Christina Baker Kline: Looking Into the Sun

How my cancer brought me closer to my mother, just before her death.

Posted Feb 25, 2013

An essay by Christina Baker Kline

The sun is hard and bright through the windshield. We are heading straight into it. Even with my sunglasses on, I can barely see.

My husband is driving the minivan, I’m in the passenger’s seat, our three boys are in the back. It’s mid-afternoon, we’re somewhere in Massachusetts, and I need to be at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, New Jersey, for the last radiation appointment of the day at 5:30. Radiation is relentless: my protocol is five days a week, 33 sessions altogether. I’d completed six when the doctors at Mount Desert Island Hospital broke the news last week that my mother’s internal injuries were so extensive that she only had a few days to live.

It’s a week later. The funeral was yesterday. I’ve missed three sessions, and the radiologist says it’s “inadvisable” to miss more.

I flew to Maine last Wednesday, getting to Bangor close to midnight. My mother’s friend Lindy, who had driven an hour and a half in the snow to pick me up, took me straight to the island and dropped me at the emergency entrance of the hospital. When I arrived at my mother’s bedside on the third floor, she and my father — on the twin bed beside her — were fast asleep. It wasn’t until the morning that I got to see her familiar, dazzling smile. She widened her eyes with wonder, shaking her head in surprise that I was there.

For the next 24 hours, my three sisters and my father and I gathered around her bed, climbed into her bed, stroked her face, clutched her hands. Since her stroke in October, this already thin woman had lost at least 40 pounds, and now she was birdlike, nestled in her nest.

The nurses upped my mother’s morphine when she showed the slightest discomfort, and by the time the sun set on Thursday she was no longer conscious. The five of us slept fitfully in and around her hospital room. She died on Friday morning at 9:16, with all of us gathered around. I suppose that as deaths go, it was a relatively good one — good because we had time to say goodbye and to tell her that we loved her. But it was devastating nevertheless, and particularly crushing to watch my sweet and loving father face the unwelcome prospect of life without her.

My mother was a passionate, complicated, sometimes fierce woman. Over the years my relationship with her ran the gamut from not speaking for several months (during a particularly low point) to writing a book with her — going so far as to spend a month together at a writer’s colony, sharing a studio with two desks. Even when we got along, I wouldn’t have described my relationship with her as easy. She had strong opinions, and she never shied from expressing them. She could be unsettlingly intense, or distant and unavailable. Many people and pursuits laid claim to her time and attention. Sometimes I wished she would be more predictable, more present, more even-keeled.

But my relationship with her changed completely last May, when I was diagnosed with cancer. She became my strongest ally, my anytime-of-the-day-or-night confidante, the person with whom I could share my deepest fears and worries. She gave herself to me in a way she never had before, and she made me feel that nothing was more important than my getting well.

On October 13th, when I was still undergoing chemotherapy, she had the unexpected stroke that eventually led to her death. It’s terrible to think that her worry about me had anything to do with it, but of course it must have. The truth is, she didn’t do things halfway; when she cared about something or someone it was with wholehearted and heedless abandon. She didn’t modulate her emotions, her time, or her energy. At the time of her stroke she was working with the Wabanaki Indians on a state-wide initiative, “The Truth and Reconciliation Project,” and had, for at least three nights in a row, stayed up past midnight sending emails and applying for grant money and generally making things happen — as she had done for her entire life, in many different ways and for many different causes.

The days after my mother’s death passed in a blur. Relatives and friends flew in; my parents’ house in Bass Harbor filled up with people and flowers, just as she liked it best. An article about her in the Bangor Daily News stressed her public contributions. My father stood in front of 300 people at her funeral and talked about what it meant to lose the woman he’d been married to for more than 50 years, and my sisters and I read aloud the poem by Mary Oliver that ends, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” At the end of the service her six oldest grandsons sang an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.”

Now, in the car, the light shining in my eyes is both substance and symbol. I will make it to radiation on time; I will climb up onto the cold table and fit myself into the body cast that keeps me still, my hands grasping two rods above my head. I will close my eyes and think of my mother, who came with me as far as she could through my treatment, and is with me now.

Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels, including Orphan Train (April, Morrow/HarperCollins).