gratitude-a-thon day 2021: “the days are growing,” she said

Today, the darkest day of the year reminds me of my mom.

Not that my mom was a dark person, just the opposite. Today, my mother would say, without fail, her face lighting up the room, while darkness seemed to descend around 11:00 in the morning (not really, but it felt like it) “Today is the shortest day of the year. Now the days start growing!”

This made me howl with a combination of laughter and irritation. How could she be happy on such a dark and gloomy day, I’d wonder. That women ran on hope, is the answer, She was always looking for brighter days, even on the blackest of the year.

My mother’s six year battle with lung cancer began its final stage on December 15, 1989. She called me to tell me she had a headache. I didn’t think much of it, but she insisted she had a terrible, terrible headache. It could be sinus, I said. It could be a migraine. There was a bad sound in her voice, a cancer sound.

The next day, my sister called to tell me that she was taken in an ambulance from our house to the hospital and they were doing tests. I felt my body go numb, each part of me, completely void of feeling. I began to float, but not in that good way that happens when you’re in love. My husband and I went home that night. I remember walking into the hospital room that first day and my sister being sort of crouched in the corner in a chair, her husband standing next to her, my dad there, and somehow the timing was exquisite, as the doctor had just walked in to deliver the news that the cancer was running around the lining of my mom’s brain like a marathoner.

It fell to my sister and I to determine a treatment plan, whether we should agree to allow her to get radiation along with a shunt in her skull to directly deliver chemo. We struggled, since nobody would tell us exactly the outcome of this little plan. But she delivered us her final Christmas present, when after her first date with radiation, she said loud and clear, “No more.” We only agreed because we’d bumped into a doctor in the elevator who told us if we pursued the chemo and radiation, she’d be blind in month or so and would only live another six months. I’m sure he didn’t realize the gift he was giving us, as no other doctor we’d asked would be so honest, spitting out gibberish, like “you never know. Everybody’s different.”

We knew.

Without treatment, the hospital would not allow her to stay, so we were forced to move her to a hospice an hour from our home. If you told me I’d ever be able to be in a place where everybody was dying, I’d tell you I would not. But it was one of the nicest and warmest and most transformative places I’ve ever been.

So, as the rest of the world was preparing their houses for Santa’s arrival, decorating their trees and shopping for gifts, baking and singing christmas carols, I slept with a pillow over my head. Not being able to tolerate food, I lived on little cartons of vanilla soy milk. My sister and I were glued to one another. We went back and forth to the hospice, on the winding back roads of Connecticut, lined with tall trees and bodies of water. We lay in her bed with her, holding her, morphine coursing through her veins, wishing for some of our own.

On December 21, my mother could no longer speak, so she didn’t tell us that the days were growing while darkness fell over us. This would be the first of all the important things I would never hear her speak again. It barely mattered to me, my whole life was darkness that month. (I’d just found out I’d never have a baby. But we all know how that turned out!)

I won’t bore you with the rest of the story, but my mother passed, as we hit a deer rushing to her side (a call at 2:30 in the morning that she was in the last stages, threw us into the car). We didn’t make it in time. She was gone when we arrived.

But every December 21, I say what she would have said, “It’s the shortest day of the year, but now the days are growing!” I say it to whoever will listen. I say it all day long. And I think of my mom, because she is the one who always brought me light, no matter what day it was.

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