September 26th

Today would have been my Mum’s 78th birthday.

As many of you know, she passed away from breast cancer (after keeping it at bay for an impressive forty-one years) in 2007.

I woke up, as I always do on this day, with her as my first thought and I was going to write this loving but no doubt tearful ode to her and her profound impact on my life. But it’s cold and rainy and bleak out, and I decided that she would much prefer I add some light to this day as opposed to just nourish the dark clouds.

So I’m going to tell you a story. The story of the very last conversation my mother and I had. Because it warms my heart. Hopefully it will warm yours as well.

She was in Hospice and I had been camped out with her in her room for the prior ten days. She had been spiraling down and I was, quite honestly, afraid to leave.

When I made the decision that I was going to stay with her 25/7 until the end, I asked her “Will my being here make it harder for you to go when the time comes?” She closed her eyes for a few moments and then said, “Perhaps…I don’t know. But let’s see.”

As it happens, she left this world the following day while I was in the community kitchen making myself some tea, so there’s the answer.

Anyway, my last conversation with my mother…

We had many discussions over the years on what happens after we die. Neither of us had really adhered to the Judeo-Christian ethic and both of us had very open minds when it came to global culture and belief systems. I tend toward the Agnostic with a bit of Eastern philosophy and Native American earthiness thrown in for good measure. Mum started out Jewish (as did I), somehow almost became a Catholic nun due to a torrid affair with a Priest (story for another day) and turned out an Atheist. Suffice to say, they were interesting discussions.

At one point when life was easy and she was healthy…and no doubt over a bottle of wine…during one such conversation, we had made a pact that whoever died first would, if indeed we carry on in some way after death, “haunt” the other – not in a scary way, but in a “hey guess what, there really IS an afterlife” kind of way, and we would do it in an unmistakable, undeniable manner that left absolutely zero doubt that it was us, and that we were somewhere watching over the other.

So, the conversation that day in Hospice began with my mother saying, rather out of the blue, “Well, I guess it’s going to be me doing the haunting.”

We both chuckled. What else could we do?

“Make it good,” I chimed in. “I mean, nothing subtle or polite, like you were in life. Be loud and unruly for once; make sure I know it’s you and not the wind, okay?”

She nodded, then dozed for a while. The humorous moment had come and gone.

I just sat there and watched her chest go up and down.

Eventually she opened her eyes and weakly patted the bed by her knees. I smiled and went to sit beside her. She took my hand. I looked down at it, frail and wrinkly and spotted with age, her paper-thin skin crinkled where my fingers intertwined with hers.

“It’s up to you to carry the torch now”, she said, and she somehow managed to look into my eyes with a momentary flare of strength and determination.

“I know,” I said. “I will.  Promise.”

“I know you will,” she whispered, “I know.” And her eyes fluttered closed again.

We sat there for several minutes like that. She would occasionally nod, pat my hand and mutter, “I know”.

My family came over from Russia in the early 1900’s. My grandfather, our patriarch, was born here in 1907, but his siblings were not. We are a tough, feisty, determined, stubborn, loud, emotive, take-no-shit kind of people who are intensely driven, sometimes to our detriment. In the typical old school European way, the men rule the roost. But in our family it was really the women who were the strong ones.

And man oh man, my mother and my aunt (who passed a year before and due to my mum being in and out of hospitals most of my life, had served as my second mother) were two of the strongest you’d ever want to meet. My aunt was a veritable juggernaut. My mother was a force of nature. If you knew either of them, you are nodding your head emphatically right now. These were the women who raised me.

Carry the torch.

Hers, my aunt’s, my grandmother’s…all of the women in my bloodline who came before.

Be strong yet always kind. Stand for what you believe yet keep an open mind. Speak your truth but always with respect.  Lead yet remain humble. Seek ever the high ground. Own every room you enter. Never forget your worth. Take nothing for granted.  Do not ever give up.  Live life on your own terms but always, always with honor and integrity.

The legacy of generations of stout, solid women with wide faces, wind blown cheeks, firm jawlines, penetrating eyes and colorful babushkas. Pointing with gnarled fingers.

At me.

I saw them, gathered around my mother’s bedside that day.

“All I ever wanted,” she had told me once, decades before from another hospital bed when she had thought the cancer was going to win, “was a daughter.”

When she dozed off and her grip released on my hand, I satisfied myself that she was breathing and went to make myself some Quietly Chamomile. When I came back, she had gone.

I opened the window so she could move on, lit a candle on the sill to show her the way, kissed her goodbye on the forehead and told her that I loved her and hoped to hear from her soon.

The room was silent. The starukha were gone.

It was just me now.  I took a deep breath and went to fetch the nurse.

That was five years ago now. Two weeks after her 73rd, and final, birthday.

So today, as I remember her, it is not with grief or sadness, for I am filled with thoughts of her life, not her death. I am making her immortal by sharing her with you. I am remembering her with a smile. With gratitude. With respect. With awe.

And with brightly burning torch firmly in hand.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. LimeTree
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 15:35:10

    This is beautiful! Made me cry.
    My mom also passed away due to cancer after 9 yrs battle. I imagine that your last conversation with her at her bedside was so liberating for her. To go in peace.
    Thank you for sharing your storie!

  2. LimeTree
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 15:38:08

    This is beautiful! Made me cry.
    My mom also passed away due to cancer after a 9 yrs battle.
    I imagine that your conversation at her bedside was very liberating to her. To go in peace.
    Thank you do much for sharing your story!

  3. Jotje
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 16:22:38

    This made me cry! Thank you for sharing your mum with us!!!

  4. stevemorton
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 19:14:29

    Thank you for sharing this. Both of my parents died before I could be with them. My Dad back in 2003, my Mum earlier this year.
    My dad and I shared the same birthday, so naturally we were very close and similar in character. What a birthday present I was for him in 1959!

  5. SNARLing
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 20:29:40

    beautiful. i feel like i know her. happy birthday mama zoe – my first teeny guiness old grand-dad filled glass of the evening goes to you! cin-cin! to legacy – on your terms

  6. thezeitgeistofzoe
    Sep 27, 2012 @ 15:14:02

    thanks to you all for reading & commenting. it meant a great deal to me and i know it did to me mum as well : ) oxo

  7. J
    Sep 27, 2012 @ 18:08:35

    Absolutely perfect. I’m so happy you got to be with your mom until the end and that she was able to share her final wishes with you. I know that torch is still blazing!

  8. weirdrockstar
    Oct 06, 2012 @ 19:44:05

    You gave your mother voice in the most beautiful way. You know, back in the days I used to work in a Hospice. It is usual that when a relative or a loved one ( the same thing, if you asked of me ) took a small breather, they left. Once one of the patients told me that she intends to do just that ” to make it easier for them “, to the ones who are left to carry the torch. It is astounding, how the sheer force of will continues to keep so many here on this life even if their bodies are completely used already. My own grandmother kicked a priest out from her deathbed and screamed at him that she will personally see him ( a young man ) die before she agrees to check out. Her doctors had no idea what was keeping her alive week after and other and another and so on… since she physiologically should not have been able to draw another breath. But her doctors didn´t know that with our Slavic heritage we love and live loud and fight even louder. But then, you know all this of course.
    And when she left she did so with a bang. People had clocks stopped, there was a fight at her funeral when one of my aunts punched the other one unconscious and then locked her in the linen closet. The same priest who got kicked out of her deathbed was in a great deal of rush to check out from her funeral since the going got feisty. We told him that this is how we mourn.

  9. thezeitgeistofzoe
    Oct 17, 2012 @ 12:45:36

    wow, what an awesome story! sounds like we might be related ; ) in my family we have a saying, “no one tells a __________ when to die”.

    thanks for the awesome comment!!

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