Celebrating My Late Mother’s 54th Birthday

Celebrating My Late Mother's 54th Birthday Featured Image

After losing my mom last spring, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my life as a son and a family member. That’s especially true since I’m becoming a parent myself in a few short weeks. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the things that will never happen, like how my kids will never know my mom.

Of course, you can really fall down a rabbit hole of things you’ll miss out on. This type of reaction can make you really bitter toward other people as they seemingly get to experience everything you’ve lost. Never was that more obvious to me than the time my grand aunt was talking about how she couldn’t believe she was already in her 80s in front of my dying mother. To this day, I wish I could snatch those 30 years from her to bring my mother back.

Yet, I remember a time in the nursing home talking to my mom about how unfair it was that she was so short on time. Rather than expressing that same bitterness, she showed me a moment of courage. She told me that she felt she had a good life, and she feels bad for all the kids with cancer who never get one.

I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to use this perspective trick in day-to-day life because you’ll never seek to disrupt the status quo, but for a moment it really gave me peace. In perhaps the lowest moment in my mother’s life, she found the strength to consider the lives of others. To me, my mother is a hero just for that.

Now that I’ve had nearly a year to process my grief, I wanted to take a moment to commemorate my mother’s life by sharing some stories about her for what would have been her 54th birthday. To do that, I thought it would be interesting to start with a few adjectives that described my mother and share some stories that gave me that impression of her.

Table of Contents

Positive, Strong, and Stubborn

I don’t think there is any doubt in my mind that my mother was positive, strong, and stubborn. As soon as she was diagnosed with cancer, she told me she was going to fight this thing. Little did I know, the survival rate for her particular type of cancer (small cell lung cancer) was particularly low:

For people with localized SCLC, which means the cancer has not spread outside of the lung, the overall 5-year survival rate is 30%. Around 94% of people with SCLC are diagnosed after the cancer has spread outside the lung. For regional SCLC, which means the cancer has spread outside of the lung to nearby areas, the 5-year survival rate is 18%. If the cancer has spread to a distant part of the body, the 5-year survival rate is 3%. However, some people with advanced lung cancer can live many years after diagnosis.

cancer.netOpens in a new tab.

I don’t know what her initial prognosis was, but I believe they gave her about two years to live. In total, she made it about 25 months.

Despite knowing how dire the situation was, she had a completely positive attitude the whole way. In fact, I remember her getting a particularly aggressive form of chemo that was working wonders. Unfortunately, the cancer was just too aggressive.

That said, even when she decided to no longer pursue treatment, she didn’t want anyone to say she lost to the cancer. My mother never lost. She fought until the end.

Looking back, I’m not really sure the “battle” analogy should ever be used with cancer. It’s extremely disrespectful to imply that anyone who passes away due to cancer somehow “lost” or “gave up”. And let me tell you, my mom did not like it when people came around implying that she somehow “gave up”.

Practical and Opinionated

Thinking back to my youth, there were ways that my mom behaved that I didn’t really like. Specifically, she was very practical and opinionated, which often didn’t mesh with my desire to dream.

For instance, when I was really young, I remember expressing interest in musicals. Specifically, I wanted to try out for the local school play in like 5th or 6th grade, which I believe was Tom Sawyer. At the time, I remember my mom asking me if that was something I really wanted to do since you have to “raise the pitch of your voice to sing.” Looking back, it’s kind of weird that she tried to turn me away from music due to the supposed femininity of it, but you have to respect her conviction.

Later, I remember being interested in attending our local tech school. My dad went their and my grandpa taught there, so I felt like it would be a good fit for me. However, my mom wasn’t really having it. She wanted me to finish school and go to college because, at least in her mind at the time, the trades weren’t going to set me up long term.

Later, when I skipped past going to tech school and eventually started applying to colleges, she was very adamant that I go into a field that earns money. At the time, I wasn’t really interested in engineering, but my good grades in math and science led me in that direction. Naturally, in a fit of defiance, I actually auditioned with the music department in undergrad and started my brief music major journey behind my mother’s back.

Within 8 weeks of trying to balance a computer engineering degree with a music degree, I dropped the music degree. Since then, I’ve had nothing but respect for the people who pursue music as a career. It’s incredibly grueling work.

Once I was nearing the end of my degree, I remember completing an internship with a major engineering company. As the internship neared its end, I remember going home and crying to my parents about how much I hated my job. At the time, I didn’t really appreciate their response, which was to tell me “that’s what having a job is like.” But looking back, I can see how their struggles to raise me would involve a bit of self-sacrifice. After all, my mom was looking at things practically: you got a job that pays well and has good benefits—what are you complaining about?

Even to this day, I don’t really agree with the things my mom tried to steer me from, but I appreciate her commitment to being realistic. All parents ever want is the best for you.

Funny, Goofy, and Silly

If you were to ask anyone, I think one of the universal descriptions of my mom was that she was funny. I suppose from my perspective, I never really noticed it until near the end when she used her wit to keep everyone in good spirits.

Since it’s been almost a year now, my memories are a bit blurry, but I wrote a few notes down. One story that I somewhat remember was around the administering of pain medications. As a part of end of life care, pain regulation is critical. However, once you’re in a nursing home, you can’t really get drugs in the same way you can in the hospital. There is a specific person who visits you regularly to adjust your prescriptions.

For my mom, there was a mix of pain medications: one slow release and one fast release. These were administered in tandem to keep pain at bay. The fast release was morphine and the only way they could administer it in the nursing home was orally. According to my mom, it tastes terrible, but it worked well for pain management.

Anyway, the drug is put in a syringe much like the kind you might use to give drugs to a pet. To administer it, a nurse would come in and squirt it under her tongue every so many hours.

Over time, my mom was starting to lose her autonomy, which she absolutely hated. I think she wanted to be able to administer the drug to herself, but I don’t think they would let her. So, she made a joke about how she was a complete idiot and wouldn’t know what to do with it. I recall her saying, “what do I do with it?”, while pretending to squirt a syringe of morphine into her eyes. It was probably the funniest shit I’d ever seen.

On top of that, I recorded a few other bangers, such as the following:

  • “I’m actually hungry today because no one is riding my ass to eat”
  • “You’re shitting my room up. Just kidding”

Needless to say, she cursed like a sailor—a trait I seem to have inherited.

In addition, she also filled out a couple of journals that I haven’t quite had the heart to review, but I’m sure she left some funny notes for us.

Laid Back, Independent, and Unfazed

Another cool aspect of my mom’s personality was how laid back she was, which I think really balanced things out with my dad. I don’t have any real specific memories of her being laid back, but she had a lot of catch phrases like “I couldn’t care less” and “who gives a shit?” To this day, I’ve adopted her nonchalant attitude, which has been great for remaining stress free.

She was also very independent. While I was a kid, she was working to become a psychologist. Then, by the time I was a teenager, she was working full time. That may not seem so weird now, but back then, a lot of my friends had stay-at-home moms. She was a bit out of the norm for pursuing a career for herself. I just wish she got a chance to retire.

And the last thing I’ll point to was her ability to be completely unfazed by anyone else’s opinions. I couldn’t count the amount of times people tried to start drama with her only for my mom to never once take the bait. As a result, I feel like she had a lot of enemies (or maybe rivals), all of whom she turned away until the very end. Truly admirable stuff.

Remembering My Mom

One of the tougher parts of losing my mom has been losing the memories. I’ve always had trouble remembering things, but that’s typically a super power. Who doesn’t want to be able to relive a piece of media twice? Unfortunately, it hasn’t been so great when there are things I actually want to remember.

As a result, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of the few memories I have left of her. For me, this has also helped me come to terms with my role as her son who didn’t do a great job of keeping in touch. That’s why I’ve tried my best to put a positive spin on even some of the tougher memories above.

And while I’m here, I figured it might be a good idea to share some of the happiest photos I have of here:

For my sake, I think I’ll use this space to list off other stories as they come to mind. Feel free to check back later for more stories!

  • In the nursing home: One of my sadder memories was of my mom starting lose her mind a bit near the end of life. I remember her saying, “do you need the car? Never mind. I’m losing contact with reality”. The self-awareness was sad but also spoke to her intelligence, which she claimed was the “only thing she had.”
  • In the nursing home: While we were sitting around in the nursing home, I remember talking about the types of fast food my mom liked. “I like bake potatoes from Wendy’s. McDonald’s fries. Crunchwraps from Taco Bell.”
  • In the nursing home: I told my mom that I had been looking into the history of their house. She told me fuel oil exploded in the house, so there is soot everywhere—especially along the edges of rooms. That explained why there was dark patches along the edges of the carpet. She also told me that a woman named Nora had inherited the house from her parents.
  • In the car at a drive-in movie: I remember my mom slapped me when I was really, really young. I don’t think she had ever hit me since.
  • In Cleveland: at some point in my early adult life, my parents took my girlfriend at the time (my now wife) and me to see Fleetwood Mac in concert. That is now a band I will forever associate with my mom (see above for photo).

Hopefully, after sharing all these stories, you feel like you know my mom. She was a great person, and she’s been a huge loss for my family ever since. I’m hoping I can be as good of a parent to my kids as she was to me.

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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