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It’s a daunting task… putting pen to page and writing about my mother. It sounds cliche, but words can’t possibly do justice to the love and friendship we shared, but I’ll do my best.
Judy Daniels gave birth to me when she was twenty-six years old. She had five miscarriages, and my sister, on her mission to have the little boy she always wanted. So many times, she told me she never would have stopped trying until she had me.
When I was an infant, my mom gave me all the nurturing care and loving affection that a baby needs. As I grew into a toddler and then a small boy, we did everything together.
She was my mother, my teacher, my playmate. Like most children, I guess, my mom was everything to me. The kind of mom who could forget she had a debilitating fear of insects, if something buzzing or creeping was terrorizing her son in his room.
My mom was my stability. She was the only person in my world that made me feel safe. The only person in my world that I knew would never hurt me. I was uncomfortable around everybody else. I didn’t trust anybody else. My father, my sister, my other relatives, all made me feel awkward and tense.
I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here. In spite of the nightmarish things that were often happening around me… or to me, I feel I had a happy childhood for the most part. That’s a strong testament to how wonderful my mom was. It also helped, that for the most part, it was usually just the two of us.
My dad worked a lot, slept even more, and was a frequent bar patron. My sister was older, and didn’t want anything to do with me, not in the conventional sense anyway.
My mother was five feet, three inches tall with a healthy, rugged build for the better part of her life. With her basic wardrobe of t-shirts and stretch pants, she wore glasses and had long sandy blonde hair, usually pulled back in a ponytail. A “stay at home mom” who took great pride in the job.
My mom was never harsh or overbearing, but quite the opposite. She was sweet and gentle with a strong love for life. Strict though. You ate what she cooked, cleaned up after yourself, and always had to help around the house. “I’m your mom, NOT your maid!” She was fond of saying on the rare occasion I forgot to put my dishes in the sink, or left my dirty socks in the living room.
Warm and caring, with a great sense of humor, she had a deep sort of intelligence that transcended her middle school education. It helped that she had an insatiable love for both reading and writing that inspires me to this day. Observant and thoughtful, she was one of the easiest people to talk to about anything. We shared her love of music, movies, and all things dark and mysterious.
As far as my mother and father’s marriage was concerned, it seemed troubled and on the brink of falling apart for as long as I remember. Judy and Bruce Daniels were married for eighteen years before finally going through their ugly and bitter divorce.
To me, I was ten or eleven at the time; it was a blur of holes punched in walls, police, lawyers, and scary words like restraining orders and custody battles. I don’t know how any woman could stay in such a horrible situation under a looming threat of violence for so long, but I think I understand why.
I know my girlfriend stayed in a relationship with a man that belittled and degraded her for far too long as well. I’m sure it’s the same for lots of moms in bad situations. Fear of breaking up your family and not being able to take care of your kids on your own.
There’s no real earning power, because you’ve spent years dedicating your life to your children. There are worries about the house, the vehicles, and providing necessities. A mother in these situations is standing up against seemingly impossible odds.
Eventually my mom and dad’s divorce was final, and for a little while, I was the only man in her life. After a short series of guys that she dated once or twice, she fell in love with the man that would soon be my stepfather, Steve Willis. I didn’t like him from the start, and I’m quite positive it was mutual.
He was a bear of a guy, whose salt-and-pepper bearded face was always in the shadow of his big, black cowboy hat. We got along with each other as best we could for the sake of the woman we both loved, but when she died, so did our ability to maintain any kind of civil relationship.
Their romance did prove to be fleeting, and after a few short years, my mom started confiding in me that she really wasn’t happy anymore, and my heart broke for her. I remember wishing so bad that I could quit school and get a job to take care of her so she wouldn’t feel like she needed Martin. I even dreamed about it sometimes.
She never seemed to let her turbulent eighteen-year marriage snuff out her life-loving spirit. Now, she wasn’t going to let her dead end romance break her either. The two of us had fun, as usual, and grew closer than ever. I even neglected my friends sometimes because I’d be having so much fun with my mom, who had started to teach me how to cook.
What a blast we had in the kitchen, preparing meals and baking cookies. We went to the movies almost every weekend, and enjoyed going hiking in the thickly settled woods surrounding our home.
My mom was no longer in love with my step-dad, who I never liked to begin with, and our bank account was usually bone dry. She wanted to leave him, but soon his meager and infrequent income would be all we had. I felt frustrated and helpless. I wanted more than ever to be able to take care of my mother by myself; hating the father figures, I had.
Things were bad.
Then they got worse…
“Feel this.” She said to me. We were in the hallway, and she lifted her right arm up over her head.
“Feel right here.” She lifted her blue t-shirt up to her armpit… gesturing.
“Do you feel something here… like a lump, maybe?”
I did. It felt like an almond beneath her skin, and I felt an instinctive dread almost instantly.
“What is it?” I asked, knowing it was something serious, but not knowing how I knew.
“I don’t know… it’s weird.” She smoothed her shirt back down to her waist and shrugged, but I noticed her hands were shaking and her smile wasn’t quite real. “I’m sure it’s nothing… ”
It was something.
It was cancer.
Her doctor diagnosed her with breast cancer at thirty-nine years old, and I started worrying about her dying at the age of thirteen. First we found out she had cancer. Then we found out it was malignant. They tried radiation therapy, but the tumors kept growing.
I kept hearing the phrase, “terminal illness” and was thinking about what that really meant. I spent the nights crying and worrying about the possible… no! Impossible death of my mom, and I started cutting myself for the first time to quiet the screaming in my head.
I stayed silent at night, keeping my insomnia, cutting, and fear to myself. During the day, I was supportive and rallied behind her fight. I was amazed and impressed by her optimistic attitude and did my best to emulate it. With the spirit of a true warrior, she wanted to fight and she wanted to win. Relentlessly, she began studying everything she could about cancer and its various treatments and success stories.
She battled the disease for almost five years, before it started to overtake her. After all the time that had passed since her initial diagnosis, she started to look like she had cancer. I felt torn between trying to enjoy my life as a teenager, and spending as much time as possible with my mother… whose days were quite possibly numbered.
She fought hard, and usually kept her sense of humor and love for life. When her hair fell out, she bought wigs of all different styles and colors and acted comically glamorous, adding big sunglasses, wild handkerchiefs, and blowing kisses to people like a movie star.
When she lost a third of her body-weight she told people it was because her new diet was working. “The cancer diet,” she’d call it. I’m sure she had plenty of private moments where she came undone, but her spirit was strong, and I was in awe of her.
I thought about the great strength that I knew she possessed. When I was five years old, and begged her to give up her long time smoking habit, she agreed without any fuss and never had a cigarette again. As a smoker myself now, I’m impressed and have already failed to do the same thing at my own son’s request. My mom was stronger than I am, stronger than all the men were in her world. She’s the reason I have infinite respect for good women, especially mothers.
When she was getting close to the end, my mom and I had an important and painful talk. This was shortly before hospital beds, visiting nurses, and brain tumors. In other words, mom was still mom but not for much longer. She told me she was in pain twenty-four hours a day, and she told me that she loved me…
“I love you too.” I said.
She told me she wasn’t afraid to die, that she didn’t know what was out there, but she thought it would bring her peace, and she said she loved me so much…
“I love you too mom!”
She asked me to do her a favor, “as a man”, is how she put it…
“Please don’t cry at my funeral, Nathan.” She took a long, noisy breath… wheezing. She struggled through her words. “Promise me… you won’t cry… so I know… you understand… that I’ll finally… have peace after… after all these years… of fighting so hard.” Her voice was a whisper, cracking. She was having trouble breathing, and getting emotional. I closed my eyes against the sight of her strained efforts, and clung to her deformed but loving words.
I promised not to cry at her funeral.
She told me that I’d grown to be someone she was very proud of, and she loved me with all her heart. She said she could rest easy because she knew she raised a good man. I was seventeen, and scared! I didn’t feel like a man at all, wondering how I was going to survive in the great big world without my mommy! I asked her…
“Can I cry now?” I already was.
My mom hugged me with every ounce of strength she had left in her frail body. “Yes.” She said. “I love you… Nathan… and, when I’m gone… I’ll love you still!” She kissed me. We both cried, and our hug lasted forever.
My mom died a few months later.
I didn’t cry at the funeral, keeping my difficult promise to her. All my friends cried, which touched me deeply and reminded me how loved she was by all who were lucky enough to know her. My cousin sang Amazing Grace and it echoed, hauntingly, throughout the funeral parlor.
When it was my turn to approach and say my goodbyes, I didn’t see my mother. I saw death, and I didn’t say goodbye because there was nobody there to say goodbye to. I left in a state of terrible shock, and stayed that way for quite some time.
She was gone…
She has been gone for more than half my life now and I still miss her severely. I wish she could know my son, and I like to tell myself, maybe she does somehow. Perhaps she’s still aware of me and with me in some mysterious way. It’s a beautiful thought.
Like so many, who have lost loved ones, I have learned to focus on how my mother lived, as opposed to how she died. This has been a key element in finding closure to a tragic loss. I have let go of the pain, enabling me to finally… fully, embrace the strength of her memory. When I think of her now, it’s with a smile on my face, rather than a tear in my eye.
Nathan C. Daniels is the author of, Surviving the Fourth Cycle, a story about personal tragedy and, ultimately, redemption.
For more information, visit http://www.survivingthefourthcycle.com This is a uniquely-told true story about overcoming suicide, for anyone who has been affected by the harsh realities of mental illness.
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