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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

The Last Thing I Told My Mom Was a Lie (Part 2)

Updated: Apr 15

By Olivia Smith


Content warning: death and dying


Read part 1 of Olivia’s story: The Last Thing I Told My Mom Was a Lie (Part 1)



Olivia and her mom, Michelle, out to see Barbie.

My sister met me in South Carolina and we drove with my 2-month-old puppy down to Florida, stopping for the night along the way. The time is still such a fog; it seemed so quick, and it felt like I was moving through a vat of honey all at once, almost as if life was happening to me and I wasn’t in my body.


I was terrified to get there and see how she looked. Before this round of cancer, she was always very fit and healthy, enjoying the gym. For much of her life, she was ripped. Over the past 11 months, she had shrunk over 3 inches from the tumors along her spine and compression fractures from the cancer. She was a bit hunched over and had lost a lot of weight. She refused to look at herself in the mirror, which broke my heart. She was beautiful, but had spent her 56 years on this Earth having a bad relationship with her body, including eating disorders. The changes the cancer made to her body exacerbated her low body image and this was a big struggle for her. 


On my previous trip down, two weeks prior, her weight loss and new height were pretty evident. But it was still a shock to see her only two weeks later, so very frail and her complexion looking a grayish yellow. She came outside to see us, so excited we were there, and my stomach dropped seeing the changes, making it feel real. I tried to mask the shock from my face so she wouldn’t notice. As our mom, she was already more afraid of the effect her death would have on her daughters than her fear of death itself.


The next few days passed in a blur; the hospice care team finally came to do an intake on Friday. By then, my mom’s speech was a bit slurred. She also left with her husband Friday to complete her will. In her 11 months with this cancer, she had yet to do that until the last possible minute. I spent the days with her and my sister while she was awake, playing with my puppy while trying to keep his high energy from bothering my mom. We tried our best to make her laugh, keep her comfortable, and be there for her, but we had no clue how much longer she had left. I spent the nights sobbing on the floor in their bathroom by myself before I took a shower. I was so afraid of what was to come and how I could survive it. I tried to keep my pain and fear to myself, even though we were all experiencing it. 


That Saturday, my sister and I were lying by my mom’s pool while she rested, and I decided to read the hospice pamphlet. The back of it had signs of coming death to look for, grouping it by how soon death was to be anticipated. One sign that meant death was coming very quickly was swelling and discoloration of the feet and ankles. Later that day, I noticed that her feet and ankles were swollen and discolored. I looked at my sister and asked if she’d read that pamphlet. “Yup,” she said. “Did you see Mom’s feet?” I asked. “Yup,” she said. And we just nodded and sighed, knowing it was coming soon. 


This was all happening in August, but we were thinking ahead to Thanksgiving, as it was my mom’s favorite holiday. We had planned to go down that Thanksgiving to spend it with her in case it was her last, and to celebrate my sister’s master’s degree graduation, but we didn’t make it. At the suggestion of one of my best friends, we decided we would do Thanksgiving for my mom that Sunday and invited a few close people to celebrate with her. By the time Sunday came, my mom was barely leaving the hospice bed, except to try to use the restroom. 


That morning, my mom’s husband told us that she told him she didn’t know how much time she had left, and we took it as a sign of goodbye. Later, my mom asked for my sister and me. She told us she loved us very much and was proud of us. We then knew she was definitely saying goodbye. I asked her if she was scared, hoping she would tell me no and that she was at peace and ready to go to set my mind at ease. But she wasn’t. She barely got the words out, “Yes, I’m scared,” and it broke my heart. I hugged her and tried to keep myself together. Just as my step sister and family friends were arriving, I left her room and cried while mashing potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner. I wasn’t ready for this. 


My mom wasn’t well enough to sit and eat with us. Right before dinner, she had her first hospice nurse visit. The nurse told us she was at the five-day or less timeline, gave us some emergency medicine, and gave my mom an anxiety and pain pill. We sat down and tried to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with the door from my mom's room open right next to us. She started groaning while we ate, and one of us at a time would go in and sit with her.


Just before dessert, my sister called for me to come in. “It’s time,” she said. I stood by my mom, brushing her hair with my hand and telling her I loved her. I kissed her forehead while she groaned and cried when I felt her cool skin, knowing it really was coming. I had to get a chair to sit on because I was shaking. My step brother was supposed to be leaving for the airport but couldn’t because my mom was actively dying. We all sat around her for what felt like hours as she groaned and moaned, and her breathing slowed. We all lied to her, telling her it’s okay, she could let go, and we would be okay. My sister and I told her she raised us well and we would be okay without her, but even I didn’t believe myself. I didn’t want to say those lies; she taught me not to lie. “Honesty is the best policy,” she had said, but I had to lie to let her go, to get out of pain. I had watched my mom suffer for 11 months, and I couldn’t ask her to suffer for one more moment. It wasn’t okay, though. I didn’t believe I would be okay.



Olivia and her mom, Michelle, having tea before seeing Barbie.


At one point, she groaned, “Help me.” I lost it and started sobbing; my big sister motioned to my step brother and pointed to me as if to say, “Take care of her.” He immediately stepped over and hugged me, and I spent the rest of the time she was dying sobbing into his stomach. What do you do when your dying mother says “Help me” and you can’t? That was the most painful part of all for me. I had never watched anyone die before; I wasn’t prepared. My only expectation was seeing “so-and-so died peacefully surrounded by family” in obituaries. But this was far from peaceful; she cried for help! Would she be okay? Would she find peace? As someone who doesn’t handle not having all of the answers well, this tore me apart. After a painful 11 months with cancer, I just needed to know she was at peace and out of pain at the end, and I didn’t know how to trust that after watching her painful death. 


Her breathing continued to slow, and eventually her groaning became quieter and quieter. Her husband noticed she had wet herself and asked us to change her. We moved her body from the hospice bed to her bed. My sister and I helped take off her nightgown while my step sister cleaned the hospice bed and got new sheets. We moved her back, covering her dying, naked body with a blanket. Soon after that, her breathing stopped altogether. She was gone. We said goodbye, and we all left the room, calling our partners and trying to process the news. I spent the majority of that evening crying. 


My sister and step sister went back into the room after calling the funeral home to come pick up her body. They let her dogs sniff her dead body so they would know what happened. Together, they picked out an outfit and shoes to dress my mom in so she could look beautiful and have dignity as her body was cremated. My sister even applied my mom’s favorite beauty item, mascara, to her eyelashes. I am forever grateful my sister could do this for my mom. I wasn’t strong enough to see her again. I stayed outside when they came to remove her body, too. I couldn’t take seeing her lifeless body another time.


That evening, after she was gone, all of us kids spent time in her pool, laughing and crying over memories of her. She was gone. I still didn’t know how I would move on, how I would forget the feeling of her cool skin, forget the lies I told her, forget her last words begging for help. It’s been six months now, and although I get flashbacks and nightmares about her death less frequently, they still come. I don’t know if they’ll ever go away. The pain it brings me is hard to explain. I wish I could take away her pain, take away her death.



Olivia's mom, Michelle, with her motorcycle.

Sometimes, I forget she’s not still alive and well in Florida, riding on a motorcycle and enjoying the warm weather. I still don’t know how to get over a lot of it. Sometimes my brain can’t comprehend that it happened, even though I watched the life leave her pale cold body that was once a strong, warm place to seek safety. Sometimes I have a thought cross my brain of a question I need to ask her, or something funny to tell her before I realize that’s not possible, and the pain comes flooding back again.


I have to constantly re-remember that she’s dead, that this is real life and not some terrible nightmare I will wake from, which oftentimes means reliving her suffering and death. Sometimes my sister and I are forced to relive her death through nightmares and spend the next day in a fog. But I’m in therapy to process it, and the waves of grief come less and less frequently. And sometimes I can remember fond moments with her now, and make fun of her annoying tendencies with my sister.


Sometimes we also make other people uncomfortable with dark humor, and sometimes we eat what we call “dead mom cheesecake” and mope. Dead mom cheesecake got its name from my sister. One day at work, shortly after our mom died, one of her coworkers brought in a cheesecake that their wife had made for my sister. My sister was tired of people being awkward about our mom’s death and not knowing how to act around her. So, when she took the cheesecake out to eat it, she asked everyone if they would like to eat some “dead mom cheesecake” with her. Her dark humor worked and broke the ice with her coworkers, putting them at ease. They felt more comfortable around her and enjoyed “dead mom cheesecake” with her. Using dark humor may not be for everyone, but it has been a coping mechanism my sister and I appreciate. Sometimes it makes others uncomfortable, but sometimes it can help break the ice to put people at ease. When it’s just her and I, it can help make things more bearable and allow us to laugh alongside the pain. 


Nothing could’ve prepared me for my mom dying. But it wasn’t until I read a memoir about a woman who lost her mom to cancer, who said her mom’s last word was “pain” that I felt seen and like I wasn’t alone in experiencing such a painful death. It felt comforting to know that my mom wasn’t alone, that maybe it was more common than I thought. That maybe she is okay now somewhere, playing with my childhood dog and looking after me in another way. 



Olivia and her mom, Michelle, at a breast cancer walk.


People don’t talk about death often; it’s not a fun thing. I often feel isolated by it, wishing people would talk about her more, even if it brings up some sad feelings. It feels good to talk about her, to remember her, that she mattered. Death is inevitable for all of us. Through her death, I have found a passion for advocating and fundraising for breast cancer organization funding and research. I dream of a world where nobody will have to experience what my mom did. Where no loved ones will have to experience what my sister and I did. 


I have been hesitant to talk much about her death, for many reasons. It isn’t easy to talk about. I wrote most of this in tears, having to relive a really traumatizing experience. Talking about death makes most people uncomfortable, and who likes to make people uncomfortable? 


Also, since being more involved in the breast cancer community, I see so many stories of hope and beating the odds. So many women working so incredibly hard to rid their bodies of cancer, like the one that killed my mom. Those stories bring me and so many others such a heart-warming sense of hope and happiness. I am afraid to share my experience with her death because I don’t want to bring fear to anyone experiencing breast cancer. Everyone’s cancer experience is unique, and thankfully many don’t end in death. There have been so many advancements in the last decade, improving statistics.


However, death is the one thing that is guaranteed in life, we will all experience it at some point, hopefully in a more peaceful way than my mom did. Sharing my experience isn’t easy. I’d prefer to keep it to myself and shield people from the harsh death we witnessed. However, the more people I’ve shared my experience with, the more I’ve felt not alone. I’ve heard others suffering quietly in their own bubble, afraid to talk about what they saw. Writing it down and sharing it has helped me, and if this brings at least one person some comfort and to feel a little less alone, then it was worth the pain that came with writing this.


My sister and I did what we could to bring our mom comfort when her time came, even though it caused us pain, including telling her one last lie. I can only hope that the lie brought her some peace in her last moments and that she’s proud of us and who we are becoming in her absence. 


If you are searching for someone who understands or have questions, feel free to reach out to me at @gingers_breasties on Instagram or at gingers.breasties@gmail.com.





Read More:











On the Podcast: Breast Cancer Conversations

Breaking the Silence on End-of-Life



 


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