CW: death, death of a parent, cancer, mental health, care-taking, crisis
I don’t remember very much about the summer I was fourteen except that I did backstage crew for Les Miserables put on by the Burlington Student Theatre Arts Camp. I’ve always measured my life through association with whatever show I was working on at the time. I also spent a lot of time that summer sitting on the back deck with my mom in the backyard of the house I grew up in surrounded by flowers, two Japanese Maples, and the pond that mom was constantly re-creating. We would read trashy, secondhand, paperback novels (V.C. Andrews for me, Nora Roberts for her) that smelled of coffee and mildew and eat sweets alongside our vanilla tea.
It was a time in my life where I was discovering the constant ache that is clinical depression and generalized anxiety (and everything that comes along with it). Ever the researcher, my younger self took to the internet and then the library for something to describe what I had been going through for the last few years. I wanted so badly to understand. To be honest, none of the psychology books ever came as close to describing what I was going through as My Chemical Romance did.
The week before I started grade nine, I was sitting at the kitchen table with our freshest secondhand book store scores, waiting while Mom finished preparing our teas. She was talking to me about something casual and nondescript that I can’t remember anymore. She kept losing her train of thought and stumbling over her words, something she had been doing a lot lately. We had chalked it up to “fibro fog”, a common symptom of fibromyalgia, which she had been diagnosed with for years. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had been struggling to read all summer, and most of the time I had spent sitting on the back porch with her, she had simply been pretending to read and enjoying sitting beside me.
She started to sob in frustration. She couldn’t remember my name.
“Green…green, I can’t…”
It was rare to see my mother like this. She was a woman who shared a lot with me, but who always tried to spare my brother and I the extent to which she struggled with chronic pain and fatigue. It was a struggle I wouldn’t fully understand for a few more years. The night before, when I had been in my room, I had heard her scream at Dad and throw a plate at him. This wasn’t like her at all, and I knew something was off.
Since I had been researching my own struggles with mental health, I recognized her sudden change in behaviour and cognition as signs of a potential mental healthy crises. I had read about this. I knew what to do.
Dad and my brother were at some hockey thing or some golf thing. So I called my mom’s sister at work and said, “Something is wrong with mom. I need you to come pick us up and take us to the hospital.”
Mom sat at the kitchen table and cried. “Green,” she pleaded with me.
“Everything is going to be okay. We are going to get you some help,” I told her. I didn’t cry.
My aunt arrived and assessed the situation, agreeing with me that something was wrong. She called our family doctor and asked him to meet us at the hospital, and we drove there. They admitted her, and then I don’t remember very much more until the next day, when I came to bring mom a laptop and some O.C. DVDs. I think it was Dad who told me that the scans had come back, and the doctors had found a brain tumour on a part of Mom’s brain that affected language and emotional regulation. They were going to do surgery the following week, and once they had removed the tumour, they would do a biopsy to see whether the tumour was malignant or benign. There was hope that this would all be over in a week. Maybe Mom’s fibromyalgia would even be cured, who knew. Mom, who had always smoked, immediately quit, cold turkey. I took the cigarettes from the top drawer of the hospital cabinet, sat in Mom’s bathroom upon getting home, and smoked my first cigarette.
I remember going to all of my classes a few days into grade nine and explaining to my teachers that I would be keeping my ringer on my phone, and that I would leave the classroom immediately if it went off because my mother was having brain surgery and it was important for me to be able to handle potential crisis. Mom deserved that from me.
My phone didn’t go off during class, but when I exited the front door of my new school that day, Dad was there to pick me up, even though we only lived a fifteen minute walk away. I already knew what he was going to tell me, I had known since the moment I had heard the words “brain tumour”. It was malignant. It was also in her lungs and adrenal glands. I had lived with chronic nightmares and the seemingly unfounded belief that my mother would die from cancer when I was fifteen, and that premonition I had chalked up to anxiety was coming true.
For the next year and a half, I watched my beautiful, intelligent, opinionated, creative mother die. She fought, never wanting to believe that the cancer would kill her. After her brain surgery, she lived through radiation and chemo. I used to go sit with her during chemo while we marathoned crappy t.v. shows. I wish I had known more about cannabis at the time, but I had chosen to stay completely sober upon learning about her diagnosis. She needed me more than I wanted to learn to party, but I often think now that maybe cannabis could have helped her.
She went to all of my brother’s hockey games for that first year. Bundled up, makeup fully done, she was there. She had begged the brain surgeon to spare as much of her hair as possible while he removed the tumour, but shortly after starting chemo, she bought a beautiful wig that looked a lot like her hair had been, but thicker, which she was pleased about. She laid in bed while I sang to her and begged me to tell her it will be okay, just like I had as a kid when she was mourning the loss of her own mother to cancer.
“It will be okay, mama”.
A lot happened that year. I started getting really into going to shows. I fell in love. I joined choir and band. I watched my friends struggle with their relationships with their mothers and learned to cherish mine, even though it was hard and the brain tumour came back shortly after the surgery, so she still couldn’t speak fluently or regulate her emotions. It was really hard, and I have had to work hard to forgive myself for being wrapped in my own life as much as I was and not spending even more time with her.
Mom died at 3:00 a.m., January 1, 2007, which was four days before my sixteenth birthday. I gave a eulogy at her funeral, and I didn’t cry. I often feel spirits around me, but almost never hers. Ten years without her, I am still learning to own the affect losing her has had on me and learning to celebrate her life, even though I only remember bits and pieces of her from before she got sick. I wish I had gotten to know her more. I wish I remembered the sound of her voice. Sometimes though, I hear the sound of her wedge heels and catch glimpses of her when I look at my own legs or in my face when I do full theatre makeup.