My Long, Complicated Journey After Losing My Mother to Cancer

A eulogy to my mom, eight years late.

by James Nolan
Oct 19 2015, 12:25pm

The author's mother

I didn't go to my mother's funeral. Instead, I sat in our bathroom and, with the window open, smoked hash through a pink ceramic pipe. It isn't my proudest moment—certainly it isn't one I absolved myself of until recently—but in the boarded-up memory bank of my mind, it has maybe been the hardest to suppress. She is being cremated, cooked like the brown shit inside my pipe, but in her absence, my grandmother will create a grave, one lacking a body, and one I'll never visit.

"My mother is ash," I tell myself; "just like she wanted."

She was 42 when she died, breast cancer. I was 20, the same age as when she had me. In my early childhood memories, she isn't coping well: crying, screaming and leaving me places. I was a brat but so was she; and having dropped out of school prematurely, when it became clear I wouldn't she imbued me with a pressure to succeed, to give her what she couldn't give herself.

I resented this and the constant fights between my father and her. They were mainly over me, him attempting to counteract her unending need to indulge me with what little money we did have. She was a weak woman, starting and stopping diets, hobbies, and I pounced on this. I was also her confessor, the person to whom she delivered the world as she saw it, dropping the happiness charade she presented to others. Even to my father she was never totally honest—her need for validation, and her insecurity, was too strong.

Though her internal lack was obvious, so was mine; so in the midst of all the resentment, a common ground was formed: cracked, weed-laden. Essentially, we were both victims—she blamed her mother and I blamed mine. Simpatico.

Read: What It Feels LIke to Be a 20-Year-Old with Cancer

I became a complicated teen, isolating on one hand and bullying and domineering on the other. She didn't want to investigate: In her eyes, no matter how complicated, I'd still be delivered to the promised land on a fluffy cloud of impeccable grades. Predictably, I became unglued, doing the unthinkable by dropping out of school in a whirlwind of anxiety and depression. She still didn't delve any deeper, just went to bed every night believing I'd magically cure myself. I didn't, just got slightly better, then slightly worse, then slightly better: never enough to commit suicide, never enough to truly live.

In the years preceding her illness, she seemed content just taking our dogs for a walk. She was in her mid 30s by then and it was like she'd realized that, in my failure, she could no longer achieve what she wanted. I was the saving grace who had failed to deliver, and as I waned, she waned. Simpatico.

She began suffering from a vertigo no one believed in, including her doctor. Clearly she had depression, but like with mine, she couldn't confront it. She first quit work, then quit drinking, then quit driving, then quit life. Over about a year, she became a shut-in, spending about as much time in bed as she did on internet chatrooms, living vicariously through digital words sent to distant unknown strangers.

The complaints became more physical—leg, back pain—but her doctor thought them psychosomatic, still. When she pushed for an MRI he relented, but by the time it rolled around, she rolled out of bed one morning and heard a crack: She'd broken her thigh bone doing nothing, and the pain, the screams, were excruciating.

After operating, they told her cancer: tumors all over the body that'd originated in her breast, gone undetected and spread. They were gnawing at her bones, her spine, so they put her in a back brace and told her not to move. They said they could treat it and give her time, but that it'd eventually kill her.

She cried, but not like she'd been given a death sentence. Funny, in actually becoming a victim she became a lot more positive. I took my escape where I could find it, eating, exercising and reading until my body ached or felt sick, until my mind frayed and collapsed. At 18, in a house suddenly liberated of my house-bound mother, I could masturbate freely with the door open, forgetting that, an hour away, she now lay bound to bed, hospital, and death.

She lay like that for months, life a series of blood tests, radiation blasts and IVs. She looked fucking woeful, her hair all dried up, muscles atrophying. Thin already, she became brittle, like she'd shatter if you dropped her; and maybe, considering the state of her bones, she would have.

By day she'd text me and watch TV, read stupid celebrity magazines that drove me mad. She read prayer books too, even worse, pinning holy medals to her clothes. Suddenly, like everyone else, she clung to God. By then she was 39 but looked much older, an antique ghost from an alternate universe.

Once my father had finished work, we'd drive an hour every night to visit her, spend two or three there, then head back. I lived a fairytale in that hospital, stalking the halls while they had time alone, the linoleum corridors weaving a web as known to me as the veins upon my arms, each pumping blood, I thought, laced with the cancer gene.

Passing nurses, I'd fantasize sexually; then that they'd tell me I was brave. Passing doctors, I'd fantasize they'd recognize me as their own. I'd stop before large windows and spy the city beneath: forever unmoved by the death playing out above. The top floor was nicknamed "heaven," my mother's floor. I wandered it and others, savoring the burnt-toast smell, the bleach, the constant pinging of lifts.

Real life lay in the spaces between, in the time it took my lift to get to the next floor, in the scald of cafeteria coffee on my tongue and the discovery of newsprint on my thumbs. It lay, most specifically, that one time where, having fallen asleep, I woke in a random corridor to see a body bag, full, passing by me on a trolley.

What could be done about death, much less life? I grabbed for them both but they moved through my hands like reflections in water, insight giving way to anger. This was my early adulthood, jobless and crazy, my peers playing beer pong and fucking at university. As my mother clung to God, I clung to sanity, by the skin of my crooked, yellow teeth.


The spinal tumors shrank and she got strong enough to rehab her leg. On crutches she focused on each step, teetering back and forth to the toilet, up and down the ward, out to the lift and back. It'd gone from summer to winter and she was allowed to go home.

I was no longer the martyr I thought I was. Now that I couldn't haunt hospitals or drive through rush-hour traffic every evening while listening to Neil Young and the Smiths, my excuse to be the freak I always was was slightly less perfect. I wanted her problems to diminish mine, hoped that, if they continued, they'd eliminate them. I wanted her illness, and eventual death, to change me.

She slept in our lounge with my father—taking the stairs to their room was too dangerous. That spring she improved and went out first in a wheelchair, then on two crutches, then on just one. By summer she was more active than she'd been in years, going on holiday. Other than her impending death, life for her was good.

The hospital visits lessened, too, from weekly to monthly to bimonthly. She still had hormone injections, blood tests, and bone-strengthening IVs, but her hands, where nurses attached the drip, weren't so bruised. She gained weight and people in public were relieved: Under the impression she was getting better, they didn't have to feel so guilty for not visiting.

The uncertainty of life still frustrated me. I'd try my best to repress it and beat it down, but the powerlessness I felt sometimes was white hot. When driving, I'd occasionally pull over and let the rage spill out in a torrent of punches thrown at the steering wheel and dash. God knows what I looked or sounded like, screaming "fuck" and "cunt" while children and old ladies passed on nearby footpaths. I wanted love and a great adventure, not cancer, family and death.

I became politicized, pretending to care about stuff that only served to divide us. She asked if I was gay because I never had any girlfriends. Nope, just hopeless. Sometimes I blamed her for not getting better; frequently I blamed her for getting sick in the first place. I criticised her diet and vigilance, raged at the fact that she'd smoked in her 20s and early 30s. I thought that, if I could attribute blame and put everything into clearly-marked boxes, I could somehow control the outcome.

She had a mastectomy in 2007, worried how my father would take it—but he didn't care. The recovery was quick, didn't slow her down. Using crutches very rarely, it was possible to look at her and forget; the sadness cracking her positivity almost never, just in moments like those after her doctor appointments where she'd sit in the car and cry, relief flooding her body that it hadn't been worse, followed by fear it hadn't been better.

That summer, though, two years after diagnosis, a liaison nurse told us the cancer was in remission. It wasn't a cure, but fuck, it was hope. We went to Florence that September with a cautious air of celebration, and though she couldn't do very much—the heat draining her badly—being abroad suited her. She was a proud, tall woman; beautiful if not for the fact she looked like me. I was drunk the entire time, slurping Daniels and reading Kerouac, hoping a bolt of knowledge would strike and reinvent me. Passing disdainfully through the sea of American tourists outside the Uffizi, gazing longingly down the Arno, I realized I hated myself. I felt so uptight and trapped, trapped by that thing I couldn't quite name: Was it circumstance or something deeper?

When we returned, scans revealed aggressive new tumors, so it was time to finally try chemo, taking it orally at home. On the second day, with the requisite puking, she began getting excruciating pain in her legs. We'd discover later the cancer was attacking her liver, clotting up her blood. But when we called a doctor, he diagnosed it as anxiety and prescribed Xanax, morphine, the latest in a long line of medical malpractices.

That evening around 7 PM, I took the dog for a walk, and when I returned, she was sitting up in bed talking with my grandmother. She was coherent, but shortly after complained of feeling more pain, so we gave her more morphine and she fell hazily asleep.

Then, around 9 PM, with my grandmother and me in the room, she shot bolt upright and began spasming, breathing in but not really out, white liquid trickling from her mouth. I held her close and told her to hold on as my father called an ambulance and my grandmother panicked. I don't think I'd held her that close my entire life, and what struck me was how fragile she felt. Then, with her mouth pressed to my ear, she took her final breath and went still in my arms.

"She's dead," I said, almost in admonishment, trying to calm them down.

They cried, I didn't; people came and went. In her bed slept a stranger, someone that looked like my mother but wasn't. We followed the body to the morgue and my father cried on top of it; to comfort him, I put my hand on his head. It occurred to me I'd never really touched him like that before, either.

That night we slept in the same bed, the one my mother had died in, having changed the urine-stained sheets, and the next morning, October 19, we awoke wifeless and motherless; and finally—I thought—I was free.


In dreams I'd see her alive, talking. I started falling asleep knowing I'd meet her there, in the etherworld. Then it began happening less and less, until sometimes, in my waking life, I'd forget what she looked like. Then I'd see a picture of her and feel ridiculous, remembering every line on her face but at a distance, like she was simultaneously disappearing and fixed, locked in a dimension I had access to but would sometimes forget how to find.

For maybe a year, I moved through life present but not really, some vague uneasiness perched upon my shoulder. Though I still dreamt of freedom, I did so without much conviction—the only thing I was convinced of was that I was spurning it day on day. In all this, too, smiling, never letting down my guard lest anyone think me insane.

Even to those going through it with me, there was no mention. We'd earned a special knowledge but couldn't share it; liberated from the terror of never having experienced death but wearied, ultimately, by what it actually meant: slight wisdom lapping against a vast, empty shore.

I dragged myself to gigs and parties, drinking lots and occasionally getting stoned. There were hotel rooms and vinyls and endless piles of books. When I turned 21 I read to celebrate, read until the vague uneasiness assumed a mission: I'd write about her. But that was hard. There was so much to say, so much still unknown. I tried writing about other things but she always crept back in.

I started telling people I didn't care she was dead, and it was true: My brain was diminishing what it no longer had, and after about a year made room to formulate thoughts not involving her. My tragedy existed but not really; I fell in love, was loved, and a new life began.


It's been eight years now since she died. That girl I fell in love with, we dated for six years and broke up last November. The breakup affected me greatly, undoubtedly worse than the death.

We come to believe in narratives. We believe that whatever we put into life vis-à-vis pain will come back to us as a positive eventually. It keeps us going through the hard times, and whether it's true or not, I certainly believed so: that I'd been given my ex as a replacement for my mother.

Adjusting to a changed narrative was hard. I'd lost not only the love of my life but the fucked-up sense of identity I pinned bloodily to my chest: the hero who'd overcome; the victim that'd risen from the ashes, his mother's ashes, whole.

It turns out I wasn't either of them, just self-identifying in the hopes my skinny body would fill out the Batman suit I wore both in writing and in life. My ex saw through me, lived daily with the flashes of fear, and finally, after six long years, my inability to become this person for real destroyed her.

At 27, I was the same scared teenager that'd dropped out of school; the same scared 20-year-old who couldn't face his mother's funeral. I smiled and talked shit in public, but in our apartment walked around depressed, angry, and regretful, writing things that hinted at my insides but not really. After six long years, my ex could no longer feed on fiction, and it turned out—though it took me a while longer to realize—neither could I.

Fear of life ran rampant through my mother's every word and action. Fear of taking chances, of being honest, of not having an excuse; fear of not being afraid. Though she surrendered it in illness, I didn't, merely picked up hers, swallowed and kept moving.

Unlike her, I continued relying on bad shit to define me: Though on the surface I'd overcome tragedies, implicit in this was the bolstering of these tragedies, not only needing them to prop me up but searching them out in my writing. A young dead mother was the ultimate: It simultaneously fed my desire for victimhood while giving birth to the idea of masking it in something that looked, and read, like heroism.

This summer—where there was a lot of the same drinking and drugging that occurred after her death—it became clear that rather than a V-shaped narrative (where I fell from grace as a teen, hit bottom with my mother, then rose triumphantly with my ex), I was actually living a circular one, a loop of stagnation and sorrow that began not in death or breakups, but in life, the one I'd shared with my mother, which, rather than blame her for, I needed to confront my own role in so that I could finally shed the sense of victimhood and become the man, not the hero, I wanted to be.

Rather than the fact that she'd died young and left me without a mother, I needed to confront that she had been one—and that for 20 years, seven months, and two chemo-filled days, I had been her son.

This summer, in sweat and vodka, I decided: There could be no more fiction.


I hated my mother. Hated her because she was exactly the same as me, and no matter how much I tried pulling away, our similarities remained fixed. If she feared life, I feared hers, and growing up I took pleasure in destroying the things she took pride in, like my schooling. I didn't invent my mental illness, but once I'd dropped out, I did think she'd got what she deserved for not having helped me: a shit son. I operated like this my entire life: I wanted her help but delighted whenever I didn't get it.

Of course, after her death I realized not once during her illness had she complained about not having lived enough. She died at 42, way too young, but never had she looked out the window and declared her life a waste. She hadn't because it wasn't; because, in her eyes, she'd had me.

There was one crucial difference between us, then: She loved me. That night in the morgue, I knew I'd failed her; that day smoking hash, the same. I'd failed her not by dropping out—as I'd previously thought—but by not loving her how she deserved to be.

I repressed her death to fuel my victimhood, but also to punish myself for being so heartless. But what matters penance to the dead? After eight years I realized I had punished myself enough. After eight years I realized I owed myself, if not the penance I was seeking, then some memory of my mother untainted by guilt. I owed myself, after 28 years, the freedom to love her back.

What good did fear of life do me when the women who were my life died and disappeared? What good did it do my mother when hiding away may have contributed to her death? Having lost enough already, ending up as she did is a chance I'm no longer willing to take.

These past couple of months, for the first time in my life, I feel like I'm truly living. This, I think, is what my mother realized when diagnosed: To eliminate fear we must have faith, not in God necessarily, but in stuff getting better. Admittedly, she had no choice. With death's barrel pressed firmly to her skull, she could've either had faith or crumbled – and though I crumbled for her, long before her illness and after, now with life's barrel pressed firmly to mine, I feel like I, too, have no choice but to live fearlessly.

A few weeks ago, I knew I still had two things to do before I could move on completely, so in an email, I apologized to my ex for subjecting her to all the shit I should have dealt with years ago. It won't fix anything, but maybe it'll free her a bit to go find the happiness I should have given her elsewhere. The second thing was write this.

Since I first began writing, in a way, everything I've ever written has been preparation for this. Call it an apology if you like, a tribute or eulogy to my mother. It's all those things, I guess, but it's also a goodbye—not to the person I lost eight years ago, or to the one I lost in November, but to the one who lived with them for 20 years and six years and never knew what he had.

Well, I know what I had now, and I know what I've lost. But in losing them both, maybe I've gained myself. Maybe, more than this eulogy, everything I've ever written has been preparation, finally, to live.

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