Summer’s Dirge

It’s not my favorite month, for lots of reasons. It’s always freakishly hot, I don’t like hot. It’s the end of the summer, can’t much like that either. Two of my sisters were born during this month, and while I like them just fine, it’s not my birthday, so I still don’t like this month.

Besides all of that, this is when my mom died two years ago. She died of pancreas cancer, a nearly perfect killer. The cancer that ravaged her, ravaged us too. It killed her relatively quickly as cancer goes, we found out at the end of May and by the end of August she was gone. We had to figure out in such a short time what this killer did, what it’s MO was and what we could do to fight it. Turns out, not much. It was always running so far ahead of us that we never even had a chance, it wasn’t a fair fight. We had lost it before we even knew we were in a fight.

Pancreas cancer is a sneaky killer, it’s one of those stealth cancer’s that you only find when it’s too late. Rarely does anyone live past two years, usually it’s six months. For my Mom it was eleven weeks. Just eleven. And what it did to her. Unspeakable really, her pain was enormous and unbearable even with morphine. She never complained. Really, she was incredible the whole time.

Mom died on Friday August 29th, at 4:25 in the morning. It was cool and rainy, a soft drizzly sort of a rain. In the room was Dad, holding her hand, I was behind her, my sisters Jennifer, Annie and Laura, Laura’s husband Jon, my nieces Sam and Noelle, my nephew Dirk, and my cousin Carolina. It was so peaceful where just a few hours earlier the room had been hectic and filled with equipment and the smells of a sickroom.

We left the room after we were sure she was really gone, when the ragged breaths came no more. We cried and called who we had to call. Laura and Jon left to get Uncle and bring him back for Dad, Dad stayed downstairs with Dirk to make some last calls and just to take in the full body blow of losing his wife of 51 years.

The girls, Annie, Jennifer, Noelle, Sammy, Carolina and I, all went back upstairs to wash Mom’s body. The first thing we did was to open the windows and light candles to air out the scent of death. We washed every part of her, including her hair, she had slept naked that last week, and so we chose one of her favorite nightgowns, dressed her, arranged her hair, put on her favorite rose perfume, changed the bed and called Dad back in the room. In that light, a soft glow from the candles and the reading lamp, Mom was lovely in death. Her face was peaceful in a way we hadn’t seen in months, since the first whisper of cancer had hit us.

The mortuary came to take her about three hours later, she still looked lovely. Hideously, the football sized tumor on her liver was still warm, the rest of her started to grow cold hours before she took her last breath.

The pictures we took that day don’t capture the beauty I saw, maybe it was just grace that day. But my Mother was lovely in death. Washing her body was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been privileged to do. It helped me more than I can say.

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