Left In The Dark

Martina Cole was born and raised in Austria. After the death of her mother, she was placed with family. After high school graduation, she enrolled in a ten month college program in the Bay Area. Having gone through the loss of a parent, the elusiveness of the remaining parent and paying for “the sins of her mother” at her aunt’s home, she saw a new life, a new beginning that America offered. She now lives in Sacramento with her husband of eight years.

When I was ten years old, I remember standing in the kitchen with my mother, a beautiful 31 year old woman, cutting onions and talking about her upcoming surgery and hospital stay. I could not understand why my mother would be gone for such a long time, staying in the hospital, but I knew, deep down, that it was not good. So I told her I did not want her to go. When she asked me why, I answered, “Because I am afraid you will not come back.”

She came back and went back over and over again for the next three years, completely shattering my life as I knew it up to that point. Nobody in my family saw fit to explain what my mother’s ailment was. There was a family meeting where it was decided to just not tell me. The first surgery took out my mother’s uterus, both ovaries and two lymph nodes. She had a huge scar, stretching from her navel to her pelvis. She was limited in physical activity, but it looked like the surgery was a success, and she would recover. Suddenly, the extended hospital stays started again. She came home with a bag attached to her side to collect her feces. She had a furry tongue from all of the medication. The removed lymph nodes seemed to have been doing the majority of the work since now, in their absence, my mother’s leg was swollen to the point of bursting. She was unable to walk and had to sit in a wheelchair. I was suddenly in charge of grocery shopping, cleaning, helping my mother towel off after a shower and tending to her when she was laying in bed. All without explanation. This became my new normal.

Silhouette of mom with a hat on and the child she's carrying. They're standing in water in fading light during sunset

Then one day, my grandfather was visiting and my mother was in her room changing her bag when suddenly, from a seemingly small cut, dark red blood welled out near the attachment location of said bag. My grandfather called the ambulance and went outside to meet it while I stayed with my mother in her bed. All I knew at that time was that when someone is bleeding profusely, you cannot let them fall asleep so I spent the next twenty minutes asking her silly questions. When did you learn to play tennis? Why do you like it so much? What is your favorite car? Stupid, mundane questions, asked out of sheer terror and panic.

The EMTs arrived and carried her out in a stretcher. I followed in my socks, hell bent on being in the ambulance with her. But they stopped me. My grandfather had the presence of mind to get my shoes and lock up the house. We followed the ambulance to the hospital but were not permitted to see my mother. They asked us to come back later in the day. That evening, my grandparents and I went back to the hospital. Again, I was not allowed to see my mother. She is sedated, I was told. We stood in the hallway, forming a circle around the doctor, the grownups talking about things that made my head spin when my grandmother asked if she could visit my mother the next morning. The doctor looked at her and said, “I am not sure she will survive the night …” I heard nothing else after that. Although I’d been raised to never interrupt adults, I couldn’t help blurting out, “Excuse me, but did you just say that my mother is going to die!!!???” The doctor looked at me with pity and surprise. Someone else confirmed this, I cannot remember who but I took off running down the long hallway until I found a bench on which I collapsed and broke into heavy sobs. My grandfather, who was my favorite person in the whole world, appeared next to me and attempted to hug and comfort me, but I just couldn’t … I was so angry and upset.

That night, I was picked up by my uncle who took me home with him to his wife and two kids. I spent the night there, and when I woke up in the morning, I was informed that my mother had passed during the night. I had no words, no reaction. My uncle said I could stay home from school, but even if I didn’t know much then, I knew that was the last thing I wanted to do — be alone, all day long, in a place I was unfamiliar with, no friends around. I insisted on going to school. Since I was late to class, I had to go up front to tell the teacher why and what had happened. She was shocked, and her reaction finally brought the tears.

The words In Loving Memory are written in sandstone with a small bouquet of flowers on the left just above the "L" in loving

My life changed overnight. Decisions had to be made, bags had to be packed, then there was the funeral … all of it a blur. Three years later, I still found myself laying in bed, telling myself that my mother would return from the hospital soon. But she never did again …

This happened in 1992, and while writing this entry, thick tears rolled down my face because it never stops hurting. Regardless of what people tell you, it never stops hurting. You find a way to live with it, and after some time (for me, it was over ten years!!), you can actually tell the story without crying, but the pain never goes away.

To this day, I cannot forgive my family for deciding to leave me in the dark. Yes, I was only ten years old BUT, my uncle worked in cancer research. I knew what cancer was. I understood that it could be deadly. And still, they decided not to tell me. Please don’t do this to your kids. Even if they cannot grasp the severity or fully understand the implications and consequences, at least they will not be as unprepared as I was.

I had no idea my mother could die from this. I had no idea she had cancer. I just didn’t know. I would have handled somethings differently while she was alive if I had known that any day could be her last. For example, I was doing homework in my room when my mother called me. Being used to having to help her, bring her food or drinks or whatever she needed, I immediately headed into her room. When I asked her what she needed, she said, “Nothing. I just want to cuddle with you.” Since she had that bag on the side of her stomach, she smelled really bad, and I was in no mood to get that smell all up in my face so I answered, “I am doing my homework. I don’t have time for this.” I left the room without hugging her. This was a mere few weeks before she passed. I hated myself for so very long for this. I hated that I wasn’t there, holding her hand when she passed. I hated my aunt for getting that chance. I was so angry for so long at my family and the world, and it cost me so much. I refuse to have kids today because I never want to do this to my kids. And because after my mom died, I lost the love for life. I am not suicidal by any means, but I do look forward to the end, when I will be reunited with my mom. She was an angel on earth. She was kind, loving, generous, fun and always there for everyone. She was a great mom, and she would have been my best friend. I miss her still.

A ceramic heart sitting on a wooden table. The outer heart is painted blue; the middle heart is painted green and the smallest heart is painted yellow.

If you have experienced a loss, you know what I am talking about. You know that the world doesn’t stop to mourn with you. You know that anything anyone tries to tell you to comfort you will not ever be enough, and you know that no matter what you feel (sadness, anger, hurt, pain), nobody will ever feel it the way you do. You deserve whatever time you need, and you should take it without feeling guilty. But you should also know that life will go on, eventually, and the only thing you can do to truly honor your loved one’s memory is to be strong, move on with your life and be the best YOU you can be.

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