I hold onto Labor Day Weekend 2017 as one of the most life altering dates in my book. My life before and after resemble the lives of two different people. At the time, I had ended an unhealthy relationship, my brother had moved to New York City to start his dream job and my parents had returned from what would be the first of many stays at the Mayo Clinic.
My mom, the ultra-upbeat, healthy and joy-filled woman, had been feeling sick for the past month. In my 25 years I had never once seen my mom feel less than great. My stomach sank each time I saw her napping or coughing too often. She was getting further away from her bright self each day. “A fitness instructor for 30+ years would never get cancer, would she?” My own thoughts scared me. “Only people who don’t take care of themselves get cancer, right?”
But I knew.
I remember trying to carefully tell my brother, busy working past midnight and making new friends in NYC, that something was wrong with our mom. Sending texts like “Mom is just really tired lately.” Or “Mom’s been seeing a lot of doctors this week.” Trying not to alarm him as he’d just begun an exciting chapter of his life.
But he knew too.
The week before I had stayed at my parents house, looking after their puppy, while they stayed at Mayo Clinic for extensive testing. One sleepless night I got the urge to look through our family photo albums, something I never did. Subconsciously I had begun reminiscing before any diagnosis was confirmed. Alone at the kitchen counter, I took out photos of my mom and I smiling together, staring at them with an ache and longing for that joy I knew would be hard to find soon.
My parents returned from the strenuous testing at Mayo.
My brother was flying home.
The four of us, together, was so good. The sweetness of being with one another and our joy was the best thing I had ever known. When my brother returned Labor Day Weekend, I got to feel that joy one more time. This time, of course, was different. This weekend will forever be ingrained in my memory.
My mom, exhausted, had been spending much time on her porch. She was a woman accustomed to exercising outdoors but now unable to walk. The porch was her new way to get fresh air. My sweet dad wanted to make the porch special for her so he took my brother and I to Target to buy string lights. Our trip to one Target turned to three until we found just the right lights. While my mom slept in her bed, my dad hung the lights. My mom would not use the porch much longer as getting out of bed soon became rare.
My dad knew.
Then came the after part of my life. The shift in all things good and easy. With profound courage, careful words and wet eyes, my mom sat her children down on the porch-under the carefully strung lights. I hope I never know the terrible feeling my mom must’ve felt, telling her children how sick she was, how aggressive the cancer was. How there was no cure. How this is something she’ll live with until she doesn’t.
My mom spoke with intention. She spoke with truth and love-directly from her soul. While on the porch, my mom spoke words I have thought about everyday since. “I don’t know what OK looks like in our future, but I do know we will all be OK somehow.” We will be OK, together or not.
My body has muscle memory for this season of our lives. The feelings of anxious waiting I felt in August, the confusion I felt in September, the hope I felt in October, the out-of-body shock I felt in November and December. As the season shifts from Summer to Fall I feel as if I have to do this all over again. I feel it in our family. When one of us has an off day I know why. Our need for mothering is unending. It’s a season of learning to mother our own selves.
We are OK. It’s not what I hoped it would look like. It’s not what I would ever wish for. I long for her mothering. My mom’s words ring in my mind, as if a mantra, mothering me from afar. My life is different now, in really sad ways but in really beautiful ways as well. As a family, we have found a new kind of joy. We have found the courage to mother ourselves, somehow. When my mom said those words we never dreamt this would be our story. We never thought we would be OK without her here-but we are and we will continue to be.
My mom knew.