The kindest and most meaningful thing that anyone ever says to me is: Your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother. It has been the greatest salve to my sorrow. Cheryl Strayed
You would be turning 99 this October. A very great age, as you used to say, and yet 99 is still three years short of the age you intended to reach. With both Dad and your mother living to be 102 years old, how could you not expect to get there, too? After all, you had just embarked on your latest project – reading a biography of every president. When you died six years ago at the age of 92, I found biographies of George Washington, John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson on your desk.
You tried to warn me a few months earlier that our time together might be drawing to a close, but like the willful child I could sometimes be, I refused to hear you, rejecting the idea that there wasn’t another treatment option to try if the experimental trial drug didn’t work. You had lived with polycythemia vera for more than fifteen years by then, giving no sign that the rare blood disorder was getting in the way of what you wanted to do.
Your health had markedly declined over the past year, but after each hospitalization, you defied the doctors’ expectations, returning to live on your own in the cheerful green San Jose house I grew up in and reclaiming the activities you loved so much – twice a week strength training, memoir writing and watercolor classes, lunch with friends, driving yourself around town.
There was nothing about that final hospital stay or the daily conversations with the hematologist that gave any hint you wouldn’t recover fully, just as you had before. Despite being anemic, constipated by the pain meds and bedridden for a week, you gently pushed me aside with your left hand when I tried to take the lead with the doctors. Sitting upright in the lumpy hospital bed, spine straight, voice steady, you made it clear to everyone in the room who was in charge.
A few days later, when I brought you home, you urged me to return to Sacramento, saying that Dan and Molly needed me, assuring me that all you needed was a little rest and you would be fine. Before I left, I made you promise that you wouldn’t send your caregiver Alga home after a few hours as you had in the past.
Picking up the phone in my home office a few days later, I was taken aback to hear the hematology nurse introduce herself. Her concern about your skyrocketing white blood cell count was justified, but why was she calling me? Before your last hospital stay, I had never even spoken to your doctor as you had handled all things medical yourself. Hadn’t you just seen the doctor that morning? And why had he let you leave without a phlebotomy to knock down your platelet and red blood cell counts and prevent a stroke?
Finally, the nurse’s message, that there was nothing left to do, got through.
“Are you trying to tell me that my mother is dying?”
She backpedaled. I pressed harder.
“Yes,” she finally said. “Your mother is dying.”
“How long do we have?”
“Weeks, maybe months. I thought you should know.”
Stunned, I hung up the phone without remembering to ask if the doctor had told you.
Molly found me a few minutes later, staring out the window, tears streaming down my cheeks.
“Is it Nana? Is she back in the hospital?”
“No .. she’s dying.”
“Oh, Mom …” Molly hugged me hard. As I leaned into her embrace, I realized I didn’t believe the nurse. Mom was tougher than that.
I left the next morning for the three hour drive to San Jose. When I’d called the night before, you had been too tired to come to the phone but Alga reassured me that you were eating and resting comfortably. The minute I saw you, I knew you were dying. The color was gone from your face, and your eyes looked vacant. I could tell it had taken every ounce of your strength to await my arrival sitting up in Dad’s old wheelchair. When you saw me, your face lit up. You reached out your soft, delicate hand to me, saying, “Oh Margo. You’re here. I love you.” Then you asked Alga to help you into bed. Twenty-four hours later, you were gone.
That night, I wandered the dark, quiet house unable to sleep. Feeling your presence everywhere, aching to hear your voice. Running my hands over the colorful, leather bound books. Rifling through your sketch books and piles of watercolor paintings. Opening binders full of your carefully typed essays about our family, reading passages rich with details from your years of genealogy research. Looking for signs that you knew your departure was imminent.
Nothing was hard to find. Like the trained librarian you were, everything was catalogued, alphabetized, indexed. The checkbook, bank statements, trust documents and computer passwords were right where you had showed me a few years earlier when you insisted I needed to know “just in case.” I poured over your emails, your daily planner, the notes on your desk, searching for an answer to my most burning questions: Did you know you were dying? If you did, why didn’t you tell me?
We’d always been close, even during the teen years. A curious kid, I would eavesdrop around the corner like Harriet the Spy as you and Dad discussed the latest family uproar, popping in mid-conversation to ask for clarification or more details. Having grown up in a family that exchanged secrets in the closet, you answered patiently my barrage of questions patiently instead of dodging them. Infidelity, contentious divorces, bankruptcy, bitter estrangements … nothing was off limits. You worked hard to preserve the family, even when the venom was aimed at you. You believed in seeing the gray and forgiving mistakes, teaching me that perfection was a recipe for discontent and unhappiness.
During the final decade of your life, we bickered more than we ever had. Never about the big things but about which size red pepper was sweeter, what brand of coffee was richer in flavor, why Persian cucumbers were better than the larger American slicing cucumbers I defiantly put in the cart, even though you were treating me to the groceries. Worn down by the stress of parenting a child with cancer and later by my misery after his death, I was quick to get irritated by your frequent, persistent suggestions.
Driving home from coffee with one of my friends during one of your frequent visits, I was startled when you said suddenly, “Well, I guess she’s just one of those fuzzy headed liberals ..” I rounded on you instantly. “How dare you say that about one of my friends. You like her. Besides, you would never say something like that about one of your friends.”
“I would, too. We joke around like that. You’re so sensitive.”
“I am not. And I don’t believe you. I don’t think you would speak that way about someone you cared about.”
You cried. I apologized.
Over the next few years, this pattern repeated itself. Out of the blue, you would make a disparaging comment or poke fun at someone or something I cared about. I would react harshly, rocking you back on your heels with the heat of my criticism, often making you cry, behavior I remain ashamed of even now. I attributed this odd behavior to your advancing age and a resulting loss of filter, neglecting to consider that your intermittently sharp tongue might stem from the pain or pressure of your swelling spleen or the reduced oxygen flow from your ever-rising blood counts. You had been my rock, my safe harbor for more than 40 years. Wrapped up in my own pain, I failed to realize how much you were grieving, not just the cancer diagnosis and death of your grandson but the shattering of your beloved only child’s life.
I am a slow, defiant learner, and it’s taken me years to see the wisdom of your gentle advice. You were right about so much – the mini peppers and the coffee, the freedom that comes from forgiveness and the way being kind to someone who is being cruel allows you to let it go without feeling the need to be mean in return. I understand why you never stopped fighting for family reconciliations, even though I will never agree about the need to preserve relationships based solely on their place on the family tree. I don’t know that I will ever be able to offer others grace the way you did, but I am learning from you still. I wish that you were here so I could tell you all about it. I think you would be proud.