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Then the Cancer Returned (God and Other Mothers, Part Three)

Then, the cancer returned. It was everywhere. My mother made a bunch of trips to see different new age doctors to pursue radical treatments, but it became increasingly apparent that nothing was working. I got a text from my brother, “Spencer, the doctors say she only has a few more months to live.” She was in denial at first, but we all knew it was true. She did not want to go into hospital, so my sister, who lived at home, cared for her for the most part. Meagan and I came on the weekends. Her body had fluid build-up as her organs started failing, so she had large bulges in her abdomen despite her arms, legs, and face being so skinny they were skeletal. She had a bag for bowel movements. Her skin started going yellow as she grew more and more tired. Meagan, after everything, cared for her with devotion. My mother ended up apologizing to her.

It finally came to the point where she had to go into hospice care. It was approaching Christmas time. There was no snow on the ground in Hamilton, but it was bitterly cold with a strong wind off the lake. My brother, who lived down in the US, flew in to be at her bedside. We all took shifts, but we more or less all lived at the hospital for the next week. We survived on cafeteria food and coffee.

A lot of relatives and friends came by to visit my mother at this time. Pastor Don came by. He came in and sat down. Pastor Don has a warm, jovial presence and a melodic voice that could put just about anyone in better spirits. He prayed with my mother, and he read Psalm 23 to her.

“Susan, I want to ask you. Is the Lord you’re Shepherd?”

My mother, although weak, nodded and answered, “Yes.”

“Trust that he is with you even in the darkest valleys. You have nothing to fear. You will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” My mother was growing tired, but I could see a tear run down her face.

Her state worsened over the next day or so. I just sat with her. She was awake less and less. In the moments then, I just kept telling her that I loved her, and I would pray. Her breathing took on a rattle. Someone remarked that it sounded almost like coffee percolating, and for almost a year after, I could not be in the room while a loud coffee machine was brewing.

The time had come, the nurse informed us. The family was all there by her bed. Someone invited me to pray. I prayed, thanking God for her and inviting her to go and be with Jesus. My mother took her last breath, and that was it.

We sat there for a few minutes in sober silence. The nurses came in and took her body away. We slowly turned to practical matters: the funeral. We had the funeral the day before Christmas eve. I don’t remember a lot of the service, but I do recall a friend of the family playing “In Christ Alone” for the service. I have a hard time to this day hearing that song without crying.

That Christmas, my family was all assembled at the family home. On Christmas Day, we all sat together around the tree. There were no gifts because none of us really had thought to buy anything in all the chaos. We just reminisced and took stories.

There was something peaceful about having the family together despite all that had happened; however, that did not last. We saw stirrings of problems at the funeral as my mother’s boyfriends each came to give their respects and then made their way to the reception. There were some uncomfortable introductions when one guy turned to the other with a tuna sandwich in hand to ask, “So, how did you know Susan?”

The most disconcerting of which was a comment from a man that I knew was very wealthy through business dealings that were, shall we say, less than credible. He came up to me and said, “Your mother was a very special lady.” The year before, my mother insisted I get winter tires at a place that this guy was connected with. My mother was driving a Mercedes, which she bragged was given to her by him (not actually--more allowed her to use). When the mechanic made a joke about what did he have to do in order for this guy to let him drive a Mercedes, my mother made a less than subtle joke back with a smile. I only overheard it roughly from the next room, and frankly, there was a part of me that immediately just tried to forget that I heard it.

Some things don’t stay forgotten. In the weeks that followed the funeral, we came to realize they were involved. More problematically, my mother had borrowed a lot of money from him. These were to pay for her trips to see these alternative healing specialists that did not, in fact, heal her at all. In fact, my mother had borrowed a lot of money from several of the people she was involved with. We are talking six figures here, by the way. Those kinds of things tend to get worked out through the estate, but there are people out there like this gentleman where the legal technicalities don’t matter that much. He wanted that money back, one way or another, from whomever it took. At one point, I had to tell one of this man’s “associates” who came by that I was not going to pay this debt. I couldn’t. It was not an enjoyable experience.

Well, if you can imagine, losing your mother to cancer is hard, but having to learn and contend with her choices afterwards made things so much more difficult. I had experienced grief from losing my dad. That work of mourning was often simply thanksgiving. This work now was so much more bitter as her failures were so real. And yet she is gone. I felt like I should go yell at her gravestone, only I didn’t actually feel that way--isn’t that only something people do in movies? I was mad at her, but she was not there anymore to be mad at. The anger was left lingering. Like a low-grade fever, it was there even if you could forget about it and ignore it for a few hours: a brooding frustration that didn’t go anywhere and felt like it couldn’t go anywhere. This is what I carried for some time. I knew I was mad at my mother, and I knew I needed to forgive her. I would pray to God, telling God that I had forgiven her. The feeling, a heaviness inside, remained.


Spencer Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife and five boys, and he serves on the board of ASBE.

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