Regarding the Death of my Mother

My mother died on Saturday, 11 October 2003. We had found out that she had breast cancer in April of 1998. But, I knew that death was a part of life and that these things were inevitable. There was nothing unfair about it. We knew the cancer would take her life long before it actually did.

The summer after we found out about the cancer, the family took a trip to Italy. In an effort to avoid tourists and to save money, my mother had found a convent outside of Rome where we could stay. She loved to travel. Deep down, we were all concerned that this might be her last trip abroad. She had just started her chemotherapy and I teased her for counting the number of hair follicles she found on her pillow every morning.

The next year, my mother and I went to France for two weeks during my spring break. I was studying French at the time, so I had no problems asking for directions and such. But my mother was always getting mad at me for not offering to translate what she wanted to say. This was partially true, but it always annoyed me that she never completed her thoughts when she spoke, so even though I could often figure out what she was getting at, sometimes I had no idea. She also got annoyed that I would sleep in the car while she drove. I blamed her for not teaching me how to drive the summer before.

We had a great time in France, but because we were so close to each other for two weeks, we both got pretty edgy. In general, I was at her for the way she raised me, the way she tried to make all of my choices for me and the preconceptions she harboured about everything. It just all came out when we were spending so much time together.

We went on a couple other trips to Europe after that, but always with the extended family. In 2003, my mother and I went to Munich to meet my aunt who was there on business. For about a week, my mother and I toured Germany by ourselves. I did not realise it would be our last trip together.

After that, she was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. This time, however, it had already spread to the liver and the spine. One day, while I was at work, my father called me and told me that it had spread to her brain. Her death was inevitable now. She had been fighting it for five years, but it was meant to be.

After the initial shock of finding out, the situation did not faze me. I was not angry, I was not sad and I did not cry until I saw her for the first time in the hospital bed she would die in a week later. She was bald and had several tubes attached to her. But in the end, she had a good death. The people that she loved had all called or visited, she was able to make peace with everyone and the pain was brief.

After her death, people asked me how I was coping. Everyone was worried about me. They asked me how I managed. They thought that I was internalising everything and they told me that I should just let it all out. It’s ok to cry, they would tell me. I told them I was fine, and I was. It’s not that I wanted my mother to die or that I was happy when she died. Things were different afterward, but I never really missed her. I reminded myself of Meursault from Camus’ L’Etranger.

My aunts and uncles are always telling stories of how my mother would come to them in their dreams. Sometimes she would say things to them or her actions would symbolise something they should realise about life. Then they would ask me if I ever dreamt about her. I would always say that I did not. In truth, however, my mother does appear in my dreams. But it’s always my mother before she died and the dreams usually revolve around me being mad at her for something that she said or did — pretty much the way I remembered her in life. Of course, I could never tell anyone about these dreams.

Five months after her death, I was on a flight from Baltimore to Chicago. While people were still boarding, I decided to flip through the in-flight magazine before catching up on all the sleep I had missed recently. I was about halfway through it when I came to the crossword puzzle. As I started contemplating the clues, I remembered the countless flights I had spent with my mother in which one of us would start the crossword and then hand it to the other to continue when we got stuck. We would keep passing it back and forth, picking up on clues our answers had left for each other until we had done all we could. I would never be able to do that again and for the first time after her death, I cried. I had an aisle seat and even though there were many people all around me, I was powerless to suppress the tears. I shoved the magazine into the seatback, hid behind my sunglasses and cried myself to sleep, all the while hoping that everyone would just ignore me. I don’t do crossword puzzles anymore.

I woke up in Chicago with dried tears on my face and I de-boarded as quickly as I could, keeping my head down the whole time.  Then, I went to the restroom and washed my face before meeting my aunt at the international terminal. She and I were going to spend a week in Prague. My mother always wanted to go there.

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