“I have a question for you, Aim,” Mom said from her blue La-Z-Boy. “How did you stay so positive during everything you went through?”
This takes me by surprise. “Uh, Prozac?” I joke, and she laughs.
She needs to laugh. I know she is scared and depressed, awaiting her next chemo treatment. Twenty years ago, she battled uterine cancer, but stayed cancer-free ever since, a miracle. Three months ago, she was diagnosed with cancer again: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I’m serious,” Mom said, and my brain begins its search for an answer.
Looking for Hope
The Trifecta of S*** is what she was referring to: the end of my 18-year marriage, a heart attack at 41 (induced by stress and high blood pressure and related to anxiety) and a near-fatal car crash, five months (to the day) later — caused by an under-the-influence young man who ran a stop sign and smashed into my car. He died. I barely survived.
But here I am, in this moment, alive to tell the tale. I didn’t give up — maybe that’s what my mom was referring to — though I wouldn’t call that staying “positive.” Probably because I was the one living it, not observing.
“You know, it’s funny,” I said. “I had someone ask me one time how it felt fighting for my life, and I just didn’t have a good answer. Same as now.”
What a cop out, I think to myself. She needs hope. She needs inspiration. She needs a pep talk. It’s the least I can do for her.
“At the time,” I continued, “I didn’t know I was fighting for my life, because it didn’t seem like a choice. I was just doing what everyone told me to do. I don’t remember being positive, Mom. I can’t lie. But no matter how much I didn’t want it happening to me and no matter how much I thought, ‘This isn’t the way my life is supposed to go,’ it already had. I didn’t see any other alternative than to deal with it. Maybe it’s having enough determination to see — to hope — beyond the moment?”
A Final Conversation
Five months later, as a warm Kentucky spring blooms just outside her darkened bedroom, Mom initiates a conversation with me about mortality.
I fold up beside her in bed and hold her hand. She hasn’t eaten in almost four days, and she’s not drinking much. What’s left of her hair, after months of intense chemotherapy, has turned into a patchwork of cottony white tufts, and she can only lie in one position, her head against a pillow on her right side. Mostly she just listens during our “discussion,” sometimes smiling, sometimes murmuring an “mmm-hmm” as I ramble on, not really sure of what to say.
Time and grief have clouded the memory of this moment and my babbling attempt at comfort, but I think I remind her of my encounters with death. I think I tell her that I hadn’t been afraid. And I think I tell her that she shouldn’t be either — it’s okay to let go. I know I am stroking her arm, like she often did for me, whether after the accident or when ill as a child, just to let me know she was there.
A salient and surreal awareness creeps in, enveloping us in the moment. Her death is imminent.
This has been, and is, and will be, our most important mother-daughter talk ever.
Seven years ago, I faced my own mortality twice. Both times, Mom was by my side, and those were some of the most terrifying moments of my life. I was on the phone with her when I first noticed my heart attack symptoms. And when I woke up in intensive care after the accident, she was standing right beside my bed.
In the months after, she served as my live-in nurse, keeping me comfortable and caring for me while transporting me to my many appointments. Mom helped me in my fight, so I could grow in strength. She also believed in my healing.
But the recovery was long, both physically and mentally, and I worried the trauma would define me the rest of my life. I questioned why I was still alive.
Several existential epiphanies later, I understood that not only had I almost died, but someday, I actually would. Death was no longer an abstract noun to fear; it was real, and it was inevitable. I thought I’d come to terms with dying. Maybe I was even okay with it.
But watching my mom die, her body taken over by a disease that could not be controlled, and witnessing my dad, her husband of 48 years, do everything in his power to stop it as my brother and sister and I tried to ease their burdens, made me think of my new husband and my children surrounding me in my final days, death looming. Or worse, made me imagine a life in which they were no longer present, leaving me with a terrifying, palpable emptiness.
How does a person live in a world without his spouse or her mother or his child? And how can a spirit so full of life and love and energy just disappear? I don’t understand. And I am definitely not okay with it.
“You’re our miracle, Aimee,” Dad tells me, just often enough to remind me that he is thankful I’m alive.
I always get nervous in those moments, afraid they will remind him that Mom didn’t get another miracle, so I steer the conversation elsewhere, away from the territory where we will talk about her a bit more than we should, crossing the line into his grief.
It’s been a year and a half since her death, but oh, how he misses her. So do I.
I like to think that Mom helped me to live again, and then I helped her to die. There are truths I understand now, truths that can be uncovered only by confronting mortality. I know that I am lucky, thankful and content to be alive — every single day.
Worries and anxieties and trivial concerns are not worth hanging onto, but family and nature and the experiences of existing must be embraced. I know life can be serendipitous, but also fickle, changing within a split second of two cars crashing or across a nine-month span of a disease growing.
And ultimately, I know that in my struggle to actualize death, I will be forever navigating a gray area between acceptance and denial. Aren’t we all?
Aimee Ross is a nationally award-winning educator who has been a high school English teacher for the past 25 years. She completed her MFA in creative non-fiction writing at Ashland University and is the author of Permanent Marker: A Memoir.