Death in the time of a pandemic

Mom ran out of time last night. She died quietly and peacefully shortly after midnight, after years of serious health problems, with humour and an undiminished sense of “screw you cancer”.

For quite a few years, Mom and I took a hard journey with chemo, radiation, surgeries and more doctor visits than either of us cared to remember. It wasn’t always easy, but we did it – together. Along the way, we learned a lot about each other and had a lot of laughs. I met mom – the woman. And let me tell you she was fucking amazing. Funny, resilient, compassionate and smart.

It was difficult trying to work, write and help mom. Often, I pushed projects aside because I wanted to spend the time with her. I knew we were on borrowed time and I wasn’t going to waste any of it. It felt, at times, as though we’d just get settled into a routine and then mom would become ill or something would happen. For about 5 years, I’ve been living on high alert, waiting for the bad news, rarely sleeping the entire night. It was hard to concentrate and stay focused, but I tried the best I could, which, at times, was not terribly good. But our motto was “we’ll just muddle along”. I’m thinking of creating a banner with that on it and hang it on my door.

It was lonely, waiting, listening to people moving around outside the room and not being part of it. I spent hours looking out the hospital window, down onto a normally frantically busy street. Never was it clearer we are in the middle of a crisis – rush hour boiled down to 6 cars and a handful of carefully distanced pedestrians. It contributed to a general feeling of disconnection from the world at large and the lack of movement outside those windows amplified that sense.

Mom was always my rock. We helped each other out and were there regardless. Lazy summer nights sitting on the balcony sipping tea and chatting. Random jokes no one else will quite understand. Long, walks to test mom’s endurance after her various surgeries. She was proud of how she handled the devastating effects of cancer. I was proud to be at her side the entire journey. I didn’t want to say goodbye but there was no choice. I feel selfish because I didn’t want to let go.  But it was time.

Despite the overwhelming sense of loss, I can’t help feel, I was one of the lucky ones. I could stay with mom throughout.  I wasn’t going to be haunted by the knowledge she died alone, like so many during this pandemic. One of the nurses even found a big bark-o-lounger they dragged into the room so I could sleep there with her and I got trays of food to keep me going. Originally, they thought she would be gone quickly, but mom being mom, did things on her own schedule.

She hung on for over a week, unconscious and mostly unaware of the world around her. That’s ok, I fancied she could hear my running monologues with her, talking about rearranging the apartment (we lived together), deciding what shows to watch while waiting and talking about how quiet the world had become. I read her news, played some of her favourite YouTube videos and often, just sat quietly holding her hand. Occasionally I felt her squeeze my hand, whether that was a spasm or she was aware of my presence, I don’t know. To my heart, she was aware.

She’ll be bitterly missed. Every day I’ll think of her and how quiet life is without her in it. She would sing in the kitchen when she got up to get breakfast, and this morning was brutally quiet. The silence was painful. But in the wider scheme of life, like I said,  I’m lucky. Others aren’t going to be able to say goodbye to people they love. The pandemic means they don’t have the luxury of spending a week just talking to their mom. I  had that chance.

So now, I am a card-carrying member of a wider club of daughters who have lost their mothers – I referred to it as the Sad Daughter’s Club when a friend lost her mother last year. When the quarantines and distancing are over, those of us in the club (and the Sad Son’s Club members) will get together, hug one another and share memories. Eventually, things will be better.

And one last thought. I wisely decided to not follow one of mom’s ideas – split her ashes up into envelopes and mail them off to people with the note “Guess who”.