September 22, 2010 at 10:00 am , by Amanda Wolfe
I ended our November story of my mom, Janice Alexander’s, fight with (and death from) ovarian cancer with her memorial service. But of course that’s not the end of the journey for my sister and me, or the end of her legacy. If you’ll let me share a little more (and Lord knows I’ve already taken up a lot of your time and, I suspect, tissues if you made it through all 4,375 words with me), I’ll tell you what it’s been like in the eight months since my mom passed away.
Those 21 months of stress and worry and exhaustion and pain—it’s funny how that sometimes feels like the easy part now. I feel fundamentally changed by my experience of being my mom’s caregiver. I can’t put my finger on what’s different, exactly. I imagine this must be (a very small version of) what a soldier feels when she returns home from battle. I’m still myself, of course. I miss my mom constantly, but I’ve gotten to the point where most of the time I can go about my day in good spirits, and feel that I’m living the life she’d want me to live. But in a strange way I feel simultaneously stronger from my experiences, and more brittle.
I went to a grief counselor for a few months after mom’s death (through Cancer Care, a wonderful organization). She said something that stuck with me. “It’s always going to be sad, but hopefully time will make it less painful.” So deceptively simple, but true. It’s okay to be sad. Forever. It’s just plain sad. But it’s going to be (and already is) less raw, less sharp. I’ll always carry this with me, but time will help dull the edges.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
And then there’s the practical stuff. It turns out that managing my mom’s Ohio estate from New York is nearly as challenging as managing her care was. She did an amazing job of getting her affairs in order for us, but there were still a ton of decisions that had to be made and tasks to be done. My sister, Audrey, and I have made almost as many trips back to Ohio for the estate as we did while we were taking care of her. There was, I’m not ashamed to admit, a feeling of relief after the ordeal of her illness was over. Of feeling like, “This is a really crappy time, but maybe I’ll at least get a break.” Not so much. Mom lived alone and since neither of us want to move back to Ohio, Audrey and I had to deal with all of the usual legal and accounting stuff, plus her house and a lifetime’s worth of possessions. Because we’re out of town and the house is empty, every little task is about 10 times harder than it should be, and requires a ridiculous amount of coordination.
Every time we’re in Ohio, we have to cram a month or two’s worth of tasks into three or four days; from the physical (yardwork, cleaning, painting, project after project) to the emotional (How can we possibly decide who gets to keep that sentimental tchotchke?). At first it was a great distraction from my grief, the busy work. Now I’d just like to be done. I guess that’s the emotional place you have to reach to be okay with selling your childhood home. It feels like we’re in the home stretch now though–I’m going back to Ohio (again) next week to do a major cleaning and stage the house to put it on the market. (After a back-breaking week of sorting through and boxing every single possession, countless trips to Goodwill and hospice, an auction, a bathroom renovation, a new patio, thousands of dollars of yard upkeep, a brand-new paint job on the entire interior, countless other projects and a small fortune in plane tickets, we’re nearly there.) Oy.
AND THEN A WEDDING
I’m also in the midst of planning a wedding, which has its tough moments: when I realize she won’t be able to walk me down the aisle like we’d planned, or when I have to explain to the florist that I only need one mother’s bouquet, not two. I’m a planner and organizer by nature but sometimes the stress of dealing with the long-distance house and the wedding gets to be too much and I have a bit of a freak-out. (Why can’t someone else, anyone else, be in charge of something for once?! I’ll wail in self-pity.) But it hasn’t been all stress. This summer I’ve taken trips to visit friends that I had been putting off while my mom was sick. I’ve been trying really hard to take better care of myself (with mixed results; must get back to the gym…). And my fiancé has been so ridiculously understanding. I hardly know how he puts up with me sometimes when I’m in my moods, but he always, always manages to cheer me up.
RELIVING THE STORY
Now that I see my mom’s story in print, I’m so glad I wrote it and so grateful to LHJ for giving me the space to do it. My mom always wanted to write a book and even though I hate that this is the part of her story that I had to tell, I’m glad I got to share it and help raise awareness about this terrible disease. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t really painful. I think about and miss my mom every single day. Sometimes I talk to her in my head. There’s a man in the part of Chinatown that I walk through every day who sells painted name signs to tourists. Every once in a while one of the names on his display is Janice, and it gets me every time. The other day I heard Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on Pandora, the song that we used for her memorial service. Insta-tears. But the process of sitting down and dredging up every painful experience from beginning to end—ouch. Big time. But also so very worth it.
And now, finally, enough about me. If you’ve been through a battle with ovarian cancer as either a patient or a caregiver (or want to share your experience caregiving for any condition), I’d love to hear from you. If you’ve never had a chance to share your story but want to, please do. I’m going to stop talking (phew!) and start listening.
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