By Julia Dennis Car
“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”
My mom and her sister stood, broken, at the bedside of their father, my Granddaddy. The cancer that started in his bladder had taken over his other systems; he “lived” mostly unconscious, thanks to morphine.
Mom couldn’t stand to see Granddaddy in such a way, and I know in her guts she would have done anything to separate him from his pain. My aunt isn’t fiery like Mom, and she knew Mom had what it took to hold the pillow over Granddaddy’s face. She didn’t kill him; the cancer did, days later.
Now it’s my turn. I’m standing in her corner as she nears the end of her own battle with cancer. In the end, will I will have the same impulse to smother her?
Mom’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian carcinosarcoma delivered a sucker punch no one saw coming. It’s incurable, and only about 25% of women live as long as five years. I imagine her little round body up against the ropes, her healthy tissue pummeled by disease and its treatment. If left untreated, her body’s systems will gradually succumb. They’ve already started.
They took the womb, ovaries, cervix, parts of her intestines, and the surface of her liver. Sewed her up tight. My first home is gone.
With unbridled optimism, Mom trusted her doctor’s plan of care and faced off against her next enemy. Chemotherapy. Can you imagine a more difficult choice? Don’t take chemo, and slowly die, or take chemo, and die slowly.
With fingers crossed, I watched Mom take the beating of her life and was lifted up by her light and positivity. After the months-long regimen, a scan found the stuff was no longer “active.” She got some time off for good behavior and slowly regained some strength and vitality. Our family vowed to embrace each day, focus on the positive.
Mom is a feisty woman, a flaming introvert, but without a demure bone in her body. She’s crass, enjoys dark and twisted humor. Once, while visiting San Francisco, she high-fived a costumed Grim Reaper in a public park then insisted the image be framed on her gravestone.
Days after her diagnosis, Mom hung a set of pink boxing gloves on her front door to prove to the world that she intended to pummel her disease as Ali did Frasier. In the oncologist’s office, two years into the bout, she laid some wit on the nurses. When they left the room, she told me “When I stop being funny, I’m done.”
She’s still funny, but her cheerfulness is waning. The insidious fuck is still inside her, having its way with her, never really having gone. It’s in her liver and her guts, probably other places too. She’s at the end of her second phase of chemotherapy. The gnarly effects of the disease and the treatment are taking their toll, and she’s so, so tired.
Albert Einstein said, “human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust —we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” As for my own part in this, I see myself dancing with grief and gratitude. The maestro taps his baton, and I’m an accordion: bending, twisting, squeezing, breathing. Some days the notes I play are fear, worry, sadness, regret.
I watch her struggle. And tire. Though outwardly I remain upright—strong in the face of this disease and her pain—the truth is at times there’s no air left in me, and I bend or lean into whatever will hold me up. I cry; wail the sharp notes away.
But soon enough, invisible hands unfold me, pulling and stretching me out as I fill with air. Soon enough, I can breathe again. It’s not my cancer, but it’s changed me. It has wrung me out and left me raw. And I’m realizing that the painful stuff is a gift.
I’ve had this woman’s hand to hold for more than forty years. With unconditional love. Her illness and mortality have bitch-slapped me into understanding and appreciation. My mother’s killer screams Wake up! Don’t you realize the gift you’ve been given? I do.
You see, in the midst of this pain and uncertainty and fear, beautiful things have happened. These last two years have been the hardest, and best, of my life. I’ve been helpless, unable to affect change; therefore, I’ve had to let go. I’ve unfolded. Aware and accepting of mortality—hers, mine—I’ve felt her love more deeply, tried to love her more deeply. I hope she’s felt it.
I’ve made two trips around the sun, and the days were full of love and light, opportunities and misfortunes, laughing and heartbreak. While holding the hand of impermanence, I’ve uncurled my fingers, loosened my grip on fear and insecurity. Wrapped myself in vulnerability.
I hiked for three days on the Appalachian Trail, confident and proud and strong. Crippled with despair, I limped into a therapist’s office, debilitated by depression. Swaddled with love of family and friends, I shaved my head and tattooed my arm and laughed till I cried and sobbed until I was at peace. I’ve said yes to more time by myself and prioritized more time with my family. I’ve learned to say “no” to things that don’t nourish me. Except ice cream. I always say “yes” to ice cream.
I’ve asked hard questions and confessed hard truths. Entering their adolescence, my kids broach topics Mom wasn’t comfortable delving into when I was their age: illness and responsibility and death and sex. I answer with raw honesty. They’ve seen me in tears and I hug them to me and share my pain with them. I think it’s wrong to pretend it’s not there. I’m crying because I’m sad. Yes, she’s slowly going to become sicker and sicker. We aren’t going to the beach this year so we can spend time with her. Yes, she’s going to be cremated. I want to be cremated, too. Regarding matters unrelated to Mom’s illness, but highly relevant to their curiosity and social understanding (and a disheartening example of the hyper-sexualized culture kids are growing up in) Yes, orgasm is “a really good feeling when you have sex,” but you can feel it by yourself too. No, you don’t need to be watching porn.
For many years, I struggled to understand Mom. She wasn’t blessed with physical gifts like Laila Ali and has never had a green thumb. On the contrary; her favorite quote is “Sweating is gross and fresh air makes me sick.” She stays inside, reading; I’ve run marathons. She’s quiet; I’m loud. I deep-dive into conversations; she’s more comfortable on the surface. I lift up furniture and tend to plants and pour my heart out on the page. She’s there, watching all of it. Though she kills all things that conduct photosynthesis, Mom grew a beautiful family; planted roots that spread deep and wide.
Before Mom’s illness jabbed me in the heart, I didn’t value her quiet; rather, I doubted its power. Mom has shown me that there are more ways to demonstrate strength than with vigor and brawn. She’s shown me that I don’t always have to do something; hers is a quiet persistence of being.
My connection to Mom is primal, deep. In so many ways my opposite, I feel her pull as the force that keeps me balanced. Her spiritual tether is met only by the one I share with my own children. She’s been there, ready, even when I didn’t even know I needed her—I hope to be for my kids all she’s been for me. And these days, when I’m rolling around on the mat in a struggle to make sense of all this, I try to use her own words of wisdom to self-soothe: “When you give birth to a baby, you grow a new heart.”
See, in a macabre way, my grief is a baby. Mom’s disease birthed this dark pit inside me. I like to imagine that as I trudge through the progression of her illness (and, ultimately, her death) I’m cultivating space in my heart for my grief and gratitude to live harmoniously. Like Yin and Yang, there is literally darkness and light in my little heart, all snuggled up tightly together and swirling around.
Maybe that’s what this is all about: vulnerability and strength, terror and comfort, distortion and balance, heartbreak and growth, dying and living. The cyclical, recursive nature of it all.
Allow me my suffering, so that hers may end. Allow the pain to break me, so that I may put myself back together. I’ll be stronger where the cracks mend, and softer in the more stubborn places. Allow me the lessons to be learned in her absence. Allow me to experience her in new ways—ideas, smells, sounds, gestures. Allow me to grow bigger; big enough to hold my grief and build a life that’s richer and more beautiful. I think I can hold it all.
About a year and a half into this journey, at a concert with my brothers and some dear friends, I passed out cold. Imagine a beach ball that’s been forcefully submerged under water. The pain and worry I’d managed to shove down demanded to surface. An anxiety attack hit like a ton of bricks. As I awoke, my two brothers literally holding me up, I remember my body heaving as I sobbed: “I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt.”
The ancient poet Hafiz wrote that “It helps to see the Creator’s kind face / before he rolls up his sleeves, / and starts pumping the bellows / and cleans off his wire brush / and works with his other tools / he eyes you up / knowing how much this is going to hurt / to make you perfect.”
Why are we here? To be made perfect? I don’t know much, but that I was given the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s my job to do the work: to pay attention to the Universe and embrace my place within it. To learn the lessons. That means with open arms I must greet the anguish and the pleasure. I’m willing.
Mom is in the final round of this slugfest. She’s losing stamina in her bob and weave. Soon enough, she’ll receive the final blow, or choose to throw in the towel. I’ll be rocked from my foundation. But I will be ok down here; I am rooted in her. I will remember her. I will celebrate her. I will talk about her and laugh, curse and cry. Her influence is indelible.
For now, I will sit with her and hold her hand and just be. For the rest of forever, my dust and Mom’s dust will dance; her warm, loving hands guiding me and loving me and leading me as the piper plays on.
Julie Dennis-Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called Western North Carolina “home” since 2007. She is a writer by passion, and uses writing as therapy, though she is a speech-language pathologist by training. Julie fills her heart by reading, traveling, and playing in the dirt.
THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND