Tuesday, May 15, 2012
This is a beautiful morning on the farm, full of sunshine -- much as it was four years ago on 15 May 2008. It was dark out that morning at 5:15am, but by 6:00am the sun's rays were starting to show on the horizon. By 8:45am, I was setting up the slaughterhouse for the day, and we opened promptly at 9:00am as we did every morning. The first customer was a grump, and he complained a great deal about having to wait for his sheep to be processed. He then proceeded to accuse me of stealing some of his meat. Under normal circumstances, I probably would have laughed: I am not a fan of mutton and my Somali workers were dedicated goat consumers . . . we had no interest in stealing the meat of a fatty, old cull ewe! Unfortunately, I reacted poorly that morning, and severely reprimanded the customer for his accusation. Once I calmed down, I apologized to him. He could not have known that he chose a very poor day to make such an outlandish insinuation. That morning I had lost my best friend, my business partner, my mother.
My mother is still so much a part of my life and my heart that it is difficult to believe it has been four years since she passed on. Four years that seem like decades; four years that passed like a whispered breath. My memories of my mother are so entangled with my childhood on the farm, and these memories still surround me -- much as the farm does -- like a living testimony to her existence. I live in the house where she grew up, I ride my horse in the fields where her ponies lived during her youth, and as the days pass by I see her face more and more often in the bathroom mirror that she also used. Every inch of this farm holds memories of our life: baling hay on hot summer days, working the sheep in the barns, harvesting produce from the garden.
My mother taught me to read, to cook, to sew, but most of my memories revolve around outside activities. I cannot say at what point I began to recognize that the existence of our family was so enmeshed with our lives as farmers, but even from my youth I had the innate understanding that our farm was virtually a living part of our family. We were Harrisons; we were farmers. Many of the hardest lessons I learned from life on the farm were accompanied by adages from my mother. I recall being thrown by Abraham the Mule when I was nine; he managed to step on my ankle as he ran off. Through my tears, I protested as my mother led him back to me so I could ride him on the return to the barn. "If you get thrown, you get back on." It was a hard lesson that day, but as I matured I grew to understand that it was not simply an instruction for horseback riding. So many of my mother's sayings that I heard over and over have proven to be such.
My mother was vibrant, she was fiery, she stated her opinion clearly, and was more than a little stubborn. We could exasperate each other, but we loved each other fiercely. Undoubtedly, the bond of a mother to her only child is unique. For us, it was unbreakable despite any tests. That stubbornness served my mother well when she was diagnosed with cancer. A routine mammogram revealed a spot, and a further biopsy proved that it was not breast cancer, but rather metastisized melanoma. Easter 2007 was a difficult holiday as we awaited the results of a full body scan. The following week, we learned that the melanoma was throughout my mother's system, including a brain tumor. Despite no symptoms, my mother was given the devastating news that she probably had only six months. Her response was classic Becky, as she informed the doctor that six months was not even Christmas and so it simply was not enough time.
My mother had always loved being outdoors, and eventually that lifetime spent outside in the sun resulted in this horrific illness. Those who have lost a loved one to cancer understand the terrible progression of watching someone fight and fail: the overnights at the hospital, the chemo, the blood draws, the prayers, the frustration, the anger, the tubes, the weight loss, the fear. It is a time of my life that is so burned into my memory. When I see pictures of myself from that year, it is as though I do not know that girl. But I can feel the extraordinary fear and exhaustion that haunted her, and I pity her because I know what is yet to come. In December 2007, the cancer spread to Mother's intestines, but she rallied and survived a risky surgery to remove part of her intestines. That was the first time I rushed my brother Joshua to the hospital to say goodbye, but it would not be the last. Before she went into surgery she made it clear that despite the small chance for survival she had no intention of missing Christmas. And she didn't.
The challenges kept coming though, and my step-father & I were helpless witnesses as the person we loved the most bravely endured this illness. While I adore pictures of me & my mother taken during the adventures of my childhood, I am convinced that she was never more beautiful than in those last months of her life. My mother lost her hair and lost an astounding amount of weight. But as those physical things fell away, it was as though her soul radiated through such temporal barriers. Her smile and her heart only grew more profoundly and breathtakingly gorgeous. All she wanted was to spend her last days with her family, on the farm that she loved, in the house she had painstakingly restored. She wanted to be surrounded by her friends and her books and her dogs. I am grateful that she had this.
In 2008, May the 15th fell on a Thursday. My mother died at 5:15am on 5/15. It does not matter how old you are when it happens, the moment you become an orphan changes you forever. There will never again be someone to parent you through life's challenges, to protect you from the pains of the world, to stand in your corner whether you are right or wrong with a parent's love. I called Auntie at 6am, I called the hospice nurse, I called the funeral home, I called my mother's friends. And then at 9:00am, I opened the slaughterhouse and I worked. My mother was the toughest human being I ever knew and she was a worker -- I had a legacy to live up to. On Friday, Joe & I planned the funeral, and on Saturday we endured the calling hours. I had a migraine, and I wore my favorite black hat that my mother loved. We buried my mother on a Sunday. The funeral home had lost power, but the staff had lit hurricane candles throughout the chapel. I have never seen so many flowers, and I was grateful for the people who overflowed the chapel. My mother's friends, her fellow teachers, her former students, farmers, local business people, my friends, our customers from the slaughterhouse. The outpouring of support was sincerely appreciated, and will never be forgotten.
I miss my mother every moment of every day. I doubt a human ever heals from such a profound experience, and I do not know that I would want to. My mother was a character, and was one of a kind. I am eternally grateful that I had her for a parent. As her illness progressed, my mother lost her ability to speak. My mother died on a Thursday; the last time she was able to speak was on the previous Monday. As I did every night, I told her I loved her before I fell asleep on the couch next to her hospital bed. That night, my mother was able to respond. Her last words to me were "I love you". In retrospect -- whatever words she used -- that was all my mother ever said to me.