Fourteen years ago, I brought my 17 year old sister to a man who strapped her wrists and ankles to a table whilst she lay face down.
At the helm was a tall Chinese man practicing Qigong. He had helped me and many of my other colleagues heal after sports injuries, and this particular hour with him was dedicated to my sister, in an effort to stretch her spine so he could realign it. She had major back pain, and Western medicine just couldn’t seem to heal it. As he slowly cranked the wrench that slowly expanded her vertibrae, I questioned if it was the right choice. By all accounts, it was a desperate measure.
What I remember with complete clarity is this… that it was not the stretching of the table that hurt her. With each crank, he checked in with her, and she was fine. Once he had her spine expanded, he used his hands to manipulate her spine into its correct position. What hurt, what gave her pain and spasms and fear, was the UNWINDING.
The letting go.
The part where all future pain was over, but to get her spine back to its normal position would insanely hurt her. I don’t know why, but this is the story I continually come back to in my brain each time someone asks me, “how are you doing?”
My mom died on March 1st. She was 70. And I miss her so much.
She called me on July 23rd. We had just sat down to eat at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Nashville, TN, following a day of games at our daughter’s basketball tournament, and I thought her call was to remind me that it was my brothers birthday.
I had no idea she was calling to tell me she had lung cancer, especially given that she hadn’t smoked a day in her life.
From the moments following that call, I had no idea if I had 2 days, 2 weeks, or 2 months, or 2 years, or 2 decades with her. It didn’t matter. I flew to see her the next day.
Turns out we had 7 months together. And I took advantage of every one of those days that I possibly could.
In the beginning, it was all about strategy. The options. The ways to kill the cells. The 3 mile walks where we’d dream that she’d be the “miracle” the statistics would put in their record books.
In the middle, it was about mitigating, with medication and meditation, the cough that would haunt her day and night. Her lungs trying to extricate a stubborn fucking tumor that wouldn’t move. It was about building an excel spreadsheet that would help us record her dozens of medications, including the needle that needed to be plunged into her abdomen day and night.
Between the middle and the end, it was a blur of pain management combined with far-off yet potential hope.
It was watching my stepfather bravely and delicately drain her lung of 400 milliliters of fluid that accumulated daily, inhibiting her lung function.
It was watching her body become a skeleton, the cancer cells eating everything she could force into her mouth.
It was her moments of giving us her puppy dog eyes just to have a sip of wine, even though it didn’t taste good to her. It just reminded her of NORMAL.
In the end, it was all about comfort. It was about pillow management. It was about keeping her hydrated. It was about ice chips and chapstick.
But most of all, it was about saying everything that needed to be said. And we did. We said it all. At moments, we were forehead to forehead, tears spilling down our cheeks. Other times, we laughed at recalled memories. And in moments where she was totally present, we checked off the items in her “red folder” about her wishes after death.
And in the end, she died with her eyes open, my hand on her heart, and we had our purest connection, right up to the moment she took her last breath on this Earth.
So now, i’m dealing with it all. And so many people want to help. Or ask if i’m ok.
And all I can say is this.
I’m on that table. My body has been stretched beyond it’s boundaries for 7 months. And the unwinding is almost unbearable. If I go too slowly, I’ll surely bottle up emotions that only years of therapy will help. If too fast, I’ll explode, plain and simple. I don’t want either. My present self can’t believe that my past self endured these last seven months. Yet I wouldn’t exchange those moments with mom for ANYTHING.
It is the only path I see forward.
Because she is everywhere.
My story is not unique, yet it is. As my stepmother said to me on the day before mom’s funeral, “there are as many ways to grieve as there are humans on the planet.”
To everyone of you out there who is grieving someone you love fiercely with every beat of your heart…I’m WITH you.
I’m unwinding, and it’s ugly and sad and fierce, but in between each crank, I hold onto a pure, spoken love that mom and I have that will be with me until the end of time. And it makes it all bearable.