Friday, November 27, 2015

Missing my mother, and feeling grateful for her life

The four months leading up to my mother's death on Nov 26 – which this year fell on Thanksgiving – and the three months after in 2006, were the worst.

I had found out in August of that year – on my birthday – that she had lung cancer. Maybe Stage 3, but it, turned out, actually Stage 4. I said to a friend, "What am I going to do?"

"You'll do what she did when you were sick. You'll be there for her," she said, referring to my battle with leukemia.

In the months before her death, I was holding down a full-time job as a newspaper reporter and running a house with three kids in it, and racing back and forth to New York, trading shifts with my sister, Diane, as my mother quickly became bed-ridden. Meanwhile, the evil empire – a.k.a. the architects who had bought our building to convert to condos – were wreaking havoc in the lives of the elderly rent-controlled residents they couldn't kick out. One of the remaining few tenants at 1200 Fifth Avenue, where I grew up, said that they thought the new owners were trying to kill them. In updating the heating system, they butted out a wall in our already small dining room, upsetting my mother because she had a special drawer built onto the wall to hold her precious silverware, some of it previously belonging to relatives who had been killed by the Nazis. They painted the wall an unsightly green. My mother loved her Yankees, but she called it the Green Monster, in honor of the left field wall at Fenway Park, home of her grandchildren's beloved Boston Red Sox.

The condo owners removed the old windows and put in heavy top-to-bottom single paned monstrosities that were difficult to open, and furthermore, not installed properly, a point proven when one fell on an elderly resident, injuring her and sending her to the hospital.

We wondered if all the dust and stress had had something to do with her getting lung cancer. Inside me, a relapse was brewing. (I had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2003, treated with extensive chemotherapy and received a bone marrow transplant.) Later I wondered if the stress and all the bad air had set it off the relapse that occurred some six months later.

The new owners violated city codes by failing to turn the heat on that fall. They preferred to pay the fines. They even begrudged us the space heaters they were supposed to buy. My mother lay huddled under quilts and blankets. It was like a florist in there, so many people had sent flowers. Friends and relatives came and went. I lay next to her, holding her hand.

She was drifting in and out of reality when Thanksgiving came. I wanted to bring my children, Ben, Joe and Katie, to New York to have it by her bedside, but she said to please go home to Western Massachusetts and have it with them in the dining room of the historic colonial where my parents had loved to have Thanksgiving with us. Meanwhile, I finally decided to take a leave of absence from my job so I could spend her remaining days with her. She died before I got the chance. When I cried and cried and cried, I couldn't stop thinking about Thanksgiving.

A wise cousin said to me, "You gave her the greatest gift. She wanted to picture you in your home with your children, and you let her be the mother and tell you to do that." She had not been alone; my aunt and uncle and cousin were with her, and it was all for the best.

We had three months to clean out the apartment. When a toilet broke, the EE (Evil Empire) at first said they didn't want to fix it because we were leaving soon anyway. They finally caved in.

Every Thanksgiving, this all comes back to me, and I wonder how it will be.

It was Ben's year to be with my daughter-in-law's divorced father and his wife. So for Thanksgiving, it was me, Joe, Katie and Jim, my former husband, at my house. In the two days before, I must have gone to five stores picking up this and that. I figured I did not need do buy the yahrzeit candle that Jews burn on the anniversary of a loved one's death. I thought I had a stash. But when I reached back into the cabinet, there were none. The stores were closed. I made a few calls to Jewish friends, to no avail. Then I remembered a friend's mother had given her an electric one. We had joked about it at the time, but it came in handy after I called her and she said she would lend it to me.

At her Thanksgiving morning yoga class, our teacher, Michelle, talked about a positive way to view bad things: "This bad thing happened...AND this good thing happened." For example, she found out that she needs to replace her heating system, AND she still has heat in her studio to teach classes for now.

I raised my hand.

"At the last minute, I realized I did not have a yahrzeit candle to burn for my mother," I said. "AND my friend had an electric one." I said I think my mother would be OK with this. Michelle said she thought so too.

I applied Michelle's phraseology throughout the day.

"I miss my mother so much, and she had a wonderful long life."

"We had a horrible end to our life in the apartment, and we had a wonderful life there."

"I am sorry not to be with Ben, Meghan and (baby) Nell, and I get to be with my other two wonderful children and I am friendly enough with my ex-husband to have it with him."

I had a bad divorce, and now I can cook Thanksgiving dinner with my ex-husband.

I had leukemia three times, and I had the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and my bone marrow donor, Denise, to save my life.

When I took my mother's beautiful serving spoons out of the drawer in the hutch, I said, "Hi Mom," as I looked at the photo of her doing one of her favorite things, arranging flowers.

I knew my mother was there, and it was OK.

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