CANCER MOVED INTO our house Nov. 19, 1993. It was a quick visitor. Ten months later it left, taking with it my quick-witted, fun-loving, good-hearted mom. My life, shaken to its foundation, hasn't been the same since. I know as deeply as I know anything that it will never feel "right" again.
Jane Emily Morisse wasn't supposed to die. Oh, we knew it was possible. She had the big "C," after all. But her doctor said she was responding well to chemotherapy and radiation. What we learned, finally, was that the treatments so weakened her, she could no longer fight.Yet another blood transfusion - a fat needle in a fragile body - was the beginning of the end. Back home that Friday, as day crept toward night, fever took hold and she began shaking wildly, frighteningly.
"Benadryl," her doctor advised.
"OK," we said, praying it would work. And it did, quieting, as a side effect, the tremors rattling my sister Colleen and me.
By Saturday, Mom was feverish and shaking again. Worse this time.
"The hospital," her doctor said.
We agreed. Mom asked for an ambulance, but we knew we could get her there quicker ourselves. There was but one delay. Knowing she'd face strangers, Mom insisted on inserting her dentures. Her jittery hands and gyrating jaw made this a challenge painful to watch. But she was nothing if not stubborn, refusing to allow one more indignity in a life taken over by killer drugs, plastic tubes, pokes, prods, bloodletting, radiation burns, ugly wigs and supreme exhaustion.
As Colleen and I guided her gingerly down the stairs - step, pause, step, pause, step - we had no clue she'd never come home again.
Thirteen days later, 12 hours after being infused with morphine and weaned from a ventilator, she was gone. Amazing. One minute she was there, her unconscious self giving us some comfort. The next she wasn't. The body on that ICU bed was hers, but it was empty. And so was I. Gone was my life as I knew it. Shattered. Numbed. Drained of joy. No more reds or yellows or laughter for me.
You see, Mom was the center of our family. Holidays, birthdays, everyday days. Dad was around, but inconsequential. His concept of "family" was having clean underwear, getting hot meals and mowing the lawn once a week. Mom was our world. Even when working full time, she had time for us. She never missed a grade school concert or a high school musical. She was there for my trip to college, the move to my first job. There for our most memorable Christmas - the three of us and a fir tree jammed into my studio shoebox outside New York City. She was there when I was sick, wrapping me in her arms. She was there when I wanted to talk or share a late night, a bottle of wine, an old movie.
We were always pals, and the older I grew, the closer we became. Finally, after years of our nagging, she sold her house in Milwaukee - where she had lived her entire life - and invested in one here with us.
Time heals, they say. I'd like to meet "they" and slap "them" upside the head. Some days, still, I stop and look around at my co-workers and scream inside: "How can you act like everything is normal! It's not! My mom is dead! Nothing will ever be normal again!"
As far as I can tell, we don't heal, but we get achingly, begrudgingly good at doing without, at coping because we have to.
Our method? Keep Mom around, keep her memory, her witticisms, her uniqueness alive.
Her ashes mingle with my stepdad's in a wooden urn in our family room, flanked by her picture and a candle we light nightly. Out front there's a flower bed (she especially liked geraniums) and a sign that reads "Mom's Garden." Photos of her are in every room of our house. On my desk at work. In my car. We tend her African violets (OK . . . we try). We chaperone her collection of clowns. We toast her on holidays, un-holidays and special occasions. I've grown closer to my aunt, my mom's only sister. Colleen runs races to raise money for cancer charities. More than ever I pester friends, relatives and even strangers about the stupidity of smoking. (Mom was hooked in the '40s, before its nastiness was known. As a kid I encouraged her to get the kind with the coupons so she could "buy her own coffin." The guilt angle never worked. She'd try to quit and fail. Try and fail. Try and fail.)
Colleen and I swap Mom-isms. You know, those clever phrases that seem to come only from the lips of parents. Mom had a million of them: "Do as I say, not as I do. . . . She's no spring chicken. . . . That's more luck than sense. . . . Hungry? Have a piece of fruit . . . Then you can't really be hungry... Buck up."
"Buck up" had to be her favorite. Whenever things got gloomy, out it would come: "Buck up!" she'd say, "buck up." It's a phrase we found little comfort in - until now, three years and 224 days after she left us.
"Buck up!" she'd tell us today, her jaw set that certain way. "Buck up."
If only I could see her face and tell her: We're trying, Mom. We're trying.