Becoming a Mom while Losing a Mom

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My mom bringing me home from the hospital after being born on Mother’s Day 38 years ago

My mom’s favorite thing to say to me was that I was the best Mother’s Day gift she could ever imagine. It was 38 years ago that my mom became a mom on Mother’s Day, forever intertwining my birthday with the holiday.  Losing my mom to cancer a little over seven years ago while becoming a mom myself means Mother’s Day for me will always be a little complicated. Last year on Mother’s Day, after years of not being able to find the words to express the experience of losing a mom while becoming a mom myself, I was able to write the below. I am sharing it this year with the hope that it can bring some comfort to those mothers and others who have experienced a similar devastating loss.  My mom will always remain my inspiration for how I raise my own daughters, my love for hosting and continuously giving to others.

Like many others who face the same fate, my mom’s diagnosis of stage IV cancer came as a complete shock to everyone. Over the course of fifteen months we watched her athletic, beautiful body begin to wither away, waited for her to find that peace you imagine might come with death, literally watched her fight her diagnosis till her very last breath.  But, something else happened in those fifteen months; six years ago, I made my mom a grandma with the birth of my daughter. She literally lived to see my daughter being born and me, become a mom for the first time.  Using every last bit of her strength she flew from Chicago to New York to be in the delivery room with me and my husband. She stood for eight hours straight while I was in labor, distracting me with stories, tickling my arm and rubbing my back. She told me it was one of the best moments of her life and it was mine too.

Just as I welcomed my beautiful daughter into this world, we started saying goodbye to my mom. Although something I only realize now about watching someone you love die, is that you never really get to say goodbye, at least not in our case. We were so focused on the moment, trying to help her cope with pain, trying to figure out why she was in pain, trying to help her forget the pain.  The day I brought my daughter home to Brooklyn from a hospital downtown, we admitted my mom to the emergency room uptown where she would stay for a week needing emergency surgery to remove a tumor the doctors had found was causing her pain. She ended up having to stay in New York for two more weeks, unable to fly home – something in a normal life I would have dreamed of – having my mom so close to help me take care of my newborn, teaching me the ways of motherhood, helping with cooking, laundry, calming my new mom anxieties. Yet, here I was taking my precious newborn to keep my mom company in her bed, lying by her side rubbing her back, taking short catnaps together, letting her snuggle my daughter and smell her newborn skin. During those dark and depressing days my daughter brought us so much joy, was such a welcome distraction to the reality of our situation. The saddest I ever recall seeing my mom, was when she asked to hold my eight day old daughter, smaller than a football, realizing she barely had the strength left to do it herself.

My mom would live for three more months after my daughter was born. Of course at the time, we had no idea how much time she had left, you never do. She was living at home but still being treated with radiation to subdue her pain. As soon as I could fly with my daughter we packed up and flew to Chicago, planning to stay for a week… we stayed for six. It was clear as soon as we arrived that not only was her body slipping away but her mind too. She started to say things that didn’t quite make sense. It happened so quickly, but having not seen her in several weeks, I noticed it right away – we were losing her. However, she had other plans in mind; she had a party to plan. She threw her last lucid moments into planning my daughter’s baby naming for fifty people at our house. It was meant to be a celebration of my daughter’s life, the day in which she would be blessed and receive her Hebrew name. My mom started obsessing over details of the party, insisting we take her into stores – Costco for the roses, Party City for the paper goods. Walking in with what seemed like such purpose and determination, she would wander aimlessly through the stores, getting lost in the aisles forgetting why she was there in the first place.

At some point around this time, one of her doctors suggested we contact Hospice, something she had adamantly refused prior as in her mind it was a sign of surrender. However, it became too difficult for her to take care of herself and for us to take care of her. The nurses that came to care for my mom brought such a sense of calm, it also helped my family understand on a deeper level so much of what was going on with my mom’s behavior and in many ways prepared us for what was to come next. We ended up holding the baby naming at our house, my mom still convinced this was what she wanted, and I think needed. I remember the day before the party, we went through her closet together desperately trying to find something for her to wear that wouldn’t fall off. The morning of the party arrived and it was clear that she had slipped further away.  I’m not really sure that even from her bed where she stayed upstairs that day, she really knew what was going on. I know most of our family and friends were disappointed when we told them my mom was not well enough to come down. Yes this was meant to be a celebration of life for my daughter but I think in everyone’s minds, and even my mom’s, it was a chance to say goodbye.

My mom would live for one week after the baby naming. Again, when I had imagined a loved one dying – I thought there would be hours spent bedside, telling that person how much you loved them, asking every last question you had about the past, soaking up every last moment together. But in reality, that’s not how it happened for us. My mom’s body was there but it felt as if she was already gone. I was almost scared to go into her bedroom, I didn’t want my last memories to be of her looking and smelling like death. The worst part was no one could tell us when exactly it would happen, one minute she was breathing fine on her own but the next she might just take her last breath without any warning sign. When I thought it couldn’t be possible for a family to get even closer, we did. My sister and brother had returned to live at home, my dad eventually stopped going to work and my husband had flown in from New York and we spent those days sitting around, drinking wine sharing stories about my mom, my parents perfect marriage of thirty-five years, their career as therapists together, raising the three of us and how my dad had absolutely no regrets about their life together. All the while being happily distracted by a little baby who was completely oblivious to how much the world was changing all around her and continuing to bring so much joy even in the darkest moments.  My mom died peacefully in her sleep lying next to my dad in bed. After she passed we decided to only sit one day of Shiva (traditionally Jews sit for eight days) because we felt that we had all sat our own shiva the week prior.

My daughter, husband and I flew back to New York a few days later and started putting one foot in front of the other which I guess you just do, especially with a new baby in tow. I remember someone telling me or reading somewhere that the only thing that would make the pain of losing my mom go away was time. I couldn’t really understand what that meant in the moment but after one year passed, I realized that timing might be true. It’s not that I don’t miss her every single day. Even now, six years later, I have moments where I just pang for her. But that deep seeded pain that you think will never ever go away does start to fade. Your newborn baby starts to grow, demanding more and a different kind of attention but in exciting ways and then you have another and your life is full of so many new joys. Of course my mom’s absence is felt with each celebration, weddings for my sister, brother and even dad, my own accomplishments and especially the mundane everyday occurrences where I have to resist the urge to pick up the phone and call my mom. I still feel that staggering sense that something is missing, that my mom is not there to share in all the joy we have in our lives. I know we all try to find comfort knowing that she would be so proud of who we’ve become even in her absence.  

I’m still struggling to figure out why on the sixth Mother’s Day I spent without a mom, I felt so terribly devastated all over again. It was the same type of pain I felt in that first year, waking up Sunday morning with rolling sobs that seemed to come out of nowhere, tears I haven’t seen in years. And then my two little girls burst into my room, climbed into my bed, started stroking my arm, rubbing my back and even dabbing my tears, wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day like it was the most exciting, best day of the year and I knew everything was going to be okay and that I have so so much to be grateful for.   

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The forever hostess! My mom loved to throw a party, she planned and executed every detail of our at home birthday parties.

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