I slept through the night at 6 weeks old and was also started on rice cereal and puréed pears at the same time.
I had breast milk for 2 months and then formula.
I had cereal, fruit, and fruit juices at 2 months old.
I had vegetables and meat at 3 months old, and ham seemed to upset my stomach.
I smiled and relaxed if someone stroked my head when I was 6 months old.
I only know these things because my mother kept a baby book for me until I was about 9 months old. I’m sure as I—her third and last child—got more mobile, she stopped filling in the missing pieces.
She has been gone for almost 8 years now. Just writing that still makes me catch my breath; tears well up and I feel the tightening in my chest.
I miss her.
September in the United States is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month. Ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed later in the disease because many of the symptoms—nonspecific, like weight loss, loss of appetite, and gastrointestinal issues—are absent in the early stages and overlooked in more advanced stages. My mother was diagnosed at Stage 4 after emergency surgery that resulted in tumor debulking and a hysterectomy. She and I had not been close prior to that surgery. Unfortunately, it took preparing for her immediate death to change our relationship. As she recovered in her hospital room, I visited every day. Sometimes we would talk, but every time, I massaged her feet. She said that I was always welcome because she didn’t have to do anything other than be. I wrote her a letter in which I apologized that we hadn’t been closer, that I was letting go of my anger with her about things in the past—things neither of us could change now. She read the letter while I rubbed her feet and then she promised me, “Things will never be the same between us again.” They weren’t. Our relationship became something that I had always wanted—a close bond with frequent contact.
I secretly, selfishly sobbed throughout my sister’s wedding many years ago because I knew my mom wouldn’t be able to attend my wedding, see my children. After a while, I decided to celebrate with my mom the experiences she would get to have. My mom and I were both present when my sister’s first daughter was born. Tears of happiness erupted uncontrollably when my niece joined the world, unlike anything I had experienced before. I listened as my mother would update me on my nephew’s little league games. She was an amazing grandmother to my nieces and nephew. She loved being a grandmother.
She would have fallen in love with my girls, too.
While I didn’t have my own children yet, I observed what it meant to be a mother during the six years that I helped take care of her—from the viewpoint as both her child and as an adult.
She was fierce. Despite a dire prognosis at the outset, she lived years longer than expected. She held hope in her heart and hands, with the mantra to “believe in the miracle.” Hope can be a loaded concept, but I relied on it and the hope others held for me on our journey to have our girls.
She was protective. Even as we cared for her in hospice, she didn’t want to burden us with her fears and pain, no matter how much I begged her to share her fears and told her that it was okay. Except the one time when she talked about how she wasn’t ready to go yet. She thought she would live longer. The fear, the anxiety, the sadness about leaving a life she wasn’t ready to relinquish is a conversation I still carry around with me. As clearly as I remember holding her hand during those last days.
She was loving. We never ended a phone call without saying, “I love you,” and we never parted without saying it while hugging.
She was the heart of our family. We came together for dinners, celebrating holidays and birthdays. They were almost always at her house, as close to the center of our individual families as we were going to get. She kept us tightly knit and we unraveled after she left us.
She was my cheerleader. She watched me suffer with depression since I was a teenager. She always wanted me to go on medication but I couldn’t—I got a healthy dose of her stubbornness, and I saw medication as defeat. She supported me when I decided to leave teaching for pharmacy. She yelled with delight when I got into the University of California, San Francisco, for my PharmD. She breathed a sigh of relief then, feeling like I would be okay when she was gone.
She was my best friend. I spent much of my summer vacations from teaching being with her after her diagnosis. She would have more surgeries. She would have several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. I saw this as my time to help take care of her and talk with her. Yet I didn’t talk to her about what it would be like if I had children, what I should know, how things were with me. I didn’t prepare myself to be a motherless mother—I was having too much difficulty just being a motherless daughter. Maybe she knew that I wouldn’t put my life in a forward motion while she was still alive. I tried to will time to move as slowly as possible, since she lived on borrowed time. Often times, we just sat quietly together—some of the best moments of my life.
She is my inspiration for the kind of mother I want to be. I remember and celebrate the very best of her, while being cognizant that she was very much human with human faults. She didn’t always know how to make everyone happy but, more importantly, knew that she couldn’t make everyone happy and accepted it.
She passed away thinking that I might never get married, never have children—but while she was alive, I wasn’t going to do those things because I spent so much of my time with her. I knew the time of our parting would be coming sooner than I wanted, and spending time with her became my priority. It would be years after she died before I would be ready for my husband and our journey.
Sometimes I daydream about what things would be like if she were still here. I imagine her holding my girls and talking to them. I think about spending Christmas with her and the rest of my extended family. I imagine her hands holding my girls’ hands. As the days go by, I look down at my own hands and see hers more and more.
Based on her example, I keep fastidious notes for my girls in their own baby books. Maybe I am worried that I will leave them before I am ready, too.