I don’t remember how I first heard that people don’t live forever, but I remember staying with my paternal grandparents just after that. I remember talking to my grandmother about it at breakfast. She said, “Yes, but you don’t have to worry about that. People live a long, long time.” “How long?” I demanded. “So long. So many years you can hardly count that high.” “Like 100?” “Yes,” she said, “100 years.” 100 seemed like a reasonably high amount to me, so I was okay with it, or at least as okay as a child can be when they get that kind of somber dose of reality.
Grandma wasn’t lying. She damn near made 100. 96, I think it ended up being, but close enough that I can’t accuse her of lying.
Yes, life ends, but it never scared me that much because the women in my family lived a long time. All of them. On both sides. Even the smokers. They all lasted into their 90’s. My mom certainly expected to live that long. My aunt told me so. She fully expected to have twenty more years and I never doubted she would.
Then my uncle got pancreatic cancer, which took us all by surprise. Must be a fluke, we all thought. There’s no cancer in our family. Heart disease, yes, but no cancer. Maybe something that happened to him as a POW. (7 years in a prison camp in Vietnam) Agent Orange or something.
Two years later he was gone. And then my aunt got ovarian cancer, and recovered. And two other uncles got colon cancer, and recovered. All of a sudden, there wasn’t just cancer in the family. There seemed to be EVERY cancer in the family. But still, for the most part, longevity. Strong peasant stock. And the women were still good. The women kept right on living.
Even with the cancer, Mom exceeded expectations. She handled chemo better than most. Her immune system was strong. Her numbers came down, reliably, so low she got to take a chemo break, which we all enjoyed. The surgery was to remove one unresponsive tumor that started growing like madness. Just to get it out of the way so the chemo could keep working on all the others. And the surgery went like clockwork. The tumor was removed, cleanly and easily. No complications. Mom looked amazing that same day. In the back of my mind, I keep thinking that she’s not really gone because the chemo was still working. She just had to recover from surgery and then back on that chemo. Things were going according to plan. And then all of a sudden the plan changed drastically.
I called the house. “We’re having an issue,” my dad said. “What kind of issue,” I asked. “I don’t know. Something. Maybe a panic attack. Your mother’s all worked up. Steve’s here. We’re trying to decide if we should call an ambulance.” “Yes, call an ambulance,” I said. “Even if it is a panic attack, and it may very well be, just call one. Just to be on the safe side. Have Steve call me back when he gets a chance, okay?”
And then I loaded the dishwasher and scrubbed the sink.
When my brother called back, I quickly washed my hands and grabbed the phone. I couldn’t really hear him. There’s almost no cell service at my parents’ house. He kept breaking up.
“What? I can’t hear you.”
“Stopped breathing. She….”
“Steve, you’re breaking up. I can’t hear you.”
“I gave her CPR….. and she died. Mom died.”
I fell to the floor and screamed.
“Why didn’t anybody call me!? Why didn’t you call me!? I should have been there! I should have been there!”
“I can’t hear you. You’re cutting out. I… I can’t hear you.”
100 years. We all live 100 years. So high a number, you can hardly count that high.
She didn’t die. Not to me. It seems like too active a verb for what happened. Like it’s a choice she made. It wasn’t a choice she made. She was with it. She was deciding if she should go to the hospital. She said they’d just screw everything up again and she’d be trapped. She was with it. She was still entirely Mom. Then she looked different. My brother held up his fingers and asked her how many he was holding up.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” she said. And that was it.
Mom didn’t die. She stopped. She was going and thinking and planning and doing and talking and then she just stopped. She stopped, 31 years shy of 100.
Death I could accept. Even as an atheist. But I feel cheated out of those extra years.