I was at the verge of a new life. I was still there, but I could feel myself gravitating elsewhere. The life I had was fading from my thoughts and all I could focus on was the life that was ahead of me. New place, new people, new experiences, new everything that was just out of reach. I could not help but look beyond what was right in front of me and I was engulfed by the possibilities. Like any moment, but especially then, I knew I would never be the same.
I don't even remember the conversation; I just remember knowing. Knowing it was raining on a day that there was supposed to be cloudless skies, knowing that it was June 3rd, knowing I was graduating In two weeks, and at the end of that conversation, knowing that my mom had stage four cancer. It was like missing a step on the stairs. That second of panic before you either fall or catch yourself; you're trying to prepare yourself for the pain even if there's a chance you won't feel any. I was stuck in that, waiting to find out if and when my heart would be shattered. The uncertainty seemed worse than the pain itself. I didn't even have the strength to tell her it was going to be okay, she was always the one to do that. Just at the point my life was supposed to start, hers could end.
My concern for her began to selfishly transform into concern for myself. How was her illness going to impact my life? How could I be happy graduating and leaving home when she needed the company now more than ever? Cancer had planted its tragedy and sprouted into our reality at what seemed like the worst time possible. I kept thinking about how I would say goodbye knowing what I know. "Okay mom, I'll see you when I get home!" No. I couldn't say that. What if I couldn’t see her when I got home; what if she's already gone. How do you say goodbye to someone who's dying without reminding them of their death? I thought about just hugging her, in silence. I’d leave her with the memory of a smile to hide the sadness of the moment. If I didn’t say goodbye, then it’d be like she wasn’t leaving; it’d be like I wasn't leaving her. I didn’t have it in me to look her in the eyes and say goodbye like it might not be forever.
I arrived at the conclusion that if I could not say goodbye to her then I wasn’t going to. It’s painful to even write down what I did. I’m ashamed of my cowardice. I know what I did was wrong, in so many ways just pathetic. I left. After graduation I did not go home; I planned to stay in New York with friends I made earlier that year because we were enrolled at the same college. They didn't know the situation I was running from and I had no intention of telling them, the last thing I wanted was their pity or concern. Thinking about it now, I think I needed someone's concern. I remember walking to my car with my mom after the graduation ceremony. Our slow shuffles through the perfectly trimmed grass came to a stop as we found the car. I remember turning and saying, “I promise I’ll drive safe,” with a slightly condescending tone. I thought about saying goodbye, forcing the words out of my mouth just so they’d be said. It felt incomplete without it, but I guess that was inevitable. So instead I hugged her, holding on for a few extra seconds in attempts of salvation. I let go and started to walk away pouring every bit of love I could into the smile I was leaving her with.
As I drove away I watched her in my rearview mirror. I could see her standing there waving, but I didn’t wave back. It felt too much like a goodbye. I remember getting on the highway and going exactly the speed limit; I was in no rush. I replayed that first doctor's visit that we went to, recalling them talking to us about her cancer like it was just routine for them. You could hear in his voice the attempt to make it personal, his attempt to make it seem like it's not the thousandth time he’d delivered news like that. Even now I can still hear his voice describing the treatments they could try, but that nothing was guaranteed from them. I must have replayed that moment in my mind more than a dozen times. That doctors visit was the closest I had gotten to knowing what was going to happen to my mom. At the time I couldn’t figure out why I was leaving, why I felt the need to escape, but I understand now. I thought I was sacrificing her broken heart for my own, but really I was just breaking mine prematurely. I thought avoiding the situation completely would help me avoid the pain, I tried to force an out of sight out of mind mentality. That drive to New York definitely shed light on the flaws of my plan; my mom was the only thing I thought about. I hoped going to New York would turn the life I had into the life I wanted, the life that I had been fantasizing about.
That drive was silent. I couldn’t listen to music; upbeat songs just frustrated me because I wasn’t supposed to be happy during a drive like that, and sad music, well it intensified too many thoughts. The only thing I was left with were the quiet memories of my mother. After reminiscing about the moments of my childhood, I stopped at the memory of my dog being stung by a bee. I had been walking her in the backyard and she planted her paw directly on the stinger of an unsuspecting bumble bee. I collected her in my arms to carry her to the safety of our house. I rushed through the door in a panic. She was still whimpering and I was crying, but my mom was calm. She grabbed her from my arms and was about to turn, but paused. She crouched down, placed her hand under my shoulder blade on my back,and looked me straight in the eyes to tell me everything was going to be okay. The dog slowly stopped whimpering and the tears dried from my eyes as silence fell into the room. This was the memory that broke the silence in my car; it was the memory that broke me.
Just the other day, as I was carrying my daughter up the stairs to bed, she had finally fallen asleep after hours of convincing her it was time. I was tip toeing up the stairs, carefully carrying her to the peace and quiet of her room, I almost missed a step. In that split second of panic, my thoughts were flooded with the memory of my mother.