‘I love you, mom. I’m not ready.’ I kissed her forehead and said goodbye, knowing we’d never speak again. ‘It’s your turn to be strong now.’: Daughter exchanges vows in front of terminally ill mother

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“Something as insignificant as a novelty coffee mug isn’t meant to be a relic. At most, it’s a meaningless part of an everyday routine or a vessel of mismatched pens and pencils. My mom only had three mugs she used—one for coffee on Saturday mornings, one for Sunday mornings, and one that sat on her desk at work untouched and always to the right of her computer screen. ‘Michele aka Sherms’ is written across the front in gothic script and even after almost 50 years, its condition is pristine. A nickname affectionately given I’m sure.

My mom was compared to the Sherman Tanks used in WWII after she became one of the nation’s first paralegals in 1971. William Tecumseh Sherman, whom the tank is eponymous, was known as the ‘first modern general,’ much like my mom was ‘the first modern woman.’ If she wanted to do something she would—period, end. While she worked toward being a paralegal in night school, she spent her days and weekends as a go-go dancer, a model for Sears, and an entertainer for businessmen– which allowed her to travel all over the world.

When she felt it was time to have some baby ‘Sherms,’ she did something few others could do—completely single, and with no intention of ever marrying, she adopted me and my sister. During her tenure as a mother, she commanded her troops with both empathy and a strong arm of stubbornness. She both bolstered independence and worldly enlightenment. Growing up, I was never sheltered away from death, war, or prejudice. Our soundtrack for my morning routine for school included the news being played notoriously loud on my mom’s television—and it didn’t stop there.

On the way to school, my only choice was KFI AM 640 talk radio—more news. When I complained, (which was every day) she would always say, ‘There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s’ about it,’ and that was her final ruling. It’s no surprise we butted heads consistently. I would approach any conflict we had by asking, ‘But why?’ and of course, ‘Because I said so’ was the constant answer. Me, being my mother’s daughter, remained unrelenting. She’d ask, ‘How did you get so stubborn?’ She knew the answer.

She encouraged me to find challenging hobbies and extracurriculars to fill my free time. I took dance, tae-kwon-do, art classes, woodshop…later speech and debate, law explorers, choir–I was also in Girl Scouts for 12 years and regularly competed in boating and wilderness survival competitions in high school. More than anything else, she encouraged my pursuit of knowledge. If it piqued my curiosity, she would find a way for me to pursue it.

If we had any spare time, we were probably at museums, high tea, renaissance fairs, the theatre, exotic restaurants, and my favorite place, Barnes & Noble. She was hard on me, and not for any lack of effort. I grew up ambitious and competitive. Between extracurriculars and AP classes, she consistently pushed me to do and be my best, providing what she thought was her own brand of ‘constructive criticism’ to make sure I knew and understood no matter how hard I work there isn’t always a reward, but there is always experience.

When it came time for me to fight my own battles, she reluctantly encouraged my decision to go to a military college across the country and even more reluctantly supported me moving to NYC post-grad. She was never truly very far away, however, we talked on the phone three times a day, every day. At that time, she became my best friend, business strategist, legal counsel, and dating advisor.

Courtesy of Stacey Avnes

She helped me navigate every situation with patience and grace. After I lost my first job and called her crying on the subway, she astutely stated, ‘Que sera sera, I’ll send you money to go to the wine store.’ I would spend my vacation time coming home to California to be with her—going on winetasting adventures, lounging by the pool, and regaling my tales of debauchery in NYC nightlife. Mostly she would just roll her eyes, laugh, and say, ‘Oy, my Staceala, what am I going to do with you?’

In preparing me for the harsh reality of adulthood, she bolstered within me strength in a world that requires it. I witnessed my mom defeat cancer twice, with nothing less than the confidence of a fighter who saw the bright side of life soaked in her own brand of self-deprecating humor. After coming home from reconstruction surgery from a battle with breast cancer she couldn’t wait for me to see her new heart-shaped belly button and boosted bosom. And later, she had skin cancer removed from her leg and needed a skin graft to repair the tissue – ‘Well, at least I never have to worry about wearing shorts again.’

She took every challenge in stride and told me time and time again you get more with sugar than you do with salt. There was never a situation she couldn’t handle, and she always had a solution—usually which involved a glass of wine before bed to rest relentless thoughts. She was the strongest person I knew until she wasn’t anymore.

In August, at the age of 69, she finally decided it was time to retire. To be closer to me, she and my sister moved to North Carolina where she could both live her life and never have to sit in traffic again. She insisted I not help her with the move, noting that moving and unpacking boxes would keep her busy. On one of our daily calls she complained of back pain, so I told her to go to the doctor in case she slipped a disc from lifting boxes. The next day she had an MRI, and the day after I found out she was dying.

Stage IV Adenocarcinoma—it started in her lungs and spread to her spine, liver, hips, and shoulder. They caught it too late — my mom’s consistent breathing concerns over the years were misattributed to chronic bronchitis. I wanted to quit my job and move down there—I wanted to be with her. She told me, ‘No. Your life is there, your career and your relationship are your number 1 concern. You can come and visit. Your sister can handle anything day to day.’

A couple of weeks later, my boyfriend and I traveled down to accompany her to some doctor’s appointments. After going over her diagnosis and possible treatment options, she asked the Doctor, ‘So when will I get better?’ with a painful amount of optimism. ‘Michele, this isn’t going away. Our goal is to get you to live as long as possible.’ The look on my mom’s face was nothing I had ever seen before—defeat. She was immediately scheduled for radiation, to combat the cancer eating away at her bones, while the team of oncologists decided on an official maintenance therapy plan.

We spent the rest of the day going shopping for odds and ends for her new house. The next day, my boyfriend’s parents met her for the first and last time on their way back from visiting South Carolina. Our moms sat together in the living room and drank wine and gossiped and laughed about their young lovers. It was the last time I saw her standing on her own. Two weeks later she broke her hip trying to go to the bathroom because cancer had already eaten so much away.

She started chemotherapy and immunotherapy when I was back in NYC. The plan was to try it for 3 months and see if the growth of masses would slow. On our daily calls, my number one concern was how she was feeling. The best and worst thing about chemotherapy is how it affects your body. On her good days she’d say, ‘I feel okay, I had a scrambled egg today.’ When she was having bad days, she would lie and say, ‘I feel okay.’ But I knew if she didn’t mention food it was because she was so violently ill, she couldn’t keep it down. Our daily calls, which could last up to an hour, were now reduced to a maximum of 5 minutes before she lost the energy to converse, and sometimes, she wouldn’t answer when I called.

On one of her good days, she called me, ‘When can you come down next? I want to go over some paperwork with you.’ I knew by paperwork she meant her will. We went down the following weekend. Within the month or so since I had last seen her, she had lost over 20 pounds and the color in her face. She had been in full-blown planning mode. We spent all day going over her plans– every detail had already been figured out, she had already decided how she wanted to be remembered. After a cocktail of anti-nausea, anti-anxiety, anti-depressants, and pain meds, she fell asleep. Every day after she became less and less herself. No more wine before bed.

It had never occurred to me ‘how’ to feel up until this point—I had been concentrating on keeping my mom’s spirits up and keeping everyone informed since ‘chemo brain’ prevented her from being able to talk for longer than a few seconds, let alone have the attention span to text. Everyone would always ask but I never knew how to respond. I was constantly toted with ‘What can I do to help?’ ‘Do you need anything?’ ‘I’m impressed with how well your handling this. How do you keep it all together?’ I felt like being honest was best, ‘My mom is dying, this is my new normal.’ No one usually pressed any further except my boyfriend’s mom who always ended with ‘Well, I’m always here if you need to talk.’ I just never knew what to say.

The selfishness was the hardest to deal with. When trauma happens, nostalgia doesn’t seem too far behind. Here I am, my mom is dying and I’m considering how I’ll conduct my wedding without my mom being present. Who will give me away? We were supposed to do a mother-daughter dance—what will I do instead? I always envisioned my mom as both a mother and a father. Empathy and a strong hand—yin and yang. But, my mother, who had never formally married and adopted me independently wouldn’t be present at my own wedding. How could I envision having grandkids without her being there?

Every time I visited over the next couple of months, I wondered if it was the last time I’d see my mom alive. The newness of what my mom now called ‘home’ was shuddered by a silencing blow. It would be like she was never there. I’ll only have a few memories of our new ‘homestead’ before I never want to see it again. All I’ll remember is southern humidity and death. I felt like a seasoned sea-farer – I could sense the storm, but I couldn’t stop it. You’re just sitting there in the sun, shielded by thin sheaths of white clouds but then the wind picks up just slightly from the gentle breeze of before— the lighting dims and it almost romantic, poetic, and then the rain and thunder falls with the curtain.

My mom called me on a Saturday morning saying she was so sick she wanted to die. She couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t suffer any longer—it was no way to live. My mom had lived her entire adult life being the sole decision maker and now she couldn’t control how she felt. She asked me, ‘Why does God hate me?’ I didn’t know how to answer, we were never religious. I told her the first thing that came to mind, ‘God is only making sure you can handle running their vineyard, only the best angel can handle it.’ I encouraged her, completely egotistically, to keep on fighting the ‘good fight.’

My wakeup call came within a timeline I couldn’t fathom. I knew things were starting to go wrong when she called and told me she chose to go into hospice. She said she was ready to die. It was hard for me to accept reality as hospice could take months. Two days later, I was at work and the lead hospice nurse called to tell me she didn’t know if I had hours, days, or weeks left with her. I flew out on the next available flight. When I arrived after 2 a.m. at the hospice facility, she was surprised to see me.

The same elation and disbelief when I surprised her by coming home a day early my freshman year of college. I can still see her—eyes wide open in complete shock, a hug in a hospice bed, a kiss on her forehead as she drifted off into a palliative sleep from the morphine. The next morning, she asked why I came. I told her the hospice nurses told me it was time to come. ‘You should be working,’ she said. Molly, my mom’s favorite nurse, said, ‘Her work understands, Ms. Michele, or else she wouldn’t be here.’

Courtesy of Seagle Photography

It wasn’t long after that I determined, in some way, shape, or form, I wanted her to be part of my wedding even if it was before the fact. I talked to my boyfriend, had him bring up a suit and a white dress, and I hired a local photographer. It was a complete surprise for her. I wrote a non-denominational ceremony and included a wine ritual. My boyfriend and I committed ourselves to each other in front of my mom. I have never seen my mom cry, but when I received the pictures from the ceremony, I saw she had cried while we were exchanging vows. It will be the most cherished memory I ever have.

Courtesy of Seagle Photography
Courtesy of Seagle Photography
Courtesy of Seagle Photography

On March 1st, she had me fly home to NYC because she was convinced I would lose my job from taking too much personal time. On March 2nd, she called me at 7 a.m. and told me it was time for her to go and that she was going into palliative sedation but did not want me to come and watch her die. I said goodbye to her knowing I would never speak to her again. I told her I loved her, and I wasn’t ready. She said she was. She told me it was my turn to be strong for everyone because she couldn’t rely on anyone else to do it.

I was angry she didn’t want me there, but I didn’t tell her. My godmother arrived later that day. On March 3rd, my godmother told me even though my mom was sleeping and preparing to go to heaven, she consistently talked to my mom and told her she had nothing to worry about here on Earth. On March 4th, my godmother talked to her all day and I told her to tell mom how much I love her. On March 5th, my godmother called to tell me she had passed. It took her 72 hours of convincing to let go. She was still stubborn to protect us. Even then.

After my mom died, I cried loud screaming roars for five minutes into a coworker’s arms and then went home. She had been silently preparing me for this moment her whole life. I realized she never lost her strength; she had only transferred it. She didn’t want to suffer and didn’t want anyone to suffer at her expense. Only the strongest can choose to die. She might have chosen to give up, but being able to make that decision was the strongest thing she ever did.

My favorite picture of her is on her 60th birthday smiling with a beer in Mexico. It sits on my entryway table so I see it every time I leave and enter my home. I still talk to her every day.”

Courtesy of Stacey Avnes

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Stacey Avnes of Long Island, New York. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Twitter. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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