Saying Good-Bye To Elena. The Last Lessons My Mother Taught Me.
It was my birthday. May 15th. The day I came into the world...and it was the same day my mother left it. My mom had been diagnosed 3 1/2 years ago with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She cheated cancer once before, ovarian. I was 10. No reason to believe that she couldn't do that again. Or at least I thought.
For those who didn't know her I could share the 1001 things that made her special, just like most lucky daughters feel about their mothers. She never spoke badly about anyone, even my ex-husband who certainly gave her reason in my mind. She was a industry trailblazer in the 70's and 80's as a model and then a fashion photographer. She was a loving mother, devoted wife of 56 years, a loyal friend and an enternal optimist always believing to see the best in everyone.
Growing up there was always room for one more around the dinner table. Something I adopted in my life and personally found easier than always seeing the best in others. I am not as good a person as Elena. I know that. But I know she was proud of me, my accomplishments, my family, my generosity, my independence (although I believe she sometimes wished I needed her more).
But I always needed her. I still do. In fact now more than ever. She would be the person I would go to in a moment like this to be comforted, held...told it would be alright.
For the last two months of my mother's life she was in a palliative care ward in a hospital in Toronto. Also in that same ward, in the room right next door was my friend Sharon. Sharon was my age and was dying of colon cancer. I hadn't seen much of Sharon since I had moved to London a year and a half ago. But like my mother Sharon was a optimist. I often wondered what cruel lesson the universe was trying to teach me as I had not one but two people I cared about dying beside each other.
I unofficially moved back to Toronto and lived in Elena's condo. My days consisted of going between the two rooms in the hospital. Sometimes I would wheel my mom into see Sharon and sometimes Sharon would come and visit her. Sharon called my mom her "cancer buddy". One would think that the circumstances of a mother and a friend both facing their final chapter would be without and happiness or laughter. But boy were they laughing. In fact I couldn't really fully understand it. But man oh man it was powerful. I think it was a gift that both Sharon and my mother were giving to those who loved them, their laughter, their sense of humour, the absense of obvious fear.
On Saturday April 29th my mother lost her cancer buddy, and I had lost my friend. My mother's grief was tremendous. I think everything for her became more real. After Sharon's passing and days leading to my mother's death she spoke to Sharon, she would tell me Sharon would come and visit her letting her know she was happy, calming my mother. I believe her. My mother was now living in-between two worlds, the living and the departed. My father would come and be with her too. He had passed away only 139 days before her. Often when speaking to her she would get distracted and look off in another direction. I would ask, who's here mother? And she would tell me. The room was filling up with people I could not see or hear.
Those last two months I had with her were a gift. She was the happiest palliative care patient you could imagine. During that time she arranged a final girlfriend's lunch at the Four Seasons. Celebrating her life long friends. She celebrated her 82nd birthday in her condo, surrounded by her family, Lola the cat and a dozen lobsters. She loved lobster and it was always a special treat.
The words "I love you" were used in abundance and it was meant and felt each time. She was never morbid, she laughed and rarely cried. She told me she was surprisingly at ease which spread to all those who visited her like "wild flower". My mom never really understood that the phrase was actually "spread like wild fire". But we much preferred the "wild flower" Elena version. Much more beautiful.
In the end she taught me you can't over use the words "I love you". That saying out loud "I miss you" is important to hear and it should never just be implied. She taught me that dying was in a lot of ways like living. And finally.... that laughter was truly the best medicine even after all other medicines had failed her laughter had not. She loved and was loved. She was never alone even if was with people I could not see someone was looking after her. I love you Elena, I miss you so much. Thank you so much for your strength, grace and beauty and for especially beating cancer when I was ten. Because as hard as it is at 56 years of age I could not have imagined not having you in my life and shaping me and my sisters to the women we are today.
Elena's final words to me still remain a mystery and maybe I will never fully understand but I held her hand, she looked at me and said, "Christina...my co-conspirator" . I will try my best to conspire without you momma. Sending you an airplane kiss to heaven.