The Ghosts of July

Watching my mother mourn my father’s death was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to endure. I was 15, my sister nearly 10. Sometimes I think my sister is lucky because she doesn’t really remember any of it. My father’s death shaped my entire life, but for her, he was simply someone she never knew. Perhaps I was the lucky one after all.

My father was 44 when he died of a brain tumor. After his death my biggest concern was living longer than he had. I became obsessed with it to the point that my birthdays had no meaning, even the “big” ones — 16, 21, 30, 40. None of those milestones mattered. Only 45. But the day I turned 45 I felt no different than I had the day before. I was still haunted by the memory of my mother’s sorrow. The vision of her breaking down, crying, and overwhelmed with grief, falling into the arms of a neighbor, was just as vivid in vision as the day it had happened 30 years earlier.

My mother remarried a few years later and settled back down into a life of normalcy. She went back to school, got her Master’s Degree, and started teaching second grade in a nearby elementary school. She taught there until her retirement. I always thought her students must have been the luckiest kids in the world. My mother was an amazing woman. Love and compassion flowed through her veins. She was more than a teacher. She enriched the lives of her students. She cared for each and every one of them like they were her own children.

My sister and I were both at my mother’s bedside when she died. She succumbed to a particularly aggressive form of cancer that started in her appendix. Dying from cancer that began in an essentially useless organ seemed to me as some kind of cosmic joke. But it wasn’t funny at all. And then there was the day she was declared “cancer free,” only for it to come back three months later and finish its job. Cancer is wickedly clever like that. You’re here today and gone tomorrow. Literally.

My mother didn’t want to die in a hospital room, so she came home to hospice when nothing more could be done. My sister flew in from Philadelphia and I drove in from Kansas City. I was only an hour away, so I just drove in every morning to be with my mother and went home each night to be with my family.

I’ve always found solace in driving back to my home town. For the most part it was a beautiful drive through rural Missouri — the place where I had grown up, where life had been simple and innocent and pure, a place I had never forgotten. Any other summer I would have looked forward to the cold comfort of my mother’s iced tea, the flicker of fireflies in the yard, and the cadence of cicadas in the trees. Now they were simply ghosts of July.

Hospice didn’t last very long, but then again, I suppose it’s not supposed to. My mother quickly fell into a coma and died a few days later. I would talk to her as she lay comatose, telling her l loved her every chance I got. I rarely told her that when she was alive, but mostly because it’s just one of those things I was never very good at. I often swore to myself that the next time I would try harder. There’s always tomorrow, I’d say. Well, there is, I learned, until there isn’t.


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