My wife and I were jogging along the Embarcadero in San Francisco when we received the news that my mom was dying. We’d booked a ferry to see Alcatraz, and a malfunctioning bus had put us way behind schedule, so we were legging it.
I was out of breath and the blood pumping in my ears made it hard to hear, but I immediately knew that something was wrong because mom was using her “don’t panic Mark” tone of voice that she reserved for bad news.
I remember her saying, “I’m going to be okay.”
I remember her saying, “I feel fine.”
I remember her saying, “renal cell carcinoma.”
I remember her saying, “immediate nephrectomy.”
Then I remember my knees buckling and nearly falling down on the sidewalk amidst the swarms of tourists. I remember people staring at me as I cried hysterically. I remember Leigh taking the phone from me.
And that’s about all I remember.
They removed the cancerous kidney, which, according to the surgeon, was nearly the size of a basketball. Unfortunately, the surgeon was unable to get clear margins, and the pathology report and subsequent scans showed the cancer had already metastasized and was present in the lungs.
There are very clear advantages in having been with Leigh throughout medical school, residency, fellowship, and into her medical practice. Free healthcare & medical advice. Trigger point injections when my muscles hurt. Fantastic company Christmas parties.
But the downside in being well-informed about medicine is that I immediately knew there would be no cure. No amount of chemo or radiation would be able to cure my mom’s cancer. I knew that even hoping for a cure was energy best spend elsewhere. From the moment I took my mother’s call on San Francisco’s bustling Embarcadero on the way to Alcatraz, I knew we were simply playing a waiting game with Death.
For nearly two years the chemo held the metastases at bay. But during the summer of 2014, we got the news I’d been dreading since the first day mom started treatment: The metastases were no longer responding to the meds, and they’d begun to aggressively grow and multiply.
Mom has only been gone a little over a week now, but it seems like years since we last spoke. I miss her hands. They were so soft. I miss her smile. It could light up a room. I miss her laugh. It was so infectious.
I just miss her. I miss her so much.
A good friend of mine lost his mother several years ago, and during this whole process, I’ve leaned on him pretty heavily for support and advice.
A month or so ago, as mom’s health started to really nose-dive, my friend told me that the pain of losing your mom never really goes away. The pain, he explained, will change everything about you. It will change who you are and how you see the world.
And, goddammit Todd, you were right.
Sometimes I feel guilty if I laugh too much. Maybe I’m not supposed to be having fun yet. Is it too soon for me to laugh?
Sometimes I’m so anxious I run on the treadmill for miles and miles.
Sometimes I feel so sad I don’t have the energy to get out of bed.
Sometimes I’m so angry I could punch holes in the walls.
Sometimes I wake up crying.
Sometimes I can’t sleep.
I know these dramatic emotional episodes will probably pass with time, but I have a feeling the emptiness I feel will always be there, just waiting for me when my mind gets quiet and the world falls away.
But the thing that’s amazed me most about this whole ordeal is the stunning generosity and comfort folks have offered to me and my family. Sympathy cards. Emails. Facebook messages. Hugs. Tears. Flowers and food. So many people have done such wonderful things for me.
It’s been overwhelming, the things folks have done, but the generosity of others has really been the only thing that’s kept me from falling into a deep depression and retreating into a self-imposed isolation. Intellectually I know that path only ends in despair, but emotionally, retreating feels the most compelling. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by people who won’t let me do that, and I can’t imagine what I would do without such a wonderful and lovely support group. I’ll thank them all individually and privately, but I couldn’t have made it through this without all of them.
On March 26th, we laid my mother to rest in Gholson Cemetery. I gave the eulogy at the funeral (click here to read it), and I think it was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to read in front of an audience. But I simply could not let someone else speak at her funeral. For one thing, she wasn’t religious and neither am I, so a lot of talk about God, Heaven, and the afterlife would have dishonored and been an affront to her epistemological and theological views. Even more importantly, I wanted the funeral to highlight the beauty of her life, and there was no way someone who didn’t know her could have accomplished that.
I don’t believe in fate. I don’t believe in destiny, and I sure as hell don’t believe that everything happens for a reason.
I think things happen, and we use reason to explain them. Mom’s death is easy to explain. Cancer. She drew the genetic short straw, and it killed her. But as I said in my eulogy, she left an indelible mark on the world. Her visitation and funeral was absolutely packed. All of those people are a testament to the woman she was.
I’ll miss you mom.