Of grieving and marshmallows

light-has-gone-out-of-my-life
Theodore Roosevelt wrote this on his diary after losing his mother and his wife on Valentine’s Day, 1884. Photo credit: Library of Congress

My mom’s apple salad was, still is, legendary.

I never tried it growing up, because I found the combination of marshmallow and apples to be, well, gross. But everyone always raved about it, how good it was, and it always disappeared from the bowl in minutes.

My mom made it for the last time for our 2014 Christmas dinner, almost two years ago. She was fragile and tired from a brutal round of chemo, but she insisted that we had to stick to tradition, so she got out of bed and started preparing the salad.

She was halfway through it when she realized that my aunt forgot to buy the marshmallows for the salad. My mom always used a particular kind and brand of marshmallows, and we all knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find them at a Mexican grocery store on Christmas Eve. However, I grabbed the minivan’s keys, took one of my sisters with me, and we went on a search mission for those marshmallows.

We ended up finding very similar ones after visiting several stores, and mom’s smile when she saw them lit up the room, the world. I sat down to watch her prepare the salad (she refused help), and I told her I’d try it. She looked at me in shock, because she knew I had never wanted to try it before. But she smiled some more and said, “Well, I have to make sure it’s extra delicious this time.”

It was. I immediately regretted all those years during which I refused to eat it, because wow, it was tasty. We joked about the marshmallows and how we avoided a tragedy later that night, while mom took her chemo pills.

Today, marshmallows make me cry. Whenever I walk down a grocery store aisle and I notice the marshmallow section, I have to look away. My throat shuts down, and my eyes sting with tears, and I have to look away.

Grief creeps on you like that, when you’re least expecting it.

– – –

I started grieving my mom before she died. I started grieving her on that last ambulance ride to the hospital, in which she couldn’t communicate anymore, in which she tightly clutched my hand while I tried to comfort her, not knowing what to do or say to make things better.

I started grieving her the moment her doctor came in, late at night, to tell me it was just a matter of hours, maybe days. I had never felt grief like that, and I had lost people before. My grandparents, friends. But this grief was new, similar to a rough ocean, waves of grief hitting me over and over until I couldn’t breathe.

I don’t think I can explain how painful it was to have my mother die in my arms. I’ve often tried to come up with words for it, but only people who have been through that can truly understand. There are no words. I’ve said it before, but a part of me died with her that day, leaving a mom-shaped hole in my heart, filling the rest with tremendous grief that still remains alive and vicious and present today.

After she passed away, my grief was muted for a week, because we had things to do, paperwork to sign, people to “entertain”, had to get my sisters ready for their first week of school. The world wasn’t stopping just because our life did, so I choked back all my tears and carried on.

– – –

It was a Monday morning. My aunt had gone back to work, my sisters were starting school, and I was all alone in the house, with only my thoughts keeping me company. I walked to my mom’s room, lingered by the doorway. The empty bed greeted me coldly, a reminder that mom wasn’t there anymore. That I wouldn’t ever see her reading a book again, that I wouldn’t see her look up and smile at me ever again. That I wouldn’t be able to curl up next to her and have her lovingly pat my head and tell me everything was going to be alright. That my sister M wouldn’t be able to come home from school, grab the chair next to the bed, and sit and talk about her day, making my mom laugh with her witty banter. That my sister G wouldn’t be able to sit on the edge of the bed and entertain mom with her sarcasm.

I just stood there for a small eternity, crying silently, and the grief and loss suffocated me once again.

– – –

When I moved back to Dallas, it was challenging to adapt. My friends were, and still are, so understanding and supportive. But there was this disconnect, this sudden rush of “hey, welcome back to real life”, and after a year of being with my mom 24/7, I was supposed to go back to my old life and keep going.

It was hard. It was so hard.

My long-term relationship ended a month after I moved back. It ended for many reasons, but the truth is that I changed, became a completely different person, and I was still grieving.

All the loss and sadness was crippling, and I dealt with it by not dealing with it. I focused on writing, on work, on bringing awareness to colon cancer, joined a grief support group, but I still felt empty. There were days when I woke up crying, I couldn’t sleep, and I could tell my roommate was worried about me, and she helped the best way she could.

But everything hurt, all the time. I just wanted my mom back. I still do.

– – –

People don’t like to talk about grief, I’ve found out. Especially when it revolves around death. Most people think that grief has an expiration date, that you end up moving on after a couple months.

It doesn’t work like that. It gets easier to deal with, but it doesn’t necessarily get better.

– – –

My first front page story ever got published, and I was so proud and happy and – it wasn’t enough. My first reaction was to Skype my mom and tell her, and I couldn’t. It was a bittersweet moment, because while she was sick, my mom kept telling me to keep pursuing writing and never give up, that she knew I would go places, and there it was, ta front page story with my byline underneath a bold headline, and she wasn’t there to share it with me.

I cried a lot that night. Grief didn’t let me sleep.

– – –

With every passing month, I managed to deal with grief somewhat better. I would let myself feel the pain when it happened, and talked to my sisters and friends, and they always, always helped.

However, my relationship with grief changed when the opportunity to become an ambassador for Fight Colorectal Cancer came up. I first interacted with Fight CRC when mom got diagnosed, and it became a social media relationship since then. Fight CRC ambassadors are volunteer advocates who work to bring awareness to colorectal cancer in different and amazing ways, and it includes medical experts, survivors, caregivers, and family members of those affected by CRC.

My first glimpse into healing came when I met my hotel roommate, Karlee. We instantly connected and talked about our parents. She lost her father to CRC, and our experiences were kind of similar. I had never felt so free talking to someone about it, not having to edit myself in order to not make people uncomfortable.

I was a bit worried that my reaction to meeting CRC cancer survivors wouldn’t be the best. I thought I’d feel bitter, or jealous, but that wasn’t the case at all. Meeting them was life-changing, all these people who beat or are still battling CRC became an immediate inspiration. Meeting people my own age battling cancer was eye-opening, and with those long talks with all the ambassadors, I felt at home.

That’s when my grief took a whole other meaning.

I will never truly understand why I had to lose my mom. She was a force of nature, a beautiful human being who was stubborn and fierce and a fighter, funny as hell and the best mother I could have ever wished for. She didn’t have an easy life, but she never let that bring her down, quite the opposite. She always wanted to help people, and everything she did, she did it for us. I will never truly understand why my sisters and I will have to grow up without her. I still don’t think it’s fair.

However, now I can use my grief as a tool and a motivator to educate people about cancer, so they don’t have to go through what my mom went through. What my family went through, what we’re still going through. Educating people has made my grief a little easier to bear.

This doesn’t mean I don’t still wake up with an aching heart and tears in my eyes. It doesn’t mean that I don’t avoid sad movies or my mom’s favorite songs. It doesn’t mean that I don’t miss my mom terribly. Because I do, I will miss her until the end of time, because I will always love her.

But now, grieving is a little easier, because my grief has a purpose.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go buy a bag of marshmallows.

For more information on colon cancer, prevention, screening, and patient advocacy, visit fightcolorectalcancer.org. 

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