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life goes on
far too quickly
by juli mccarthy

Time is just moving too damn fast.

It's been two weeks since my Mother died. Two weeks.

I have this feeling that I am moving away from her too fast. I know that she moved away from me, from this world, too fast. We were looking through photographs taken over a 61-year lifetime. Mom as a tiny baby, all big scared eyes under a lace bonnet brim. As a toddler, holding hands with her twin brother. As a young girl, twirling in a little sundress on the grass, a smile as big as can be on her face. Color now – Mom at sixteen, looking impossibly young, and unbelievably like my own daughter. Mom – or almost Mom but not quite yet – pregnant with me, clad in cat's eye glasses and a hideous maternity dress, her face showing nothing but delight at some incredibly weird... is that a toy?

The Mom I grew up knowing now in these photos – hair done up in red, in a chevron sweater and white pants, on the porch of the house I grew up in. Mom in a muumuu on the back deck of a later house. Mom at weddings, at graduations, at baby showers, eating cake, making lasagne, holding her grandchildren. Mom at her 61st birthday – her last birthday. Black tank top and white shorts, hair all frosted, and B-cup prostheses. "They’re finally a manageable size, and now they don’t droop!" she said.

And then, photos from this past Labor Day. Mom in the driveway, smiling. You’d never know she'd been through several surgeries already. You'd never know she was riddled with the tumors that would kill her, still too small to see. Five short months ago.

The photo in my mind, the one I'll never lose. Mom, bald, wearing a hospital gown. Her skin shining, almost glowing. The tumor on her neck, the size of an egg. She can't open her eyes anymore, but she's struggling to talk, moaning, restless in the hospital bed we moved into her living room. The bed she wouldn't get into at first. "I'm not ready yet," she'd said, "I'm not getting in that damn thing until I know I'm not getting out."

I hoped she'd beat it. I hoped some miracle would occur, that the enormous tumors stretching her skin, distorting her form and pressing into her spine would just... go away. Even close to the end, I hoped for that. And then I hoped for her to die. I couldn't stand to see her, to think that she – my Mother – was trapped, in that bed, in that body.

I don't know what she was trying to say. Maybe it's self-centered of me, but I think she was trying to tell me something. Maybe she wasn't; maybe she was just moaning in pain. Maybe she was delirious from the meds. Maybe she was talking to someone I couldn't see. But maybe she was trying to tell me something. I know she knew I was there.

"Mama? Can you hear me?"

She squeezed my hand, just slightly. "Yeah." More moaning.

"Mom, it's OK. I'm here. I love you."

I hope she heard me. I think she did.

I hope she did.

The man at the crematorium was nice. Sensitive, matter-of-fact. He brought Mom's ashes (they can't weigh more than six pounds) to my house, with copies of her death certificate and, with a small, almost apologetic smile, a document he said we would need if we wanted to transport Mom's ashes somewhere. "So they won't, you know... open the box."

Then details. No religious service, no wake, no funeral. Not Mom's style. A memorial dinner, then. We'd call it a "celebration of her life."

Did we want chicken fingers or cocktail meatballs? Whatever. Like it matters. Later, we'd wonder if it mattered. Maybe we should have gone with a full-scale dinner. We had no idea how many people would come.

Getting ready, I took the time to think about whether I should wear waterproof mascara.

She always said, "I don't want people to cry. I want people to remember the good times, to eat and drink and have fun."

We tried. We didn't mean to cry, but how can you help it? But none of us cried a lot. Just a little. Dab at your eyes with a tissue and soldier on. Tell some good stories. We ordered a scotch and soda, tall, with a twist, and set it near the photos. Mom's drink.

And, incredibly, we do laugh. We laugh when we realize it is possible to document my Mother's life through photos of lasagne. We laugh when we retell the story of the fallen shrimp. We laugh when we find the photo of Mom throwing a football, badly. But I'm glad I wore the waterproof mascara.

"I'm going to miss your Mom."
"Your Mom was a great lady."

Thank you. Thank you for coming. Yes, we will miss her too. Yes, she was very ill, this is a relief in some ways.

It hit me – not too hard, just a little wave of sadness – when some of my friends left the memorial. I sat down and put my head on the table and shed a few tears. My brother patted my arm.

My husband said, "Let’s go home. You've had enough."

It's been two weeks since my Mom died. One week since the memorial dinner. I still haven't really cried.

There have been papers to sign. I have Mom's medical power of attorney, so it falls to me to straighten out her medical bills. All we care about is that hospice gets paid. They were so nice. I couldn't do that job, dealing with families always in grief. There can't be any joy in that job. We want to make sure they get paid.

My sister is in charge of Mom's financial stuff, so she's running back and forth to banks and insurance agencies. Mom did well. She did not leave us with a pile of debt. My youngest brother was surprised that she had a life insurance policy. It's not a lot, but she did what she meant to do – left all four of us with a little nest egg.

We've got to clean out Mom's house. Her companion, her partner, her "significant other" – whatever they want to call him – he wants to sell the house. He's lonely in the house that they bought together, and sad in the house where she died. We're cleaning out boxes of jewelry, closets full of clothes, a cabinet full of knick-knacks and still more boxes of photos.

"I remember this!"
"I can't believe she kept this."
"What the hell is this?"

We'll probably donate her clothes. How many size 12 petites do you think will show up to the average three-day garage sale, and how many of them might be looking for white dress pants? There's a charity that provides clothing for disadvantaged women, to help them dress well for job interviews. Mom was once a "disadvantaged woman," a single mother with four kids. It's hard to get a job if you don't even have decent clothes to go on interviews. So yeah. That's what we'll probably do.

The cash memorials and donations made in her memory will go to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The particular type of breast cancer that my Mom had is very rare; so rare in fact that really no one is researching it. But maybe someone will, some day. So we're filling out envelopes and writing thank you notes.

We're pretty busy right now. Life does go on – we've got kids to shuttle around and calls to make and forms to sign and homes to keep up. We've got to buy groceries and cook dinners and we've got birthdays that sort of got lost in all the drama over the last few weeks. So we're getting stuff done, we're moving on, we're getting through.

It's been two weeks since my Mother was alive. Two weeks since she held my hand and said she could hear me.

I don't really miss her yet. I haven't really cried.

Every day takes me further from that day. Further from my Mother. In a way, I want that time back. Maybe if I could go back I could change... something. Maybe I could understand what she was trying to tell me. Maybe I could do a better job of reassuring her, or comforting her. But I guess what I really want back is Mom, the way I knew her, the way she was before breast cancer took her energy, her time and her life away from her.

Time is just moving too damn fast.


A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy


men are losers
in the battle of the sexes
by juli mccarthy
topic: general
published: 7.22.05

love letters
before it's too late
by juli mccarthy
topic: general
published: 10.7.05


tracey kelley
3.3.06 @ 10:19a

Oooof. I just can't say anything, I'm so choked up. It's hard to even type.

But all so true, and so beautiful.

Big hugs to you, honey.

jael mchenry
3.3.06 @ 10:28a

Thank you so much for sharing this, even though I am now crying at my desk at work, which is not something I'm keen on. But this is just incredible, and such deep insight, it's amazing.

michelle von euw
3.3.06 @ 2:44p

Juli, this is just gorgeous. Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories of your mom with us -- I'd say more, but like Tracey and Jael, I'm too teary-eyed to type clearly.

robert melos
3.5.06 @ 12:12a

You have beautiful memories, so you will truly never be far from your mother. This is a lovely tribute to her, and to life.

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