Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of my Mom’s death. She was 34, I was 13, and my brother was 10. I’d like to share a little bit about her for those of you who didn’t have the privilege of knowing her, and for my husband and sons who are excited to meet her for the first time when we all get to Heaven. It’s weird to think of the fact that I’m now older than she had been when she passed away, and my boys are older than I had been. There is something oddly comforting about that… Almost like “we made it through.” It had been a fear of mine when I was growing up that I would end up sick and have to say goodbye to my boys when they were young.
Each year around this time I look through a box of her letters, pictures, newspaper, and other mementos that I saved. And I realize, my Mom saved a lot of momentos of us, too. I’m amazed at the little notes that she kept from me… Looking through the box today, it took my breath away. Usually, I just cry as I look through it. Today, I just felt like I couldn’t breathe. Like there wasn’t enough time to go through everything. I almost felt a panic that set over me to look through everything NOW. The box contains newspaper articles, pictures, tons of her writings, songs that she wrote (she wrote three songs that my church used to play!), and other knick-knacks that I’ve held on to. I’m sad that I don’t have more pictures of her with me. I think my Dad has a lot of them, but he’s moved out of state now. They are tucked into a scrapbook that I made for him years ago that I would look through whenever I visited him when he lived near us.
Growing up, I would say I had a normal childhood until around the time I was in fourth grade when my Mom became ill. It started out as a benign (non-cancerous) kidney tumor that showed up all of a sudden when she was at the bank. She doubled over in pain, and later surgery discovered a football-sized tumor on her kidney that was squishing all of her other organs to the side. They removed the tumor and kidney. Later, she developed what she thought was just a “bad cold” but it wouldn’t go away. My Dad took her to the Emergency Room, but they just brushed it off and sent her home. Over time, her breathing became much harder and she described making the bed as an “aerobic activity” because she would have to keep resting when she would walk to the other side. The doctors here did not know what was going on, and one even hooked her up to a heart monitor and told her to exercise more. My poor Mom who could barely breathe was out there trying to ride her bike and go for walks. It wasn’t until she went to Colorado for treatment that she discovered what was wrong: she had a rare lung disease called Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) is “an indolent, progressive growth of smooth muscle cells throughout the lungs, pulmonary blood vessels, lymphatics, and pleurae. It is rare and occurs exclusively in young women. Symptoms are dyspnea, cough, chest pain, and hemoptysis; spontaneous pneumothorax is common.” The doctors there told her that only 60 women in the United States had been diagnosed with the disease at that time. She came back to Michigan and taught area doctors about the disease. They have said that once you see an x-ray of someone with LAM you will never forget it. The only cure is a lung transplant. Which means going on a transplant list and waiting your turn. It also meant large costs due to the insurance companies not covering any type of transplants at that time.
My Mom was very creative. She was part owner of B.C. Flowershop with my Aunt Cheryl (her sister-in-law). She set to work on creating greeting cards, a family cookbook, and other various fundraisers. She created a line called “Heaven’s Heroes” and “Ewe Originals” that talked about the importance of organ donation. Her hairdresser had a “cut-a-thon” to raise money for the cost of the transplant as well. My Mom wrote to people like Joan Lundon, Oprah, and other famous people to help draw awareness. She received a letter back from Joan Lundon’s company saying that they were sorry to hear about her situation, but that was all. At that time, my Dad worked for the Coca-Cola Company. Miraculously, they received a letter that the company had decided to pay for the transplant when the time came.
My Mom eventually had her transplant. However, since it was considered an experimental surgery due to the rareness of the disease, the doctors at University of Michigan decided to just do a single-lung transplant, thinking that the new lung would make up for the other lung. Unfortunately, the other lung continued to have problems and collapse, to the point where they decided to remove the old lung and leave it as an empty cavity. I wish I could tell you more about it and the science behind it, but being young at the time I didn’t fully understand what was going on.
My Mom had an amazing outlook on life. It sounds cliche, but I think that literally everyone loved her. She was a Christian, so she knew where she was going when she died, but her strength was just incredible. I remember a message that she shared where she talked about how everyone always asks “Why me??” but that her answer was “Why NOT me?” I can’t say that I have that same strength, because there are plenty of times that I had thought “Why me?” when my Mom was sick and it just didn’t seem fair. No child should have to lose their mother at such a young age.
When my Mom was sick, we spent a lot of time either in the car going to and from Ann Arbor to Battle Creek to visit her in the hospital. There were times that my brother and I couldn’t go, and instead had to stay with our Grandparents or Aunt. I remember “getting in trouble” one day at school for not finishing all of my homework in English class. We had left as soon as school was finished for the day, so the only time I had to do the homework was on the way there. Once I was there I was much more concerned with visiting my Mom than doing homework, and it was pitch black on the way home. Homework was the least of my concerns, and looking back, shame on that teacher for making me feel like I chose the wrong option.
I never thought I would have to say goodbye to my Mom at the age of 13. The day started out normal. My Grandparents came over to visit, we played catch in the yard, and later went out for ice cream. Before bed, it all turned upside down. My Mom had been taking her evening medications (after a transplant, there are many “anti-rejection” medications to take to help your body not treat the new organ like a foreign object and try to attack it). My Mom must have choked on one of her pills, probably vomited and aspirated it into her only lung, and stopped breathing. My Dad did CPR as I called 911. Being out in the “country” area, we actually had a different number to call. It seemed like it took them FOREVER to get there. I remember yelling “Hurry! She’s dying!” When the ambulance finally got there, my Mom as in a coma and on responsive. They ended up putting her on a ventilator (or “life support” as I knew it then). I believe that we spent three days in the Intensive Care Unit in Battle Creek. By the third day, the doctors told my Dad that there was not any sign of brain activity, and that the best option was to take her off the ventilator. I remember holding her hand as the oxygen left her body. I remember seeing her pink lips turn a bluish shade. And I remember leaving the hospital on that sunny day and wondering how God could let the sun still shine when my Mom had just passed away. It wasn’t fair, and it didn’t seem like the world should still be able to go on outside those hospital walls like nothing had ever happened. The next several days were full of funeral planning, visitations, and the funeral itself. Tons of people came to the funeral, and the line of cars to the cemetery seemed to go on for MILES.
Being summertime, my brother and I were home alone a lot to grieve on our own. Parents, if your child (or even anyone you know) goes through a loss like this: get them in counseling! I don’t know why, but it seemed like my family lived in almost a denial about my Mom dying. We didn’t talk about it, I don’t feel like we fully grieved, and I just remember feeling so lonely. I don’t know why, but I was almost embarrassed to tell anyone that my Mom had died. I was a very shy child, but still, there was something about being the “girl whose Mom died.” I’m not sure if I was worried about the awkwardness that they would surely feel when they found out she had died (people don’t always know what to say, and often instead of just saying “I’m so sorry” they can come up with some really different comments). I’m not sure if I was worried about crying, or just the fact that it would make it THAT MUCH MORE REAL. My life was forever changed, my heart was broken, and I didn’t know what to do.
I used to have dreams that she would come back and visit me. She never said anything, but I felt like I was able to be in her presence during that dream, and I would be so sad when I woke up. I told my Dad about the dreams before. I never had another one after that, which made me wish I would have kept them to myself…
There were a lot of things I had to go through on my own. Sorry for the guys reading, but I had only had one period before my Mom died. From the shock of her death (and losing 20 pounds quickly, which is another story) my body stopped having periods for over nine months. When I did start again, I was too embarrassed to ask my Dad for pads that I would write him a little note. My first bra shopping trip was with one of his female co-workers. Talk about embarrassing. But I know that he did what he felt was right, and I’m guessing that the lady must have offered to take me and he just took her up on it. I had to go through dating, graduation, choosing a career, getting married, buying a house, having t kids, raising TEENAGERS… Events that seemed like they would have been so much easier if I had the guidance of my Mom, someone to support me along the way. I often wonder how differently my life would look if she was still here.
I hear so many teenagers (or even older) women get upset with their moms or say rude things about them. I want to shake them, to yell that if I still had my Mom I would NEVER talk like that about her. But, I know that everyone’s situations are different, and that I have my own faults that others look at and shake their heads. I want them to remember that our time here is so limited, we only have so much time with our loved ones, and that we must NEVER take our time here for granted. I know that my Mom is going to be the first one in line behind Jesus when I get to Heaven. Even 25 years later, I think of her all the time. Even with her gone, when I am going through something I try to think “How would my Mom have handled this?” and try to go in that direction. It reminds me of the verse in Proverbs 22:6 “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (NIV). I remember seeing my Mom sitting at the table praying for my brother and me, and I want to show the same love to my boys. I want to leave a legacy for my boys in the same way that my Mom left for me. I want to remember her strength, and pray that God will give me the same strength and boldness that He gave her.