When I posted this piece, my mother's uterine cancer had just returned and metastasized into her whole abdomen and into her brain. A few days later, on August 24 of 2005, I sat beside her in a hospice as her breathing slowed and then stopped. A quiet end to a painful life.
Here is a picture of me from back in 2003, give or take, about 36 years old. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of my mother scanned into this computer.
Getting to Know RuthThree years ago, my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer. The doctors thought it was terminal. Somehow, she recovered from the surgery, the chemo, and the radiation and lived for two+ years in remission. But uterine cancer nearly always returns, and so it has. My mother is in a morphine-induced coma to ease her pain. She will likely never awaken.
When she was first diagnosed, I wrote the following entry in my journal – a confession of sorts, as well as a tribute to the woman who raised me as best she could. She lasted three years longer than anyone thought possible, long enough to lose her daughter and to see her son find himself as a man.
Getting to Know Ruth
For thirty-five years, my life until this very moment, my mother has been a non-person to me. Obviously, I knew she was human, had a history before my birth, and possessed her own hopes and fears. But I never really saw or experienced her as a real person, a complete human being. She was my mother, a collection of feelings and memories that I had accumulated over these thirty-five years.
A few nights ago, however, I found out she has cancer, very serious cancer. She has been sick for almost a month, but now it is official: uterine cancer, maybe more that will be discovered in surgery. But the surgery will have to wait until they can control some blood clotting that might kill her during a surgical procedure.
She told me she is tired, that after seventy-two years -- very difficult, challenging, painful years -- she is ready to die.
For the first time in my life, my experience of her shifted. It wasn’t the first time that I was in a care-taking role with her (for several years after my father died, when I was 13, I was the adult in the house), so the shift has to be something else. After a lot of tears, a few hours of writing in my journal, and listening to Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss, I began to clearly see my mother for the first time -- to see her life, her struggles, her loves, all from a place outside my own needs and fears.
My mother has become a person, a person whom I love very much, a person whom I hardly know, a person who is dying.
My mother was born in February, 1930, along with a fraternal twin brother. When she was conceived, the world seemed to offer unlimited potential. There were jobs, and it was easy to support a family of five, even for the children of German immigrants at a time when Germans were not trusted after the First World War.
Then the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. Big cities like Chicago – where my mother's family settled – were hit hard. Jobs of any kind became scarce. Suddenly it was next to impossible to support a family of five. My grandfather took any work he could get, but still, there was often only enough food for one meager meal each day. Sugar cubes were given to satisfy the hunger of crying children. The struggle to feed the family went on for several years. My mother and her brother developed rickets, a deficiency illness caused by a lack of calcium and vitamin D. My mother and her brother were severely malnourished at an age when proper nutrition determines normal physical and intellectual development.
As a result of this malnutrition, my mother, like her brother, did not experience normal intellectual growth. Her IQ scores would likely test in the range of 70 to 80. By most standards, she is developmentally disabled. She has had difficulty living independently during those years when she was not living with her mother or married.
I was thirteen when my father died. By that time I had been identified as “talented and gifted” and placed in advanced classes in school. It was difficult for a strong-willed and precocious child to grow up with a challenged parent as primary caregiver.
When my father died, I was the one who took care of the funeral arrangements, the insurance policy, the government pension my mother would receive, and all the other financial decisions. I continued to perform most of the money-related tasks for two or three years. However, within six months of my father’s death, I was smoking pot regularly, drinking whenever possible, and beginning to show a lot of unconscious anger.
Emotionally, I was completely shut down, using chemicals to stay numb. My straight A grades began to decline. I was in pain and needed a strong mother to comfort me, but she was in too much pain of her own, too lost to be able to help my sister or me. She was diagnosed with depression and put on medications that made her sleep a lot, although the sleeping is also part of the depression.
Over the next several years, I became a daily drug user and was arrested for alcohol possession, vandalism, and growing my own marijuana. Grace alone kept me out of jail or the morgue for the better part of my teen years. The times I was locked up only made me angrier and more determined to feel nothing.
During those years, my relationship with my mother was terrible. I was incapable of seeing how much pain she was in, how lost she felt, how much she needed my love and support. However, as I became increasingly lost in a haze of smoke, drink, and pills, she learned to pay the bills on her own, got a driver’s license for the first time in her life, and found the strength to call the police when she found my little pot-growing operation. I was sixteen and completely out of control.
Although I knew my mother was different from other mothers, even when I was young, it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I truly became aware of the reality. I wasn’t understanding or compassionate. I was angry. I made fun of her in front of my friends. I told her she was stupid. I hurt her in more ways than I can count. And she just kept on loving me and doing her best to keep me alive and healthy.
As I write this, I still feel so much shame for those actions and words. I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to make up for the pain I caused her during those five years when I was acting out every shadow element in my psyche. If I had 100 more years to make amends, it would not be enough.
When I was 19, after hitting my personal bottom, I cleaned up my life and went to college. I studied psychology, literature, and religions. I began to learn a little about why I was so unconscious and confused during my teen years, and pieces of why my mother has had to struggle in her life. Most importantly, I began to learn about powers greater than me in this amazing Universe.
My mother is not like other mothers. She was never able to help me with my homework. She seldom read to me. She was incapable of advising me on whom to go to parties with when I was in middle school and dating was new and awkward. When I began to publish poems after high school, she never asked to read them or showed any interest in my writing. When I was in college, she didn’t ask about my studies, had no awareness of national or international events, and only wanted to know if I was employed.
She isn’t like other mothers. I saw the mothers of my friends turn their backs and walk away from troubled sons and daughters, unable to face their failures as a parent and their children's pain. But my mother never stopped loving me, supporting me, or trying to help me, no matter how awful I became, and I became very awful. Where other mothers might or did give up, she loved me even more.
After 35 years, I am finally able to see that she was gifted in ways I could not understand earlier in my life. She has an amazing heart, a capacity to love that my mind can barely grasp. I didn’t have the mother I wanted, but I had the mother I needed. To get to where I am now in my life, I had to go through the pain and confusion of my youth, and I didn’t need someone to guide me through it, I just needed someone to love me no matter how lost I found myself. If I had been guided through those difficult experiences, without the pain, there would have been no learning, no understanding, and no wisdom gained from the experience of finding my own way through the dark places within me.
I would not wish my teen years on anyone, but those experiences are what allow me to sit here now and write these words. If I hadn't been so out of control, my mother may have never found the strength to take control of her own life and learn to be as independent as she became. Again, we get what we need, not what we want.
So, now she is dying. This comes at a time when my life is in a liminal space between who I was and who I will become, a self-chosen disruption of the course my life was following. In the middle of all this, my mother is diagnosed with cancer.
Odd as it may sound, the timing for this to happen in my life could not be better. I am in a unique position in my life to change the way I see the world, to change the meta-narrative of my life, to re-open my heart in ways I have been too frightened to do in the past. For the first time in my life I am on the path of self-discovery and healing. It makes all the difference.
From this place in my life, I have learned to step back from myself, to see through the eyes of my observer self, or Witness. Through those eyes I see my mother as a person. I can see her struggles, her fears, her joys, her successes. I see her weaknesses and her strengths. I see her not as my mother, but as wonderful human being who has survived 72 painful, challenging years while holding onto the love in her heart. I see a woman who is not capable of knowing how extraordinary she is. I see a woman who inspires me to open my heart and learn to love in the same selfless way she has loved others for her entire life.
I am blessed to come to see my mother as the human being she is, not just as my mother. I have been given a chance to know her in ways I could never imagine before. I want to learn how she was able to love others so easily, despite being told she was not like everyone else and being treated as deficient.
My mother is not like other mothers. For however much time she has left, I want to learn about her fears, her joys, her life. I want to know the person who is named Ruth.
R.I.P., Ruth Sophie Harryman, born Ruth Sophie Koenig.