“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau
On February 21, 2009, I received a phone call that would alter the course of my life. It was my sister, and I could barely make out what she was saying. My mom was in the hospital and had received a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer.
My body absorbed the news before my brain did. Since I had lost my ability to reason, from someplace beyond me I found a way to keep functioning. I asked my sister to put my mom on the phone.
What could I say?
There was nothing to say to comfort her. She was heading into the final unknown of life and I couldn’t do a thing to help her.
As soon as we hung up, I was out the door to the airport.
I hate to fly.
Somehow, I made the trip and two remarkable friends greeted me. I hadn’t seen them in a long time.
It didn’t matter. This was a crisis. What do you do in a crisis? You show up.
They hugged me and we headed to their car. My sad, little carry-on luggage trailed behind me in a precarious zigzag. The ice of the Midwest was testing my luggage’s mettle while the end of everything tested mine.
I was a complete mess. I had to constantly reach within myself to get to the beyondness carrying me through.
This “beyondness,” as I don’t really know how else to describe it, guided me. It was directive but kind. It kept showing me the whole picture.
You need the whole picture if you are going to walk with your mom through the end of her days.
The beyondness told me to ask about my friends. It said that, though my life seemed over in this instant, nothing is permanent. Not life, not grief, not anything.
Make the most of the moments with people you don’t often see, it told me. Ask them what’s on their minds and feel the truths in their hearts. You don’t need to be perfect in how you inquire about them, but do your best, it said.
I did my best. As I sat in the back of the car with the streetlights zipping past, I asked them about their lives. I also expressed my gratitude for the ride to the hospital.
It was what I needed. Somehow the beyondness knew that I needed to turn my attention outward right then. It helped. The beyondness always knows what is in your best interest if you quiet your mind enough to hear it.
I had been to this hospital before. Years ago, my sister had given birth to both of my nieces here. They are Irish twins, so I had visited here on two separate, remarkably happy occasions.
I had never visited it with my stomach locked in a death knell of knots.
As I headed into the entrance, I still had that stupid, mind-of-its-own luggage wreaking having on my extended arm.
I have never hated luggage more.
The beyondness reminded me that hating inanimate objects doesn’t change reality. It said hating animate objects and random people you meet on this journey will only make a bad day worse.
I did not need worse. Learning my mom was dying already had that in spades.
I needed better, so I had to choose kindness again and again. Even when I wanted to scream and yell and cry and scream some more. Forgive my luggage now, throw it across the room later.
Kindness first, meltdown later.
Even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I marched with tremendous urgency through the halls of the hospital to find my mom. When I located her room I allowed one small self-pity breath, squared my shoulders, and stepped over the threshold.
I immediately became the default matriarch. I say “default” because I wasn’t even nominated! Honestly, the beyondness took over, and I knew I had to follow its lead.
First things first: Hug my mom as if life depended on it, because it did. Cry, only a little, as I processed her trying to process her imminent death.
After a while, I made sure all the visitors were acknowledged, hugged, and validated. This helped me because many of them understood the depth of the grief that blanketed the hospital room. A hug here, a tissue there, and finally, a plan for me to stay and permission for everyone else to leave.
Here’s the thing about beyondness: It allows you the strength to head straight into the center of terror when almost everyone else has to flee.
Then it was just me and my mom.
I have never talked much about what it was like to be with her on diagnosis night. Mostly because it makes me deeply sad, but also, it has felt too sacred.
Until now, the beyondness told me to get over myself.
We sat side by side and cried.
After some of the tears had subsided, we talked.
We didn’t hold back any punches. I told her that I was going to miss her. Maybe that was the wrong thing to say, but I wanted to be honest.
I wanted her to know that she meant the world to me.
She told me that if I ever needed her when she was gone, to still talk to her and ask her questions. I would know what the answers would be. I had spent my life up until that point learning the lessons she had taught me and learning from her example, I would know what was what.
I would be okay.
You know, that has been the one constant in my life as I navigated her loss. I do ask her questions, and I do know what she would say.
As we curled around each other in a ball of despair, denial inevitably found its way to us. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.
Denial will help you function. It’s different than beyondness because it alters the truth. Beyondness tells it like it is; it’s still kind, but it deals with facts. Denial suspends your grief until you are better able to handle it. It lies to you like crazy. I am grateful to both.
In our little bubble of denial, we discussed ways to prolong her life. There were some palliative options that seemed reasonable. We thought we were looking at months. We weren’t. We were looking at days.
Yes, from diagnosis to death only seventeen days would pass.
Denial breaks down quickly at this high rate of speed.
All that I had to sustain me was the beyondness. Normally, in a harrowing situation like this, I would turn to my mom.
This was no longer an option for me. This was the test to prepare me for the rest of my life.
I would not fail her.
The beyondness helped me through. It helped me anticipate her needs before she said them. It kept giving me the big picture and reminded me kindness, kindness, kindness first.
Do not kill the messenger. Embrace the messenger. Do not get snippy with the nurses. Embrace the nurses.
I was so good about this most of the time. There was one particularly awful day and one particularly awful nurse.
I tried kindness. I was so tired that day. So very tired, and I wanted someone, anyone, to make my mom’s pain stop. This particular nurse did not take me seriously. She did not take my mom’s pain seriously.
This was not a good day.
The beyondness forgave me for my angry meltdown. As long as I remembered kindness most of the time, I was doing my job.
The beyondness kept showing me that in time, I was going to heal. I was going to be able to walk around on the planet and actually find reasons to smile.
Nothing lasts. Not life, not grief, not anything.
Through this kindness I connected with some of the hospital staff. Even though my heart had cracked wide open with despair, the beyondness knew lashing out at others would get me nowhere.
Instead, I chose to be kind—both for their benefit and my own.
Despite everything—the fear, the hurt, the sadness—I knew keeping my frayed heart open would come back to me and my mom tenfold. This led to an overall better quality of care for my mother.
I wasn’t winning the day by any stretch, but sometimes I’d win an extra blanket if my mom felt cold. The blanket would arrive promptly, handed over with a smile.
To receive love, we must give love first. The more we give away, the more it comes back to us.
In our time at the hospital, my mom had to move floors and change rooms. I made an effort to get to know our roommates. I say ours because I spent every night my mom was in the hospital with her.
We slept in the same bed. Side by side.
It was the least I could do.
In getting to know our roommates, I learned that often their circumstances were more harrowing than my mother’s.
How is that possible? She at least had loved ones surrounding her. Some of the patients I met had no one.
I bought a young woman battling cervical cancer a gift for her baby. It was a teddy bear.
She slept with it clutched to her chest each night.
She needed that bear more than her baby at home did.
Kindness first. Always the kindness.
This is how you will survive the darkest moments of your life. When all power feels stripped away as life drifts from the dream you had painted in your mind, you can choose to be kind.
Life may take away what you cherish the most, but it cannot take away your power to choose how you face what is lost.
I knew I couldn’t control what was happening to my mother, but I could control how I responded to each situation, each day. This little bit of power was my shining gem of hope in the darkness.
Still, it wasn’t always easy to keep going. Family and friends helped. My husband showing up once denial was completely obliterated helped. Knowing I had two boys at home that loved me as much as I loved my mom helped.
The beyondness said tragedy strips away the unnecessary. What remains is truth. The truth shows you who has your back. Watch and learn.
The truth helped me know when I could rest my weary head, heart, and body. The truth knew who would hold my mom’s hand when I didn’t have the strength left in me to do so.
I had an inkling who my true-heart warrior people were, but like beyondness said, tragedy whittled away the unnecessary. What remained for me was a treasure trove of exceptional people. I thank each and every one of them for their calls, their visits, their kindness, and their love.
In addition to these astounding people, it was the beyondness that helped sustain me. It was the energy that surrounded my mom and me when all was quiet. Its buzzing became so loud I didn’t understand why I was the only one who could hear it.
Yes, I had to walk with my mom through the valley of the shadow of death. But maybe because I did, I was able to walk through the gates of heaven even if only for a little while.
All of it precious.
Thank you, Mom.