June has never been my favorite month.
In Los Angeles, we get this strange inversion layer in the month of June. The mornings are cold and damp with dark clouds overhead. They call it "June Gloom." I am always certain it will rain, so I dress accordingly (usually a cashmere sweater and boots). Our offices are freezing cold (year round), so my attire makes sense until I go out for lunch. When I finally walk outside, I am smacked in the face by the sweltering summer heat. I look like an idiot (as I am dressed for Fall) and most people are wearing shorts and tank tops. In spite of growing up in Los Angeles, I have never learned the art of layering, and I am always surprised by this deceptive weather pattern.
In the television industry, June has its own deceptive weather patterns. This is the month of musical chairs. This is the month when most of the writers get their staffing jobs (or not) for the fall season and it is also when the big executive shifts happen. In the month of June, almost on a daily basis, there is an announcement of some executive being fired, replaced or hired. It can be very unnerving. It sometimes happens without warning and sometimes you just feel left out, because you weren't considered for another job... whether you were looking for one or not.
But June holds a much deeper wound for me than just weather and job uncertainty. It marks the anniversary of my greatest loss.
It was in the month of June that my mother died... many years ago.
I have not talked much about my mother in this, because I thought she was too important to be reduced down to some weekly journal entry.
But I came to realize without addressing her significance in my life, I can't really begin to explain the rest of what is the core of my foundation... the good, the bad and the ugly.
My mother was my everything. I don't really care if that sounds like a cliche. It's just a fact.
My entire world revolved around her being, her touch, her warmth, her guidance, her humor, her cooking, her bedtime stories and her love.
Her death was sudden, but her illness was not.
When I was 7 years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She sat me down to explain that she needed to have surgery and would be in the hospital for a few weeks. The scariest part of that conversation was that I would not be able to visit her in the hospital, because I was too young.
Cancer was still a very bad word in the early 70's. People knew very little about it and no one talked about it. The treatment for breast cancer was radical and still experimental. After her surgery (a single mastectomy), she had chemotherapy and radiation treatments. A few months later, she went into remission and seemed to live a relatively normal life. (Although, I am not sure how "normal" is when you have only one breast and your hair is falling out from chemotherapy.) But she was home again.
Until the cancer came back and there was another surgery. She went back to the hospital and once again, I was not permitted to visit her during her long stay in the hospital.
When she finally came home, we talked a lot about her medical treatments and I learned not to be afraid of her unsightly scars (there was no breast reconstruction in those days).
My mom was a very private person and quite stoic, but we had a special bond. She was very open with me and and we spent a lot of time talking about her illness, the treatments and her medicine.
She was in and out of hospitals for about 3 1/2 years. In the last year, she stayed in a hospital closer to our home. I was able to walk there after school by myself. The doctors had given me special permission, even though I was still under the age limit. While other kids stayed after school to play on the playground, I spent my afternoons with my mom in a cancer ward.
I would sit on her bed and we would hold hands. A lot of time she was too weak to have much of a conversation. Her arms would be badly bruised from the IVs and I was sometimes afraid to look. But in spite of my fear, I treasured those afternoons with her.
After a few weeks, she finally returned home again. My parents' bedroom was slowly being converted into a makeshift hospital room. Complete with an adjustable bed, wheelchair, cane, commode, part-time nurse and a huge hideous green metal oxygen tank that looked like a bomb... probably because it had a big flammable warning label on it. It was the oxygen tank that was the only piece of equipment that truly scared me.
One morning, my mom and I were home alone and she was having trouble breathing. She was gasping for air. She couldn't tell me what to do, because she could not speak. No one had ever shown us how the oxygen tank worked and there were no instructions. I went up to the big, ugly, scary tank and I started turning knobs and flipping switches until I heard the "whoosh" of the air come thru the mask. I put the mask around her face and saw her take a breath.
She smiled weakly and nodded. We both knew that I had saved her life.
Afterwards, I gently crawled into bed next to her and we held hands like we always did. We didn't talk. I just listened to her breathe under the mask. I think we both felt safe again.
After that incident, we took one of my mom's nightgowns and hats and dressed up the oxygen tank to look more like a mannequin, rather than a thing that looked like a bomb. Instead of being scared of it, it made us both smile.
A few weeks later, my mom developed a fever and was in a lot of pain. We called an ambulance to take her back to the hospital. She was rushed into ICU and we were sent home for the evening. It was Thursday night.
My oldest brother was graduating college that weekend, but he decided to skip graduation and come home. My sister was finishing up her sophomore year at college and came home after her last final on Friday. The next day I heard my sister talking to one of my relatives on the phone. She said, "It should be any day now." When she hung up, I asked, "What's any day now?" She said, "Don't you know that Mom is dying?" I burst into tears. "No," I said quietly. "No one ever said that. I want to go see her." Apparently, my mom was in a lot of pain that day, but my three siblings were permitted to go visit her. I had to wait one more day. But the next day, she slipped into a coma and they would not permit me to see her that way. I think they expected her to come out of it, so I just needed to be patient.
But she did not come out of the coma, she died on that Sunday.
I never got to say goodbye after she was wheeled into the hospital that Thursday night and I never got to say goodbye before she died. I did not get to hold her hand one more time, hear her voice or listen to her breathe. She was my primary caretaker, my best friend, my anchor, and my mentor. It felt like my whole life was gone in what felt like an instant.
I was 10 years old.
What I didn't know then, but I came to learn later, was this turned into a lifetime of mistrusting people. I felt that my grief could have been mitigated with more information. If only I was prepared. If only I could have said goodbye.
They say there is a "turning point" in everyone's life. This was mine.
From that moment, I became hyper-vigilant about knowing everything at all times. I felt blindsided by her death. While we talked about every aspect of her illness, no one ever said she was going to die.
Cancer and death became such a fundamental part of my formative years, that I am sure it is what drove me to my lifetime adoration of medicine... both western and alternative.
Her death had a profound impact on every decision I made for the rest of my life. I wish that I had proper grief counseling when I was little, but it wasn't really common in those days. We just stumbled along as best we could. Everyone dealt with her death in very different ways. I spent my life trying to find someone to fill the void. I thought I could find it in friendships, in love, in marriage or in having children of my own. The truth is you can't fill that kind of void. You have to find peace within yourself and that has been a lifetime journey.
It's hard to know where our "patterns" begin, but the month of June became a pattern of sadness for me.
But I am starting to feel a shift in those patterns. While not a single day goes by where I don't think of my mom, I am no longer plagued with grief and loss. Today is the first Monday in June and I am not feeling blue today.
I am now grateful for the cooler morning temperatures... before the warm afternoon sun comes out.
I am now grateful for having survived 30 years of musical chairs... and I no longer desire any of those chairs.
I am grateful to have a new career and a project to work on that makes me feel excited to get out of bed in the morning.
I am grateful to still have my siblings and my dad.
I am grateful to now have a family of my own. My children know my mother through the stories that I have told them hundreds of times. Her life (and death) is a part of me. In many ways it became the road map for who I am: a warrior. I may be a complicated, opinionated and sometimes neurotic woman. But I am also a warrior nonetheless.
I have my mom to thank for that.