What I know of grief.
This is not the extent of what I know. There are others. A tiny one - that I still can't write about. An older one, who was my True North. And one whose guidance and counsel I still miss. Unfortunately grief is not unfamiliar to me, or to my house. But today, on the second anniversary of her death, I remember my mother. Noreen Madge Peeler. Who loved me.
I woke up this morning in the exact same spot I was two years ago. In Scottsdale, Arizona, in our bed, in our vacation home. And just like that morning. I was alone.
Normally when I wake up my husband is still in bed, but that day, he'd gone out for a sunny, early morning walk. It was Easter weekend, and we had flown down with our family for a vacation, booked months earlier, before we knew… Our eldest daughter, Megan, had come and crawled in bed with me. Which is a rare treat for the mother of married daughters. Her own little one and her husband were both still sleeping, so when she heard her Dad leave for his walk, she snuck out of the guest room to came into mine, to snuggle.
I knew when we left on that trip that there was a chance my mother might not be there when I got back. That she might die while I was away. She had ovarian cancer. A relentless, insidious disease, that creeps in and takes hold before anyone knows it's there. She had been ill with it four times in three years, or three times in four years. It feels like a blur now. She deteriorated and rallied so many times, it is hard to remember. It was hard to know, as we left home for our flight, if this was it, or just another valley she would rise from. And it was the babies' first Easter… And the flights were booked… And it was only one week, surely she'd hang on.
Mom was diagnosed the Fall Megan got engaged. It took months. One test, nothing. Three weeks later another. Nothing. Three weeks later another test. There are currently no early detection tests for Ovarian Cancer. It is incredibly hard to diagnose. So while the doctors searched, my mother writhed and withered. She dropped 50 pounds in 3 months. In too much pain to eat. My father would call me, daily, frantic for help, frantic for relief, a reason, a diagnosis. He was looking for somewhere to cling, someone to carry his burden. And I was the nearest, and easiest vessel.
That first Christmas, when she was finally diagnosed, but too weak and despondent from pain, she now refused to eat. She could barely drink. And so, with her vital organs threatening to shut down, she was hospitalized. For weeks. We thought she might come home on Christmas day, but no. It was the first Christmas my parents hadn't woken up together in 51 years. We went to the hospital, we opened gifts beside her bed. She tried to feign interest and gratitude. I couldn't hug her because I had a cold, so I sat far away from her, in a chair on the other side of the room, cheerfully oohing and ahhing over each of her gifts as she opened them. Ever my mother's daughter, feigning interest and excitement.
To say this robbed me of my joy in the planning and celebrating of our daughter's wedding would be inaccurate. It was joyful, and bittersweet, as it always is when a child marries out of her parent's home. There were lots of cuddles, late night chats that we knew were soon coming to an end. There were tense conversations and frustrations with each other over the thousand details that make up the big wedding of a young bride. And there was cancer. At every bridal shower, at every dress fitting, on her big day, cancer came too. It escorted my mother in her wig and her dress, proudly announced to be three sizes smaller than she used to wear.
Mom "fought" her cancer from the Fall of 2009 until April 19th, 2014. But we all knew from the beginning it was a pointless fight. One we had watched my aunt loose some years before. In that time, during those four years, Mom had countless doses of chemo, lost her hair twice, vomited until her teeth were spoiled, lost control of her bowels, always warning us not to use her toilet as both her vomit and stool were toxic from her treatments. She agreed to let the healthcare nurse bathe her when my Dad finally admitted it was too much for him, both physically and emotionally. During that time too, she watched both her grand daughters, dressed in white, on the arm of their father, walk down the aisle, to teary eyed young men, delighted and anxious the claim them as their own. And in time, was thrilled as each of those brides presented her with her first and second great grand children, both girls. Making her, Nana-The-Great. Her last coherent conversation was one cooing to one of those baby girls, while she held her in her hospital bed. She adored those little girls.
And so tonight, when I strangely find myself, alone, in the same bed I first mourned her passing, ironically watching Claire Underwood go through the same thing. I'm sentimental. Many friends messaged me today with notes of love and sympathy in response to the picture I posted of Mom and I. But until tonight, watching Claire loose her own mother, I had forgotten the tremendous weight of the anxiety and conflicting emotions of that time, so much joy in watching our girls celebrate their weddings and the births of their first little ones. So much sorrow watching Mom deteriorate and my Dad fail to cope well, finding reasons to stay away for hours, leaving her alone, when she shouldn't have been. Unable to face it. Unable to fathom his pending loss.
Death is a gift some times. My Mom's was. She was done. She was ready. It was remarkable, watching her. She was just waiting, calmly, for relief. For transformation from this world to the next. This broken body to a perfected one. We always think we'll fear death. When we're young and healthy and it's just an abstract thought. But that day, April 19, 2014, death was a blessing. For both Mom and for our family. And so when the call came from Dad, back home, alone, as Megan and I cuddled, in a bed, in the desert, we knew. It was time. She had suffered enough. It was time for relief. It was time for Mom to go home.