A few weeks before my mom had a stroke, she was most of the time bedridden and more or less paralyzed due to metastasis of lung cancer (she never smoked). The nurses and doctors at the cancer clinic found her outlook and uncommon sense of humor quite mind-boggling. She was this dying woman, whose genuine smile never ceased to fade away, yet she was brave enough to crack a myriad of jokes about life and death. Her entire body was filled with pain, hope, optimism, as well as too much morphine. She never told me that she was about to die soon, albeit I could tell just by looking into the oncologist’s eyes that there’s something extremely amiss going on. She strictly told us not to cry because we had to stay hopeful and happy with her. Despite the fact that I would turn 22 that year, my mindset wasn’t unlike a little child’s, well at least in terms of losing a parent, as mom was still firm in her belief that she would be able to walk again soon and she was looking forward to going back home. Ultimately, I thought so too. I’m not speaking for myself when I say that we were all pretty astonished by her perennial enthusiasm and admirable spirit. Even though she had to be taken care of by professionals, she would tell everybody that she felt like a queen and really enjoyed it because she was pampered by so many people – and who gets pampered like that? Only a proper queen, right?! Then she would grin and laugh contagiously, which would make one of the nurses go completely emotional and shed salty tears. While bedridden, she befriended the nurses and shared all of her amazing recipes and stories with them like nobody’s business. They told her that they’d never met a cancer patient as strong and optimistic as her before. She invited them over for a home-cooked Vietnamese meal but that had to wait till she would recover from the metastasis.
Let’s rewind for a bit, shall we? Summer started early in Oslo. On a typical sunny day, I would sit on the patio studying for too many exams next to my mom who’d enjoy a cold beverage while intermittently watching a few episodes of some Korean soap drama and talking on the phone with her girlfriends. Sometimes I found the latter fairly annoying because she would laugh all the time and I would have to read the same paragraph a dozen times, which would lead to a mild tantrum and she would hang up on her girlfriends because I’d refuse to study somewhere else. We would, however, sit on the patio for hours, and sometimes she’d fall asleep and I’d adjust the parasol to the changing position of the sun. The family dog would lie next to my mom’s chair sunbathing. Everything seemed to be fine even though my mom’s latest CT results weren’t anywhere near fine. She was already slightly paralyzed. Nevertheless I aced every single exam of mine and I kept hoping that mom would be around for many years to come. I would love for her to see me graduate and at goal. I would love for her to see her daughters grow up, not to mention grow old with the love of her life.
All of a sudden the family dog for more than 12 years got euthanized just three weeks before my mom’s death. This was only the beginning of the entire world falling apart. I was trapped between hope and despair. I was constantly mad at myself for losing faith slowly but surely as it struck my mind a few days before that my dog would pass away. I started believing that my negative thoughts towards life were the reason why shit happened. One day I even started considering the idea of coming to terms with my mom’s terminal illness, but truth be told that only resulted in losing her for good. In just a matter of short time it became too painful to see my dearest mom in severe agony.
Finally the hospital let her go back home. My parents’ bedroom was turned into a kind of ward but my mom’s presence at home didn’t last long. I remember I made phở gà for her the day before she had a stroke but sadly she ate less than a baby. The constant battle to keep the cancer at bay had eventually drained her of vitality, yet she remained so hopeful and strong – but for whom? For the ones like me who wouldn’t accept that she would die soon? Be that as it may, she wouldn’t stop smiling or laughing. She was determined to be back on her feet. Still I sometimes do wonder whether or not her attitude was 100% sincere. Or would she stay strong to protect her family, or perhaps she was living in denial? I remember it really broke my heart when my dad told me that she had told him that she sometimes wanted to give up. She would never tell me that.
I think mom was at home for two days before we were back in the ambulance holding hands again, only this time she wasn’t going back home. In retrospect, those were decidedly the most bizarre, absurd, and painful days of my life. Having to deal with the fact that my mom had a stroke as a consequence of paralysis, of which we weren’t aware, was utterly and truly unimaginable. Why didn’t the doctors tell us that this could possibly happen? My sisters and I wouldn’t mind moving her arms and legs a zillion times a day if that could have prevented mom from having a stroke. I can’t even write or talk about the days between the seizure and her death because whenever I look back at those days, it’s like having my heart ripped out and my whole world falling in on me over again. Regardless, perhaps it’s about time to broach the matter?
Waiting in the hospital for my mom to wake or not wake up, hearing the doctor’s bad news and so on was terribly heartbreaking. We spent the final days in her ward just watching her breathe heavily and completely deprived of food and water until she would check out. My dad would stay overnight every night holding her hands. We barely left the ward in case something happened. Although my mom was just lying there in complete pain, unable to talk or take in nourishment, I still had a mom back then which was sort of consoling. I remember the sound of her voice when she tried uttering something. She had lost sight in one eye. I remember asking her how to cook her famous sticky rice with chestnuts because I didn’t know if I had to cook the chestnuts together with the rice or throw them in the pot after cooking the rice separately. I remember telling her funny and silly stories, that I love her so much and that I’m eternally grateful for everything she’s done for me and taught me, as well as assuring her that we’ll be fine and that I will take care of the family and become either a gynecologist or an oncologist because I wanted to help people like her. Then I asked her if she would like me to name my future children after her pseudonyms used in her collection of poems. Yes, she was a wonderful poet. She would squeeze my hand as a sign of “yes”, which she also did. Sometimes she would try to write because her right hand was still in function albeit so weak. She would ask for things she craved like cappuccino ice cream but we couldn’t give her anything edible. She fought until the last heartbeat. My heart will never stop bleeding.
This is the very first time in six months that I have been able to deliberately talk or write about my mom in past tense. I’m still in denial and I still think of my parents as a unit. I don’t know what this means and I don’t want to overthink things. Despite everything, I will never stop talking about mom as though she’s physically still here.
Man, she was such a strong and admirable person. Whenever friends and acquaintances tell me that they cannot believe I’m so cheerful, smiling all the time or remaining strong, I just tell them that it’s just a brave smile inspired by mom.