Learning to Parent Without You: A Letter to My Late Mom

The entire family was crowded into the living room of that rental house on the shore. It was you and dad, the six of us kids and our spouses, and several of the older grandkids. We sat on old couches that smelled of ocean, feeling the grit of sand between our toes after a long day on the beach.

We gathered as a family to discuss the next few months. What did the doctors say at your last appointment? How much pain will you be in? Are all the finances in order? How much help will Dad need taking care of you in the coming months? When will hospice care start?

You barely had the energy for that trip, but barring a miracle, we knew that it’d be the last time we were all together. The doctors said you probably wouldn’t be around at Christmas.

You looked weary and thin, wearing wrinkles in your skin that aged you beyond your years. But you were beautiful. You sat on that old sofa next to Dad, answering our questions and concerns with a voice that occasionally quivered and eyes that drooped with exhaustion.

That summer, while talking about the harsh realities of your cancer, it hit me in a deeper way than ever before that you would not know me as a mom. You wouldn’t be there to see my kids grow up or hear them run into your house, arms outstretched as they gave their Nana a hug.

My voice shook and hot tears ran down my face as I shared my fear with you and the rest of the family. We wept, my heart aching so deep inside me in anticipation of how much more I’d miss you when I had kids and couldn’t share the joy of motherhood with you.

During that last year, I so badly wanted to get pregnant simply so that you could be there for it, but I knew that at that time, my primary focus was taking care of you. I wanted you to help me learn how to be a mom. Instead, I was living the crude reality of changing you, feeding you, brushing your teeth, making you comfortable.

It was a joy and a privilege, a season of my life that in an odd way, I’m thankful for. But it wasn’t what I envisioned.

I remember when I found out I was pregnant. I think I took at least three pregnancy tests that morning, just to make sure. My husband was getting ready to walk out the door to work. I came downstairs trying to hide the excitement evident in every bone of my body, and he asked what was going on.

I tried to keep it a secret – just until the end of the day at least. I knew there was no way he’d be able to focus at the office if the day started off with this news. But he saw right through me, and there in the kitchen, me still in my pajamas, we smiled, laughed, and cried happy tears because of the new life that was inside of me.

We had our first doctor’s appointment when I was eight weeks along. I wish you could have seen my husband’s face when the doctor told us the news. Twins! Unknown to him at the time, I had been praying for two.

He had that “deer in the headlights” look, and I was nervous and scared, but my excitement outweighed all of that. We called everyone in the family on the way home from that appointment, still trying to wrap our minds around the reality of two babies.

Oh, how my heart ached to call you.

As my pregnancy progressed, there was so much I wanted to talk to you about because, well, you did this whole mom thing six times over. What baby gear did I really need? Was breastfeeding hard? Did you have any suggestions on how to sleep better at night during pregnancy? Did you go into labor naturally? Did your water break, or did they break it at the hospital? Any suggestions on how to deal with this annoying pregnancy heartburn? You were the expert I desperately wanted to consult.

When people found out I was pregnant with twins, they’d often say something to the effect of, “Wow! Congrats! Is your mom going to stay with you for a while when they’re born?”

I know they meant well, because having your mom come help after childbirth is a wonderful, beautiful thing. But it wasn’t my reality. I’d try to dodge the question by saying, “My dad and sisters will come out, and we’ve got family in the area, too, so I’ll have lots of help.”

But as much as I tried to avoid the question, I was regularly reminded that you weren’t going to be staying with us. You wouldn’t be stocking our freezer with homemade spaghetti sauce and pineapple chicken. You wouldn’t be there to run errands or rock a crying baby. I wouldn’t be able to ask you questions about my daughter’s reflux, or whether or not you sleep trained, or the question that’s been on repeat in my mind throughout my entire journey of motherhood: “How the heck did you do this six times?”

On my first Mother’s Day, my sisters gave me a video of an interview they did with you and Dad. It was about all things pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Your health was in rapid decline when the video was recorded, but you did your best to answer so many of my questions. I wasn’t even pregnant when they interviewed you, but I was given the gift of hearing your answers years later during the trenches of motherhood.

At times, it felt like you were there in the room, talking directly to me, as if I was actually sharing my first Mother’s Day with you. It was one of the best gifts I have ever been given. Eventually, the video ended and you were gone. How I wish I could just pick up the phone and call you.

The kids are walking and starting to talk now. My son is a snuggler, who could spend all day playing in the dirt. My daughter is strong. She knows what she wants, and she’s as stubborn as anything. My husband says she gets it from me – and I know I get it from you.

I want to ask you questions about discipline, the developmental differences between my siblings and me when we were kids, what it was like to have more than two. I want you to see the dimples on my daughter’s cheeks when she smiles and hear my son’s giggles when he’s tickled.

I want you to cry with me when motherhood is overwhelming.

As the years go by, waves of grief make room for waves of healing, and I remember I have much to be thankful for. I miss you deeply, and I wish I didn’t have to learn how to parent without you. I wish you were here to watch me be a mother.

But I’m eternally grateful I got to watch you.

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How My Brother’s Childhood Cancer Made Me a Fearful Parent

In the 10 years my younger brother spent undergoing treatment after treatment, I saw things I cannot unsee. His cancer colors my every day.

Right now, my daughter should be in PE class, maybe counting down the last 45 minutes before the final bell rings, releasing her of all academic responsibility until Monday morning.

Instead, she’s on the couch. “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” reruns are cycling on the TV but her eyes are unfocused. Her cheeks are fever-flushed and her head hangs over a basin that’s been prepared for the next inevitable round of vomit.

Logically, I know she’s fine. This is the stomach flu that we’ve managed to avoid for the past five years, the one that’s had six kids in her kindergarten class absent over the past week. But I can’t shake the feeling that it could be the result of something more sinister hiding inside the lanky body that seems to stretch taller with each passing day.

My parents told themselves the same things I do to quiet my own fears. A series of low-grade fevers were an unfortunate series of colds; aches in wrist and ankle joints were just growing pains; and unexplained bruises were the result of a seven-year-old boy’s exuberance.

Except they weren’t. They were cancer – leukemia multiplying in my little brother’s blood cells and bone marrow. A mutation nobody could have seen coming or prevented. Even doing everything right wasn’t enough.

I’ve walked the loop of our tiny house more times than I can count, feet wearing familiar grooves into hardwood floors. Stopping with each lap, I check her forehead, ask her how she feels and inquire if there is anything I can do, only to repeat the cycle again in five minutes.

In the kitchen I try to busy myself with a load of dishes but instead find myself peeking around the corner for the assurance that she is okay. The chicken for dinner sits still frozen on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

Last night was no better. The monotony of my panic rose in unforgiving crests that had me laying my hand across her breastbone to feel the rise and fall of healthy lungs through the fleece of her new Star Wars pajamas. My husband begged me to let her sleep.

“Babe, let her rest. It’s what her body really needs to heal.”

While I knew he was right the compulsion remained. I bit all my nails down to the quick and spent the early morning hours calculating the passage of time by the timbre of her breathing. The throb of my own rapid pulse quickened with each catch and hitch. I did not sleep.

In the 10 years my brother spent undergoing treatment after treatment, clinical trials, chemotherapies with names I still can’t pronounce, and radiation so fierce it left him limp in a hospital bed for months, I saw things I cannot unsee. By the time he finally received the bone marrow transplant that saved his life I’d learned things I can’t unlearn. His cancer colors my every day.

In those panicked moments when my daughter is sick, it’s not really the present me, the rational me, the me who has done this routine many times in the past nearly six years. It’s the 14-year-old me, sitting alone in a hospital hallway, not knowing if the brother on the other side of this closed door has a still-beating heart.

It’s the 21-year-old me squatting down on the side of the road outside of Yuma, sobbing as my mother calls to tell me his cancer is back. It’s the 23-year-old me looking down at my newborn daughter wondering what I won’t be strong enough or smart enough or diligent enough to protect her from.

I don’t much remember losing my own baby teeth but I do remember my mother begging my brother not to wiggle his, the fear being that prematurely forcing his teeth to loosen would cause his gums to bleed. Without enough platelets to clot his blood, he could end up in the hospital for a transfusion.

Three months ago my daughter’s two bottom-middle teeth started a tell-tale jiggle. She would push against them with her tongue and delight at the smallest shift. “Look, Mama!” she’d shout while showing me their movement between a set of smile stretched lips.

I cringed each time, and stopped myself from asking her to leave them be until they fell out on their own. My husband teased her with all the traditional dad jokes. He offered to tie her tooth to the back of our Jeep and drive away or affix it to a doorknob and slam the door closed to hurry the process.

She declined each offer, instead taking to walking around with her fingers perpetually twisting her teeth until one day, during dance class, one finally fell out. She brought it to me to put in my pocket for safekeeping. There was no uncontrollable bleeding, just a gap where the baby tooth had been and so much excitement waking to a fairy-dusted $5 bill under her pillow.

I can’t live outside the shadow my past casts, but I can enjoy the shade by recognizing the gift of a fever that passes in 48 hours without the need to rush to an emergency room and the limited amount of puke I’ve had to clean in my five years of motherhood.

Someday, I will long for the season of loose teeth, for a proximity that allows me to reach over to and cup her forehead to check for an elevated temperature at my every whim. Perhaps, I will even chide myself for decades of overreaction.

But for now, I’m cutting myself some slack when I find I’m hovering over her, appreciating the perfect bow of her lips and the fan of her eyelashes as she dreams and I check to make sure she is still breathing .

Cancer April 2016 Horoscope

You like family, home, security and privacy.

You’re the NSA of the zodiac — you actually remember all of your  passwords, and you’ve considered buying a nanny cam. Meanwhile, a bunch of crazy planets are fired up and you’ll feel like taking a trip! Realistically, this trip will be to school, the dentist, and the grocery store. It’s ok, just take some time off from your tiny monster spawn making unreasonable demands. Flirty Venus is all: hey baby, why don’t you get together with some pals and treat yourself? But, beware! Don’t go shopping alone because the goddess of love and money is fired way UP. You might accidentally spend all your cash on leather thongs, or expensive dried fruits, or a dog that ends in -doodle, or that new Tesla. Keep your advisors close and stay nimble, Cancer.

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