It is March 19th 2021, 2 days before my mother’s final passing from this earth.
20 months earlier, late in the summer of 2019, she had received a terminal diagnosis of ovarian cancer. At the onset, the symptoms were severely difficult and painful, to the point that we didn’t think there was much time - a few months, at best.
But she reluctantly agreed to receive chemotherapy, after being urged that it would at least help to manage the discomfort, and slow the spread of the growths. Despite the terrible side effects following each session, the chemo did do its job, and bought us more time together. After 3 sessions though, my mother decided that she had had enough and was done - no more chemo. And so then, it became a waiting game.
We celebrated what we thought would be our last Christmas together as a family. My mother wore a festive new Christmas sweater that caught her eye at the local mall. It was red and white and said Merry Kissmas on it and made her laugh. “Ho-ho-ho” she would smile to the kids.
We started 2020, like many, full of positive expectations and hopes, but with a certain sadness and knowing that it was likely filled with a goodbye. And then, of course, the world stopped, for many months.
Because my mother lived alone in our childhood home in a different province, a 6 hour drive away, she spent the first 6 months of the pandemic completely alone and isolated in her home, with only the television and our phone calls as her connection to the outside world. Miraculously, her condition was stable during this time, and the only medical care she received was through the phone, as she refused the offer of a weekly in-home nurse visit. While she wasn’t good, she also wasn’t terrible, just in some brutal in-between purgatory state.
As late summer turned to fall, and we could visit again, she started to worsen. Her decline was so slow that it could only be observed by reflecting back on previous months and realizing that she could no longer do what she had been able to do a month ago.
My sister and I, who both lived in Toronto, took turns visiting her, first monthly, then every 3 weeks, then every 2. We hoped we could make it to another Christmas - and we did. But by this point, the pain was back - and came in episodic waves of intensity, as we helplessly tried to manage it with the prescribed medications and frantic calls to the doctors and nurses.
After the holidays were over, it seemed like - now what? There was no normal return to work and life scenario here. My mother clearly couldn’t care for herself, even though she insisted she could, and staunchly refused any idea of an outside caregiver coming into her home. Palliative care was not an option yet according to the doctors, as they felt she still had more than 2 months to live. And my mother had expressed her dying wish to pass in her home, no matter what. My sister and I were determined to grant her this wish, but it all just seemed so unimaginable.
So we undertook what seemed impossible. Taking turns shuttling between Montreal and Toronto, we became her full time primary caregivers. My sister, who was a teacher, had taken a leave of absence for the term and would stay 8 days, and then I would come for 4. This while trying to keep a business afloat while onboarding new team members in the midst of the next phase of the pandemic, trying to conceive of where new business opportunities could lie, given that a large part of our business was in an on-the-go category when no one was going anywhere. Add to that having 3 kids at home schooling virtually, and a household to uphold.
I have always considered myself highly spiritual, which for me means being consciously aware of my existence as more than my human body, and a belief in something greater than myself. But, during these interminable weeks, I questioned everything. More than that, I raged. I could not make sense of this situation and what possible good could come of it. I was certain that there was absolutely NO point to this suffering, NONE. That this time, if there was a God, then God got it wrong. We were ready to let her go, she was ready to go, she was suffering, we were suffering with her, what was the point here??
It is March 19th, 2021. The phone rings late Friday afternoon. My sister is calling me from my mother’s place in Montreal. I am just winding down from the work day, looking forward to the weekend. It’s my birthday weekend and I’m supposed to celebrate with a much needed one night getaway with my husband. “I just woke her up because she slept all afternoon. Something’s different. Her eyes are open but she’s staring off into space. Can I FaceTime you?”
My sister turns on the camera, and I see my mother with a faraway look in her eyes. I call to her, and slowly, ever so slowly, I see her eyes come into focus. “Cathy” she breathes. “Cathy.” In shallow breaths, she says “Take…care…of…your…business.”
I take that to mean that she doesn’t want me rushing over there to be with her, as she recognized in her lucid moments the burden that both my sister and I were carrying.
We exchange a few more words, and end the conversation, as we always do, with “I love you.”
By the time I arrive the next morning, she is in a waking coma.
It’s predawn on March 21st, 2021, and my mom has passed away peacefully in her sleep around 4am, with my sister, myself, and my niece by her side. She has transitioned in her home, just as she wanted. In the minutes after her death, there is a beautiful reverent stillness in the room, pregnant with sanctity. At the same time, a disbelief washes over me that this is finally over, and she is really gone. There is relief but also a terrible emptiness. Where has she gone, my Mommy?
Things start happening fast. The doctor, the relatives, the funeral home. Tomorrow is my birthday. I also have a new team member starting the same day, someone I am so hopeful about, and don’t want to be absent on her first day. I decide that I want to fly home that evening. We agree to leave everything as it is and go home for a few days until the funeral.
I book plane tickets, absently noting how cheap they are. My sister, niece and I find ourselves at the airport lounge by 7pm waiting for our flight, reveling in being able to sit in a restaurant and order food, an impossibility during these Covid times.
My sister is flipping through her phone, showing me photos and videos that she has taken over the last few months.
“This one” she says. “This is just before I called you. Do you want to see?” She plays the video, and it starts with my mother saying something in Korean, and then staring off into space. “What did she say?” I ask. My sister shrugs.
I play the syllables over and over in my head - and then suddenly, the words dawn on me. “Play it again!” I say. We watch it again. And then I hear it, her words in Korean. Translated, she says with muted surprise: “I guess I’m going now” and then lapses into a world that we cannot see. The only other telltale sign in the video is when she sighs and shakes her head, seemingly in amazement.
It feels like a gift that has been granted to us, reaching back out in space and time, a message that reveals to me that my mother is ok, more than ok, and I am bowled over by the perfection of it all. We sit in awe and wonder.
We board the plane and I head to the back of the plane, only to realize that I’ve passed my row. I look back and my sister is standing in the business class section. “You booked business class!” she exclaims. “No I didn’t”, I say. “They were cheap, much cheaper than usual.” But somehow, I did. We are the only ones in this section. We fly home, and start the journey of recovery from this exhausting and heartbreaking ordeal.
It has been an incredibly challenging year, not just because of what we went through with my mother, but seemingly one struggle after another.
But there is a word that keeps popping into my head, one that keeps me afloat. That word is grace. I do not and never will have all the answers. But when I surrender to what shows up in life, grace shows up too. And that alone is enough to restore my faith.
I wish you a healthy, and happy holiday with your loved ones, and may we always look for the beauty in life, even in our darkest moments.