When Your Mother Dies Unexpectedly

I think most of you know this, but just in case the only way you connect with me is through this blog, I am letting you know that my mother, Sylvia Schaff, died of multiple myeloma, a vicious blood cancer, on January 18. She was 76. This event was totally unexpected. She went into the hospital with pneumonia, her white blood cell count was low, and a diagnosis of cancer was made. At this point, the cancer was so far along that the doctors just made her comfortable. She went from lucid to gone in four days. In some ways, I was the lucky child. I was there with her when she breathed her last in the early hours of Wednesday, and while that was excrutiating, I can take some comfort from being there to help her pass a little.

My mother and I were estranged. If you have been following my misadventures over the years, you know that my relationship with my family was strained. I've made no secret of all the abuse that happened. A very unflattering picture of my family life is published in Cookies from the Mosaic 2 anthology, which is fiction, but which is strongly based in fact. In that story, I compare my mother to a spider. It took the woman about 15 years to put my wedding picture on her wall. I think she might have hoped that if she didn't think about Bryon, he would secretly go away, and I would come back to her web.

What to say, then? I have spent a lot of time grieving my mother and my family. David, my counselor, suggested that I chose the lesser of two evils. To be clear, I don't feel guilty. I feel a keen sense of lost opportunity. If I had thought our relationship could have changed, I would have worked on it. But her decision to embrace the very dysfunction that was so damaging to her children, yet again, well, there was a finality to that. Still, I loved my mother. And she is gone. And when there is life, there is always hope. Now, all possibility is over.

Sylvia was a complicated woman. On Saturday, I did a little work cleaning out her apartment. Her closet was a weird mixture of beauty and decay. She had articles of clothing that would never fit her, garments of great beauty, which I stared at, just because they were beautiful. She had soiled and stained clothes that she would wear, holes in the garments, beyond their prime. Books warped by water. A pristine tartan dictionary. Matted clots of cheap jewelry chains. Perfect, never worn, amethyst earrings. Broken jewelry boxes. Sticky, dirty ceramic nicnacs. A Mikasa bowl, never removed from the box. On and on and on. My younger brother working in the kitchen found the same mix.

I found some happy memories of my mother, buried under all the sadness. Mostly when we were both younger, before poverty and madness and god only knows what else. When she saved Mrs. Beasley from abandonment in the airport in Hawaii after I'd forgotten her, a last minute dash off the plane. Her praising a poem I wrote when I was 10, setting me on the path to writing, Modeling her closet of clothes for me when I asked her to. No one is entirely good or bad, not even the most questionable of parents.

And so it goes. I begin to return to life, a little bit at a time. This year, our next battle is Bryon's mother's confirmed bladder cancer. She is 90 and has a very healthy attitude about it, but I suspect it will be the year we lose both our mothers, one more unexpectedly than the other. It's going to hurt.

I cannot shine up my mother's halo because she is gone. Her daughter has always been Cassandra, pointing out inconvenient truths to a family that preferred to live in illusion. I can earnestly say that I have good memories of her, I loved her, and I miss her.

About Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump is a writer tamago (egg) trying to publish for the first time. Watch her try to break out of the shell of the unpublished writer!

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