Life after her
By Brittney MacDonald, Life & Style Editor
2018 was the year my mom died, and whatever else may have happened—it doesn’t change the fact it was the worst year of my life.
The most impactful memory I have of my mother happened very early into getting my degree. For years, I have had a dream of being a writer. My mother, ever the voice of reason and practicality, told me that if I wanted to be a novelist that was fine, but I had to ensure I had something else to supplement that income. Basically, she said that I needed a stable career and I could write on the side, like a hobby. She loved me, so she was worried that if I chased daydreams then I’d end up with no career and nothing to show for all my hard work.
Anyway, one night I had just gotten home from class. It was late but she was still awake, sitting in the living room waiting for me. As I made myself dinner, she sat on the couch in complete silence. At first I thought she was mad at me, so I asked her what was wrong. I remember her pointing to a stack of papers and saying, “Did you write this?” What she had was a short story I had written for a creative writing class. To provide some context, my mother hadn’t read anything I had written since elementary school. The story she had at that moment was an assignment that was going to be workshopped by my class the next day. I had left it on the table so I wouldn’t forget it.
At this point the fear started creeping in. My mom was the reason I loved books—and subsequently writing. She was an avid reader and I was scared she wouldn’t see me as good enough. However, that isn’t what happened. As soon as I nodded, she immediately broke down crying. She told me about reading the story and how mind-blowing it was that something like that came out of her child. She told me how proud she was and how powerful my words were. She also said that, no matter what she’d said before—her insistence on me having a day job—she would support me in my writing because “This is what you are meant to do.”
It is an amazing thing, to have the complete and utter respect and support of someone you care so deeply about. To be believed in, not just because they are family and they have to, but because they actually believe you are capable—that you are good enough.
In my stupidity, I took her belief in me for granted. Coming to terms with her death, I have realized how much of an idiot I was. As a daughter, son, spawn, whatever, it’s hopelessly easy to forget that your parents are mortal. You expect them to be around forever, so you waste time. You procrastinate progressing in your life, because making them proud of the person you’ve become is something for future you to worry about. I think that is my biggest regret. My mom didn’t live to see me publish my first full-length novel—she didn’t even live to read my first draft.
In October of 2017, my mom developed respiratory issues and went to the doctor. He attributed it to her smoking habit, as well as the fact we had discovered that there was toxic black mould in the house. We knew we had to move as soon as possible. My parents left first, staying with family while I remained until December. At some point, later in the month, we discovered that my mom had a mass in her chest. Further tests throughout October and then into the beginning of November would reveal it was cancerous. The beginning of November was filled with well wishes and determination to get better. That didn’t last. By late November the tests had finally showed what it was—the worst-case scenario. My mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
It is strange the things you find out while someone is on their deathbed. For instance, I did not know that the word “lung” in lung cancer only refers to the types of cells that are cancerous. It is possible to have lung cancer in parts of your body besides your chest. My mom, for instance, had a mass in her chest but also two masses behind her eye. From what I understand, it was exceedingly painful as the days passed and the masses got larger. By the end, she was on very heavy painkillers.
By December 2017, the family and I had gathered in Kelowna for what we all knew would be my mom’s last Christmas. We hadn’t had a Christmas with all my sisters present in over a decade. Needless to say, it was bittersweet. I remember putting her to bed with one of my older sisters one night, and once I was in the hallway, just falling down and sobbing as quietly as I could. My sister held me, and we cried in a way that I didn’t think I was capable of.
Just that complete realization of how utter devastation feels, and having to watch the person who raised you and took care of you for the majority of your life—now reduced to a feeble, weak creature that you can’t even recognize. It’s heartbreaking and it turns your whole world on its head. By late December, my mom had progressed too rapidly and she could no longer be moved back to her home in Mission. She went into hospice in Kelowna and would remain there until her death on January 24, 2018.
In a little under four months, I had lost almost everything. The mould contaminated my home, my clothes, most of my possessions—and cancer had taken my mom.
As you read this, it will officially have been one year since she passed away. I am here to tell you that nothing will ever prepare you for what any of this feels like. Even now, there are things that I can’t do. There are photos from my graduation in October 2017—shortly before all of this occurred—that I can’t look at because I am aware now that my mom has “moon face.” This facial swelling is indicative of people suffering from cancer.
However, if you are forced to watch someone you love die—and I really hope you aren’t—be aware that it’s okay to laugh. After we found out she was terminal, my mom gathered all of her daughters together so we could all watch her favourite movie: Deadpool. Having seen it before, I knew what to expect—my sisters did not. My mom and I laughed manically as we forced them to sit though the pegging scene and near-constant masturbation jokes. Those are the kinds of fun moments that you want to remember. I want to remember my mom as witty and comedically dark. I want to tell people about her weird, twisted sense of humor—and how even as she lay dying, she told everyone about her grandchildren and her daughters—including the one who was going to be a famous novelist one day. I want to remember her with the insight she gained from knowing her time was limited. She became forgiving. All those grudges she had held so tightly no longer mattered. They were whispers from a life that was over, a past her that she wanted to evolve from. That forgiveness is something she wanted everyone to adopt—the simple knowledge that life is too short to be angry at each other (as cheesy as that sounds).
However, it is also okay to be angry in general. That is something I learned for myself. The Kübler-Ross model that outlines the five stages of grief—complete bullshit. There are no stages, there is just all of the emotions all at once, eating away at your brain until you snap. As awful as that sounds, it’s even more awful to experience. However, it is necessary.
You’ll feel cheated, and you have been. There are a million people to blame for what you are going through, and you can blame them all. If the doctor had found it earlier, if she had quit smoking, if you had paid a little more attention and made her take care of herself—there are countless scenarios and many dimensions where one small choice could have altered where you are now and what your life is now. This is something you will think about constantly, because I have thought about it. During the process, you might feel guilty for having moments when you’re happy. After they’re dead, you will pick up the phone to call them—you will forget they’re gone sometimes, and then you’ll feel like shit for forgetting something so important. I am here to say: It happens, but it doesn’t make you a bad person.
Nothing makes you a bad person. No one can dictate to you how you grieve, and at no point will any of it ever be okay. Grief isn’t something you get over, it is simply something you learn to live with. I’m sorry if that’s hard to hear. One of the hardest things for me is the realization that other people move on with their lives. Your friends and coworkers will forget, they will complain about their parents or their loved ones to you, and you’ll just have to smile and try and not strangle them for not appreciating what they have.
One year later—you’ll still have a hole in your chest. You don’t need to fill it. It’s there to remind you of what you’ve lost and what you’ve learned from that loss. It doesn’t make you incomplete or somehow less than you were before. It’s a scar, a memory that gives you more insight, understanding, and also drives you forward. Life really is short and the people you know are not always guaranteed to be there. Be selfish with your time and spend it wisely.