I Cried My Mother’s Tears

Excerpt from forthcoming memoir by Abigail Somma. Copyright 2019

Throughout college and into early adulthood, I had the same boyfriend; a noble, decent and reliable guy. To anyone looking from the outside in, it would seem that the next logical step in our romance was a wedding. My mother surprised me one day in the latter part of our courtship by spontaneously announcing that she would not babysit my future children.

“Don’t expect me to watch your children,” she said unprompted.

“Ummm, I don’t have any children,” I replied with a fair degree of snark. One could imagine my mother presumed that fairly soon my guy and I would tie the knot and she’d be saddled with the role of chief babysitter, just as she was trying to free herself from the longstanding, persistent burdens of her own mothering journey. She must have been unaware that marriage was not on my mind; that I also had a deep yearning to be free and unattached.  

Nearing ten years later, at a time when I was more ready for such a life stage, there were no grandchildren anywhere in sight, no prospects for any grandchildren, and neither of us felt all that great about it. My mother lamented not having the opportunity to build that bond with a child and feeling left out of conversations where her sisters and friends shared cute and quirky anecdotes. She told me she had missed out on what should have been the great joy of her 50s – grandparenting – something that provided meaning for most of her friends in the second half of their lives.

In response, and surely irritated by the pressure, I reminded her of the stinging words she had said so many years before. “Don’t you remember? You don’t want to watch my children?”

My mother said it was cruel for me to bring up her fateful declaration so many years later.  Wasn’t she allowed to make a mistake, she wondered, to say something she would later regret?

 Not long after, she was gone. She would never hold a grandchild.

***

Many of us get the call at some point in our lives – the call we hope never comes; the one that bears information we don’t want to hear; that will change our lives forever. In my case, it was a text message from my brother: “Call home. It’s serious” and “serious” meant the beginning of the end of my mother’s life. Some swelling in her abdomen prompted a doctor’s appointment, and she left the hospital with the paradoxical information that even though she felt reasonably well, she was actually very sick.

When I called home as instructed by my brother’s cryptic text, my mother told me what the doctor had told her: she had advanced stage melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. The delivery of such a dramatic, gutting message almost always leaves its residue on the brain: you remember where you were standing; who stood next to you; what you were doing. I stood on the corner of 42nd St and 2nd Ave in New York City, next to a younger colleague, cell phone clutched to my ear. Through tears I told my mother that I was prepared.

 “You are?” she asked surprised.

This life-altering, life-ending news must have come as such a shock to her that she couldn’t possibly imagine how I could be prepared. But in the way a crisis worker is prepared for a crisis, I was prepared; ready to spring into action, to move home, to sleep at the hospital, to take care of her, to go the distance. In my heart, I always knew that the metaphoric – or literal – call eventually comes and I was ready. 

So move home I did. Within weeks, I had organized a sublettor for my apartment and arranged to finish work assignments from my parents’ house. I packed a suitcase full of clothing, headed to the Port Authority bus station and boarded a coach that would leave me a few miles from where my parents lived, a bright and sunny cottage-like dwelling nestled in the woods of Northeast Pennsylvania.

The spring was unusually warm that year and when I arrived, it already felt like the hottest days of summer. The rooms were filled with sunlight, and the mood was cautious but not despairing. With our whole family gathered around, my mother seemed to take some small pleasure in being on the other side of caregiving: for once, she wasn’t the one tending, soothing, offering support. During those early days, we were naively hopeful about her diagnosis. Maybe this would be a turning point; the moment when everything changes for the better; the dawning of a great epiphany that liberates the caged soul. How could we know that a few months later, she would be lying in bed thrashing about, gasping for those last little sips of air before her light was extinguished?   

In the absence of such foresight and fueled by naïve hope’s motivational power, my family dove into manic care-taking mode. Before long, my parents’ home was filled with books, supplements, super foods and overpriced kitchen appliances. In the face of death, nothing seemed too outlandish or implausible. My sister smudged our mother with sage, while I hauled her to an acupuncturist, counselor and even took the poor woman to cleanse her colon. In an attempt at pain management (and considering she had never tried it) we baked our mother brownies with marijuana; and notwithstanding the inconsistency, I began to torment her at mealtimes with unappetizing platters of raw food. As I handed her a plate of avocados and tomatoes for breakfast, she looked at me like, “really?” Yes, I smiled in return: your processed muffin days are over. We even convinced her that dance therapy was an important part of recovery, so she pulled herself out of the chair to shake around the living room with my sisters and I. My mother was brave, bemused and willing to try it all.

In the evenings and before afternoon naps, I sat at her bedside and read until her weary body gave way to sleep. My reading selection invariably leaned toward the spiritual genre and a favorite was Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love, a book about asking for miracles that change the asker, not the situation: “In asking for miracles, we are seeking a practical goal: a return to inner peace. We're not asking for something outside us to change, but for something inside us to change. We're looking for a softer orientation to life.” When my mother’s energy eventually gave out, she would offer one or two words to close the session – “thank you” or “lovely” or “beautiful” – and then she would roll over and fall asleep. Sleeping, she would later tell me, was the only time she felt any true peace; it was total reprieve from the pains of her sentence.

Eventually, and far sooner than we could have imagined, the hope that buoyed the early days faded into grim reality. The chemotherapy wasn’t working and in fact, only hastening her decline. The well-intended smudging and colonics weren’t going to extend her life in any meaningful way, and the raw food was just depriving her of the few pleasures she had left. Test results began coming back unfavorably, but the future was evident in her daily decline. If I had known how short the time was, how great the suffering, how useless the attempts, I would have gladly given her hundreds of processed muffins. 

 Spring had scarcely become summer before it was time to speak about what was coming next.

 ”I don’t believe death is the end,” I told her.

“Neither do I.”

“Will you send us a sign?”

 “Yes. But no birds.”  

***