For most of my life I was more than my mom’s son. I was also her confidant, her chief negotiator, and, too often, her psychologist.
Yes, your parents are amazing, I would assure her. Yes, so and so does like you, I would affirm. No, you cannot send that email without beginning World War 3.
She would send the email anyway.
I fought, for 30 years, to protect my mom. From the world, and from herself.
And she would always say, “What would I do without you?”
What would I do without you?
I was there at the beginning, the day she learned – through the most horrific chain of events – that she had been lied to; that her cancer was not barely stage one but very much stage four.
That was the day she learned she’d die.
And, I’ll note, that was also the day she called back her doctor, a few hours later, with a small sense of pride, to ask if he’d ever had a more dramatic patient.
I sat with her her, outside UCLA hospital, her head on my shoulder, and held her. There were no words to convey. It was just heart-breaking.
What would I do without you? She said.
But then, only a few days ago, when I rushed home to watch my mom die, I sat with her in the ICU, telling her I love her, telling her we’ll be with her until the end, telling her goodbye.
She moved in and out of lucidity, but a moment came, tears began to stream down her face, and she said, “What will I do without you?”
That was the moment I died inside, the moment I realized I could not protect her anymore. Not from the world, not from herself, certainly not from cancer.
But it was also the moment I finally internalized that, as ugly a toll as this disease had taken on my mom in less than six months; as unfair as it was, as meaningless as it seemed, I would not let my mom’s memory be defined by the way she died.
It takes a special woman to be eulogized – positively – by two husbands. It takes a special woman to – only hours after she died – have her home filled with her ex-sisters in law, women who still love her, women who cried over her suffering and her passing as much as anyone else.
It takes a special woman to be cared for day and night by friends as committed to her as family; bringing her food; painting her nails; gossiping good gossip with her even in the ICU. Over the last few weeks I’ve taken moments to thank them for being such good friends for my mom; each one responded the same way – “You mom was so easy to be friends with. We are only doing a fraction of what she would do – what she did do – for us.” Apparently, my mom was a good friend.
And apparently, she carried weight in this community – laboring for the betterment of our people and our institutions. I never knew the extent to which she was adored, the extent to which she was successful. She was too modest. Too focussed on the import of her work to worry about building her name.
I only knew her as a mom.
And she was the best mom a son could ask for.
My mom was fickle, but never a fair weather friend. My mom lacked confidence, but never conviction. My mom lacked pride, but never poise.
And the center of her world, the whole reason for her existence, was us.
She spoiled Shanna rotten.
She loved my dad till the day she died.
Family was what concerned her when, in July of each year she started planning Thanksgiving, and in October she started arranging Passover. She gave everything for me and Shanna, everything for her parents, everything for her brother, everything for Julia and Eliana, who she loved like her own kids, everything for Howard, everything even for my dad.
And home was where she sustained her family. Home was her castle. Her security blanket. She loved it as much as family itself. She would be so excited to be having so many guests coming over to see her impeccable design.
Three years ago we were in Tahiti celebrating my grandma’s birthday. We were in heaven on earth, on a boat adorned in decadence. And on that first night, I sat in a beautiful dining room with my mom and Howard, overlooking the most perfect beaches in the world.
My mom started crying.
She was homesick. In Tahiti. On a cruise. Surrounded by those she loved. She was homesick.
And so, it offers a level of solace that mom got to come home before she died. She left behind the wires and probes, the sounds and surroundings, and spent one last day in her castle.
She saw friends. She sat with family. She even managed a few smiles.
In one moment of lucidity she looked up at us and asked – “Is today the day?”
“Only when you’re ready, mom.” I said.
A few hours later, my vigil was done for the day, and I went to say goodbye. I gave her a hug, and a kiss on her bald head, and told her I’d see her in the morning.
She was quiet. Tired. Exhausted.
I walked toward the door and a voice said loud and clear, “Good night sweetie.”
Good night mom. The world will not be the same without you. Nieman Marcus and Nordstrom and Diet Coke and Lifetime Television will all be worse in your absence. I don’t know what I’ll do without you. But I know that you’ll never be without me.