My mom is dying.
Just three weeks ago, I was moving my graceful bleeding hearts from pots into the shady side garden. My little Mary wore her stiff pink garden gloves and chatted with me as I dug deep holes over by the rose arch, “What’s this called? Is that a weed? Why are you putting that funny dirt in? Let me do that one!”
Finished with the transplanting, I turned to the beds to pull a few hearty weeds. Erik emerged from the house, “It’s your mom,” he covered the earpiece with his hand, “it sounds important.”
Wiping my hands on my jeans, I took the phone and sat on the porch. “Hi Mom.”
“I have good news and bad news.” She chirped.
“I have the best, most treatable form of liver cancer. But I have liver cancer.”
Honestly, and I’m sure this sounds heartless; the news of cancer was expected. My mother’s health had been poor for a decade. She was the last of my children’s four grandparents to have cancer and her eventual diagnosis felt inevitable. But her next words could not have surprised me more:
“During this past week, as I’ve waited for the biopsy, I’ve been examining my life. I’ve been thinking.” I heard her voice crack and strain.
“And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ever since you were a little girl I’ve been hard on you. I don’t know why. I know I made you feel unloved.”
I wanted to object. She didn’t need to apologize; our relationship has been fine for the past several years. It was OK; I understood, and I have made oh-so-many mistakes of my own. But her words split my heart right open and filled an empty aching hole.
“Are you still there?” she asks.
By now, my throat has contracted and tears spill relentlessly from my cheeks. The only reply I can manage is a sharp intake of breath, a fragment of a cry.
“And I want you to know that I love you. I’m proud of you. I cherish you. My time left may but short; but it will be….” Sobs steal her voice too, and as the sun sets on my porch we sit and cry together.
Finally, I find words, “I love you too, mom.” We both hang up, because it’s all we can take. I’m amazed and overwhelmed and frightened too because my heart has never felt so clean and soft.
Friday, just when the kids were coming home from school and filling the house with their friends and plans of weekend revelry, my sister called, “You need to come down here,” she sobbed, “mom’s in the hospital.”
We threw a few apples, some clothes and all six kids in the car and began the 12 hour drive from Salt Lake to San Diego.
When I arrived Saturday she was a fragile as a cobweb, drifting in and out of consciousness, her features flattened by illness. I began to cry the moment I saw her but she took my hands and exclaimed, “You’re real. You’re really here. You’re real!”
My sister sat beside her, holding her hand and speaking to her gently, almost like a mother to a sick child. She stood to kiss her on the forehead, to murmur words of love and to brush back her sweat-dampened hair. I watched her, mentally molding my actions to hers and feeling a bright and vivid awareness of the burden my sister had been carrying these past weeks.
The doctors say my mom should be writhing in pain, that her decaying liver and pancreas would create almost unbearable agony. But when I asked, she shook her head gently and said, “Oh, you don’t get any pain with this.”
She is so sweet. Incredibly, indescribably sweet. It’s as if every bit of worry, anger, every wordly care have been burnt away and only her true essence remains. Even when asking the nurses to leave, she is gentle, kind—her love fills the room and pours out in the sanitized hallways. Her room faces the famous Torrey Pines golf course and hang gliders drift outside her window delicately balancing between ocean and sky.
Trivia doesn’t interest her. She wants to recall old memories, to read scriptures, to talk about the temple. But the moment we shift to what’s for dinner or what’s happening in the world, she becomes muddled and drifts away only to return after a restorative nap.
My 17 year old Ben brought his viola along(just because he loves it—can you imagine?) and drew out rich, golden tones. He quickly discovered that fancy concertos were out of place and switched to hymns and primary songs—“Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “I Know the My Redeember Lives,” “Abide With Me,” “I am a Child of God” and
“I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers
Confused at the grace that so fully he profers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.”
Her voice is an alto and during a few songs she sang in clear, sweet tones perfectly matched to the viola as Ben improvised and harmonized.
I had an afternoon with just my mom and dad where we reminisced and laughed and recalled every happy story. It’s like selective focus on my camera where the best, the most beautiful things are crisp and detailed and everything else creates a lovely, blurred background.
My parents told of how they met, their first date, their long courtship and it’s crescendo when my dad proposed at San Francisco’s Half-Moon Bay. They spoke like a duet, back and forth, filling in details and forgotten notes. And they kissed so much, so blissfully that I averted my eyes and watched a hang glider lift and soar; dip and glide.
And I wish I had a photo of that—of my dad’s forehead pressed to my mother’s; tears streaming down his cheeks and her peaceful, joyful smile.
She wanted to hear the scriptures and asked for specific chapters. And I thought, “Why these verses? There’s nothing comforting here.” But when I began to read the words came to life and filled me and overwhelmed me, until I had to pass the book to my dad and let him read in his calm steady voice. The spirit filled the room like a temple and we drank it in.
My sister read with her too and turned to Third Nephi where Christ is visiting the Nephites. He tells them he must leave and the people cry and beg him to stay a little longer. Ruth stopped, wiped her own tears and pleaded, “Can you stay just a little longer? We need you.”
She was quiet. And Ruth read it the words once more, and asked again, “Just a little longer?”
Her eyes were closed and her words came like the remnants of an echo, “I’ll try. I’ll try.”
While my mother slept, my sister and I whispered between us. “This is mom as her true self,” my sister confirmed my own thoughts, “doesn’t it make you wonder what everyone else is really like inside? Once we strip away our daily worries and pride and need to ‘keep up appearances’ the Light of Christ simply shines through.”
I saw the fruits of the Atonement and it is glorious.
Today, I am home, trying to weed out the busyness in my life so I can go back to San Diego and be with my mother.
Why am I so damn busy? (And that’s the perfect word because my frantic life is literally damning me from God’s blessings, from the whisperings of the Spirit.)
OK, some answers are obvious. I’m a mother of six darling ever-needy people. But why have I added in so many other things? I like to live my life with wide margins, big empty gaps in the schedule so that I can follow a prompting to visit a neighbor or simply to read a book. But I’ve made my life so rushed that I can only hear spiritual shouting.
I’m reexamining the role of women as nurturers. Because it is our nature and my job to drop a task to kiss a skinned knee or to spend an afternoon chatting with my son. I love the example of my friend Jeannelle, who is a single working woman and spends many evenings and weekends with whomever needs her most. I want to be more like her– but mostly I just want to get on a plane right now and see my sweet mother.
How has forgiveness changed your life? Have you tasted the sweetness of the Atonement; seen the way it transforms a person into their true, best self? How can we make more room for the Spirit in our lives? How can we embrace our role as nurturers and still pursue our personal goals?