The look in her eyes when she opened them and realized I was the one standing at her bedside to welcome her into the morning melted my heart every time. I believe my mother’s almost childlike look of joy on those mornings reflected a combination of happiness and wonder: happiness to see me, because that meant we would be spending another mother-daughter day together; and wonder – or perhaps relief – to be awakening to another day at all, because she knew her days were numbered. My eternally wonderful mother was terminally ill with metastatic lung cancer.
We learned of her terminal disease in September 2008; my father delivered the news over the phone in a conversation that began with the dreaded words, “Are you sitting down?” The news sent me into shock and a period of intense grief – anticipatory grief, as I began immediately to anticipate the day when my mother would no longer be part of my life and when my father would be a widower utterly unequipped to cope in a world without the woman with whom he had fallen in love at first sight in 1956.
But wait: A terminal diagnosis does not terminate life!
This life-affirming epiphany struck me during a sleepless night 48 hours after my mother’s diagnosis. I arose the next day determined to inject as much living into my mother’s life as possible for as many weeks, months, or – if we were lucky – years she might have left. Her diagnosis did not carry a termination date, and so my family chose to assume there was much more living still to do. Rather than await death, we chose to embrace life.
We did not expect a miracle, but we never stopped believing in what was possible. We looked forward to each day as one that would bring new opportunities rather than as a day that would bring my mother one day closer to her last one. We focused more on things we might do for the first time than on things we might be doing for the last. We used a calendar to look ahead, not to check off days she had managed to survive. We did not stop making plans. We planned tomorrow, next week, and next month. And the longer she lived, the longer our planning horizon became.
We retained as much of a normal existence and as many of our old routines and habits as we could, and at the same time we created some very special new family traditions. We found, focused on, and even fabricated ways to be happy – authentically so. We had many gatherings, both planned and impromptu, and took many photos, filling two albums with evidence of our joyful living. We carried on with life – we with ours, my mother with hers – as though we had not received the news that one of us would be leaving the party a little sooner than expected. Suppressing but never denying that reality, we lived in the moment and reveled in how wonderful life was.
My mother lived for one year and a day after her diagnosis. She told us several times along her journey that she went to bed at the end of each day feeling deeply thankful. And she fell asleep imagining what happiness might be in store for her the next day. I’d like to believe that on quite a few nights, she dozed off looking forward to waking up and finding me standing over her bed again, ready to begin another cherished mother-daughter day. Another day of living, laughing, loving, and looking forward to what was still to come.