How I Turned Weeping into Purpose in Mom’s Last Days

UPDATED: October 14, 2015
PUBLISHED: June 12, 2015

Decades ago, my mother and I had kayaked together in choppy seas. We had zipped through dense woods on a dogsled. We had rafted over rapids, climbed swaying ladders up sandstone cliffs and hunkered in a tent 5,000 feet up a mountain during a thunderstorm. But we’d never felt half as daunted as we did last January. Mom was dying.

After five years of fighting her cancer, she had no good treatments left to try. Her doctor said she might live six more months. How in the world would we spend them? Travel seemed out of the question now, with Mom too fragile to venture more than a few yards from bed. Were we doomed to months of helplessness? Of moping whenever I had to leave her and my dad in Brooklyn to be with my husband and kids in Rochester? For a few days, it appeared so.

Then, one night during a phone call—Mom in her bed, me at my desk 300 miles away—we had an idea. Together or apart, able-bodied or not, there was one more journey we could take together.

For ages, Mom had been cobbling together notes and documents about ancestors, going many generations back. I had been too busy with my work, and with washing the socks and making the peanut-butter-and-jellies for the latest generation, to be interested. Now, though, it struck me how confusing Mom’s papers would be without her to guide me through them—and how much of our family lore wasn’t written down at all. Instead it was tucked away in Mom’s mind, especially when it came to tales of her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and her life before I came along. Sure, she had told me much of it already. But without a written version, I was pretty fuzzy on the particulars. Was the relative who spoke nine languages my great-grandmother or my great-great-grandmother? Who was the one who took ocean swims until she was an old lady? I couldn’t say. Nor, worse yet, could I recall all the details of how my parents met.

It was settled: Every day, as long as Mom wasn’t in too much pain or too groggy from her meds, we would navigate as much family history as we could. Instantly we both felt less weepy, more purposeful. We set out that very night, with her telling me the surprising fact (how had I not heard this before?) that her father had had an Italian stepsister, an excellent cook whom Mom had visited.

“I’m so glad we have this project together,” I said.

“Me, too,” she said. “I hope you write about it at some point—you know, what it’s like to have a project with someone who’s dying. It could really help a lot of  people.”

It occurred to me she was right. Probably a lot of families could find solace in a plan like ours. And who knew how many other projects might help at a time like this? Going through recipes, say. Writing down favorite old song lyrics or dictating letters to be given to grandchildren. Organizing family pictures.

Pictures played into our project, too, as it turned out. One day in mid-February when Mom felt unusually strong, we sat for hours with my brother, husband and kids, meandering through albums dating back to the 1700s. She identified dozens of men and women, beginning with paintings of stern couples in poufy dresses and powdered wigs, and ending with snapshots of Mom, impossibly sleek and beautiful at a college dance.

Mostly, though, it was her talking and me typing, in person or over the phone. (Now and then Dad chimed in with names and dates.) Our chats took us through England, Sweden, Italy, New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts. We tramped over boarding-school rugby fields with my great-grandfather, and popped inside the Brooklyn seafood shop where my grandfather, a future artist, drove his boss nuts by drawing on paper meant for wrapping fish. We breast-stroked the Atlantic with my great-grandmother (yes, she was the swimmer) and threaded our way across Fifth Avenue as my great-great-grandmother imperiously raised her cane to passing cars (yes, she was the one who spoke nine languages).

Sometimes, especially as February wound down, we lost our compass. More and more, Mom forgot where a thought was headed. More and more, she fell asleep in midsentence, or said things that didn’t quite make sense. On Feb. 26, though I didn’t know it then, we finished the last leg of our history tour. She and I talked about some of the (80-plus) books she had written and illustrated for children, and about the first thing she published, at age 11—a magazine piece about her cat Minnie. As I pictured the girl she was then, dark-haired and mischievous-eyed, Mom said, “I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna last.”

The answer would be 19 days. (So much for the doc’s six-month prediction.) But during that time, as Mom’s words dwindled and her breathing grew harder, I took comfort in thoughts of our project and the 30 pages of notes I had typed—including the ones I had hoped for most. “I said to the director, ‘I don’t know where you found this guy, but he really makes me laugh,’ ” Mom had told me one day, recalling how she and Dad met as the comic villains in a college play. “We were Miss Pencil and Mr. Inkwell…. He was so funny. He was supposed to fall in love with me at first glance. He walked in and would go, ‘Oh!’ ”

A couple of days before she died, I sat by Mom’s bed, holding her hand. Her half-open eyes didn’t seem to see me; she was starting a final trip, one she had to take  alone.

“We did it,” I told her, just in case she could hear. “We got it down—all the history. I’m going to write about it, like you said.”

Softly but unmistakably, she squeezed my hand.

When life gets tough, you have a choice. Will you ride the waves of life, or let them pull you under?