Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone, that for some unknown reason at the time, marks your memory forever? You can envision what you were wearing, the smell of the air and the tiny expressions of their face as they spoke. When you are taking it in, you have no idea your brain is cataloging it into the, "this is important" file. The way the words are strung together is of no consequence to you in that moment. You only find out much later, why you would need those words and how they would mean so much. This was my conversation with my mother in 2010.
Mom was in the midst of her fierce battle with Pancreatic Cancer. I was in the midst of just having my first baby and taking care of my mother who had become my second baby. Our days were spent like this.. After Mona went to bed, I'd stay up all hours nursing a baby, and making sure her pain meds didn't find a gap. In the morning, I'd make breakfast and tend to a make shift garden I had planted when she decided to go on an all vegetable diet, which she hated me for. You read that right. It was entirely her idea, but the fact that I kept her to it, made her angry. Mostly because Mona thought the food groups were candy, snow caps, ice cream bars and coca-cola. At one point during her illness, she made an attempt at being healthy and traded some of her faves out for the "weight-watchers" version, only to eat twice as many. "Why are these so damn small?!" she'd say. I'd respond, "Mom, it's suppose to teach you moderation." She'd bite back, "What a rip off." When I made her eat vegetable tacos one night, she told me she thought I was slowly poisoning her and if the cancer didn't kill her, my cooking would. I laughed it off because I have never been told that I was dying. So when she said my meals tasted like shit, and it hurt my feelings, I told her they were full of love so she needed to eat up. I believe it was a unique situation that required grace. On Wednesdays, we did chemotherapy from 9 until 5 which surprisingly became the highlight of our week. Here is a little secret about chemo: it can be enjoyable at times. I know that sounds bizarre but we looked forward to a Wednesday. We'd hop in the car, drive through the Southern Maid Donuts and pick up a heaping box of goodies for the staff. We would roll in hot for our appointment, smelling of sugar and wearing matching track suits. Upon our arrival, THE MOST INCREDIBLE nursing staff would see us to our little room and assist me in setting up the baby play-pen. I'd pack magazines, books, baby toys, nail polish, face masks, you name it, I packed it. After her IV bag began, we'd settle in, watch tv and visit with our nurses that quickly became like family. Each of those nurses were far more than physical care-takers. They would take turns loving on our Avah, walking her to and from the rooms of other chemo patients that needed a little light in the form of a blue eyed smiling baby. On occasion, I would doze off in exhaustion and wake up with a startle forgetting who had her last. After a moment, my sleepy eyes would adjust to the sight of Avah playing with the lanyard of one of our nurses in the hallway. We felt safe here. In the strangest irony, it was the one place that made us forget we were losing time and fighting a relentless enemy. While we waited, I'd hold my momma's hand, with her long slender fingers and in my head, I would plead with God to stretch this time as long as was possible. When we first found out my mother was ill, she did not ask for a prognosis, in fact, she vehemently denied them to tell her because she believed words had power. I would tell her, "Mom, I think we should know so we can plan accordingly." And she would say. "They don't know my Jesus. He has his own clock and that chart isn't going to tell them his plan" I let her win that one.
Our last Easter together. Mom looked so cut in her pixie wig.
After Wednesdays, well, it was hell. Trying to stay on track and ahead of her pain was a constant. Feeding Mom, cleaning house and helping her get around when she felt good was a full time job. I had moved in with my mom while Zac was back in Quantico at school, and so to apply more pressure to the situation was the added bonus that we were practically poor. The Marine Corps may call it "The Basic School," but it should be called "The Budget School." When I could get my mother set-up and comfortable, I would often go out and decorate people's homes for extra money. Being creative helped re-center me and kept me from falling apart. Want to lose the 85 pounds you put on with your first baby? Just apply pressure every day for 6 months and it will disappear right along with your sanity. When I would come home from odd jobs, I'd nurse and pump and try to lightheartedly play with my infant, but really, I just wanted to crawl in bed and sleep off all of my emotions. After being home a few months I had to monitor my mother more closely and so to do that, I moved out of my childhood bedroom and into her room. Twenty-five and sleeping with my mother again. Awesome. She'd watch Lifetime movies until she passed out and I'd sit up reading and watching her for any sign of a medication need. I recall one night I had drifted to sleep and woken up in the dark. I must have fallen asleep before Mom, because the room was pitch black and silently still. I laid there, listening for the sound of her breath. I couldn't hear a thing. As the seconds stretched I started to clinch the sheets in the anticipation that I was sleeping next to my mother's dead body. Not knowing what to do, I kept still and waited for what felt like eternity. Shit. What the hell am I going to do? Jesus, I know you have your own time schedule but can we talk logistics? I cannot wake up to my mother's corpse and go on to live a normal life. Please cut me some slack here. At that moment, I just went for it, it was now or never. I popped straight up like a lightning bolt hoping if I moved quickly I would out maneuver my fear and go unnoticed by all parties, dead or alive. I felt for my mother's arm in the darkness, and leaned over her face to see if I could hear her breathe. I paused there. Nothing. I held my own breath to hear better. Nothing. Just then, out of the darkness, like the Wizard behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, I heard a deep and even keeled voice say, "I'm not dead yet Baileigh." Huge peals of laughter filled the pitch black room. We laughed because it was just so sick and twisted you couldn't make it up. If we were facing death, we were still keeping our whits about us. My mother and I both chuckled ourselves to sleep that night, which was good because the next morning my mother had an appointment for her first radiation.
If my memory serves me, by this time, we had been doing chemo for a little over 3 months when my mother started to lose function of her left hand. I was baffled. She went from playing a respectable game of golf, to not being able to easily lift her arm. While taking Avah from her chest one night, I noticed a bump that appeared to be swelling. Every day the bump grew bigger, so big, we had to purchase a sling so her arm could rest in a more comfortable position. After a visit to her doctor, he quietly informed me it was most likely a tumor slowly choking out her muscles and tendons. Radiation was the only chance to shrink it and so I told my mother a few rounds would give her some relief. On that particular day, my mother thought I could just drop her off at radiation to give Avah a break from long days in a play pen. We planned that Mom or one of the nurses would call me to pick her up when she was done. If I am honest, I was relieved because I needed a break. After dropping her off at the hospital, I rode home pleased to be alone with my thoughts. I turned on the radio and with a giant grin, tried to prepare myself for what looked like a day with a little "me time." Ahhhhhh, at last! Slowly, my thoughts drifted. What was she doing? Who would be with her? Would it be painful? Would I want to do it alone? Well, hell, I have a lifetime for "me time" I guess. I should be there. I called and found a friend by the hospital that was willing to take Avah. I nursed her in the front seat of my car to top her off before dropping her there. I beelined, back to the hospital and parked the car like I imagine husbands do when their wives go into labor. I jogged in and was greeted by the staff that knew me all too well now. "Hi! I need to find Mom! Quickly! She has radiation today and I want to see her before she goes in!" They gave me directions to a different wing of the hospital that was nothing but white floors and white walls. I kept a steady jog as I looked up and down the corridors for some sign of life. I finally reached one that stopped me in my tracks causing my shoes to evoke a loud squeak. There, at the very end, was a tiny blue hospital bed holding a tan skinned, red haired figure. Mom. I found her. I walked slowly as to not make her think something was wrong. I knew my presence would be a surprise as it was not the plan. When I grew closer to her, I realized her eyes were closed but spasming, like they were being held shut by her own will-power. Her lips were slightly parted but also quickly moving, and it dawned on me, she is praying. I didn't know if I should interrupt. Maybe she needed this time with her maker. So I whispered, "Mom?" Instantly, her big brown eyes exploded open like she was unsure if I was real. She took a big breath in like she had been held underwater. I tried to explain quickly, thinking she was unhappy I had interrupted... "Mom, I came, I just felt like you may need me." Her face. Her face I will never forget. She tried to hold up both arms to me, one, much heavier than the other, and said, "Thank you baby, I was so scared."
I dipped down to hug her. She felt frail and so much older than sixty. My mom had always been a fearsome creature. Her blaze of red hair was only matched by her blazing personality. To see her like this, felt like some table, somewhere, had turned. I didn't know anyone that was not a little scared of Mona, but in this setting, she looked how I imagine she looked when she was a little girl. Scared, but trying to feign bravery. I sat on the side of her bed, and thought, Oh God, I'm so glad I came. She relayed that the attending nurse had come out to say they were a bit behind schedule and so we would have to wait a while. Awesome. This was like waiting to have a tooth pulled, only the tooth being pulled is a laser beam of death. I stroked her hand. "Momma, tell me about a time when you remember being the happiest in your life?' I was desperately trying to get her to think of good things. She paused, mulling over the highs and lows of what I am sure are really interesting stories, of which, I only know small pieces. "You know toonie, (this is a term of endearment), I remember being my most happy in my thirties, about thirty-six." I was twenty five and so that seemed like light years away, but I humored her. "Ah, why Mom?" She looked off in the distance like she was conjuring up memories to share. "I just, I just knew myself so much better. I felt comfortable in my skin, I stopped trying to earn love and I let love find me. I felt so strong, and so sure of myself. I wasn't the idiot from my youth, but I wasn't at a point where I was ready to settle for less. I really just enjoyed my life." "Oh," I said. "I know you didn't plan to have me, was I the end of that happy time?" She looked shocked to hear me say it, but from what I could gather, I knew my birth changed everything. "No baby, you came at the most perfect time and you came for a litany of reasons." I fought back inner thoughts. From youth, I had always felt like I had been the tipping point in my mother's life. Not long after I was born it was like the bottom fell out and so I could only believe it was me who had disturbed the balance in the family. This thought always penetrated me to my core, because it felt like my first rejection. If my birth had set so many painful things in motion, then how could I amount to anything good? I could feel a tidal wave of things I wanted to say but instead I just sat quietly waiting. We would both just have to wait quietly because this conversation was more than I could deal with at the present. She tugged at my hand to get my attention, "Baileigh, you were the best thing that happened to us. All of us. When you were born, you brought such a joy into our lives because you were impossible not to fall in love with, and that is the truth." In the moment of writing this, I can see her face like she's here. She put her hand on my hand, "God knew I needed you, and he knew I would need you to get through this. He brought you to me, and you'll get me back to him. His timing is perfect my love."
Today, I turned thirty-six. I now understand what she meant when she said, "you just know yourself better, you feel more comfortable in your skin." It took me years, the love of my family, the skills of my therapist and the taste of gin to get me to admit the weight of carrying around the notion that I felt I was the the cause of so much pain. Admittedly, I felt rejection from the very start. Since that time, I realize that rejection is one of the hardest things to shake, but once you do, it is like unhooking yourself from a team of horses. You feel your heart lift, your legs spring forth and you're off! Running towards your REAL intended purpose. My first therapy session a year or two ago, I unloaded all of my personal history on this poor unsuspecting therapist. When I made the appointment, I wrote on the form that I "just needed an outlet for a time." Best joke ever. This therapist had only known "of me" through mutual patients and so I couldn't read what she was thinking while I dropped truth bombs in her office. At the end of the hour, she said, "Baileigh, I will be honest, the way others speak of you, I had no idea what you were in here for...but I don't think I have ever met anyone that dislikes themself as much as you do. You have the most fractured picture of who you really are and how much you are valued. I want to help you reclaim that."
I did. I reclaimed it. I recognize now that I am work-in-progress, but even so, I am the makings of a masterpiece. My value has nothing to do with my past, or the opinion of others. I have reclaimed that I have a lot to offer this world, whether I live till sixty like Mona, or ninety-two like the lady with the giant diamond on Titanic. Whatever may come, I'm here for it. I am not getting ready, I AM ready.
Sorry this travel and family blog has become a virtual therapy session. Remember the heart behind it, is just taking it as it comes, and so on this journey we may not always be going somewhere physically. Sometimes unpacking your bags is just unloading that weight that is keeping you down mentally. I hope if you have been lugging a hurt around, this inspires you to release it, so we can pack a real bag and enjoy the world outside. I want to share it with you!
*This post is dedicated to those nurses who gave me rest with my mother. You made chemo fun and that is something to be proud of. I know so many of you came to my mother's viewing and I didn't have the strength or the right words to say thank you. Thank you.
To all of you who sent cards, and messages... thank you for making my birthday in lockdown so special. Cheers to getting older and wiser.
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Love from London,