My mother and I had a very different relationship than most; our only conversations were of grave seriousness. I assume the tone of our discussions became a side effect of her having cancer four times during my life. When you spend more time at doctor appointments and hospitals than a mall or a park, you don’t waste time with nonessential chit chat. This meant that there were no conversations about pettiness in the girl’s locker room or disagreements about curfew or grades. This meant that we always told the truth.
The last three months of my mother’s life, I asked the questions that I thought she wanted to answer. She answered the questions with an honesty she thought I needed to hear. Because the truth was we both knew this would be her last fight in the battle.
Question 1: Why did you never tell me I was beautiful?
“I never wanted being beautiful to be a goal of yours. Looks only matter when the rest of you is ugly. Your real beauty is in your heart and mind.”
Question 2: Why did you choose my dad?
“He chose me. He fell in love with me the first night he met me. Don’t make my mistake.”
Question 3: “So your marriage was a mistake?”
“Your dad loved only one way; a marriage takes all kinds of love and sometimes love isn’t enough.”
Question 4: “When is love not enough?”
“When you are poor for too long; when you are sick with worry; when you see your children hurt.”
Question 5: If love isn’t enough, how will I know whom to marry?
“You won’t. And knowing you, love will be enough for you, but it isn’t for everyone.”
Question 6: What do you know about me?
“I know that no couple loves equally: One person always loves a little more or a lot more. You will have to be the one to love more; you have to have the constant challenge. You don’t know how to be satisfied if there isn’t a struggle.”
Question 7: What haven’t you told me that I should know?
“Misty, you can’t tell anyone, anything. You must show them.”
Question 8: What might protect me from heartache?
“Know this: men are weak not physically, but emotionally. Your dad cried every night when I had cancer. You need to understand that you are tougher.”
Question 9: What is the most important lesson I should teach my children?
“Before they do anything, make them walk a mile in another’s shoes. Teach them empathy.”
Question 10: Are you mad that you got cancer again and will never know me as an adult? Because I am really, really mad, and I don’t know what to do with that.
“Anger, jealousy, bitterness are all useless. They will not give you comfort; they are needless weight. I am ready to go because I know your strength. And most of all, you should know I had a great life because I was a mother who never had to know the pain of burying a child.”
This was our last conversation before the morphine took over most of her mind. I am grateful that I had the nights to record her answers as my days were filled with caring for her, paying bills, cleaning house, and making funeral arrangements.
It wasn’t until my divorce that I realized how much my mom’s death taught me. I knew grief and confusion better than most. On one hand, I wanted my mom to keep fighting the cancer, but on the other I couldn’t stand to watch her pain. Divorce is similar: You don’t want the end to come, but you realize how painful it is to watch the destruction.
I also learned a lot about managing a household while going through a great deal of stress. Although it was only three months, I took care of my mom, her pain, and her finances. I paid all of the bills, cleaned out her home, and then sold it. All of these skills were necessary when my ex-husband left me and I had to take over all adult responsibilities while also caring for three little boys.
Divorce and death share many similarities, but the one we often don’t consider is what we can learn from the experience. We learn what we are made out of; we learn how to heal; we learn how to forgive.
Although my mom didn’t know me for as long as I wanted, she knew me better than most. This gives me a lot of comfort. Men will come and go, but I get the opportunity to know my three sons better than I will know anyone else. I get to teach them, nurture their growth, and watch them become strong, independent young men. Moms are fierce and fundamental. Moms know what others do not; we can go through hell and back and do it with grace. The times I doubted myself, I thought about how my mom faced cancer with dignity and courage. And the truth is: I am proud to say I am just like my mother.
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