A deeply personal account of my own struggle losing my mother to cancer. These brief words were offered as support to family members and friends of patients who had lost their lives due to illness and other causes. They were provided as part of a memorial service that took place at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton on May 9, 2013. I share these words here for those who might find benefit in them.
Faith has not always meant so much to me. In fact, there are times in my life where I just didn’t know what to believe. All I know is that I felt angry at God along with sadness and grief. Perhaps this is all just part of the journey of faith or perhaps just the journey of life. Or, at least that’s how I have experienced it. However, my mother had always been very vocal about her faith. Growing up, there was not a day that would go by when I would not hear her passionately singing aloud her daily prayers; she bore her faith so eloquently.
I can recall times when I would be coming home from school and she would stop me on the way in, asking me questions about God or religion. And, I would say, “aww mom, not now”. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about God or religion at that time. So, I would just walk away.
This continued up to and until about fifteen years ago when I was still in high school. At that time, my mother was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer: leiomyo sarcoma. I have one brother and three sisters and we all reacted differently to the news. Most of my family responded with a strong sense of support, but I just couldn’t handle it. At the time I just didn’t know what I could do. So, I pretended like there was nothing going on.
I increased my time with friends and I tried to find ways to forget what was going on at home. However, wherever I went I brought my sorrow with me. And, overtime, as my mother’s condition became more apparent I tried harder to absent myself from my household. And, to pretend even more like nothing was going on. Still, from a distance I could see that my mother was putting on the fight of her life: the greatest fight.
Now, the doctors couldn’t promise her much time, but with determination to see her children grow up—myself, my younger sister, and my other siblings—she continued to move forward into chemotherapy; even finding other alternative means of treatment. Yet, I still couldn’t bear seeing her struggle. I couldn’t bear even with the thought that I might be losing my mother.
Eventually my mother’s deteriorating health forced her to stay at home in a hospital bed which we had placed for her in our family room. It was at this time that I knew I could not hide anymore; for her deteriorating health was just too apparent. I soon began to anxiously feel like I needed to talk to her before it was too late. However, I was too shy and uncomfortable to voice my concerns in front of anyone else but her. So, I needed to talk to her alone.
Well, one evening, I had the chance I was waiting for. Everyone else was busy doing other things and my mom was alone in the family room. And, fearing that this might be the last chance that I would have to talk to her alone, I went to be with her.
When I entered the room, I saw her lying down there in her hospital bed. She had lost such an incredible amount of weight and she appeared just so very weak. I stood there staring with a loss of words for what probably was but a few moments but felt like so much longer. She looked back at me, smiling, which made me feel a genuine warmness from her.
I don’t recall if any words were said at that time,because I was so caught up in thinking about what it is I wanted to say to her. Finally, the words I couldn’t hold back any longer: I looked at her and I said, “Mom, I love you”.
And, perhaps, realizing why I had chosen that moment to say those words, she looked back at me, her smile widened, and with as much strength as she could, she leaned forward and she said to me, “Its alright. Its okay. Everything is going to be alright.”
And, when she said this, I didn’t experience any naivety in her voice, or in her words; any sense of denial of what is was that she was facing at that time. In fact, most surprisingly, I felt in her “its okay, its alright” a deep acceptance of the condition that she was in. And, that no matter what would happen, she would be alright and so would I.
Still, later I retreated back to my bedroom, to the seclusion of my room. I still tried to pretend that there was nothing going on outside my door; nothing going on inside my house; nothing to worry about. But my denial and isolation was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was my younger sister; she was so strong. She came up to tell me that my mother had passed away.
I believe I must have gone downstairs to confirm it for myself, but I don’t remember it. My memories just go back to the funeral thereafter. She had so many friends, so many people that came out. I was in high school at that time. I felt uncomfortable receiving everyone’s condolences. But, I was comforted when I saw the tears in their eyes and I saw that they were experiencing what I was experiencing: grief, loss, hurt.
I can’t remember many of their words, honestly. I remember mostly their faces and how they made me feel. However, there was one person’s words, in fact the only words that I remember from that day. Those were the words of the priest who was speaking at my mother’s funeral.
She was Catholic. And, after everyone had come up to share a little bit about what they remember about my mother: memories, attributes. The priest made a remark that has stuck with me since. He said, “Think of something about Wanda (my mother), some special quality of hers, and place that in yourself and let that be her living legacy.”
At that moment I knew exactly what I wanted most of my mother’s. I wanted her strength and at that time I needed it. She had such strength in battling life’s difficulties, so much strength in her greatest battle, so much to live life the way that she felt she should. And I knew that strength came from her faith.
So, those words inspired me upon my life’s journey to seek to obtain my mother’s strength. And, although since I, myself, have found a faith other than my mother’s, I seek now to live it with as much strength and passion as she did her own.
And that, for me, is living her legacy.
I share now these words with you. Not because I imagine it will be the same quality, or because the story is similar. But, because I think they are good words and good advice.
That whatever quality, skill, sense of humour, characteristic, or duty that your loved one performed that you feel like you can take into yourself and carry on: I invite you to let that be their living legacy.