Words to Live By – A Short Story of Fiction
This is a short story I entered into a contest – I didn’t win – but wanted to share it! It is fiction and not based on true events.
Words to Live By
I found a clump of Mom’s hair in the shower. Trying to ignore its meaning, I scooped it up but hesitated to throw it in the garbage. The wispy gray lump reminded me that Mom was dying. I debated keeping every strand of hair in a box to smell and touch forever.
At six weeks into Mom’s diagnosis of Stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer, the painful reality that her last days neared was enough to force me over the toilet and lose my breakfast. In the rational part of my brain, I knew it wasn’t about me. Mom was the one dying and she remained positive and strong, but I couldn’t help feeling abandoned like the discarded wad of Mom’s hair
As an only child, I knew my responsibilities. Dad was no longer here to help, and the doctors only cared about drug side effects and bowel movements. It was up to me to usher Mom to her death.
“Honey, what are you doing?” Mom gripped the doorframe of the bathroom as she staggered inside.
“What are you doing out of bed!” I hurried to support her before a broken hip took away her independence. Her ashen skin glowed in the bathroom’s fluorescent lighting and my hand circled her frail wrist twice. Her shell was no longer the plump goddess I worshipped as a child.
“I have to pee,” she said, “but I can manage. You do enough around here and shouldn’t have to wipe my bottom too.” Mom pushed forward using the sink and towel bar for support. She pushed away my helping hands.
“Be careful, Mom.” I stood out of eyeshot to respect her dignity, or what was left of it. Her body had been displayed to multiple doctors and it was the subject of endless tests. Mom’s quiet groans and heavy sighs reverberated off the tiled walls.
“Do you need help?” I fought the urge to rush to her while she sat naked on the porcelain. “Mom?”
A thump against the wall and a whimper sent me scrambling. She had fallen between the toilet and the garbage can and her bare bottom rested on the bathroom floor.
“Mom! Are you okay?” I helped her up tugging gently on her wrists but worried she might break.
“Fine.” She wouldn’t look at me, but I saw her tears.
We didn’t talk about it as I pulled her undies up over her hips to hang loosely on her shell. Nothing appeared fractured except her hope.
“Let’s get back to bed, Mom.”
She didn’t argue and allowed me to guide her to the hospital bed that was the new centerpiece of the living room. Medicine bottles, needles, IV tubing, and a bedpan surrounded her shrine. I eased her onto her pile of pillows and covered her with the comforter. She reminded me of my daughter, frail and innocent, as I tucked her into bed.
It wouldn’t be long now.
“Can I get you anything, Mom? Are you hungry?”
She reached from under the covers and squeezed my hand. “Sit with me a while.”
My insides melted. I wasn’t ready to watch her die. We had planned to travel to Italy, she could no longer coddle her grandchild, and I needed her on standby to tell me how long to cook a ham. “I’m here, Mom.”
“Your father would be so proud of you.” Her eyes smiled with years of wisdom tucked into each wrinkle.
Dad died six years ago in a car accident and part of Mom disappeared with him. They shared a life of struggles, but never faltered. When Dad lost his job at SaveCo, Mom waited tables at Red Robin at sixty years old in order to pay the bills. They had traveled the world to beaches and castles, but Mom hadn’t left home since Dad’s death.
“Thanks, Mom.” I knew I needed to tell her every deep, emotional thought that passed through my brain every second of every day, but I was not ready to say good-bye. I choked out a feeble attempt. “I’m proud of you too, Mom. I can’t maneuver this world without you.”
When the university told me that I was not qualified for the position, Mom’s anger poured out into a well-meaning letter to the dean claiming my perfection. It didn’t work, but her ferocity empowered me to apply at the competitor college and score a better position.
“You are stronger than you realize,” Mom said as she caressed the back of my hand with her her thumb. It was an action she had deployed since I was little to give me strength. She squeezed my hand. “Live your life without regrets and fill your heart.”
If these were her dying words, I needed her to be more specific. “I will, Mom.”
She coughed and heaved and I thought her ribs might break from the exertion. I propped her up on the pillow and placed a wet washcloth on her forehead. She winced and grabbed her abdomen.
“Do you need some morphine, Mom?”
With eyes closed, she nodded.
Mom died the next day as I clasped her motionless hand. I longed for her thumb to rub my hand one more time because I needed her strength more than ever. She died without pain and passed in peace.
It took me an hour to call the hospice nurse because I wasn’t ready to let her go. I rested my head on her chest and cried.
The visitation at the funeral home was a blur scented with perfume, meatballs, and roses. My husband and daughter snacked while the endless line of friends and family filed by her casket. How could anyone summarize Mom’s significance in a passing handshake or hug?
The next day, the church was packed with people. Coworkers, friends, book club members, and exercise buddies stood in the back of the church when the pews were filled. As the music played, my daughter rested her head on my shoulder.
When asked to say a few words, I didn’t think I could do it. But I owed Mom, and I approached the pulpit. As I gazed over the packed church, my knees wobbled and my heart pounded as I spoke.
“Thank you for sharing Mom’s life. I can’t begin to explain how much Mom meant to me in a brief snippet of time, but I hope I can honor her memory.
In one of our last conversations, Mom said to me ‘live your life without regrets and fill your heart.’ Initially, I had no clue what she meant and panicked that her last words would be lost to misinterpretation. But I now realize that Mom lived by this motto.
Her sacrifices provided my education and supported our family.
Her anger toward injustice fueled my passion to succeed.
Her undying love provided the framework for how I want to care for my own family.
Her grief when Dad died showed me the definition of true love.
Mom was not afraid of a broken heart in order to live. She experienced heartbreak, sorrow, happiness, and love and allowed these emotions to shape a full life without regrets.”
My last words didn’t want to form as I choked into the microphone. “I understand Mom’s last words, and only hope I can live up to her example.”
As I shuffled back to my seat, I glanced toward Mom. She lay peacefully adorned in her favorite purple dress surrounded by silk and flowers. I sat next to my family and let the tears fall in never-ending spasms.
My daughter squeezed my hand tight, and I caressed her innocent skin with my thumb. I whispered, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
And I knew it would be.