Each wheeze and cough that came from my mother made me cringe. I ached when I looked at this once beautiful woman; a woman who fought my battles, who protected me, who showed me the ways of life, who taught me how to be a person in this world, and who was once so strong, and now was now so weak and losing her battle against cancer. I fought back the tears when I looked into her aqua eyes and wondered when they would shut for good.
When I got the news of my mother’s illness, I left my life in Chicago and moved back to live out the rest of her days with her. My father gone and my sisters grown, I was determined to be the hero to her that she always was for me.
I remember one morning, one cold rainy morning, the type of morning when you wake up and beg to stay in bed cuddled up with a cup of coffee and a book, I awoke to my mother softly crying in the other room. I rushed to her bedside “Mom” I called out as I gently shook her. She rolled over to face me, her blue eyes puffy and red, she had been crying for a while. “What’s wrong mom?” I asked her, fearful that her answer would be the one I had been dreading for the last 8 months. She was dying and I couldn’t bring myself to accept it even after all the changings, the bed baths, the feedings, the hospital visits. I was a wreck when my dad died and now I was losing my mom, my best friend too.
“Come on mom, let’s get you up!” I changed her into comfy clothes, obviously projecting my current ‘let’s have a lazy day’ mindset onto her.
I sat her in her chair and pushed her into the dining room next to the kitchen table to wait while I made breakfast for the two of us, pancakes for me, pancake shake for her. Before I left her chair she grabbed my arm and when I looked at this precious woman’s face I saw the sorrow that she had been holding back. “What is it mama?” I asked again.
“I’m sorry that I have burdened you. I am sorry that I was the one who made you give up your life. I am so proud of you, and I can’t thank you enough”
Tears welled up in my eyes, “oh mama” were the only words I could breathe out without completely losing it. I was fearful that this was her last cognitive day.
We finished breakfast just as the rain cleared up and I decided it might be nice to get some fresh air and visit her beautiful lilies in the garden maybe for the last time. I pushed her as she hummed sweetly, a song that she had been singing to me since I was a little girl
“you are my sunshine…my only sunshine…” she hummed these two parts over and over again because these are the only two parts she could remember. I chimed in with ‘you make me happy when skies are grey, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you…’
I walked around the chair to take her hands into mine and while softly sobbing sang the last verse ‘please don’t take my sunshine away.”
My mother sat a little straighter in her chair and looked me in the eyes. “Kaitlin, I need to tell you something. A secret I have been holding onto for the last 40 years…”
I had heard stories before around the hospital of patients who have one last moment of clarity before taking their last breath, I figured this was hers. I sat upon the stone bench in the garden that my dad had built us girls when we were small. I looked into her eyes and for a moment saw my mother’s eyes, the ones she had always had before the chemo, before the cataracts, before the glasses…
“you’re not going to believe me when I tell you this” I was confused but begged her to continue. “When you were born, you were very very sick. You only had days left to live and I was desperate to find an anything that would cure my poor baby. I sought out the advice of a witch. I was never one to believe in such things, but as I said, I was desperate. She gave me a potion that would tie your life to mine”
I shook my head in disbelief and knew that this was indeed not her moment of clarity. “Mom, it’s okay. I’m here. Should we go back inside?”
She touched my face and continued on with this fabricated story. “In my time of desperation, I swallowed the potion in one gulp as I stood over your nearly lifeless body. All of the sudden your skin began to glow once more, your cheeks became rosy, and you smiled for the first time in your life. I knew the potion must have worked and I was so happy. But I never thought of what was to come for your life. I did my best to keep you safe and I tried so hard to make sure your life was full of adventures. I am sorry I was so protective, but you see, it was for good reason. I am so sorry my love…my sunshine”
“hey hey hey,” I said as my mother hung her head and began to weep. “Mom it’s okay. you were the best mom anyone could ever ask for I love you so much!” I was determined to make our final words sweet and comforting ones.
My mother knew I didn’t believe her story, and she gave up trying to make me. We returned inside when we felt the early afternoon drizzle sprinkling down from the dark grey clouds.
When I put my mother to bed that night, I sang my song to her. “you are my sunshine…my only sunshine….”
My mother passed away that night in her sleep. I knew she took her last breath because I awoke suddenly gasping for air, unable to breath. I looked down and saw my once taught skin wrinkled and slightly blue. I touched my hair, what once was long brown curls, was now short white frizz. I tried so hard to get up and get out of bed, but I could no longer move my legs. I couldn’t feel my body. I felt like I was a floating head lying in the bed that I slept in my entire childhood. I tried calling out but the screams in my head resulted in no more than a whisper. I was alone. I was dying. I knew I had only moments left and I thought to myself, she’s gone and now it’s my turn.