lung cancer

The worst is over.

So, in general, I try to keep the overall mood of this blog upbeat and fun, albeit a little cynical from time to time. Sorry to disappoint you guys, but today’s post is not upbeat and fun.

You see, I’m considering writing a memoir about my mom. For those of you who don’t know, she passed away from terminal lung cancer in June, 2011. For a long time I didn’t think I could ever write a memoir. Memoirs are reserved for people with much more tragic lives than I had: addicts, victims, and eccentrics (the last of which isn’t really “tragic,” but my point still more or less stands).

Who would anyone read a memoir on my relationship with my mom? I didn’t think it had a market.

And I still kind of don’t. I don’t know who would want to read up on the strange intricacies and oddities of a mother-daughter relationship that most likely mirrors all other mother-daughter relationships. The only thing my story has different is… well, an early death.

But all the same, just because I don’t know if there’s a market for it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write it. Writing helps me come to terms with things that have happened, and it helps me understand my own emotions.

A lot of the time, I think about writing on the way home from work. Those few minutes in the car give me a little bit of time to gather my thoughts and get a bearing on what I want to say. Sometimes the writing I do in my own head is exponentially more powerful than anything I put down on paper. That’s what happened yesterday, and this is what came of it.

What follows is a creative nonfiction work about my Mom (I’ll write a post later determining the difference between “creative nonfiction” and other blog posts that are about my life).


* * *

In some ways, it’s easier now that she’s gone.

I had always imagined, in the nine long months from her diagnosis til her death, that it would be the opposite. I had always imagined that the years of my life beyond her passing would be full of emotional turmoil, depression, and tears. That’s how it worked, right? All those things running through my head had prepared me for the worst.

She won’t make it to my wedding.
She’ll never meet my children.
Who will I call when my husband is driving me so crazy I feel like giving up?
Now I’ll never learn how to make those chocolate covered cherries Dad’s always talking about.
Who will listen to me cry?

For nine months, I cried every day. I broke down every week. I lost my shit every month. For three quarters of one agonizing year, I couldn’t imagine things would get any more difficult, and they always did.

It’s in my lungs.
It’s in my lymph nodes.
Oh God, Mary, it’s in my brain.

Listening to my mom talk on the phone, every small instance of hope destroyed with more crushing bad news.

We can’t do radiation.
The chemo isn’t working.
They gave me two months.

Two months…

I remember Mom talking about life and work and her garden and about almost anything other than her cancer. I remember talking about how she was worried about my sisters and her family and me. She never said she was worried about Dad, but I think that was only because she didn’t want to scare me any more than she already was.

And then one day she said, “You never cry in front of me. You kids never cry and I cry all the time. You are so strong.”

But she never saw me at home. She wasn’t there when I would get back from class and collapse against the door to my bedroom and let the tears flow silently down my face until they couldn’t fall anymore. She was never there when I would call my boyfriend and sob into the receiver until he said, “Sweetie, calm down, I’m coming over.” All she saw was the strong front I put on because I wanted her to know we could get through this. My family could get through this.

Every day was hard. And they got harder and harder until those last few moments, until I held her hand in mine and suddenly it wasn’t warm and firm like I was used to, but cold and so much older than I ever remembered. It got harder and harder until I heard her ask if I was there to take her blood pressure, and she held out her arm as though I were a nurse, coming in to see just how much time she had left.

It got harder and harder until Dad climbed into that hospital bed with her and they unplugged all the machines that were keeping her alive. Until I watched him cry into her hair for the last time and we all left the room because no one else was strong enough to watch that, and no one wanted to.

And he came out, and he told us she was gone.

And I spoke at the funeral, and I gave a eulogy I hardly remember.

And then it got easier.

It wasn’t about “what ifs” and “I can’t handle this” anymore. It wasn’t about possibility; it was about reality, and the reality was that every day the world kept spinning and I couldn’t sit there in that hospital room forever.

Suddenly, it wasn’t “I don’t know if I can go on,” It was “I’m going on.” I moved, and with every step things got better until now, two years later, I look back and wonder why I don’t break down as often as I thought I would, and why I don’t cry every day anymore, and why when I think of her, I don’t always have to stop and catch my breath as I blink into the sky to make my eyes dry out again.

And I want to say it’s because of her, that she made me stronger. In a way, that’s true. She taught us all to persevere, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.

But really, the fact is, the worst is behind us now. I will never have to hold her hand at three in the morning to stop her from trying to drink water that isn’t there from her oxygen mask. I will never have to look into her eyes and see the fear behind them as I try to explain to her that the doctors are going to ask if she wants a DNR, and that, oh God, please give them the code so you don’t have to suffer anymore.

The rest comes down to just putting one foot in front of the other and looking back only when it’s to make you smile.

Categories: Creative Nonfiction, Writing


    1. Wow Mary, so beautifully put. I’ve often wondered when faced with death, what would be a (for lack of a better word) better situation, having two months to say goodbye, but knowing that is all you have with your mother, or like what happened to me with my mom, just suddenly and unexpectedly dying due to a surprise health complication, and then living with the regret of “I should have said this,” or, “I wish I had never gotten in that argument with her a few days ago, I should have said I’m sorry and I love you when I had a chance.” Such tough choices and situations life puts us through. I’m glad you are staying strong though. I do think you should write a memoir about your mother. I would buy it and read it in a heartbeat!

      Jett Chapman
      1. Thank you, Jett. :)

        I can say, even when you do have a few months’ notice, you will never stop thinking, “I wish I had said this,” “I wish I would have done this.” There are dozens of things I wish I’d done or words I wish I’d said that I hadn’t had the courage to do or say.

        Maybe I will have to do this memoir. ;P

  1. Never (yet) having experienced it myself, I have a deep admiration for people who take crushing loss with grace. I’m so sorry and I thank you for sharing.

    Josh Purdy
  2. Always write what is in your heart not what the brain says will market well. If artists try to satisfy the trends of the time we would never have true art! This is so poignant. Moved me as both a mother and a daughter. Thank you for sharing this piece of your heart with the universe.

    ava Parker
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