It’s Wednesday, September 26th, 2012. I’ve fallen to my knees on the kitchen floor. Grief sweats from every pore and I’m hyperventilating for the first time in my life. My eyes have narrowed to tunnel vision and my body is tingly and losing feeling.
I’ve just arrived home from the hospital, alone, leaving Trish in her sister Paula’s care. The house is empty, but she is everywhere: the (nasty) dragon fruit Vitamin Water, the Guns and Roses poster, the Advil and the ‘Us’ magazine.
A future without my best friend and beloved bride echoes in the silence of the house.
Worse, in a few hours I have to break the news to my darling girls that they will live the rest of their lives without their mother, who will soon die of cancer. Tonight their lives change forever and I have to be the one that tells them. It’s a responsibility I bear, and I can’t bear it.
My only job as a parent is to protect those kids, but I can’t protect them from this. I know it’s not my fault, but to a parent it doesn’t really doesn’t matter that you are blameless. When your kids are being harmed, you feel helpless and guilty anyway.
I don’t have an exact plan, but I’m certain they should not hear about this in the house.Why? I don’t know, exactly. The house should be a place we return for comfort. I think that wherever we are when they found out, will become a tragic place. And I don’t want that to be our house.
It’s a little chilly, fall is coming. We grabbed some frozen yogurt at the downtown Silver Spring outdoor mall and sat on the brightly lit steps. It felt like I was committing a crime, harming these sweet girls happily eating candy-sweet frogurt on a normal night.
I brought them closer together, looked them in the eye, and told them. “Girls, I have some sad news. Mommy’s cancer has become much more serious. She’s going to get weaker and weaker. Sometime in the next few weeks she will die. We’re going to lose her.”
The words burn coming out. In the eternity of seconds before tears begin to flow, their little bodies collapse under the weight of the news; muscles limp, spines sagging, arms drooped.
I reach to support them, as if I might keep them from falling through the earth into a tragic oblivion. But we are not on this plane. My arms are worthless.
The next thirty minutes we just cry. Words barely come out. I gasp for breath in between sobs. Inside our little huddle on the brightly-lit staircase, I promise them I would take care of them forever. And that mommy loves them dearly. And that this isn’t anyone’s fault.
We discuss grieving; the agonizingly slow process where we heal our broken hearts. That we will spend the rest of our time with her as meaningfully as possible and allow ourselves to be sad and hurt so our hearts can express sorrow. But also that we will also need to have some fun and be strong. The key to grieving is to earnestly do both.
I explain my own experience with grief, that it often creates other emotions that seem to have no connection: anger, panic, loneliness, guilt or fear. And there are a lot of people that will be there in addition to me for their support; friends, family, teachers and therapists.
Emma shares her deepest fear, which is not having a mom to talk about woman stuff. It’s probably my biggest fear too. She’s twelve, and is a little late with her first period. The best I can offer to assure her is that she has four great aunts and dozens of other great women to talk to.
But I admit it’s not the same as a mom. I don’t know who it will be, friend, family or stranger that provides that for her and Lily, but they will need it badly.
Lily reacted a little differently, looking to us first to see how we react before she talks or cries. She’s just nine and all these emotions must be completely confusing to her. Shit, it’s baffling to me and I’m the adult. She just says she’s generally upset. That’s normal.
One thing I don’t say is it’s ‘okay’. Nothing about this is, or ever will be ‘okay.’ There will be some really hard times we miss her a lot; birthdays, holidays, special events and performances. That generates more sobs from everyone.
I promise repeatedly to do everything I can, It’s a helpless attempt to protect them, but I can’t. I can never replace a mother.
Still, I emphasize that there will be a life ahead that can be happy. I know that’s what Trish wants for all of us.
The crying subsides, only because we are emotionally exhausted, and we hold hands and head down the steps toward the parking lot.
More questions. Lily wants confirmation that cancer isn’t contagious. Emma wants to know exactly how she will die. I explain the several ways that her brain will eventually be deprived of oxygen and the life will be lifted from her body.
Emma stops in her tracks outside the ‘Ann Taylor Loft’ and asks ‘Daddy, are we still going to go on trips?’ which brings on a new set of tears.
Our family’s quests for adventure, cataloged in this damn blog, were a response to Trish’s first cancer scare. We knew in 2004 that she had a 30% chance she wouldn’t make it 10 years. (She made it eight.)
We took the risk seriously and set a family goal to go around the world for 52 weeks, half of which we achieved with Trisha. “Of course Emma, I promise we will. That’s exactly what Mommy wants us to do – keep adventuring”. I make a promise to myself to finish the other half with Emma and Lily, with Trisha there in spirit.
At home, the girls and I watch some Family Guy and The Simpsons. Trish’s favorite thing to do after an emotional outpouring is to watch some TV to calm down. I fall asleep immediately, exhausted, with them in my arms.
A few episodes later they wake me up and we walk upstairs and cuddle in the same bed together. We sleep together, Emma, Lily and me. Soon the Creekmore’s will be be just three.
When I awake on Wednesday, (September 26th) the girls have already gone downstairs, playing video games together – We are taking the day off of school to go see Trish in the hospital.
Between the cancer and our adventuring, Emma and Lily are unusually close for 9 and 12 year old sisters. They take care of each other like twins, even though they couldn’t be more different in personality.
They are eager to huddle on the couch for a little more discussion. I talk about our next steps. Family will be coming right away from California including their closest cousins from Santa Rosa and Tahoe.
And we talk about how we will spend her final days, loving her and talking to her about the things we loved most about her. “What do you remember the most about Mommy?” I asked Emma first.
“Her bravery” she responds without hesitation. And she’s right. Trish is really brave. There is bravery where you are naturally fearless or even cocky (like me), and there is bravery where you are actually scared as shit, but you summon the will to do it. Trisha is the latter. She has panic disorder and anxiety, but she has done some of the gnarliest adventures. She is inspiring.
Lily says “that she came to my classroom and went with me on field trips.” Lily has always been nurtured by our participation in school activities, most of which we disdain.
But Trish made an effort in the past few years to be there more often for Lily, and it’s gratifying that it was so appreciated.
My plan is to stay with the girls for the next two days and leave the hospital watching to Trish’s mom, Suzanne and sisters Becky and Paula. Then we’ll surround them with family for two weeks. It’ll be good for the girls to see their cousins and family from California. Hopefully it’ll soften the shocking blow they got last night.
The future scares me, but I’ll do my best to provide them with patience, honesty, empathy, support, continuity, and most of all, memories of an amazing mother lost to cancer. And maybe someday, it’ll feel safe enough to say we are ‘okay.’ Someday.