As we celebrate Mother’s Day I want to share this excerpt from my book. It’s a story of love and hope that deals with a cathartic moment of healing that occurred between my mom and my grandma — and, in a larger sense, my entire family — as my mom was dying from stomach cancer. I cried as I wrote this chapter and I’ve cried every time I’ve read it since. As you read this today, I invite you to allow the emotion to warm your soul and open your heart. If your mom is with you, hold her close and tell her how much you love her. If, like me, your mom has passed, hold her memory tenderly in your heart and embrace her through a moment of beautiful silence. Happy Mother’s Day. Big hugs of love – Jason
It was mid-July 2009. Onne, my mom’s wife Kim, my grandma June, and I were sitting in the living room of my mom’s house. My mom, in the last stages of her life, was lying on the couch. The pain of the cancerous tumor growing inside her had increased, as had the dosages of medication she was taking to relieve it. This gave us precious few moments in each day when she was fully present and not loopy from the medication.
My grandma’s hands trembled. In them she held a few sheets of binder paper and some handwritten notes. More than notes, they were the first- ever, true expressions of her heart, the peeling open of the story she had locked away seventy years earlier sitting alone in the orphanage.
We sat there holding our breath, not sure what to expect. Everyone but me, I knew what was written on those scraps of paper.
A few days earlier, realizing that our mom didn’t have much time left, my sister and I talked about how to make this experience as meaningful as possible for our children, my mom’s grandkids. Instead of the next couple of weeks being a time of fear, shutting down and hiding their emotions, how could we turn it into something deeply meaningful that would strengthen their bond with their grandma and help them, help us all, tap into the deep love we shared?
We decided that we and the kids would write her letters. This was our plan to make sure of two things. First, that nothing went unsaid. All the things that were too hard to say face-to-face would be written down. It would be a chance to express everything in our hearts. And second, the part we didn’t tell the kids yet, that the connection with their grandma would actually grow through this process because they would read the letters to her.
We all spent the next few days writing, crying, expressing. Finally, when the letters were finished, we met at my mom’s house. The children thought we were meeting there to give Grandma a hug and hand her the letters. They were wrong.
I stood up. Smiled at the kids. I had butterflies in my stomach because I knew what they didn’t. I held my letter in my hand and said simply, “I’ll go first.” Then I turned and walked into the room where my mom was resting.
Watching your mom slowly die is unlike any other experience. It’s as if a part of you is slowly pulled from inside. From deep inside your intestines. Day by day. Bit by bit. It’s agonizing. Painful like no other experience. Right in the middle of your gut. A deep, slow, painful ache.
I sat down on the bed. I held her hand. I cried, just as I cry right now remembering. There is no holding back tears or being strong in moments like that. It’s life, playing out in the raw. Naked and real.
Then I told her what we were going to do, that each of us had written her a letter. That it was our intention nothing go unsaid. That we end this day 100% certain that she knew exactly how we felt about her. That together, through this experience and honest expression, we would grow. Even as her life slipped away, the love would grow stronger.
She looked at me. There was a deep desperation in her eyes. And she said honestly, “I don’t know if I can do this, Jason.”
“Yes, mom, you can. All you have to do is lie there and listen. You don’t have to take care of us anymore. It’s our turn. We are all hurting inside. You can’t fix that, so don’t try. Just accept our love. That’s all that’s left to do.”
Her eyes softened. Then they filled with tears. A lifetime of taking care of the world, of desperately trying to keep us from pain, of trying to prevent the kinds of feelings we were all experiencing right then, all melted away in that moment.
“Okay, J,” she said. She gently squeezed my hand, the way she had when I was growing up to tell me everything was all right.
And I cried. Just like that little boy had cried so many times. All the scared nights and uncertain times. All the fights with my mom as I expanded into manhood. All the pushing away, while secretly longing to be held. In that moment it was all okay. Perfect. Just me and my mom. And my letter … .
So I read, interrupted by the frequent sobs that erupted from us both. I should have saved that letter. I didn’t think to, but I do remember the last few lines.
“I spent my entire life trying to be a good boy. I worked so hard, achieved so much, all of it to make my mommy proud. And now, surrounded by so much stuff, a fancy title, a nice house, a great job, everything I thought I always wanted … I realize I would trade it all … every last bit … for one more day with my mom.”
I fell into her arms in a way I hadn’t for many years. Perhaps ever. The way a baby does when it falls asleep on its mother’s chest. And I cried. We cried.
When I sat up I noticed a twinkle in my mom’s eyes. Behind the tears, there was joy. “I love you my son,” she said.
When I emerged from the room my face was stained by the tracks of tears I had cried, which told the children everything they needed to know. Silently they got up, one by one, walked into that room, and read their letters to their dying grandma. And one by one they emerged. Crying. Sad. But also a little closer to the woman they so loved.
On the drive back to my sister’s house later that afternoon we sat quietly, knowing we had both experienced something deeply important. For ourselves, for our children, and for our mom.
“What about Nana?” I asked my sister, referring to Grandma June.
“Oh no,” my sister said. “Remember the last time we tried to get them to open up?”
I did. A few days prior we had encouraged my mom and grandma to talk about their feelings, to unravel the complicated relationship that bound them together. The conversation had lasted about two minutes before my mom, nearing death and therefore finally free of the need to please her mother, told my grandma to leave.
“We have to figure this out,” I told my sister. “I’ll talk to Nana.”
My grandma had always had trouble bonding with women. I think now it was probably a deep anger that lived inside her. The feelings of a little girl who was mad at her mommy for dying, for leaving her all alone. This was the anger she carried with her and that was expressed to the women in her life whom she loved.
That, unfortunately, often meant that my mom and my sister could do little right in the eyes of my grandma. If they called too often, they were told to stop smothering her. If they didn’t call enough, they were told they had abandoned her. If they asked a question she didn’t like, they got a stern look and sassy response. They spent their time subconsciously trying to mend my grandma’s broken heart. And she wouldn’t let them.
As if to make it just a little more difficult, my relationship with Nana was the opposite. I could do no wrong. If I didn’t call her for a month, it was all erased with a “Hey Nana” and a smile. She adored me. She understood me. I understood her. Even before I learned the emotional reality of what brewed inside her. I just knew.
So I went to see my Nana. I arrived at her apartment in the assisted living complex. I knocked on her door. No answer. This, to the facility staff and everyone else, was a sign that Grandma June wanted to be left alone. To me it just meant that my crabby granny needed a hug. In I walked.
She was in her underwear, sitting in a purple armchair my sister and I had given her.
“Ha ha ha,” She laughed with a bellow. “Well Bucko, you caught me with my drawers down!”
I stepped back outside while she put on something more appropriate, then came back in a few moments later.
“How’s your mom today?” she asked me.
I noted a tinge of guilt about her failed attempt to talk to her daughter a few days before. So I didn’t waste any time.
“Nana.” I reached out and held my grandma’s hand. I began to cry.
“Oh, don’t cry, J,” she pleaded. “I can’t bear any more crying. This is all so hard.”
This was the side of my grandma that most people never saw. The scared girl trying to keep it all together.
“Nana. My mom, your daughter, is dying. I don’t know how much time we have left. A few days, or a week. Not long. And then that’s it. We won’t see her again.” I paused to wipe my tears and gauge the effect on my grandma. She looked at me knowingly. So I continued.
“What happened the other day. You and her. That can’t happen ever again. There can be no more fighting.”
“Well … .” She started to interrupt me and then she stopped.
“None of it matters anymore,” I said. “All that matters is the love in your heart. The love you haven’t shared. You know exactly what she needs to hear … and what you need to say.”
My grandma cried like I had never seen her cry before. She nodded at me to say she understood.
“Today,” I told her, “we all read letters to mom. Letters telling her everything we felt. Our love. Our regrets. Our hopes and our fears. We didn’t hold back. Now you have to do the same, Nana … you have to. Tomorrow is the last chance.”
We held each other and cried. Two people having a conversation only they could.
“I’ll pick you up at ten tomorrow morning,” I said.
I kissed her and got up to leave, then I turned one more time before opening the door. Before I could speak, my grandma said firmly, “I know, J … .”
The next day in the car we didn’t speak much. She clenched three pieces of paper in her hands. At stoplights and stop signs I employed a skill I had learned as a concert promoter, a skill an old-time talent agent had taught me: reading upside down, sideways, from any and all angles.
“Jason,” Chris had said. “The most important thing you can do is learn to read upside down. Most people won’t look you in the eye when they talk to you. So when you walk into their office and they start babbling about something or other, you just listen. While you’re listening you look down at their desk and read away. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn. And you’ll thank me one day.”
What I saw on those papers amazed me. My grandma had bared her soul. She had opened up in a way I couldn’t believe. It was perfect. As I drove to my mom’s house, I smiled.
When we arrived we all sat down. My mom was lying on the couch just as she’d been the last time the two women had tried to talk. My sister and Kim had told my mom what was going on and my mom had reluctantly agreed. Lying there, she looked at me with a “this better be worth it” look that only your mom can give you.
My grandma’s hands trembled. She stared at the papers intensely, almost as if wishing she could escape between their lines to avoid this difficult situation. She cleared her throat and began.
“I know that you have never understood me … .”
Oh shit. Here we go again.
My mom quickly spoke up. “I can’t do this again. I won’t.”
With my left hand I touched my grandma. With my right I rubbed my mom’s shoulder. My sister and Kim hugged my mom and told her it was okay.
“That’s because I haven’t been honest with you. I have hidden so much from everyone, from myself.”
Her hands were shaking and the shaking had traveled to her lips. But she didn’t cry … no, she was too tough for that, just as she’d been too tough to take the doll offered to her in the orphanage. She wasn’t going to lose it here. She had come that day to speak her peace. To say what she knew needed to be said. She had made a list of her truths and she read them … one by one.
“A few days before my mom died in that accident, I was baking with her. We were making a cake. We made the batter together, mixing the ingredients, having a great time. When it came time to put the cake in the oven she told me I couldn’t help. I was hurt. She was just trying to keep me safe from the hot oven but I didn’t understand. So I got mad. My mom sent me to my room, and in my room I sat there fuming. Furious. And then … .”
She paused, a pause that cut through the room. Silent yet so profound it almost had sound. “And then,” Grandma June went on, “I said over and over and over again … I hope you die mommy … I hate you.”
It was as if a giant vacuum had sucked the air out of the room. We just sat there. Stunned.
But Grandma June didn’t notice. She went on with her list. “When you were a baby I didn’t hold you. I was sure I would break you. I couldn’t remember anyone holding me and I didn’t think I knew how. I’m really sorry for that. I know how it made you feel. I know how it affected you. Maybe this cancer … maybe it’s because of that … .”
My mom burst. Like a water balloon plucked by a tiny needle, she burst. She lunged to grab hold of her mother’s hand. She squeezed with all the power she had left, holding on with the little life that still resided in her and all the love of a little girl whose mommy had finally told her that she loved her.
“No, mother,” she said. But before she could say more my grandma marched on.
“When you married the children’s father, I knew I should talk to you. I knew I should tell you certain things, but I was too scared. I was scared you wouldn’t listen. That you would reject me. I didn’t want to feel that again … .” Another pause. She gulped down hard. “I didn’t want to feel like I had when no one cared about me as a girl. So I didn’t say anything. Then I watched you suffer with him. And I have never forgiven myself.”
My mom groaned from deep inside. A release from every cell in her body. She sobbed, unable to believe what she was hearing.
“I haven’t ever said this before,” my grandma went on, oblivious to what was going on around her. “And I want you to know, I’m happy you are my daughter. I love you, Sue.”
I don’t remember a single word after that. The truth is, nothing else mattered. My grandma had finally spoken the truth, a truth that had haunted our family. The unspoken story that had traveled from that orphanage in Minnesota to my mom’s living room in San Jose. The truth that had become a tumor. The pain that had caused that tumor to grow and grow and sap my mom’s life. And now, finally, the untold fears of an abandoned nine-year-old girl had finally been expressed, and our family would never be the same.
I spent a long time feeling the tragedy of this moment. How devastatingly sad it was that a mom and a daughter had lived their whole lives without ever truly knowing each other. How tragic, that it took death to bring them together. The horrible irony of true love arriving just as life passed on.
While writing this essay, and then reading it to my wife, I had a new perspective. One that leapt from me with the same groan my mom made when my grandma read her that list.
My mom had spent her whole life teaching others to love. From the disabled children in the swimming pool to the kids waiting in line for a hug from Grandma Sue-Sue, to the animals she rescued on the side of the road. She taught them to love.
During the last few days of my mom’s life, before the talk with my grandma, she would often talk about seeing a little girl. Occasionally she would cry and point. “I need to take care of the little girl, she needs me.” We dismissed this at the time as hallucinations from a dying soul.
But now thinking back, perhaps on her deathbed, my mom—with that last bit of life she was clinging to — had one final mission. Her true life’s mission, to teach little June … the orphaned girl, her mommy, the young girl who needed her … how to love. In doing so, she taught us all.