Love is watching someone die
Darlene never met my mom, but she watched her die.
On Friday August 22, 2003 (about a week after the major blackout), I was at work when I got a phone call. My mom wasn’t doing well, and the doctors said that I needed to get their right away. My mom had been battling leukaemia for a few years. She was first diagnosed in the fall of 2000. She went through chemo, was in remission and we were told it was unlikely that the cancer would ever come back. Sometimes, long odds come through.
My mom spent Christmas 2002 in the ICU, unconscious. Somehow, she cam through. It seemed like sheer force of will that allowed her to survive through the spring and into the summer. My sister was married that May. Had it not been for that, her will might have given out long before.
Darlene and I began dating at the tail end of June. At this point, my mom was weak, often too weak to leave the house. On top of that, she was battling depression. Her mom had been diagnosed with depression in her dying days, and my mom reflected on her childhood and saw that it had probably been a lifelong affliction. I never told this to my mom, but I soon had a similar revelation. Certainly, my mom’s struggles were quite minor and quite spaced out, but, in retrospect, they were there.
Probably because of the depression (and because I was, relatively speaking, the fuck up in the family… a role that I kind of cherished) my mother was worried about me, and when she got wind that I might be seeing someone, she got quite sad. “You don’t need that right now,” she said, dropping her head. (This may have been a fair assessment, as my two previous girlfriends suffered from depression, and the relationships could be… tumultuous.)
Of course, since my mom was weak, rather house-bound and unwanting of visitors, there was pretty much no way she was going to meeting Darlene any time soon.
That July, my mom surprised me. Her brother had a large birthday and my worked up the mettle to attend. Not only that, she thrived, relatively speaking. She was her old gregarious self, but she had a good time.
Unfortunately, Darlene was away at a bachelorette weekend so she didn’t attend. It is my greatest regret in life that I didn’t implore her to attend. But we’d been only dating a month, and how was I to know that it would be her only opportunity to ever meet my mom.
On Friday August 22, I was supposed to meet up with Darlene as she and a bunch of old high school friends went out for drinks. Obviously, that did not happen. I spent Friday night in the oncology ward.
I spent Saturday there, too, and Saturday night, and Sunday.
Sunday evenings were often a time of melancholy for my mom. She understood how we, as kids, hated it. The weekend was over and there was school the next day. Who wanted that?
For my mom, she often thought back to her time at teachers college in Kingston. It was only a year, but it was the first year that she lived away from home, having done her undergrad at a local university. Sunday nights would often be dark and cold, and she would always think of home. For her family, Sunday night was always a time for family, a hearty meal and grand conversation. It was, in fact, a highlight of the week. But in Kingston, where she had fewer friends and no family, it was just dark and cold.
On the evening of Sunday August 24, 2003, Darlene came to the hospital. She had popped by my house and brought me a change of clothes as well as some toiletries. We had been stuck on that ward all weekend, and as a family friend so delicately pointed out, “it was kinda funky in there”.
My brother-in-law left for the night, and Darlene was about to leave, as well, but then my mom’s breathing grew slower.
The doctor had enquired about the length of time between breathes, so my Dad and I—math nerds at heart—had been tracking it. It’s amazing what you focus on in these situations. The Christmas before in the ICU, I had been watching the numbers on all the various machines hooked into my Mom, mentally graphing the progress, spotting trends and second derivatives.
Her breathing slowed. It had been 13 or 14 seconds between breaths. Then 15 seconds. Darlene stayed and we held each other.
That was when she stopped, when she finally let go. We had been begging her unconscious self to finally let go. Her suffering needed to end and, finally, it did, as me, my dad, my sister and my future wife watched.
October 1, 2003 would have been my mom’s 58th birthday. It was a Wednesday, and Wednesdays suck for celebrations, so on October 3, the family made plans to go to dinner. This was less mourning than celebration, which is what my mom would have wanted (in her good moments, she would have wanted us to be joyful; in her darker moments, she would have wanted us to be free of her burden)… but it was still kind of mourning.
That day, I went to a local mall (Bayshore, for our Ottawa readers) to buy sneakers (blue suede Vans, for anyone who would actually care). Walking through the mall, I noticed one of the jewellers had a sale on.
When I got home that afternoon, I wanted to call my best friend, but I knew he was in class. Instead, I called his mom. I won’t say that she was a like a second mom to me, but it wasn’t that far off. Not only had I spent a lot of time at my friend’s house, but his mom, Kathy, had known my mom. And she had adored my mom, loved my mom. So it was somewhat fitting that she was the first person I called after buying an engagement ring. I had to tell someone, and I also wanted to make sure that the lovely little enclosed garden was still beside the restaurant at which the family had reservations.
That night, I picked up Darlene. We pulled into the parking lot at the restaurant, but before going in, I told her there was something I wanted to show her. I quickly directed her to the adjacent garden (my brother-in-law, having seen us drive in, came to check on us, but quickly wised up and left us alone before he was spotted). I walked Darlene to the end of the garden and sat her down on a bench. I got down on a knee and asked her to marry me.
And she said, “You’re asking me now!?”