Remembering My Mother: Her Love, Her Struggle And Her Legacy
My mother passed away on May 5, 2011, exactly three months after her 54th birthday. I was 24 years old.
My mother's name was Rosemary, but all her close friends and family, including my brother and I, called her Ro.
Even to this day, four years later, I still refer to Ro in the present, as if she is still here. Because, in many ways, she is.
I don’t know if anyone can ever really be ready for the death of a mother. It’s something that strikes you like a cold, hard slap of a hand. No matter how prepared you think you may be for it, a death can shake a person's core.
My mother’s struggle was a long, slow battle with stage four breast cancer, but her death is not what defined her; it was the life she lived that dictated who she was.
Growing up, I was never without affection from my mother. There was always a kiss on a bruised knee or a hug "just because."
I also had a smart, loving father and an amazing older brother, who actually liked his little sister. I was one of the lucky ones.
My parents raised a strange little girl, with a wonky lazy eye, gigantic coke-bottle glasses, chubby cheeks and endless energy.
I was a tomboy who wore all my brother’s hand-me-downs and liked to listen to The Beatles more than whatever pop sensation was “in” at the time.
I was constantly at the hospital, so much so that my mother deemed me the "Boo Boo Baby."
Yet, she always patiently waited with me while I got another set of stitches, had to sit on a breathing machine for hours from asthma attacks or sprained another ankle or wrist.
The reason I look back so fondly on my adolescence is, in large part, due to my mother’s insistence I always be true to myself.
I vividly remember her telling me I did not have to subscribe to any female stereotypes (i.e. wearing makeup, wearing dresses, shaving my legs) unless I wanted to.
I was taught to be kind to all people, no matter where they came from or what their circumstances. She taught me people could be cruel, but it did not mean I needed to retaliate with more cruelty.
I used to think she taught me all of these things in life because she knew I was a little quirky and different, but as I grew up, I saw her exemplify all of her teaching in various ways.
I remember a specific instance where two boys at a grocery store were making fun of an autistic boy who was helping to bag items.
My mother, being the firecracker she was, politely pulled the boys over and began to school them on the etiquette of being a kind human.
She did not yell or threaten to find their parents. No, Ro spoke to them like adults and told them in order to be a respected person, we must respect others.
I was in awe of the way she could be stern with people and still retain her compassion for others.
Ro was the kind of mom who stayed up with me all night when my first love broke my heart; she let me cry on her shoulder and swear I would never fall in love with a jerk again. She fought fiercely for me when I was severely bullied in middle school.
She and my father showed up to every single dance recital, gymnastics tournament, cheerleading competition, track meet, talent show, show choir competition and community theater play I was ever in. She would brag incessantly about me and my brother.
Our entire house was, and still is, a shrine to me and my brother's adolescent accomplishments.
Oh, but my mother and I could get into nasty, knock-down, drag-out screaming matches with one another. This happened more frequently after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Cancer can do funny things to families. It can break them apart and put them together in a different alignment than before.
However, there must be a lot of trial and error before that alignment can occur.
Anger is typically the first emotion to break a family after a cancer announcement. There is no one to point a proverbial finger at, so we all find ways to point it at each other.
I was 12 when my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and I was already going through teen angst of my own.
Now, I had to deal with very real life events that were beyond my pubescent understanding.
My mother and I would fight with each other constantly. Everything was a battle, and those battles were gruesome.
If I look back and pinpoint when I knew I was the spitting image of her, it was then. The reason we butted heads so fiercely was because we also loved each other so fiercely.
My mother and I were able to speak to each other's souls, but that also meant we had the opportunity to hurt each other very deeply.
Once Ro was "cured" after chemo, radiation and a 5-year pill plan in 2004, we were so relieved.
At this point, my brother was successfully pursuing his degree as an engineer in college, and I was preparing to go to college in order to pursue my creative dreams.
As much as Ro and I fought in my high school years, I called her every day (sometimes twice) when I started going to college.
She knew who all my friends were, who my boyfriend was, what activities I was involved in and, of course, when parents' weekend was.
Going home after my freshman year of college brought about a lot of new things. We, as a family, adopted our first dog, Blue, my first college boyfriend and I went through a nasty breakup and I was learning what it meant to come back home after a year of freedom.
The day before Father's Day that year, I decided to get drunk with my best friends and mourn the loss of my college boyfriend (who I swore I was madly in love with) and came home the next morning with one of the worst hangovers I've ever had.
So, when Ro called a family meeting after dinner, I was hardly enthused. When my dad started the conversation, I knew something was wrong.
My mother was always the strong, assertive one when it came to family matters, and something felt very wrong.
Ro then told us she had been back to see her old oncologist and her cancer was back; it was now stage IV cancer in her liver and her spine.
I remember going numb and tuning out all sound. I remember going upstairs and Googling what the life expectancy of patients with stage IV metastasized breast cancer was. Most sites I found said about 5 percent or less live beyond five years.
In that moment, all I could think about was all the time I wanted to spend with my mother in the next five years.
I also though about all of the things I wanted to accomplish in five years. Finding the balance between living my life and worrying about my mother would be one of the worst internal struggles I've ever dealt with.
This became apparent when I wanted to move across the country to Boston to pursue my dream school where I could sing, perform and get an education.
It would mean more distance between myself and my family. I would now be a plane ride instead of a car ride away. It killed me to think about being so far away from my family.
Ro and I had a heart-to-heart before I left, and she told me she could never live with herself if she didn't help me pursue my dreams.
It was another defining moment in our relationship where I could not refuse her. Ro was not sacrificing because her internal happiness was making sure my brother and I were living the best lives we could.
For a while, things were wonderful. I still called my mother once a day (sometimes twice, sometimes even three times).
I needed her advice more than ever since I had met the man I wanted to marry. I had a band I was gigging out with every weekend.
I had started to write songs I planned to record. I was the top of my class at my new school.
I had big post-grad plans to move to New York, get married to the man of my dreams and start a successful career.
Then I had a dream my dad had died unexpectedly. I woke up and called my mom just to make sure everyone in the family was okay. I remember physically shaking as she told me everything was great.
"In fact," she said overly excited, "your father is coming to do some business up in Maine and is going to swing down to Boston to spend some time with you."
This was great news! I hadn't seen my dad in a while, and I was excited to take him to restaurants and show him around the city.
However, the first thing he did when he walked into my apartment was sit me down and put his head in his hands.
"What's wrong?" I half-screamed, and my voice broke because I knew what was coming.
"Well, your mother isn't doing so well. She has talked to her doctors, and the clinical trials aren't working. We think it's best if you come home and spend some time with the family."
For some reason, this piece of knowledge didn't hit me as hard as others had.
I knew there was going to be a time where this would happen, and it appeared without warning and without fireworks or drama. It just came, and I knew I had to deal with it.
That night, I quietly packed my suitcases with the help of some friends and silently cried myself to sleep with my boyfriend's arms around me. My life was about to change in a very surreal way.
The months I spent at home created some of the happiest memories I've ever had with my mother, like the day we spent shopping at Target for who knows what, talking and laughing.
Then there were days when I got into a screaming match with her in the middle of the grocery store because I was pissed when her friend took her to get her blood transfusion instead of me.
I felt like every time anyone wanted to help my mom, it was like they were actually stealing precious moments that could have been our own.
I was frustrated and angry with everyone. I called my best friend one night after drinking a half a bottle of whiskey and screamed at her, saying I couldn't believe this was happening and I did not know how to live without her.
But, then, there were days where she would take me to the drug store to buy wedding magazines and talk about my future wedding.
There were days when we would look at old photographs and she would say, "Aw, that's my girl" or "That's my littlest lady bug."
Once, she woke me up in the middle of the night because she wanted someone to eat potato chips with. We sat in our kitchen, in the dark, laughing about the need for midnight potato chips.
The oncologist soon gave my mother two to five weeks to live. I cried in her arms for 20 minutes, not knowing what to say, but knowing the end was close.
Luckily, Ro only moved to a hospice bed about 24 hours before she passed, so it was not as painful as it has been for many other families.
In the hospice bed, we all took our turns talking to Ro. I think it took me a solid three times before I was able to actually sit down and spill my guts.
I told her I wanted to thank her for putting up with my emotions over the last 20 some odd years, for comforting me when I needed it and for always supporting my love of music, singing and creativity. She responded simply, in barely a whisper, "You were a wonderful daughter."
Those were the last words my mother ever spoke to me.
Watching someone die has a very sobering affect on a human being. Ironically, at the moment my mother took her last breath, I realized how very much alive I was, while she was very much gone.
I felt everything; it was almost as if every single nerve, fiber and cell in my body had been exposed.
It was a pain so present and real that I felt as though my entire body was being sucked underwater and lit on fire simultaneously.
And then there was the strangest feeling I had yet to encounter: relief. I was so relieved she was no longer hurting. I was so relived my family could begin healing.
I felt guilty for a long time for having those feelings, but it did not at all mean I loved my mother any less. I was just happy Ro could move to a better place, along with my family.
And, believe me, it has taken time. As I write this, it is the exact four-year anniversary of Ro's passing, and I could recite the details to you as if it happened yesterday.
After she passed, I went through a nervous breakdown. I was seeing a therapist and taking behavioral drugs to treat my anxiety and depression.
The way I crawled myself out of the dark was by identifying what I wanted to make my life about and how I would go about it. It was actually an exercise my therapist had me do.
When I got home, I tried to write down "I want my life to be about ___," and nothing came. But, eventually, the answer came so simply: love.
Because Ro made her entire life about love: her family, her children, her friends, her compassion and her kindness for others.
Rosemary Allen was never famous. She was never part of a grand social movement, made changes in foreign policy or landed on the moon.
But, Rosemary Allen loved people, all people, and the world is a better place for having her in it.
I have wished for the last 1,460 days Ro was still here. So, the best I can do is remember a woman with integrity, compassion, honor, respect, kindness and love.