I was angry at my mother when she died at 48, she shouldn’t have allowed it, I thought at the time. She left us all to fend for ourselves and it felt like she didn’t care. My children would never know her and I would miss her. I felt adrift and alone at 19 even though I had four siblings. I couldn’t even talk about her death for a long, long time and finally after 22 years I wrote about her struggle. I spent a lot of effort and tears on the story and afterward I felt like I could move on. It was healing to finally write it down.
My mother died of colon cancer and this week I had my first colonoscopy at age 58. My doctor told me that I really should have starting having the test at age 38 but I was afraid and put it off. At first I promised myself that at age 50 I would do the test but the years slipped by without me summoning the courage. Fear can justify all sorts of ridiculous excuses. But recently I began to come to my senses as I realized that because I was at a higher risk for the disease by not doing the test I was potentially putting my kids and husband in the same situation as my mother had left me in. I’m lucky because my test came back with good results.
The following is the story I wrote about my mother. It’s not a chipper tale and long-winded, but it’s what I needed to write to heal at the time.
by Megan David October 1998
“Watch your step. It’s pretty slippery,” Julia cautioned turning to check how far behind her she was. Her mother’s legs were noticeably thinner from this perspective of two hundred feet, and at first glance, Julia thought another woman must have stepped between them so unfamiliar was her figure. But the broad brimmed straw hat with the turquoise ribbon tied under the chin was unmistakably hers. Her mother descended with baby steps down the steep slope, and Julia realized that next time they would need to find a less rigorous path to the beach. Julia placed the umbrella, quilt and backpack next to the trail and looked below for signs of Jake before climbing back up to assist her. The sinuous path ahead revealed no signs of a seven year old’s boisterousness, no red bathing trunks or yellow plastic pail. Eleven years younger than she was, he was much faster. He’s probably around the bend, Julia decided. Finally she spied him down on the beach at the end of the jagged line his footprints were etching in the sand as he bound toward the surf.
“Wait for us,” Julia yelled down to him although she suspected the roar of the sea overpowered the warning. “Don’t go near the water,” she added, feeling reasonably secure that he wouldn’t go swimming without them. She knew he must be getting impatient having to always wait for them now that their mother was slowing down.
“Mom, hand me your things,” Julia instructed when she reached her. Her mother didn’t argue as she clutched Julia’s forearm, and Julia realized that the relinquishing of towel and totebag was a silent affirmation of welcoming help. This was new for her mother, and Julia didn’t let on that she understood her mother’s independence was slipping down the trail like the pebbles giving way beneath their feet as they stepped. At forty eight, she was too young to be aided down the beach path, and Julia tried to forget an earlier image of her mother sprinting down a similar trail not so long ago, as best she could. She didn’t baby any of the three of us then, Julia recalled, allowing us to find our own way down but with the security of knowing she was observing our every move. Every now and then her mother would holler, “Watch your step, don’t get too close to the edge” while she and Dad toted most of the load. Mom was light on her feet then, graceful and athletic, and at her best while on her way to her favorite place; the ocean.
Their descent slowed, and Julia was careful not to step on any stones that might undermine their footing, for she could not easily adjust her balance with her right arm piled high with things and her left hand guiding her mother. It was a good ten minutes before they reached flat land where Jake waited with a handful of shells to show them.
“I thought you would never get down here. You’re slowpokes,” he teased kicking sand at them as he spun around. It was a Wednesday in early summer. Birds dug for sand crabs unimpeded by the weekend crowd.
“Let’s go that way towards the rocks,” Mom pointed. “It’s more secluded. I can carry some of the things now,” she offered. Julia gave her a small bag to carry. Silently the three of them walked on firmer wet sand close to the water. Jake stayed behind with them, playing tag with the waves allowing their mother to lead.
An outcropping of rocks ahead formed a shelter from the wind and provided the privacy they were going to need. Jake and Julia spread the old quilt when Mom found just the right place to settle in. Jake grabbed his bucket and ran to the water, the hot June sun shimmering in his platinum hair and on the sea. Mom eyed Julia nervously who ignored the look and flung off her clothes. Naked, she walked toward the water.
“Come on, Mom,” she called without glancing back. “There’s nothing to it.” Julia dove into the cold Pacific surf, feeling free with nothing between her and the sea. Momentarily she relaxed in the arms of mother nature; rocking gently in cobalt blue, she allowed the calm rhythm to soothe her. The warmth of the sun filtered through the water onto her bare skin. A light splashing nearby reminded her to keep an eye on her younger brother. When she looked up for Jake, she found her mother floating on her back a few feet away. There was no indication of a bathing suit. They both loved the ocean, that was the one thing they had in common. Although at first it had surprised Julia when her mother had asked if she would go to the nudist beach with her.
“Sure,” Julia had said always welcoming an opportunity to spend a day at the beach.
“I mean, this time I want to be a nudist. Its something I’ve wanted to try for some time, but I couldn’t get up the nerve before,” she confessed.
“Oh,” Julia said at first not knowing how to respond. She had been to nudist beaches herself with friends but had always considered her mother to be conservative in matters like this although Julia suspected there was a part of her that yearned to be more open. Occasionally her mother would try something that she considered “daring”, but her inhibitions won out more often than not as she succumbed to behaving in appropriate ways in accordance with her generation. This was a big deal for her, Julia realized, being naked out in the open, in a public place where she could be seen.
After their swim, they returned to the quilt and basked in the sun, content, undisturbed and without the confines of clothing.
After a time, her mother suddenly turned to her. “When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes scattered out there,” she declared unexpectedly. Julia, startled, sat up and followed her mother’s arm pointing out to sea.
“Why are you talking about that now, Mom? Let’s just enjoy the beach.”
“No, I want you to listen to me. I want my ashes scattered over the ocean, this ocean, here,” she pointed again. Julia continued to stare at the sea, which now seemed dark, cold and deep.
“But Mom,” Julia stammered when she could think of nothing else to say.
“No buts,” she interrupted, “Did you hear me?”
“Yes, I heard you,” Julia answered without looking at her. “Ashes out to sea.” Silence wrapped around their thoughts then like a thin cotton gauze, allowing the crashing of waves to take over the conversation. Her mother dug her heels into the warm sand and watched Jake pour water into the hole he was digging.
“Look at Jake over there playing so well by himself,” her mother smiled getting up to join him. She walked over to where he was playing her hair wet, loose and wild. She touched his shoulders, and Julia heard her say, “That’s a nice sand castle.”
He jumped up, delighted to have her attention. His legs covered with wet sand. “This is the moat around the castle to keep out the bad guys,” he explained to her with great animation. “Ships come in from sea and the good guys are allowed through this secret passage way. They have to know a special code to open it. The bad guys can’t get in but they try to destroy the castle with big cannonballs.” She knelt next to him on the wet sand.
In the distance they heard a man shouting and a dog barking. “Over here,” the voice behind the rocks said. Her mother’s attention turned away from the castle to the direction of the voice. She hurried back to the security of the quilt.
“It’s okay, Mom,” Julia reassured her. “This is a nudist beach, that’s what people come here for.” Julia knew her mother was making an effort to relax, but the calmness about her had lifted and in its place a self conscious nervousness resided. Two men and a dog soon appeared from behind the rocks. They placed their things a fair distance away, the dog running immediately over to Jake who found a stick for him to chase. The men surveyed the area, including the two women, then went about their own business.
“I think we should go now,” her mother finally said. “Those men are paying too much attention to us.”
Julia looked over at them. One was reading, and the other was throwing a stick for the dog with Jake.
“They’re not bothering us,” Julia reassured her.
Her mother pulled on her gingham shift and began to fold towels. “I want to go now,” she said again. “Jake, come on, we’re leaving,” she called to him.
“But, Mom, I want to play with the dog,” he protested having finally found someone to play with.
“Don’t argue, we’re leaving now,” she said with firm finality.
Julia dressed and packed their things realizing her mother’s mind was made up. The man smiled when they passed by, and Julia did not look back to see how she responded. Her mother’s reaction was not something she was in charge of. Jake dawdled behind them not anxious to get to the car. He allowed them to wait for him this time while he climbed slowly back up the trail. Julia reached down to take his hand to help him up his last step, but he refused her assistance.
“It’s not fair,” he lamented, his bottom lip protruding. “Why do we have to go now?”
Julia felt his frustration. “We’ll, come again soon,” she said trying to console him, “and maybe next time you can bring Ricky.” He leaned against the car and mumbled to himself his sand pail dangling against his wet swim trunks while his mother stood safely in her summer clothes.
This must be it, Julia thought, spying the geraniums in the window box her father had mentioned when he gave the directions over the phone. There was a spectacular view of the ocean from the front yard of the summer house her parents had rented and a narrow entrance to the beach at the end of the road. Her mother had always wanted to live at the ocean but things had not worked out in this way. Good jobs were hard to find there, her father had explained. That summer at least she would live there for a week.
Jake’s eyes brightened when he saw Julia at the door. “Will you take me down to the beach?” he asked.
“Sure, in a little bit,” she promised giving him a hug. He quickly wiggled out of her embrace and ran to another room. Soon he reappeared holding a shoe box which he held up to her face.
“Look what Dad and I found yesterday,” he said proudly. She peered down into an array of shells and feathers. “Great,” she said picking up a sand dollar. “Looks like you’ve been busy. How’s Mom?”
“She’s resting. Go on in and see her, I don’t think she’s asleep,” her father answered.
Her mother’s eyes were closed when she entered the cool, dark room. Julia stepped softly across the wood floor to open the curtains.
“Julia, is that you?”
“Yes, Mom it’s me. How are you feeling, Mom?” Julia helped her rearrange the pillows so that she could sit up. “Are you enjoying your vacation at the ocean?”
She turned her head away and a few moments passed before she answered. “It’s too late,” she whispered, “It’s too late,” she repeated trailing the last word so that Julia had to strain to hear her.
“What do you mean, Mom? Of course it’s not too late, it’s never too late.” Julia opened the curtain wider to let in more light. “Do you want to go down to the beach? We could go after lunch when the fog lifts.”
She shook her head and closed her eyes again without responding.
“Mom, maybe if you go down to the beach, you’ll feel better,” Julia suggested the dark room beginning to close in on her. “Some fresh sea air will do us all some good.”
Tears slid down her mother’s pale cheeks, and Julia wondered if it was something she had said. She knew that there was nothing she could say that could console the sadness residing in her mother’s heart. She had tried. Many times.
“You go to the beach, Julia. I want to be alone now,” her mother said following a long silence.
“Okay, Mom,” Julia replied holding back her own tears as best she could. She could feel the familiar stomach ache coming on. “We won’t be gone long,” she whispered closing the bedroom door behind her.
“Has Mom been to the beach since you’ve been here?” Julia asked her father when she returned to the kitchen.
“When we arrived on Monday afternoon, she was too tired to go to the beach, but the next morning she wanted to walk along the waters edge like we always used to. You know how much she enjoys watching the sea birds. She could walk for only about five minutes without stopping to rest, but I think she enjoyed it. She doesn’t have much energy these days. I’ve tried to get her to go down to the water each day, but she says it’s too tiring to walk across the sand. We parked the car at the end of the street a few times so she could at least look at the ocean. She seems to enjoy that, but even then she doesn’t like to stay too long. She’s been spending most of her time in her room resting.”
Jake banged his shovel against the sand pail next to her. “Can we go down to the beach now?” he interrupted.
“Sure, Jake, let’s go,” Julia replied thinking it must be difficult for a seven year old to see his mother fade away like this. “Sure, let’s go,” she repeated anxious to get outside where she could breathe normally again. “Dad, do you want to go with us?”
“I think it will be okay for a short while,” he said.
The fog showed signs of clearing as the three of them walked down the short road to the beach. Julia looked out at the ocean, the sound of the surf relaxed her, and the fresh salt air tingled on her face. Jake bounded ahead, and she hurried to keep up with him hoping to shake the image of her mother in bed. They ran to the water’s edge with open arms allowing cold salt water to soak their clothes. Sandpipers scurried along the shore, quickly digging for crabs when the surf pulled out to sea. Jake chased the birds several hundred feet before stopping to dig for his own crabs. “Look at this one,” he said running over to her. Enclosed within his little hands was a sand crab the size of her thumb. “Hold it for a minute. I need to put wet sand in my bucket.”
He plopped the crab in her hands. Its tiny legs tickled her palms.
“Hurry up, Jake, it’s trying to get out.”
“Just a minute,” he said trying to put the right mixture of sand and water into his yellow pail. “Okay, I’m ready. Put it in.” Gently she placed it in the bucket where it quickly disappeared. When she looked up, she glimpsed their father catching up with them. The lines on his face were more defined than they had been last summer, and the grey at his temples had swept into the rest of his hair.
He waved to them. “Let’s go over to the tide pools,” he called over the sound of the surf. “Come on,” he motioned. They scrambled over the large rocks that formed a perfect place for shallow pools to form. Julia found a flat rock to sit on leaving Jake to explore the new terrain with his father. The sun poked through the clouds, warming her. Seagulls hovered overhead searching for leftovers, their squawks domineering and aggressive. Perched on the rock, she felt very small in comparison to the sea.
She sensed its power, the energy it contained within its depths, the life it supported and its relationship with the moon. It was a mysterious kingdom, unpredictable and untamed. Calm and serene on some days, vicious and angry on others. She felt small, insignificant in comparison to it, yet at the same time she sensed its force embrace her, providing the comfort she needed then.
“Julia, come see this,” her brother called. She could see the top of his blonde head moving about below, but she enjoyed a few more moments of solitude before climbing down to join them. They peered down into the shallow water together watching the large sea anemones’ tentacles wave about gracefully as water swept in and out of the pool.
“It’s time to get back,” their father announced. “We’ll come down again later if we can.”
“Not yet,” Jake protested. But he picked up his bucket and followed them without further protest.
When they returned to the house, Jake ran in ahead of them to be the first to tell his mother about the tide pools. Julia followed close behind. “Mom, the sun is out now, let’s go sit on the beach, we can take a picnic,” she said. Her mother looked at her as if to say there was something Julia didn’t understand. “Come on,” Julia continued ignoring her look. “The air is so refreshing.”
Her mother shook her head. “I don’t want to, I’m too tired.”
“You must,” Julia insisted and opened the drawers to get out some clothes for her. “I’ll help you get dressed.”
“I can’t,” she said in a voice that made Julia stop what she was doing. She sent Jake on an errand to the kitchen.
“What is it?” Julia asked sitting on the edge of the bed. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve already said goodbye to the ocean. I can’t do it again,” she wept. Then she let out that familiar sigh, the one filled with longing, the one that was always accompanied with that look of resignation, that look that turned her eyes to a washed out shade of khaki. Julia had learned to ignore the sigh and to look away from the faded green eyes. Instead she gazed into her future to escape focusing on the bleakness closing in on her then. That sigh can no longer affect me, Julia reminded herself. I am not the sigh. I have nothing to do with it. Julia had often wondered why her mother didn’t rearrange her life so that it was free of hopeless sighing. Something must stop her, Julia had finally decided, probably her own mind.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I’m sorry.” Julia whispered realizing she could not help her with this, she had to do it on her own. “What do you need for now, Mom?” she asked .
Her mother shook her head again and said, “nothing, nothing that anyone can give me.” Julia nodded and remained where she was sitting, holding her hand until she drifted off to sleep.
He held the needle securely in his large right hand. “You grip it like this,” her father instructed. “And then you find a vein, see there’s one right here,” he pointed. Julia looked closely until she noticed a faint line of blue on her mother’s arm. She was sitting up in the king size bed wearing her light green baby dolls without participating in the conversation. Julia supposed there wasn’t much for her to say while her daughter learned how to poke needles into her.
“How are you feeling, dear?” he paused to ask a few times in the middle of the instruction. She would give a slight nod, then resume staring out the north window behind them. Julia didn’t try to guess what she was thinking then, her focus was intent in getting the needle into a visible vein.
“What happens if I miss the vein?” she asked nervously. “What if I can’t find a vein?”
He held the syringe out to her. “Don’t worry, you’ll do okay.” His voice was reassuring and reluctantly she took it from him. Awkwardly she positioned the needle between her fingers. Why me? She asked herself. Guilt immediately rose in her throat for feeling resentful about the situation. Why not Lisa? But Julia already knew the answer. She was the only one who could do it. Lisa was away at school, and there was no one else. Her father depended on her cooperation. Now wasn’t a good time to let him down. Her hand trembled. The needle wobbled back and forth. “Hold her arm as I showed you,” he continued. Julia touched her mother’s pale, thin arm above the elbow and noticed how translucent her skin had become. Where had the color, the strength in her arm disappeared to? Julia wondered as she held it gently. Not so long ago it had been perfectly healthy. Now it was withering away like the rest of her. Just as her life had withered away over the years when it had slowly unfolded in a way that left her disappointed. It was as though the life she imagined for herself, and the one she actually lived had parted ways long ago, the gap between choice and circumstance widening with time until the separation had become a canyon too vast to cross over. Now she no longer had the energy to even consider making changes. Her enthusiasm had drained out of her over the years, drop by drop, because she had chosen to live in a way that did not suit her. There was nothing left in her, no will to revitalize that which had once brought her joy.
When Julia located the vein again, she quickly plunged the needle into it before she lost her nerve. Then, as her father had instructed, she released the substance that would relieve pain into her mother’s arm.
“That’s it, you did it,” he said obviously relieved. “She needs a dose every twelve hours. One in the morning before you go to school, the other around dinner time. I keep the morphine on the top shelf in the medicine cabinet. Just be careful with Jake.”
Julia twisted the empty syringe in her fingers. “I’m not sure I can do it by myself yet,” she confessed nervously.
He kissed his wife on the forehead. “You’ll be fine. I’ll only be gone a few days. The doctor’s number is on the dresser over there,” he gestured.
Julia nodded clasping her hands behind her so he wouldn’t notice how violently they were shaking.
“Bye, Jules,” he called as he backed down the driveway. She waved to him from the top step feeling more alone than she could remember.
They were waiting for her, parked at the curb as Julia emerged from the house at 7:00 am. She had forgotten the flowers and had gone back in for them. Lisa sat in the front seat next to Dad, Julia climbed in back with Jake. They pulled out in darkness under guidance of an early December moon on a journey no one would have volunteered for.
At half past eight Lisa noticed the sign that led to the marina. An older man in denim overalls tended the rentals located at the far end away from the private yachts.
“What can I do for you?” he asked as they approached him.
“We want to rent a motor boat,” her father said, “with four life vests.”
“How long will you need it?”
“Oh, I suppose a couple of hours or so.”
“Slip fifty two. I just filled her up. Going fishing?” he winked at Jake who replied with a shrug.
“Put on your jackets. It’ll be cold out there,” their father instructed. “Julia, help Jake adjust his life vest. I’ll be right back.” He returned shortly holding a small white cardboard box about ten inches square and six deep. No one asked about it when he placed it carefully underneath his seat in the boat.
It was a smooth, calm ride through the harbor, but the wind picked up dramatically when the small boat met the open sea. Salt water slapped at its sides stinging its occupants with an icy spray. Julia reprimanded herself for not bringing the motion sickness pills. They moved through the rough water slowly, silently, their father at the helm.
“Look, there’s a pelican,” Jake jumped up suddenly. Julia pulled him down.
“Jake, you can’t stand up in here. We’ll tip over.”
“Sorry, I forgot. But look over there.”
She watched the large bird glide over the ocean before she focused on her brother. She wondered what was going on inside of him. Did he really know that his mother was gone? She had explained it to him the best she could, but she was having difficulty believing it herself. If he did understand, he certainly wasn’t reacting. She worried about him because he was on his own like the rest of them, to deal with death in his own way.
“Do you think we’re far enough out yet?” her father called out looking back towards the shore. The ocean between them and land was vast, grey and foreboding. Julia could just make out the nudist beach they had visited earlier that year.
“Maybe a few more minutes,” she replied guessing at what three miles out might be. A cold gust of wind blew at them. She shivered and tightened her jacket around her chest to warm the cold place in her heart. A large knot had formed there, one that she could feel would be difficult to untie.
Finally he cut the engine, and they bobbed about freely at the mercy of mother nature. They were unsure of what to do next, there had not been any rehearsal, and they all turned toward their father watching to see what he would do. He reached beneath the seat and brought out the white cardboard box which he held close to his chest. Tears came, sliding down his weary face but he did not wipe them away. It was as though he were unaware of his weeping. His eyes were closed, and Julia wondered if he was saying a prayer even though she had never known him to pray before. It seemed as if he were then though, praying silently in his heart. They sat there quietly, motionless, waiting in a small boat rocking. When he opened his eyes, he passed the box to Julia who didn’t want to hold it but knew she must, and so she perched it securely on her lap and tried not to think of anything at all. Why did you have to die, Mom, she said to herself. Why weren’t you stronger? She shuddered and passed the box to her sister who stroked it gently. Jake faced away from them watching pelicans dive for fish.
“Jake,” Lisa called, but he didn’t answer. She tugged gently on his jacket to get his attention. Julia saw his small body stiffen as he continued to gaze in the direction of the bird.
“No,” he yelled back squirming away from her.
Julia pulled him close to her, and he buried his head in her lap. Carefully their father opened the box and slowly scattered the ashes it contained over the sea while they watched and tossed in white roses.
“Let’s head back,” their father yelled. He pulled the power cord and steered the boat around so that they faced the shore again. Turning the throttle up high the small craft soared over the waves. At one moment the wind kicked up fiercely and lifted the empty white box off the seat tumbling it into the sea. They turned their heads to follow it, a white shape bobbing in the wake behind them.