When the subject comes up and I tell people my mom died in the recent past, I watch them, watching me. They always look uncomfortable, like I’m about to burden them with some embarrassing display of emotion they won’t know how to respond to. The assumption seems to be that I’m sad, even though I’ve said nothing about being sad. They act like we’ve stumbled on an awkward subject that I don’t want to talk about, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Our vocabulary for grief and our experiences around death and dying is dismally limited. Losing my mom when she was 60 was/is a big deal, but I’m not “sad,” exactly, and I’m continually frustrated that I can’t have more meaningful conversations about my experiences around my mother’s death.
Most of my exchanges on the subject are like having an iPod that came with one song on it, and not being able to download more. I put on that same fucking song whenever I feel like music, but that song almost never matches the mood I’m in. I get up and dance to it anyway, because I want to dance and I don’t know what else to do. It’s pointless, boring, unsatisfying.
The other thing that pisses me off is that I have to tell people it was cancer, that my mother – this extraordinary, poised, fragile, thoughtful, unusual person – died from something as common as cancer. It makes me mad because people think they know what dying from cancer means. We do have language for conversations on death from cancer – an irritating set of trite and meaningless phrases.
We eulogize about people all the time this way, like we’re picking out words from a pile of cards, like we’re playing a board game and this is what you say when someone rolls the dice and their game piece lands on the Cancer square: She lost her battle with cancer. She never lost hope. She was such a fighter. She was so brave. What an inspiration. These are all things we say about other people’s mothers, members of some unfortunate club we hope never to find ourselves in.
My mom lost hope at times – who the fuck doesn’t when they are full of tumors? What is this so-called hope, anyway, but a desperate clinging, an attachment to the knowable, the familiar? Hope assumes our intended outcome is the right one. Hope is arrogant.
And Mom may have been a fighter, but she wasn’t showing her mettle when she signed on for another round of chemo, another surgery. She was just a scared person who didn’t know what else to do. If she had a battle with cancer, I’d rather not discuss it in those terms – it creeps me out to take something as personal and visceral as dying from cancer and tie it up in a neat package.
I’d rather talk about how, when undergoing radiation therapy, she made a little paper model of her tumor. After each treatment session, she’d use scissors to trim a little bit off, a visual representation of how it ought to be shrinking. (It turns out it wasn’t.) On the last day of therapy, the cancer center gave her a chocolate rose. She came home and burned the remainder of the tumor-effigy in her woodstove.
I’d rather talk about the purple scar that curved across her back, where the well-intentioned surgeons pried and scraped the tumor that had invaded her lung, wound itself round her ribs. I’d rather talk about how she screamed in pain while her mother sat in the corner praying, how she called me asking for ginger ale because she needed someone else to come. I’d rather talk about how she wanted nothing to eat at the end except orange Cheetos and cottage cheese.
Nobody knows how to talk about these things, though. They just draw a card off the pile and read from it. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “That’s so sad.” Maybe they are, and maybe it is, but my mom’s dying is part of who I am, and it has enabled me to learn and grow in unquantifiable ways. Watching her die has brought me to a more intentional, conscious living of my own life. Her death was difficult, but through it there have been many, many gifts. These gifts will continue to declare themselves and manifest over time.
We may not have a rich enough language for all the facets of grief, but I think we owe it to ourselves to start the conversation. It may be that the opportunity to live our deepest, most meaningful lives depends on it.