STORIES

“She was dying of a terminal illness, already a year into her death march.”
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Christine Bessey
Story by Diana Keough

It wasn’t your usual family gathering. My mom had summoned all six of her children home, so she could go from room to room, assigning us her possessions. She was dying of a terminal illness, already a year into her death march. One down, three to go, it turned out.

She told one of my brothers, “I think this will look nice in your front hall,” her hand resting on a chest of drawers.

And so it went, on and on. A macabre ritual demanded by our well-organized matriarch, able to square off against Death in the realm of the mundane, but unable to face the broken and stressed out relationships looking right back at her.

“And I don’t want any fighting about any of this after I’m gone,” she said. This was my mom at her finest: in control of both her possessions and our fragile feelings. We were her obedient children once more, as well as contestants in her game show of random kindness.

I didn’t want her stuff, but then again, I did. For that was the yardstick of her love. She gave to her favorites, her favorite things, with no extra charge for her tangled web of strings attached. I was a little girl, again, and I hated it. I just wanted to hear her say how she loved me. But a family heirloom would have to suffice because it was the only love she knew how to give. When all of her earthly possessions were dispensed, she told us there was one more thing.

“I want you all to know,” she began slowly. “That when I feel the end of my life is near, and while I’m still able, I’m going to take my own life.”

She sat looking at us, with her hands folded tightly and placed demurely off to the side of her lap. Her spine was rigid and straight against the back of the chair. Her chin was raised high, her legs crossed at the ankles.

“My mother knew about two affairs but thought they were with women.  In spite of that, she stayed with him as long as she did because she was a “good Christian woman,” and was afraid of what other people would think. “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a second to destroy,” she often told us.  Fear killed them both.

One of my favorite memories of my dad — and I have many — is making Christmas cookies.  I have so many great memories of my mom but we had a difficult relationship.  Before she died, we healed a lot of our relationship and I was able to forgive her.

My dad always said he thought my mom looked like Grace Kelly and, I have to admit, I sort of agree with him.  She was beautiful, stylish and really smart.  In a different time, I think she would’ve been a successful entrepreneur.

My dad passed away in July, 1990, in an AIDS hospice in Cincinnati with me and three of my siblings by his side.

My mom passed away in a Catholic hospice in Milwaukee, her door plastered with bright red warning signs about her disease, with me and my oldest sister holding her hands.

They were both only 67 with a lot more life to live.  They never had a chance to watch me grow into the woman I’ve become.  My four sons never had a chance to get to know them or spend time with them, which is a damn shame. Their deaths — the deaths of anyone from AIDS is such a waster and so damn senseless.”

The physical pain she had feared so much, was controlled with medication and never came close to the emotional agony she twisted in prior to her terminal diagnosis.

“Life is such a precious gift from God,” she told me. “Don’t waste your life or any of the time that God gives to you. Promise me that, okay?”

We battled for so long, both of us feeling completely justified, and so full of pride and self-righteousness. The deadline of her death launched her on a soul trip and in taking me along, we were able to call a truce, leaving me to mourn what could have been, not the torment of what was.

I wonder if we would have been able to let go of our anger without the crescendo of her ticking body clock. All I know is what I saw: In the hospice, as she lay gasping for breath, holding my hand, looking right into my eyes, she asked, “This is the sickest I’ve been isn’t it?” I held her hand and thanked her for being the best mom she knew how to be. I thanked her for so many long talks and hugs and for not killing herself. She smiled and squeezed my hand back with all her might as she struggled to say, “I would’ve missed out on so much.”

Me too, mom. Me too.