanted to see and hold him while she was still sitting up and clear-headed. Her situation was so grave, I didn’t know if she would outlive my 8 ½ hour flight from Stockholm.
Although I was now a mother of two, I became a child again in the face of my own mother’s cancer. Words like “terminal” and “do not resuscitate” made no sense since my worst childhood nightmare had been realized. I was very attached to my mom and couldn’t imagine life without her. As a kid, I checked up on her while she slept to make sure she was still breathing. Moving to Stockholm hadn’t altered the closeness of our relationship. We spoke on the phone almost every day and I came to visit for several weeks in the summer. My mother was the heart, soul and rock of our family. She was the most unselfish person I knew and always available for me and my older sister, despite commuting forty minutes from home every day to work as a French teacher and then coming back to tutor other kids in the afternoon. She sewed most of our clothes, made home-cooked meals every night, and drove us to our activities. Above all, she was always fully present and never seemed distracted. We had wonderful conversations around the kitchen table about her childhood in Haiti and what it was like when she and my father moved to New York in the late ‘60s.
I have my mother to thank for my love of reading, art, classical music, and all things beautiful. We often woke up on Sunday mornings to the drumbeat of Ravel’s Bolero on the record player. My mother had a set of leather-bound books that she purchased via an installment plan and I loved to turn the gold-edged, tissue-thin pages, struggling to understand Shakespearean English. Her favorite perfume was First by Van Cleef & Arpels; I kept her last, half-used bottle and am overwhelmed by memories of her whenever I smell it. After my sister and I became salary-earning adults, it felt completely natural for us to treat our amazing mom with a trip to Paris for her 50th Birthday. An ardent Francophile, she could finally visit the Louvre, Versailles and charm Parisians with her impeccable French. The trip was a success, though in true Mom form, she was never really clear about her exact age and had already turned fifty a couple of years earlier! But we didn’t know this at the time. My sister and I would discover our mother’s true year of birth much later, when we prepared her death certificate.
My mother taught me how to live a life of purpose filled with love, compassion, service and kindness. And during those grief-filled days in May, my mother was also teaching me how to die. I don’t know if she had already gone through Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Aside from denial and bargaining, I have a difficult time imagining my mother angry and depressed because that’s not how she approached life. She was of a generation that just got on with it, without any drama or fanfare. However, she exuded a peaceful acceptance by the time I reached her bedside. A spiritual person, she could put her life in perspective and considered me and my sister her greatest sources of joy and accomplishment. She rarely complained about the excruciating pain piercing her abdomen and never once asked, “Why me?”
My mother left us on May 24th that year. It was devastating, a loss from which I haven’t fully recovered, but I’m comforted by all the lives she touched. At her funeral, the church was teeming with family, friends, colleagues and students who wanted to say thank you and pay their last respects.
I miss my mother every day and am so grateful she had been mine for thirty-two years. My biggest regret is that my own children didn’t have the chance to know and love her the way I did.