How do I say goodbye to the single most powerful person I’ve ever known? What words can possibly capture all the love, and all the ways it manifested—from that first moment she gave me life till that last moment she struggled for her own, clinging to my hand, kissing my fingers, not wanting to let go? Some of the words that spring to mind, and that many have uttered since she passed away eleven days ago: Fierce, determined, wise, remarkable, lovely, witty, fun, inspirational, elegant, regal, amazing, strong, courageous, practical, vital, bright, considerate, vibrant, magnificent, funny, full of life…and the list goes on.
Yes, I knew this was coming. When she gave me the news of her diagnosis, mere hours after we’d celebrated Mother’s Day together, I was already in mourning. Of course it was a death sentence. The oncologist said she’d live a year—without treatment. Tragically, with treatment, she didn’t make it to eight months—and the aggressive chemotherapy was so debilitating that she spent the majority of that time exhausted, bedridden, and in pain. Not exactly a pleasant exit. But is there such a thing?
Like most mother-daughter relationships, ours wasn’t always perfect. Far from it. I’m sure we were great at the start, but I wasn’t always the easiest child to parent—particularly when I hit my hormonal adolescent years. Oh, how we fought! We had equally fiery tempers, and we knew just how to push each other’s buttons. For better or worse, much of the tension was a product of our love for each other. After all, when you care that deeply for someone, you’re forever seeking their approval, terrified of what might happen if you don’t get it—or if you do something to compromise it.
So we had a fairly volatile relationship until my early twenties, when I attended a self-help seminar. I’ll never forget her voice on the other end of the phone when I called to tell her where I was—and that I finally knew just how much she loved me, and how much I loved her. “Oh God, Irwin…pick up the phone,” she said to my father. Then, to me: “Where are you? What are you doing? Are they making you touch each other?!” :) In spite of her fears, she ultimately accepted this choice I’d made—a conscious decision to work through my issues…our issues. We had so many heart-to-hearts in the years since then, honing our ability to communicate with each other and forging the sort of friendship I think we’d both always wanted.
Of course our relationship still had its ups and downs, and we continued to disagree on plenty of occasions. But the fears and insecurities were virtually erased. We knew we shared a foundation of unconditional love for one another. That’s what I’ll remember most about my mother—that no matter what choices I made, no matter how bitterly we fought or disagreed, at the end of the day I had her unflinching support, and we would somehow find common ground. We worked hard for everything we had—not the least of which was our relationship as mother and daughter, and as friends—and I even came to realize that, difficult as it was to admit, she was usually right. She was, in my mind, the woman with all the answers—the kind of mom most girls wish for (and occasionally resent!). She was my champion, my advocate, my teacher, my guide, my sparring partner and the most cherished and beloved rock in my unpredictable world. She was also the person who probably knew me better than I knew myself.
Watching my mother slowly decline and fade away over the past seven months or so has been the greatest challenge I’ve ever known—made all the more difficult because I usually counted on her to help me with all of life’s struggles, great and small. In this battle, she no longer had the strength to help me—and in fact she needed my help. I made it to her side just before she lost the ability to speak, and to recognize me and my brother. I spent several devastating hours lying by her side, telling her I was there for her, trying to get her to take the medicine that barely made a dent in the pain she was feeling. I got to tell her I loved her—over and over and over again—and to tell her that although I would miss her, I would let her go when she was ready. Not 36 hours later, with my father, my brother, the hospice nurse and me at her side…she went. She went peacefully. She was no longer in pain. And as much as my heart aches for her—as much as there is a massive void I’m frantically filling with all the memories—I am so grateful she’s no longer struggling.
I’m also grateful—as I know she was—for the incredible life she lived, and the life she shared. Sure I'm biased, but there have been some beautiful tributes to her in our local newspapers that speak to the fact that I’m not alone. If you’re interested, please take a look, and I think you’ll agree that the world lost a great woman on December 18:
Obituary: Riverside Press Enterprise
Obituary: San Diego Union Tribune
So, this is my last goodbye…to my beloved mother, my dearest friend, my hero. Thank you for allowing me to share some of my memories of her, and my grief, with you.