She was never sick until they found cancer in a routine mammogram. It was non-Hodgkin Lymphoma — not the kind of cancer typically found in the breast. She was lucky. She had the tumor removed and took oral chemo. That was two decades ago. It was the first time she cheated death.
The second time she cheated death was six years ago when some of our family spent Thanksgiving together in Mexico and she went snorkeling without her flippers. She was always a little over confident like that. When a rip tide came along and began to sweep her sideways at an alarming speed, I watched from the balcony as she went under once, then twice, then began flailing her arms to signal she was in danger. I was helpless to save her.
My nephew was snorkeling nearby and eventually coached her toward a rocky peninsula before she was swept out to sea in a foreign land with no coast guard. Bruised and bleeding, she later confessed she thought she might die when she went under for the third time and swallowed too much sea water. It felt like a miracle to the rest of us who had no choice but to watch and pray from shore.
The next day she was gliding along on the back of a dolphin. After all, she had already paid for all of us to go together. It was her treat. Had to scratch it off the bucket list.
Growing up, we always took a family vacation every summer. Sometimes, we would be on the road driving for hours. We sang songs and played license plate games where we each had to make a word using letters from the license plates on the cars that passed. Sometimes we’d have to wait a long time before a car would pass us that had the letter we needed to win the game.
Mom also liked to play the Quiet Game. That’s when we would see who could stay the quietest for the longest. It took some time before I saw through that one.
My favorite game was when my mother would take a blank sheet of paper and make a random mark or design on it. Then she would give it to me and tell me to make something out of it. I think she invented this game just to keep me occupied, but it actually grew into something much bigger for me. I found it to be a fun and interesting challenge.
What she probably didn’t know at the time is that she was teaching me to create something out of nothing, or something out of very little. And that has turned out to be a skill I have used repeatedly.
We were stunned when her cancer returned last May after a twenty year remission. This time she had to take more aggressive chemo: six hours of intravenous R-CHOP every three weeks for six weeks. She completed four – an amazing feat for someone of her age.
She died September 14, 2014 in room 214, two days away from the date that she would have received her final chemo treatment.
My mother lived a full life and was beloved by many. When she finally realized she was losing the battle, she would say, “I’m ready, let me go.” She didn’t want to be poked or prodded anymore. She didn’t want to be kept alive by artificial means. As much as she loved life and her family and friends, she was not afraid to die. She was comforted by her belief in life after death.
Since Mama Sue’s passing, as it turns out, we have all received signs of encouragement and comfort. We all secretly asked for one.
My mother was a bird lover. She fed a wide variety of birds on her 26 acres in Texas. A few days after her death, I walked out on the balcony of the guest room at her house early in the morning thinking about her when a red cardinal fluttered into my line of sight, alighting on a nearby tree. The Cardinal was her favorite and she had pointed one out to me the last time we had spent time together at her house.
My sister got chills a few days after Mom’s funeral when she went on a short business trip, the memory of Mom’s passing still fresh on her mind. As the front desk clerk handed her the key to room number 214, it was as if Mom was sending her a gentle reminder of her love.
My mother was often called “Busy Bee.” For years, she had this name on her license plate before she gave it up one day. My brother-in-law pulled up to a stoplight in Dallas shortly after Mom’s passing, deep in thought about her, when he looked up to see a license plate on the car in front of him that read “BUSYBEE.” He was moved to tears.
My daughter felt bad that she had not been able to get away to see her grandmother before she died. As she sat in traffic remembering Mama Sue, she looked up and noticed the license plate on the car in front of her read “ITSOKAY.” She got the message.
But perhaps the most interesting sign of all was the one Mom sent especially for my brother. He’s a firefighter. Compassionate, yet logical, realistic, and a little more skeptical than the rest of us I think.
My sister, my brother and I each had our own week alone caring for Mom in the hospital before she died. It was during my brother’s time alone with Mom when she sighed and said aloud to him, “It is what it is.”
Days after her death, my brother went out for a haircut. His regular barber had retired and he had an appointment with someone new. As he sat down in the chair, he looked up to see a sign at her station. It read: “IT IS WHAT IT IS.” Somehow Mom knew my brother needed a more straight forward kind of sign.
Before I returned home to Los Angeles, Dad wanted to show me Mom’s Sunday school room where she taught adult women at her church every week. On the blackboard, I noticed the words: “PRAY FOR RAIN!” The day after she passed, it began to rain with such force, her drought-ridden hometown received four inches in one hour. It continued to rain for days until the local lake was topped off. It was as if when she passed, Mom immediately went and filed a complaint with the right department upstairs.
It’s taken me a while to sit down and write anything at all. It hurts knowing my mother is no longer walking this earth. It’s not like we talked every day – she had a very full life, as do I – but there’s just something about knowing I could pick up the phone and call her at any moment and now I can’t. I’ve already had many moments when I think I should tell that to Mom or I should be sure and do that with Mom before I realize that my mother is not here anymore. Death is just so… final.
But Mom would not want me to dwell on that fact. She would want me to look to the good that has come out of her death. How the family has been brought even closer together and how new friends and acquaintances have been formed. She would want me to think about how every ending is but a new beginning, albeit sometimes a very traumatic one.
And so I write in tribute to my dear mother. A mother who was very different from the mother in my fictional novel. A mother who was tender, kind and compassionate at the same time that she was energetic, fun-loving and adventurous. Was she perfect? Probably not. I’m sure she had her faults as we all do. But her good qualities so far outweighed any imperfections, I can’t remember what they were now. She will be remembered for her spirit, for the zest she brought to her life, for her curiosity, and for the kindness she was always ready to give to others.
I will see you again someday, Mama Sue, on the other side of the veil. Until then, I will enjoy you in the spirit of things. In the cardinals and the hummingbirds and the doves. In the thunderstorms, dolphins, laughter and silliness. In card games, board games, snorkeling and hiking. Most of all, I will enjoy you in my writing. Because it was you who passed down your love of reading and writing to me. And because it was you who showed me how much fun it can be to create something out of nothing.
Love you bunches, Mom. And I will miss you like the dickens.