by Alexandra Winchester
By law, I had been an adult since blowing out my candles on my eighteenth birthday. I had considered myself an adult since the age of nineteen when I moved out into my own place. Family and friends had written me off as an adult when I got married at the age of twenty-three. In all actuality I would not truly become an adult until I was twenty-six, the year my mother passed away.
My mother was an amazing mother and all around a good person. A special education teacher and painter by profession, she raised my two younger brothers and I with unconditional love. As an artist, she encouraged and nurtured me with a sense of creativity. She would become my first art teacher and later my peer. Regardless of subject or medium I could always trust her to objectively critique my work. As a teacher, she encouraged free thought and education. My brothers and I grew up reading everything from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Always the “hippie,” she taught me to live with a sense of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance of our fellow human beings. She filled my life with unique and interesting people, all with their own stories to tell. She was both my mother and my friend. And, unquestionably, she was the best mother I could have ever possibly needed or wanted.
The idea that my mother would one day die was created in my mind when I was six. At the young age of thirty-two, my mother had found not one, but four lumps in her right breast. A mammogram would reveal a total of sixteen masses, like “buckshot” as my mother described it, scattered throughout the breast tissue. Cancer. I would be immediately whisked away into therapy, where an empathetic counselor would proceed to show me pictures of cheerful and smiling wig models who seemed ecstatic to no longer have their hair. These pictures were somehow supposed to prepare me for my mother’s chemotherapy and the implications of a low prognosis.
Her battle with cancer was not nearly as cheerful as the wig model’s smiling face suggested, and she most definitely was not ecstatic about losing her hair. She had though, for the moment, survived. I could then safely box up the idea of her mortality and push it away into a corner. She could go back to being an immortal, to being a “mommy.” With her mortality safely out of sight my brothers and I could then resume a a relatively normal childhood. Aside from the fact that my parent’s marriage never survived her cancer, my childhood and early adolescence were pleasant and cliche enough: summer trips to the beach, excited first days of school, and holidays spent at Grandma’s house.
A full ten years would pass before her doctor would discover that her seemingly defeated cancer had metastasized within the lymph nodes of her left armpit. Cancer. My mother’s mortality came into focus yet again, its box pulled out of a corner and tentatively opened. Yet, after the completion of another not so cheerful round of chemotherapy coupled with radiation I was allowed to box up her mortality again. She had survived. My grandmother would send a bouquet of pink roses as a token of congratulations.
For the next ten years this cycle of unboxing and repacking my mother’s mortality would occur often enough that I became numb to it. Every time I opened that box I would feel a little bit older and a little bit more callused. By the time I had turned twenty-six those first four lumps had spread to her lymph nodes, uterus, bones, lungs, and liver. Cancer. The spreading of her cancer coincided with increasing phone calls, family dinners, and sit down talks involving the latest diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment options. By the time I was twenty-six there would be no more repacking the box. Despite twenty years of preparation, starting with those cheerful wig models, nothing would adequately prepare me for her last days of life, or my last days as a child.
Two days before Christmas and one day after my brother’s birthday, her femur spontaneously fractured and she was rushed to the hospital. My mother would spend the next three months in the only physical rehabilitation facility that would accept her, along with her advanced cancer, as a patient. Over those three months my remaining childhood was swiftly chipped away. With every visit, with every new medication, and with every form signed her looming death hovered closer. And when I, and not anyone else, had to sign the paperwork for hospice I realized it was because I had become “the responsible adult.”
We brought my mother home for what would prove to be her final week of life. As the adult, I would take a leave of absence from work to be her caretaker when hospice was not there. As the adult it was I that had to sign her DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) form. It felt like signing her death warrant. In hindsight, I wish we had chosen hospice sooner, so her transition from this life to the next would be as comfortable as possible. But as it was, her last days were not the stoic graceful departure so often depicted in movies, but rather dark, noisy, and with moments of clarity few and far between. With every pain pill administered, every bedding change, and every incoherent babble my existence as her child ceased to exist. I had effectively become her caregiver and, by default, the caregiver of those who depended on her. We, mother and child, had unfairly traded roles. My mother took her last breath on March 20, 2012. My childhood took its last breath with hers.