My mother and I were both sick with cancer at the same time, and my mother died while I was still in treatment. In some ways, our concurrent illnesses served as a point of connection between us—and ultimately as something that permanently separated us. It wasn’t until I was cancer-free that I was able to begin to grieve for my mother in a real way, perhaps because I needed my strength to help me get well, perhaps because I needed my mother to help me get well. And once I was well, I could begin to let her go.
In the last few months of my mom’s life, I was undergoing chemotherapy for my invasive molar pregnancy every other week. One week, I’d have an injection every-other day, which would leave me drained and out of it. I’d then have a week to recover, and then another week of treatment. I spent months in this cycle. We would schedule weekends with my parents whenever I wasn’t in treatment, but mostly I missed out on my mother’s last months.
To make up for not being there to support one another in person, my mother and I spent much of our time tethered to one another on the phone. I’d quietly chat with her while I waited for my injection. I’d lie in bed talking to her after her chemo, until one of us felt too tired to speak. I called her on my good days after walking my son to school, while she was resting in her own bed at home. Each day was marked with our phone calls.
When she finally entered hospice care, I knew that I’d need to make arrangements to be at her side while I continued my course of chemo. I envisioned getting my treatment and then just sleeping next to her in bed, and holding onto her hand. I called her doctor to see if his office could administer my chemo while I was there, and made plans to be treated in Washington, DC.
I never expected that my first day of treatment in DC would be the day of her funeral. My treatment was first thing in the morning, which gave me just enough time to make it to the late-morning service. I walked into the doctor’s office bolstered by my best friend and my cousin. I was dazed and dreading the inevitable questions about my mom. The phlebotomist checked my chart as she prepared to draw my blood.
“Sachse?” she said. “Are you…?” She trailed off, knowing she couldn’t ask if we were related.
“Yes.” I replied, “Ellie was my mom. She died on Tuesday.”
After that, everyone treated me like a precious feather, afraid that with the wrong word I’d blow away. And most of that day, most of that week, I did feel like I could blow away.
On New Year’s Eve, I received my last infusion. I thanked the nurses who had helped me for nine months, drank a glass of champagne, and broke down crying. I cried about losing my mom. I cried that I went through the hardest part of my illness without her. And I cried that she didn’t get to see me in remission and cancer-free. That moment was when I really began to grieve for her.
I had mourned when she died, and I had mourned when we sat Shiva. But after that I turned all my energy and attention to my own health and healing, and I didn’t allow myself to feel the pain of losing her. I needed to be strong enough to fight my cancer, and I couldn’t do that and fully accept her death.
Throughout those last months of treatment my mom would come to me in dreams. In these dreams she would come back to life, and we’d talk about how it was possible that she’d come back to life. I found solace in these dreams. I loved feeling my mom’s presence nearby. And even though I knew she wasn’t coming back, it was comforting to think about the convoluted paths to resurrection she described in my dreams. Since I finished treatment, since I have been living without cancer, I haven’t dreamed about her once.
I guess it took being cancer-free to really let go.