IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Mother Didn't Tell Me She Was Dying of Cancer

She feared the news would aggravate my anxiety and depression and affect my performance at work.
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Pamela Ross
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She feared the news would aggravate my anxiety and depression and affect my performance at work.

I walked into my mother’s hospital room expecting to find her at least cognizant, if not her usual buzzing self. She’d undergone surgery a few months earlier for broken ribs and vertebrae and had dealt with a touch of bronchitis, but both issues were resolved without incident as far as I knew. Instead, her wrists were bound to the bed and she writhed in pain, bleating “no” over and over. 

My father had asked me to take off work and come down from Boston to offer moral support, so I assumed the situation was relatively serious; I didn’t realize I’d witness my mother barely clinging to life. I spoke softly to her and caressed her pale wrist, but quickly became overwhelmed and ran from the room crying, leaving a bewildered nurse in my wake.

My father finally located me and explained the situation: My mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer, around Valentine’s Day. An intensely private person, she told only a select few people about her illness. Because her initial prognosis was positive and multiple myeloma is eminently treatable, she concealed her situation from me and planned on letting me know on August 20, which would have been her 67th birthday. She feared the news would aggravate my anxiety and depression and affect my performance at work. 

The cancer had advanced aggressively and she experienced an adverse reaction to immunotherapy, a cutting-edge treatment method, which left her blood and oxygen levels fatally low. Shortly after I arrived that day, she was transferred from the Progressive Care Unit to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for increased monitoring and medical attention. I instinctively understood that she was nearing the end of her life.

Intellectually, I grappled with the suddenness of the situation. It was a baffling equation I couldn’t begin to solve: Mom + Cancer = ??? Though I knew of people who’d passed from the disease, I was degrees removed from their struggles and felt invulnerable to the havoc it wreaks. Cancer was a tragedy that affected other people, or else a lazy device that advanced plots of Lifetime movies and soap operas. Cancer couldn’t happen to us. My mom was a three-dimensional being with virtues and flaws, a woman who both practiced law and painstakingly took care of me. Now she was bedridden in an ICU with her hands restrained, lest she become agitated and rip out the many IVs and tubes used to sustain her ebbing life force. 

How could these two versions comprise one person, the one person who knew me more intimately than anyone else? I felt like I’d been plunged into an alternate reality where I played a character that a sadistic screenwriter enjoyed putting through hell.

Dining with my mom in Italy in 2013.

Dining with my mom in Italy in 2013.

From the moment I saw her hospitalized, I began grieving. The grief manifested in deeply visceral ways. The first two nights I was home, I ordered French toast for dinner, a meal that I never even crave for breakfast. Though the hankering struck my father and me as strange, I indulged myself instead of choosing something healthier. As my mother lay on her deathbed, a memory floated up through my subconscious and pierced its surface: I am standing beside my mother as she prepares French toast on the stovetop. She demonstrates beating the yolk and frying the bread, pausing halfway through to let me attempt both tasks. 

As soon as the recollection registered, I felt my eyes welling with tears and excused myself. Alone in the ICU Family Room, I sobbed and cried, “I wanted French toast because she made it for me,” over and over until I calmed down.

When it became clear she wouldn’t survive, we waited out her passing, which was the most painful experience of my life. We sat vigil at her bedside, watching her breaths become slower and longer. I was startled to see that her teeth had begun blackening with decay, which is something that can happen to patients on ventilators. It was almost impossible to reconcile the sick, weakened body with memories of my mother  — ebullient, effusive, her crackling energy propelling her to organize book club meetings and plan elaborate holiday dinners. It was a humbling reminder of our collective mortality; despite our rich, complex lives and particular attributes, we are ultimately reduced to mere bodies that cease functioning. 

She passed one week before her 67th birthday and one week before she’d planned on telling me about her illness.

My mother’s stay in the ICU was 12 days long and constituted the most time I’d ever spent with my father. He’d worked full-time as I was growing up, first commuting to New York City and then staying there during the workweek, so my mother performed the bulk of childcare. There were certain things we bonded over — like collecting Beanie Babies and our love of animals — but our closeness was more perfunctory than anything. Perhaps inevitably, I had more in common with my mother, who loved the arts and was a highly social creature. My father is more introverted, preferring reading and watching sports on TV to socializing. It didn’t help that one of our few shared traits is a stubbornness that makes compromise challenging. Circumstances dictated that we spend hours together at a time, and we became closer than ever.

Throughout the ordeal, I was more concerned with my father’s wellbeing than my own; though losing a parent is obviously difficult, I couldn’t fathom the pain of losing a spouse. Our roles often became reversed, with me making sure my father was eating and sleeping enough and engaging in his favorite pastimes. One was watching Jeopardy, a show that his late mother also loved. Every night at 7 p.m. sharp, we’d tune in and “compete” from our living room couch. 

Though I’d previously thought of my dad as stoic and emotionally distant, he completely opened up to me, tearfully explaining that that we’d have to actively work on our relationship without mom to cement our bond. Taking care of my mother throughout her treatment and steady decline, though taxing at times, helped him realize the incredible depth of his love for her.

As is commonly said, grief tends to come in waves; there are times when it feels like she’s still very much here, only a text message away. Other times, her absence is maddening, and I can barely bring myself to operate normally. It’s astounding that any conversation I have concerns something besides this major loss, that people are moving on with their lives all around me like nothing happened. I take solace in knowing that my mother’s influence will pervade everything I experience in life, enabling my achievements and cushioning my failures. Though not physically present, her maternal love transcends death.