Anxiety hung thick, suspended in the air mixing with the smell of disinfectant. It seemed with every inhale it became thicker. It clung to the white walls, the white bedsheets, the white linoleum floors. It leeched onto the blue hospital gown wrapped loosely around her frail body. If you took in too much, it transmuted to utter fear. A fear that could seep into your pores, into your cells and change your DNA.
She shivered with the slow release of drugs in her system, her body awakening to the trauma of the nine hour surgery. Her breath remained quiet, but her eyes fluttered open occasionally as her mind flitted from thought to thought. How will I sleep? It's cancer. Will I live? Did they get it all? I’m scared. Past, present and future, all silently paying homage in the anxiety washed room. Outside the trees were coming alive in the spring sunshine, but in here it felt as though we were heading into the long dark hours of winter.
Internally she was like a ravaged war torn country. Parts of her digestive and gastrointestinal systems were cut out and rerouted. She would never again eat normally. There was a chance she would be instantly diabetic. There was the possibility she would endure another surgery to remove the rest of her pancreas. And there was the chemotherapy. In this moment, however recovery was unfathomable. The focus was on the night ahead.
It was not planned nor discussed, only subtly stated that one of her four children or two sisters would stay with her each night past visiting hours. And on this night, hours after her surgery, it was me that remained by her bedside, comforting her best I could. I stroked her hair, placed my hand on hers and listened to her.
The month prior to her surgery, after her diagnosis, I took her to a relaxation session at the Cross Cancer Institute. For one hour we were guided through breathing exercises and what I now know as meditation; it was an experience that would not be fortuitous. As nighttime encroached in the tiny hospital room, anxiety and fear became like poisonous snakes that slid from the walls, moved out from the vents, seeped from the dust particles, and insidiously wrapped a noxious grip around the room.
Unable to calm her mind, she asked me to guide her through “one of those sessions.” In my own heightened state, I could barely remember the words. It was even more difficult to find a soothing voice needed to bring her into such a state. Yoga therapy, meditation, Shamanism and energy medicine were not yet a part of my repertoire. Curled on a chair near the edge of her bed, I wanted to cry. I wanted my mom to console me. I wanted her to tell me everything was going to be ok. But it was me that had to distill her fears.
Somewhere out of the thickness the words floated to me. “Hush Little Baby don’t say a word.” I knew this song. I had sung it every day to my baby girl. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, mama’s going to show you a hummingbird. If that hummingbird should fly, mama’s going to show you the evening sky. When the nighttime shadows fall, mama’s going to hear the crickets call. While their song drifts from afar, mama’s going to search for a shooting star.” And so I sang a lullaby in hopes to ease the snakes back into their place and guide my mom into a deep restorative sleep. It was all that I could do in that moment to keep myself from falling apart.
One year later in early spring as snow swirled outside, I watched her slip away. In the hours before her last breath, I froze not wanting to witness what was about to happen. The intensity of what was moving through me was beyond anything I had ever experienced. Swept in a tsunami of emotions, I oscillated between grief and pain, fear and love, compassion and awe.
What I did not know in those moments of her last hours or after her surgery was the impact these life altering, heart wrenching experiences would have on my journey. Witnessing the fragility of life and death has helped me connect to what is most important. It has taught me to be fully present; present to what I feel so that I can be present for others. I realize now I had been given an unbelievable gift.
For the past two years I have volunteered weekly at Compassion House, guiding women with cancer through restorative yoga and meditation. Recently I began offering private healing sessions to the women. What I have learned through it all is beyond the grief, beyond individual suffering, there is compassion. For me, giving compassion has been the most healing thing I have done after losing my mother. In stepping outside of my experience and supporting others, I have transmuted my pain into love.
And I know, without doubt, my mom is so proud of me. (ok, mom are you happy I put that last line in? I know you wanted me to.)