September 11 in the United States is the anniversary of a terrible event in our country’s history. Almost 3,000 people died and countless others were emotionally scarred by what happened that day in New York. However, the anonymous quote “You never know what people are going through” applies every day and sometimes when we get caught up remembering a group event, it’s easy to forget that personal lives go on despite horrible catastrophes.
September 11 is the day my mother died.
She didn’t die in New York. She died at her home in Florida, in 2006.
My mother died on a day that I will NEVER be able to forget or pass over. Every year, the internet, tv, newspapers and just about every other form of media bring out the footage from that tragedy, even more than 10 years later, so that we can all remember the people who were killed that day. In my mind, the words “lives lost” are a huge trigger in relation to that date and the annual recounting of that tragedy plunges me into mentally reliving the most tragic week of my life over again, every year.
My mother had breast cancer. She had watched and cared for her own mother who died of brain cancer when I was 3, and mom was determined that she wouldn’t go through the same misery her own mother did, fighting and eventually succumbing to it. Mom tried several alternative homeopathic remedies in order to “shrink” or get rid of the tumor on her own. She ignored the advice of her oncologist, who suggested surgery, chemo and radiation therapy. She tried black salve, which you can find numerous videos about on Youtube. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.) She went on a strict vegan diet. She tried juicing. Nothing worked. The tumor just continued to grow.
By the time my sister Diana, mom’s oncologist and I finally convinced her to at least have the tumor removed, it was the size of a large tomato. I took her in to the Women’s Center in Gainesville for surgery, and afterward the surgeon took me aside to tell me they’d removed all of it they could find. He then gave me a stern look and said “I really wish she had let us take it out sooner”, to which I replied, “You’re preaching to the choir here.”
A few weeks later, a family friend called Diana to say she’d gone by mom’s house to drop some things off and said “You guys need to get down here FAST.” Diana and I took off work for a week to go stay at the house. Hospice was called in, but for the first few days they weren’t there around the clock. Mostly it was just Diana and me taking care of mom.
She was emaciated. She was gaunt and weighed probably less than 100 pounds. We had to help her to the bathroom. She rarely ate but crunched ice chips if the were offered to her. She didn’t sleep well which meant we didn’t sleep well. Diana and I took shifts at night, sitting up to make sure if mom woke and needed anything, one of us would be awake. But any time she groaned or shifted in her sleep, I would immediately jerk awake, concerned something was horribly wrong. She was in a great deal of pain most of the time. She hallucinated from the morphine, which was sometimes funny and other times very scary. There was a chair in her room that she wouldn’t look directly at because she said someone was sitting in it but she wouldn’t tell us who.
Mom hadn’t accepted the fact that she was dying. If she wasn’t in denial, she was willfully ignoring it. More than once, she used the phrase “When I get through this…” and then would mention something she would do when she wasn’t sick anymore. Diana and I would only look at each other.
I called my friend Heather, who lived 3 hours away, on the second day to wish her happy birthday and tell her what was going on. Heather immediately packed a bag and drove up to stay with us at the house, answer the phone, take food at the door, etc. I bought her a small birthday cake and we sang to her when she arrived. (Heather met my uncle Mark, my mom’s youngest brother, while she was there and they later got married.)
At one point, the Hospice nurse and two of mom’s friends took Diana and I aside and told us that it was possible mom was determinedly holding on because she felt like she had to for our sake. The Hospice nurse advised us to sit with her and tell her that if she needed to go, that it was okay and that we would be okay. So Diana and I sat with her and told her just that, as gently and lovingly as we could. It was difficult to say because it’s a hard thing to say to anyone. Mom’s reaction was to narrow her brows angrily and look at us as though we’d completely betrayed her. She didn’t respond at all.
Eventually, mom was unable to get out of bed anymore and Hospice had nurses in the house around the clock. By that time, more friends of mom’s had come to help and to relieve me and Diana because we were exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Early on the morning of September 11, 2006, when she had a moment to herself with no one to worry over her, when she was completely alone, mom let go and passed away.
I remember walking into her bedroom by myself after she died and looking at her. I was completely drained. It had been the hardest, most emotionally taxing week of my life. She had wasted away so much she didn’t look like a person any more. It was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body in real life. I was afraid but I also needed closure. It helped that it didn’t really look like my mom, even though I knew it was her. Or had been. So I walked over to her body, leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.
Her skin was very cold. I’d always heard the term “deathly cold” but until that moment, I didn’t realize what it meant. It’s very hard to describe and one of the most unpleasant sensations I’ve ever felt. It startled me and my level of fear went through the roof. That act did however give me the closure I needed so badly after taking care of her almost constantly when she was at her worst. Because in that moment, I knew it was over. I didn’t run out of the room, but I walked very quickly.
For me, September 11 isn’t just a day of remembrance for an event that changed our country. It’s a brutal reminder every year of the hardest week of my life. I watched the woman who had taken care of me, tucked me in at night and tried for so many years to make sure my sister and I turned out to be good people, waste away and die in front of my eyes, fighting and denying it the entire way. If it were most other days, I would likely be able to get through it with a bit of sadness. But it’s not and that makes it infinitely harder for me.