It could be the gray skies and damp, chill air. Maybe it’s because it is All Souls Day. Perhaps it is just my morose mood as I gird myself for the upcoming daylight savings time change this weekend. Winter is coming, yada yada yada. Whatever the reason, right now I am thinking a lot about mothers dying and leaving their babies.
Beth is the writer and activist behind a blog I follow, The Cult of Perfect Motherhood. She is dying. Right now. Today. She may even be dead and the news has not yet trickled down to me, a mere fan. This makes me very, very sad. And angry. Beth is fond of anger. She has used hers as a very effective tool to fight for women living and dying with metastatic breast cancer.
We started following one another a few years ago. It might have been cancer that brought us together. Or our mutual friends. I don’t know. We follow one another online, both blogs and personally. I think the world of Beth. She approaches her cancer with raw honesty, humor, directness, and truth. No rose colored glasses, no sugar coating, just the power of her words and the sheer force of her will.
I will miss her tremendously. I will be sad when I learn of her death. I think a lot about her husband and children — a young son and little girl. Beth spoke openly about wanting to be here long enough to see her girl start kindergarten. It’s November now, and her girl has started kindergarten. That wish was granted, but not too many more will be.
Having followed Beth as she approached her death, I am reminded of another mother I knew peripherally almost ten years ago now. Angela, an old acquaintance of my husband from the college days they shared. She died in 2009 after complications from liver surgery related to her own cancer diagnosis.
Angela wrote to me in 2008, before Facebook. At the time, she referred to all of us — herself, Donna, and my husband and I, as “survivors.” It was the spring and Donna was in a good place in between her winter stem cell transplant and her summer relapse. Angela used old fashioned email, having tracked it down through a trail of mutual friends. She wanted to thank me for writing about our daughter’s cancer struggle. I will never forget the humility of reading her first email to me.
Donna’s youth and innocence, for me, highlighted cancer’s particular cruelty. All of my fears about cancer and my kids are around issues of abandonment, and how they will be without me, not how I will be without them. When people talk about how “brave” and “strong” I am, I try and be gracious with their sentiments, but I know that my “strength” is nothing compared to what you and Jeremy must have struggled through in your dark moments.
I wrote Angela back, disavowing her of the false notion that we, as parents of a child with cancer, demonstrated more strength than a young mother living with cancer. Nope. Apples and oranges, my friends. We lived in very different subdivisions of Cancerville and trying to compare the strengths and hardships of those in different zip codes would come to no good.
At the time Angela wrote those words, we all had reason to be hopeful. The next year, Angela would die in August and Donna would follow in October. She left a husband and two young daughters behind. With cancer, so much can change so quickly.
Angela has stayed with me all these years. Her words gave me precious insight into the reality of a fellow mother living with the fear of abandoning her young children through death. At the time, having just been through the trauma of Donna’s stem cell transplant, they felt like a kick to the gut.
When you parent a child with cancer, it’s common to wish that cancer on yourself, to relieve your vulnerable child from the pain and suffering you wish you could take on yourself. Angela helped me understand the flip side of that mother-child cancer coin. Beth has done the same.
I think about these four kiddos who will grow up without their mother. No Beth or Angela there to finish the job they started. Mom is a photo in a frame, a memory, a promise that never quite came to pass. Mom is tears and sadness and a perpetual hole. Mom is words from a loving Dad. Mom is the hope that there was enough time to have provided a solid foundation. Mom is an obituary. Mom is a grave marker or an urn on a shelf.
I lost my own Mom when I was 35. I was still too young and miss her every day. My heart breaks for two little girls I never met whose Mom worried about abandoning them. Today they are eight years older, both teens. My heart is breaking for a brother and a sister whose Mom, a force of nature with a heart of equal parts steel and gold, will not get to influence them on the regular as they grow up.
Cancer sucks, folks. Big love to all of you who lost a mother to this beast.