A year ago this week...I told a story on a stage.
Updated: Apr 8, 2021
And I didn't throw up or run away! Here's the full story in writing, but if you prefer to listen to the audio of me telling it at Shelf Life KC on February 13, 2020, click here. Thank you to David Wayne Reed for inspiring me to birth this story (it needed out) & for giving me the opportunity to share it.
"The Fight", 2020
It was supposed to be just me and my mom. I had her to myself for 23 months before she disappeared. She took her big ole’ belly to the hospital & she left me home alone with my grandparents. For days. The story my family always told is that I legitimately thought she was never coming back for me. I thought something terrible had happened to her. I thought she was dead.
Well, it was worse than I could have imagined because she came back...with another baby. A little brother that I did not want. That I tried to eliminate from the face of the earth. That I pushed down the stairs. That I hated for a long time. Because I was supposed to be enough. Just me. Me and my mom. I had her to myself for only 23 months, and it wasn’t enough time.
Growing up, I had a fear of this abandonment happening again. I hated the dark, going to bed, being left alone. If my parents left for a party without me or locked their door, I would freak out. I picture my tiny child self as an anxious puppy, convinced every single time their owners leave the house that there was a really good chance they just weren’t coming back. So I made my poor dad stay up and read in the hallway, with the lights bright and my door wide open, until I had fallen asleep. Comfort, safety, knowing they were close.
One night, I was in bed & I realized that someday...when I was around 60 years old, and my mom was about 90 years old...she was going to die. It was inevitable. It was going to happen. And then she’d be gone forever. There was nothing I could do to stop her leaving me for good one day when I was an old lady. I actually couldn’t bear the thought & pushed it from my mind.
I bet that nightmare, that night, was the moment I built the epicly strong wall in my tiny child heart. I realized then that if I put distance between me & my family, if I could get used to being on my own, if I could stay small and out of the way, then them leaving me someday wouldn’t hurt so badly. So I changed my mind & told my poor dad that he absolutely HAD to turn off the lights and get OUT of the hallway before I could even think about falling asleep. Comfort, safety, knowing they were far away.
When I was 13 years old & my mom died, I wasn’t there. I was still far away. From the time she got sick -- I was 10 my brother was 8 -- I did anything I could to escape, to be somewhere else other than home. Home was awful. Home was scary. Home was lonely. Home was pain. Home was too much to bear. Because home was where my mom was. And my mom was dying a horrible painful death. She had a tumor right here, I guess it’s your sternum, but when I put my hand there it feels awfully close to my heart. You could see the tumor from the outside it was so big. And if you think about this tumor growing and pushing on bone, on heart, on lungs...you’ll understand that at the end of her life, still in our house, the only position she found “comfortable” was sitting on a chair bent over with her head on the bed so she could look at the tv or out the window to see the trees. So coming home from school each day became a pretty traumatic experience.
I stayed away as much as possible and I felt shitty for a long time because I wasn’t there. Not there for my brother. Not for my dad. Not for my mom. She would ask me to do something easy, like fold laundry, and I’d get really pissed off. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to show her love. I didn’t want to care for her. I abandoned my family. I know I was only 13 years old. But for 21 years, I felt guilty because my inability to show up for her when she was dying meant she died without knowing how much I really loved her. It always felt too late to hug her, to cry in front of her, to break down in front of her, to tell her not to go, even to talk to her -- it felt too late.
This year, at the age of 35, better late than never, the guilt feels like it’s nearly gone. Because of this object.
At the last moment, with this gift, I showed my mom the truth. That I loved her. That I thought about her. That I didn’t actually want her to go. I showed her that underneath my anger & my coldness was so much love.
I was in LA this past week with my friend & her two little girls. When the 3 year old woke up from her nap, shouting for her mama, I went in to get her. I told her not to worry, your mom just ran out quick on an errand. She looked up at me and said “mommies and daddies always come back.”
When my mom died, I had to pretend I didn’t love her. At her funeral, I was fine! I played & laughed with my cousins. At school, I liked one upping people with my ability to obsessively study & be perfect. I had to keep moving, I had to succeed, I had to be good. I had to stay focused.
Because if you stay numb and don’t admit how much you loved someone, then you don’t have to feel the entirety of that gaping black hole in your heart that never goes away. It’s overwhelming, it’s terrifying, it’s dark, it’s too much for a child, it’s too much for anyone to confront head on.
So for 30 years, I pretended it didn’t matter to not have a mom. I don’t need one of those. I’m fine.
Only 4 years ago did I start to look inward & heal. 4 long years of brutal work. Grief, guilt, shame, loneliness, sorrow, so much darkness.
But it was just this past year, at 34 years old, that I finally felt anger.
For context, I am not an angry person. I avoid conflict at all costs & have never really been in a fight or intense argument with a loved one.
So it took me a long time to feel anger at the fact that she had to die. And not only that she had to die, but that she went quietly, without a fight, without fighting for me. Which means I wasn’t worth it.
I feel this way because my mom decided through research & intuition that her cancer was too advanced and too aggressive to warrant treatment. She was convinced that the chemo & radiation treatments available in 1998 wouldn’t cure her. She believed with her whole being that treatment would only leave her sicker, weaker, mentally slower, fatigued, and a burden on her family. So she declined. She stayed home. And until this year, I was convinced she had given up & left me behind.
Turns out she fought like hell.
Can you imagine knowing with complete confidence that you had a disease that could not be cured. You’re not getting better. You’re going to die. You’re 43 years old & you have a husband and two babies that you’re going to leave behind.
She could have struggled against cancer, put up a futile fight, trying any medication, surgery or treatment the doctors suggested, getting weaker and weaker each time, deteriorating, leaving her family to watch cancer consume her entire body, all of her, bit by bit. Her body would have become a sea of cancer, with the light of her growing dimmer and dimmer each day.
But here’s what she did instead. She tried to heal herself where she knew medicine would fail. I like this quote: “All of western medicine is built on getting rid of pain, which is not the same as healing. Healing is actually the capacity to hold pain.” Man did my mom heal. She held space for so much pain.
She was so strong that she didn’t take a single Advil to ease the pain of cancer eating through her chest. All so that she could stay mentally aware, clear headed, awake, strong, alive, fully conscious, and healthy but for that cancer. That cancer was just a tiny, shitty part within the sea of badass that was my mom.
She was brave, man. She let me distance myself because she knew it would break me if I didn’t. She knew I had to escape her death in order to survive it. She knew I would have been destroyed if I faced the fact that my literal worst nightmare had come true 50 years earlier than I even thought possible.
Because she knew me. Really well. She knew how much I loved her. She knew my selfishness was survival. It was turning off the pieces of my heart that needed her, that relied on her. One by one. I turned them off. I became self-sufficient. Ok without love. Dead inside. Because 13 years wasn’t enough time. She saw it happen. She understood. She let me go.
She let me go without once crying out for comfort. Without asking me to stop living my life to help her stop living hers. Without saying “stay with me, please.” Without asking me to give her more than I could give her, which was just this stupid little sign from the mall. Without once panicking like most of us do every single day, reaching out for anyone to cling to when we’re scared of being alone.
She protected me & by allowing me to escape, to not fully feel & acknowledge & experience her death, she made it hurt less. That’s what mothers do, right? You hurt & they fix it. It was still traumatizing to see her lying there in pain, but we were somehow traumatized more...gently. It was a peaceful trauma that we felt, because she didn’t let us see the depths of her pain. We didn’t see her wither away or crumble or deteriorate. It was kind of the opposite. The cancer ate through her chest, but her hair grew thicker and healthier. She couldn’t move but she kept the windows open so she could feel the breeze & hear the trees rustle.
She basically looked cancer in the face and said "Go ahead, I dare you. You will take me, but I’m not going to you gently. I’m going to feel you. Everything you put me through i’m going to feel. I’m going to be present for. I’m going to endure. Until you literally take my last breath and suffocate me. I refuse to fight you with poison. I will actually get healthier, despite you. I won’t play your game. I’ll play my game, the long game. A game my children won’t understand the rules to until they’re 35 years old. A game that leaves them numb, far away from me, thinking I didn’t fight for them. Until they’re capable of understanding how hard I fought."
What sacrifice. I can no longer see any selfishness or greed in that decision she made. There is only an immense, almost incomprehensible strength, bravery, and pure love.
It took me 35 years to feel fiercely proud of my mom. And to share her story right. It’s not a story of making a stupid decision not to get treatment or of abandoning her children to fend for themselves. It’s a story about a woman who didn’t have a choice whether she was going to live or die. The only choice she had was how she was going to fight for her children. She fought for her children by remaining til the bitter end a pillar of strength & courage & power & slight madness & stubbornness & intuition to look up to.
And we’re the same, she and I. We always were one, it was supposed to be just me and my mom. And now I finally see it always has been.
All my life I’ve feared making wrong choices like she did, her choice literally ended in death. The ultimate wrong choice, right? But it wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t stupid. It was so beautiful, and loving, and tender. So much so that it took me 35 years to comprehend its magnitude.
I couldn't understand until I had put in 4 years of hard work learning how to love like that. Until I became ready to love like that. Until I felt worthy enough to be loved like that. I didn’t think I was worth fighting for, I thought she needed more than me when I was 2 and she had my brother, I thought she left me when I was 13 because I wasn’t worth fighting for. But now that I can see my own worth, I can see what she was trying to show me this whole time.
That this object isn’t the one thing that proved I had a heart amidst a sea of shitty things I did while she was dying. This object represents the sea of good & love that’s always been within me, despite the one shitty thing that happened to me when I was little.