Three weeks after my mother’s cancer returned, I found out I was pregnant.
While I was growing life inside my body, my mom was dying. Her body was broken down by chemo and radiation. The cancer spread to her intestines. She spent many a night in the hospital for excessive vomiting. Eventually, she couldn’t eat anything at all except jello and popsicles. She drank cans of Ensure. She talked about a time when she’d be able to eat everything again. She talked of new treatments, new diets, new philosophies, but eventually, those came to an end, too.
I believed there was no way my baby would survive. How could she live when my mom was dying? My pregnancy was not happy or magical. It was nine months of gut-wrenching anxiety. Yes, I reveled in the joy of each kick, but I also wondered if each kick would be the last.
On July 22nd, the day before my mom’s birthday, Colette came into this world. She was healthy, beautiful and perfect. She was a little ball of life. She was mine. I could hardly believe it. I talked to my mom that day. This was a rare gift—she was often too tired to talk on the phone anymore. I talked to her the next day, too, on her birthday. Two days in a row! Maybe, I thought, things are looking up.
Three weeks later, she was dead. Because my mom lived in San Diego and I in Philadelphia, she never met my baby. Not once did she get to gaze into Colette’s eyes or kiss her sweet face.
I attended my mom’s memorial service in a sleep-deprived haze. I read a poem by Mary Oliver. I wore a new dress that barely fit my post-partum figure. I plugged my breast pump into a meeting room and pumped while everyone else ate lunch. This obviously isn’t real, I thought. As a matter of fact, nothing is real. Not this baby, not this family around me, not this husband, not this beautiful Vermont sunshine.
I don’t remember crying much. Not then and not when I returned home after the service. There’s no time for grief, I remember thinking. I have to take care of that baby.
And that baby? She cried enough for both of us. She was relentless, wailing all hours, except the ones when she was sleeping, which were perilously few. I developed tricks to make her stop crying. One involved swaddling her, cradling her in my arms and bouncing her on an exercise ball. This worked like a charm until the second I stopped bouncing. Often I would catch myself nodding off on that exercise ball out of pure exhaustion, about to topple us both onto the wood floor.
What hell is this? I thought. Why is this all happening to me at once? How am I supposed to deal with this loss and this miracle without breaking open? It was too much for me, so I shut down. I cared for my baby. I went back to work after maternity leave. I scrunched my hair and put on mascara. My loving mother-in-law took me shopping and I bought striped sweaters and striped shirts and jeans one size up because I thought they would make me feel better about my new life as a mom, without a mom. They didn’t. I got by, but I was going through the motions.
During this period, I talked to my sister a lot. She was in the middle of a rough patch of her own and she often said, “I feel mom around me. I know she’s with me. She’s helping me.”
Other people, even those not so close to my mom would say things like, “I felt Peggy with me the other day.”
But me? Never. I never felt her, not even once. For whatever reason, she didn’t want to make her presence known to me. It took me a long time to realize that the problem was not that she wasn’t there, but that I wasn’t opening myself up to her.
After about six months of this not-feeling business, I went to therapy. That was the beginning of both my grieving and my healing. I was also getting more sleep at that point, which helped tremendously. I began to let myself feel.
Eventually, I saw the timing of Colette’s birth and my mom’s death for what it was: a gift. Yes, it was hard growing a baby while watching my mom die. It was even harder caring for a newborn knowing that I would never see my mom again. In the end, though, the timing saved me. Every year around my mom’s birthday and the anniversary of her death, I will grieve for her, but I will also be reminded that in the midst of this death came life. A little girl was born—a girl who needs me, who loves me and who is the greatest joy I have ever known.
One evening in late December last year, about a year and a half after my mom died, I rocked Colette to sleep like I always do. The last few nights I had been singing Christmas songs to her in honor of the season. Colette, often distracted during bedtime, was staring straight into my eyes. I began to sing Silent Night, a song adored by both my mother and me. Anyone who knew my mom knew that she loved to sing. She also happened to be the worst singer I’ve ever met. She was loud and proud and totally off key. As I sang to my daughter in that dark room on that cold night, I heard my mother signing with us. I heard her out-of-key voice, right in my ear. I felt her arms around us.
I knew with certainty that even though my sweet baby and my sweet mama had never met in this world, in that moment the three of us were, finally, together.
All is calm, all is bright, indeed.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!