How will I live and who will I be without my mother?
The Yes Woman: Floundering under the weight of a terminal diagnosis
I can tell that the room has one purpose – people come in here to unravel, loudly or quietly, after a terminal diagnosis
Grief is not something to which we assent. It comes reeling at us, thick and angry as a drunken brawler. It pulls us to the ground, and we must simply try not to panic as we flounder under its weight.
In my mind, it is June 22nd; just over a month ago now. I am in a white, clinical office in one of the country’s hospitals, sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of the room. I am involved in the conversation taking place before me, but only peripherally. This isn’t about me.
Ahead, one of just two people I really love, fiercely, protectively and entirely, is being calmly told by a doctor that she has terminal cancer. She is going to die. I witness the exchange, and focus on staying calm. Like happening upon a deer in a forest clearing, I must keep still and be quiet. I must not draw attention to myself. I know it’s terribly important to do exactly the right thing at this moment, but have no idea what that is.
I notice that the curtain around the examination bed nearby was changed recently. It has a tag dated a week prior. That’s good, I think, while internally something shifts. It does so jerkily, violently. The injury it leaves feels like a great tear, and I clutch my abdomen in case the tender parts inside should spill out over my feet and draw attention to me. The conversation continues. “A year,” he says. A year, hopefully.
The grief is total. It is impossible to know what to do. You remember that you cannot take ownership of this situation; it belongs to someone else. You are losing someone who is integral to your life, but they are losing themselves.
During the few minutes I have alone after the meeting, when they have taken her to be weighed and started talking about “our plan of action”, I sit in a green room off the oncology ward. I can tell from the pamphlets and tissues that the room has one purpose – people come in here to unravel, loudly or quietly, directly after a terminal diagnosis.
I think we define our sense of self largely by what we are to those around us. As children, we develop a concrete idea of our traits and preferences partly by having them mirrored back at us, or told to us, by our family. In that moment, sitting in the dull room with the blinds drawn, I conclude that grief and loss are completely selfish, and that’s fine.
The despondency which has permeated my life since June 22nd hasn’t been a deep philosophical chagrin at the tragedy of a young life wasted. The injustice of a terminal diagnosis for my mother at 57 is enough to make me want to beat my fists against the wall, certainly, but if I am honest I am most concerned for myself.
It is merely self-preservation. I feel better when I can be with her – I worry more when I am away from her in the knowledge that I cannot help her if she needs me.
In the occasional moments of wrenching grief which I never let her see, slumped on the bathroom floor sobbing, I wonder desperately how I will live without her, and who I will be without her.
A lifetime of her moulding has made me largely who I am, and I know that she is the only person who will ever gaze into my face and think only good things. In losing her, I will lose all of that certainty, that comfort, that part of myself which exists only in my relationship with her. The prospect of her loss is terrifying, but the enormity of that loss will be infinitely bigger than the dimensions of her small frame.
Grief is not an emotion. It is a miasma. A fetid pit. To have to breathe its noxious gases while the person you grieve for is still here, while you are caring for them, is torturous.
People call to the house. They care and mean well. They ask question after question about her. Sometimes they tell me about people they heard of who cured cancer with apricot kernels or rain dances, and I nod quietly and imagine myself punching them in the face. Unsolicited, they tell me how to care for her.
They leave. They never ask if I’m all right, because they fear the answer. I embrace the grief – it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I shut the door, reassemble myself, and go upstairs to see if she needs anything.
Yes to . . . embracing grief
No to . . . rain dances