Grief’s Hidden Gift
What I learned about happiness during my mom's last days with cancer.
My mother stood with the phone cradled to her ear, fist on her hip, shaking her head. “Well, there’s not much chance of that!” She caught my eye as she spoke, her tone friendly but slightly impatient. I smiled; I could guess the other end of the conversation. The calls had come regularly in the months since my mother’s diagnosis. “We’re hoping you’ll get well,” friends and relatives would say. “We’re hoping for a miracle.” But as hard as it was for them to understand, we weren’t chasing any miracle cure. We were simply honoring every moment, miraculous or mundane, that remained of her life.
Nothing in my mother’s medical or family history had prepared us for her sudden diagnosis: terminal pancreatic cancer. On the day we learned her prognosis, my mother, father, and I sat alone in a hospital examination room, the doctor having left for his next appointment. The ruinous news replaced all the oxygen in the small space as my mind spun forward: How could my mother’s life be ending? My father shook his head and sobbed, repeating, “Why us? Why does this have to happen to us?” My mother, canny and practical to her German-Lutheran-Midwestern core, simply patted his knee. “Now, these things have to happen to someone.” She never suffered the delusion that bad things only befell other people.
While my father and I struggled to accept the situation, my mother made a list of things she wanted to do: ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, stay in North Carolina’s fanciest mountain inn, fly cross-country to visit my home in Seattle, and finish a thousand-piece handmade quilt.
I tried not to let my dread surface when I was with her. Only later would I recognize the irony: I had fought to safeguard my mother from the knowledge of how acutely I would miss her.
Within two days, Mom had started on her list. She and my father watched Blue Ridge sunsets from the top-floor suite of a breathtakingly expensive resort. She selected the few foods her stomach could tolerate from long hors d’oeuvres tables decorated with melons carved in the shapes of dahlias and roses. My father sobbed as my mother savored steamed prawns and asparagus, a live band playing in the background. Mom sang along with the band’s John Denver covers and talked about the glorious August dusk. My father marveled at her unfailing cheerfulness and wondered how many more sunsets they would share.
A week later, I quit my job in Seattle and arrived with my suitcases in North Carolina, ready to stay for what we understood would be the remainder of Mom’s life. We consulted with an oncologist, who recommended palliative chemotherapy. The weekly chemo treatments could extend Mom’s life by a couple of months, but would probably make her sick for four days out of seven. We did the math and declined treatment, enrolled in home hospice care, and focused on Mom’s to-do list.
We sent out the news to friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers and waited for them to visit. Most never showed, though some called to wish her well or say they were praying for a miracle. Many, even those who knew the starkness of her diagnosis, sent “get well soon” cards.
There were exceptions. My mother’s closest friend, Betty, visited every week. They spent a few afternoons each month chatting, laughing, and piecing fabric triangles and diamonds into quilts, just as they had done for years. When Mom grew sicker, they just sat and talked.
Mom called her post-diagnosis life “the new normal.” As her energy flagged, she calmly revised her criteria for contentment downward. A good afternoon was a few hours of quilting; an exciting weekend was a quiet mountain cabin with a good view; an ideal meal was anything her stomach would accept.
This is not to say she lived in denial. She was 63, and had always known her life might not be long. Her father had suffered a major stroke when he was 62, just a few weeks after his retirement. I remember being three years old and watching my grandfather woodworking in his backyard, the tools comfortable in his broad hands. That is my last memory of him as an able-bodied man. Though he lived another sixteen years after the stroke, longer than anyone else in Mom’s family, he could no longer use the tools he loved, read a book, write a letter, or even speak.
My grandfather’s ruined retirement taught my mother never to take her health for granted, and to reject my grandparents’ post-Depression ideal of delayed gratification. He had never complained in his four decades of service to the local gas company, but the work was too long and tiring for him to enjoy his time off. His entire working life, he and my grandmother had looked forward to the day he would retire. My mother did not make the same mistake. Throughout her life, she followed her passions: teaching as a career, music as an avocation.
The same philosophy led her to focus her energy, after her diagnosis, on enjoying her final months with family and friends rather than chasing dubious medical treatments that might only prolong her suffering. I admired my mother’s decision, even as people around us expressed shock or dismay that she had declined chemotherapy.
Mom kept her spirits up even as new bottles of pills lined the kitchen counter and filled her travel bag. Her diet grew more restrictive, and the disease brought on sudden diabetes, endless nausea, and more pain. Yet she spent little time grieving. Sometimes, when she saw one of us crying, she wept with us. But only once, one morning when she awoke feeling particularly ill, did she begin to cry first. “I feel awful,” she told me, her voice muffled by despair. She bowed her face into her hands and shook her head. “I’m worried that I’m never going to feel any better than I do today.” I realized that what my mother most feared was not death, but the inability to enjoy whatever time she had left.
During the six months of Mom’s “new normal,” tension clawed deep within me. I wanted to savor her remaining days, but my anguish over her approaching death grew with each passing week. I tried not to let my dread surface when I was with her. Only later would I recognize the irony: I had fought to safeguard my mother from the knowledge of how acutely I would miss her.
I’ve since come to consider all our moments together as gifts, even those marked by frustration, fear, and despair. During the six months of my mother’s illness, I spent more time with her than I had in a decade. People have told me over and over how lucky I was to be able to drop nearly everything to be with her. It’s true I have no children and could afford to quit my job. But I’ve seen many—who could have chosen otherwise— decline to spend time with a dying loved one . Some later expressed regret. Others insist it was out of their control. Either way, they missed something precious. Watching the pounds slip away from my mother’s body and seeing the distant stare creep into her gaze had pained me, but it would have been far more painful not to witness those things.
I admired my mother’s decision, even as people around us expressed shock or dismay that she had declined chemotherapy.
Within a few months of Mom’s death, I felt a quiet but growing pressure from those around me to “get back to normal.” At first it made me angry, but later my anger turned to bafflement. What was normal? The person I had been before no longer existed, unschooled as she was in the intricacies of losing someone so close. Having grieved the loss of my mother, the quality of the light I saw and tang of the air I breathed were forever different. Not finer, not gloomier, but more precious and fleeting. Happiness comes not from the avoidance of pain and despair, but in the healing from it.
Four months into Mom’s “new normal,” she and my father celebrated my thirty-eighth birthday with me in Seattle. Mom sampled Whidbey Island chowder as we watched a salmon sun descend into the Pacific. Nearly one year later, my family gathered with Mom’s friend Betty to scatter my mother’s ashes near a music center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Mom had often practiced and performed. After our small ceremony, Betty handed me a large package, my thirty-ninth birthday present. It was my mother’s last quilt: one thousand fabric shapes that she had pieced and Betty had backed.