he•ro (hîr’o) n. 1.In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for bold exploits, and favored by the gods. 2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, esp. one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life. 3. A person noted for special achievement in a particular field: the heroes of medicine. 4. The principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation.
My mother never did anything to make herself famous, certainly wasn’t the main character in a book or movie, and she had no role in mythology, but she was my hero just the same.
The hurdles in my mother’s life were numerous. She was born during the Great Depression and struggled all her life to get ahead. When my mother was in her twenties, her father was killed suddenly in a train-automobile collision. Filling the shoes of “single mom,” she was married and divorced three times. But my mother’s biggest battle was one that took her life: her fight with cancer.
She was diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer shortly before her forty-ninth birthday and my thirteenth. For two years, she endured surgery after surgery, which robbed her not only of her physical strength but also taxed her emotional strength. She also suffered through sickening chemotherapy and cell-destroying radiation treatments. My round, soft-skinned, sleek-haired mother became a bald, bloated, blotchy-skinned woman who faced every day knowing she was one day closer to her last. Her life was marked not with a calendar but with a timer that told her to empty the next compartment in the pill case that sat on her nightstand.
I remember once during one of her sickest bouts she looked at me and said, “I’m so sorry, honey. You’re so young…I know you’d rather be out with your friends. You shouldn’t have to be takin’ care of some sick old lady. I’m sorry to be such a pain.” She was apologizing to me as if she had some sort of control over her disease. Mom was always like that, though. No matter who was to blame for whatever happened, mom was always the one to feel bad.
The last few months of her life were difficult for both of us. Despite dozens of prescriptions, Mom was always in constant pain. The medicine she took only confused her and made her hallucinate. She never felt better; she just thought she did. When she “came out from under”, the pain would envelope her again in a darkness that I pray I never know. She would cry for hours on end. Not completely understanding it all, I asked her once why she was crying. Her response was a loud sob, “Because I hurt, goddammit!” It was my turn to feel bad now. Mom had always taken care of me when I was sick and now, when she needed me most, I couldn’t do the same for her. I’d never felt so helpless in my entire life.
I was at school when I found out my mother had died. The next few days were consumed with making final arrangements. Although I’d cried, the true weight of what had happened didn’t set in until the day of her funeral. Before the service, I stood at her side with my hand between her arm and ribs, the same place I’d held her when I helped her in and out of bed so many times before. I looked down at my mother’s face…her beautiful, loving, peaceful face. I’d never seen her more content. I started talking to her. I told her goodbye, first of all. Then I told her how much I was going to do with my life and how proud she’d be of me. I told her that I loved her, but for the first time, I didn’t hear, “I love you, too.” This hurt so badly. In her entire life, Mom never ended a conversation with anyone before saying “I love you.”
I began reminiscing about my childhood and how close my mother and I had always been. I remembered the silly jokes we’d shared, the crazy things we’d done and the songs she used to sing to me. I began singing to her:
You are my sunshine. I started to cry.
My only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. A tear rolled off my cheek and splashed against her hand.
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. I paused, drawing a deep breath.
Please don’t take my sunshine away. She was gone. I stood there for the better part of an hour just singing and crying.
It’s been almost twenty years since I stood next to my mother’s casket. I still hear her voice and chuckle when I see how alike we are. Mom fought an endless battle, but she kept smiling and looking for the silver lining in the clouds. Sometimes she was even lucky enough to find it. I know she must’ve felt like giving up, but something inside her urged her on. She saw the good in things and knew her fight had a purpose: to inspire me. She surrendered her life in order to teach me to appreciate mine. I guess now that I think about it, she is the textbook definition of “hero.”