Today is my parent’s 34th wedding anniversary. I chose today, a very significant day to us and the first milestone that we’ve had to face without my mum, to share this with you all.
August 2 … same day, different years.
A day of unconditional love, laughter and happiness. And a day of heartbreak and pain.
Both a day of family.
A day of absolute contrasts, a day of remarkable similarities.
2 August 2013: my now husband proposed to me. I can still hear my mother’s reaction echoing in my ear ‘I’ll be here! I’ll walk her down the aisle’. I hugged her tight, with tears rolling down my cheeks, and vowed that I would move mountains to ensure that she would walk, step by step with me, as I married my best friend. That night, we celebrated with our families. And my mum couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.
2 August 2014: the world was in chaos – troubles in the Middle East, MH17 was shot down, an Air Algerie plane crashed. But none of these really resonated with me. Because my own world was crashing at exactly the same time. My mother started to lose her battle.
My mum was always always always the life of every party, radiating light, happiness and above all joy and laughter. She would ensure that every birthday, every anniversary and every celebration was marked, with a party if possible.
There’s no question that my mother was a fighter. She had strength and resilience like you wouldn’t believe. But she was also unbelievably scared of everything she was going to miss.
For 16 months she fought very hard against a cancer that generally claims lives within months, if not weeks, defying many medical beliefs. But she accomplished most of the goals she set for herself.
The past year was a year of heartbreak and sadness sprinkled with some magical memories. Mum saw her grandson turn one, she celebrated my engagement, she enjoyed a wonderful family holiday with us and just five weeks ago she celebrated my cousin’s engagement with all three of her nephews and her soon-to-be niece. And almost five months ago, she walked me down the aisle and then danced the night away surrounded by all of her loved ones.
It was a Thursday night at about 10:30 when my sister called to say my mum had been taken to hospital. It was a call I had been dreading for 15 months. We rushed to the hospital to be by her side. She was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was already exceptionally frail and thin, and had been told a few times that she was too weak for chemotherapy. Every time her doctors said she couldn’t have chemo, I knew it was another step closer to losing her.
After just over a week, she moved to a rehabilitation hospital where she worked with physios and doctors to get her strength up before she came home. Two days after she came home, dad and mum told my sister and I that there was nothing else doctors could do. That it was a matter of months. In my heart, I knew that this moment was coming. But knowing doesn’t make it any easier. It didn’t change how hard my heart broke, sitting on my parent’s bed, hearing that I only had a few months left with my mum.
Just five days later, on the Friday night before she died, mum was determined to come to my new home to share our first Shabbat dinner at our apartment. This was her final goal. She came and watched as I lit my candles for the first time, as my husband said the prayer over the wine and as her grandson said the prayer over the Challah. And even though she was exceptionally uncomfortable, she stayed right until the end.
Family and friends meant everything to her and we have always been surrounded by a very large, loving and wonderfully crazy family. It’s how she lived and it’s how she passed away.
Ever so stubborn, on the morning of 2 August, she kept saying that she was feeling ok, despite struggling to breathe. By late morning, we’d called the doctor. That afternoon, her breathing laboured and she was given a sedative to help calm her. It was at that exact moment, lying next to her and holding her hand that I realised I was losing my mother.
There were many close calls on Saturday. My sister and I slept in the bed with her on Saturday night. My dad and uncle sat by her bedside, neither sleeping if the other’s eyes were closed. My aunts were nodding off on the floor and in the lounge room. My cousin was asleep on the couch. My husband and brother-in-law eventually went to sleep downstairs. My other aunt and uncle stayed until the wee hours of the morning. She was never alone.
On Sunday, my extended family floated in to our house, saying their goodbyes and early on Sunday afternoon she passed away peacefully, holding mine, my sister’s and my dad’s hands. There were about 20 members of her extended family in the room. We have been saying since she passed away that she was waiting for her family to be with her so she wouldn’t miss out on the party.
Just like my mother, I believe in visions. Those moments in life that give you an insight into what is coming. What fate will soon deliver. For the past 16 months, we’ve been unsure as to whether my grandfather has understood what has been happening. Suffering a stroke almost 27 years ago, my grandfather’s memory is very diminished. The moment he walked into the room, he suddenly understood. Despite having been asleep for several hours, mum opened her eyes when she heard her father’s voice. Despite not having moved anything except her legs, she hugged her grandson back when he came in to say goodbye. She squeezed my hand several times when I spoke to her. And just before she passed away, she opened her eyes and looked at my father. Those moments will stay with me and comfort me for the rest of my life.
While the past sixteen months have definitely been harrowing for our family, we have been surrounded by the most loving, caring and compassionate friends and community. The outpouring of support and kindness that we have received has been overwhelming. It is a true testament to the person my mother was – loyal and generous who touched so many people’s lives. The number is incomprehensible. I will forever be grateful to those people who have surrounded us with such love, care and warmth. It has shown how amazing people can be, and while nothing can possibly take away the pain, the words of comfort definitely touched our hearts.
For seven days, my life stood still. The world was moving around me but I just couldn’t be part of it. I just wanted to sit. I didn’t have the energy to talk, to move, to do things. I just wanted to sit, watch and listen, hoping that it would somehow sink in.
And then all of a sudden, normality tried to creep it’s way back in.
But it will never be the same normal.
Until 16 months ago there was ‘normal’ – what my life had been for 26 years.
For 16 months there was ‘cancer normal’ – doctors appointments, chemo, wigs, vomiting, nausea, sprinkled with giggles, smiles and love.
I’m not sure what this next ‘normal’ will be.
There are moments that I break down, scream, cry and curse the world. When I don’t want to accept my new normal because I’m scared I’m moving too fast, not processing things, not giving myself enough time.
But there are also beautiful moments where I can see her smile and hear her voice. And it’s then that I realise that the last thing my mother would want me to do is wallow. I pick myself up. I go to work. I go for a walk. I play with my nephew. I cook and clean and do the laundry. Because as much as I wish time stood still as I boogied on the dance floor with my mother almost five months ago – me in my white gown, she in her burnt orange dress – it didn’t. Life goes on.
I know that the most significant moments in my future life will also be marked by sadness and longing for my mother. The birth of my children, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings.
But she will never be far away. I will forever hold every memory close. My children will know who their nana is. I will give them 12 kisses a day to help them grow, just like she gave me. I will fill my home with photos of her. I’ll play them videos so they know her voice. I will celebrate every milestone, with a party if possible.
I will continue her legacy the only way she would want me to, with laughter, love and a whole lot of smiles.
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