November 26, 2008. Today is my mother’s birthday. The day is a marker now, as another year has passed without her at the other end of the phone, her melodic voice dancing across the wire.
Our voices are the same. As a teen it was funny how many of her friends launched into phone conversations with me before my giggle alerted them to the fact that they had the daughter, not the woman. Now when I want to hear her voice I can comfort myself by talking, using her cadence, phrases and sighs. What I can’t do is replicate her singing voice. Standing next to her at Mass I would feel warmth flow down through my body as I listened to that voice resonating with deep timbre. When a song ended I would look up at her and silently wish, “Please don’t stop.” Maybe I continued attending Mass to hear her voice; I know that the chords of certain hymns will bring me to tears. Somewhere, imprinted in my heart, she’s singing to me.
Mom was only 67 when she died. The cancer was diagnosed mere months after my dad died — from cancer — and she went from a relatively good prognosis at Stage I to spine and brain mets within two years. When I discovered that I, too, had breast cancer I was not surprised. Her father had been diagnosed with breast cancer and later died from prostate cancer. It was a matter of when, not if my turn would come. I did think I’d have more time, though.
By some weird coincidence today is also the day I went to the oncologist to talk about several falls I’ve had and can’t really explain away. Back pain, aching ribs. Headaches when I rarely get them. It’s the first time I’ve gone to the oncologist out of fear. Agent of Doom #2 says he doesn’t think the symptoms are cancer-related but he wants to reassure me and in oncology that’s with a brain MRI. The date for that test happens to be the day before the anniversary of my mom’s passing. Symmetry. I find comfort in that.
Only twelve years ago I was holding her hand, telling her in the voice we shared to go, to find peace, hoping she could hear me through the morphine haze. My brother had finally fallen asleep in the hospice bed a few feet away, and my sister had just gone into the bathroom when the labored breathing stopped. While I waited for her to take another breath I held my own. How could she bear any more? Yet I wanted her to open her eyes and be my mom again. I remember the mix of raw emotions flooding through me as I realized my mother had taken her last breath in my presence. By the time I told my brother and sister what had happened I felt the whirl of grief being replaced with sweetness and calm, like the sound of her voice on Sunday morning.
You went first, Mom, and I learned a few things about advocating for the patient. Now the patient is me and I’m doing my best to get the right care, the right tests, the right docs. Thank you for taking some of the fear away.
Love to you, always.