A Memoir by Steph Scott
When my mother was barely 20, she brought me into this world like she always did everything—with stubborn grit and determination. I’m told she sat there, jaw set, refusing assistance or any kind of pain relief—she was going to bring her baby into the world on her own.
25 years later, she spent her last day on this earth fighting the same way. It was my birthday, and she was dying from brain cancer. It wasn’t her first bout. She’d had cancer when she was 11. And that wasn’t the first time she’d been forced to survive. Before she’d even reached adolescence, my mom had faced tragedies most adults only imagine in their nightmares.
Her mother coped by shutting down. My mother coped by digging in her heels. It helped her survive but made her difficult for the rest of us. She was a fighter, we all knew. But fighting is exhausting.
When they found the glioblastoma enmeshed in her spinal cord, climbing it like a trellis to her brain where it bloomed like a mushroom, they told us it would be quick—a year at most.
They knew what they were about.
Twelve months later, Mom’s body was done. She’d been deteriorating for days, and the Hospice nurses warned us we were close. But that morning, when I padded down the hall and walked into her room, I knew things were different.
Her steroid-puffed face had turned grey and waxy. Her skin was cold and mottled with blue and purple splotches. Her chest rattled with every breath, and while she wasn’t always asleep, she’d lay silent for hours, and then cry out, gasping, searching. Making demands.
It was hard to watch, unable to do anything to help. And it was made more difficult because it was also my birthday. Family and friends stopped by, quietly wishing me somber greetings before stepping into my mother’s room. Sometimes she was lucid. Others, not so much.
But as the clock ticked, marking the dragging hours, Mom became more agitated; I pleaded with the nurses and doctors to give her something to ease the pain. They tried, but her cries continued.
“Soon,” the Hospice nurses assured me. “This will be over soon.”
A little after lunch, Mom stopped, opened her eyes, and asked, “What time is it?”
“It’s two o’clock,” I said.
She grunted, clenched her eyes shut again, and continued her fight. She’d moan and squirm, her body mostly incapacitated by the cancer consuming her, but then she pulled herself out of the fog once more.
“What time is it?” she demanded, eyelids guttering as she fought to keep them open.
I glanced at the softly ticking clock. “It’s a little after five,” I said. “Try to rest.”
She clenched her jaw, her body rigid as though she was possessed. I suppose, in a way, she was.
As the vigil continued and she continued to writhe, my agony and frustration grew. I didn’t want my mother to die, but she was going to. Soon, the nurses said. So I couldn’t understand why she continued to fight. “Just go,” I thought, refusing to voice the unspeakable. “Stop fighting.”
She was in agony. Her body racked by disease and atrophy, and still, she writhed. Still, she fought.
“What time is it?” she asked repeatedly as the clock ticked gently on the table beside her.
The nurses and I answered every time, wiping her brow, whispering shushing noises. To her. To me.
The year before, when they told us she wouldn’t survive, they assured us they’d make her last moments peaceful. They promised they’d give her medicine to help her sleep. But on that day, nothing they gave her worked, and as the long hours passed, I sat beside my mother, her body stiff in combat, and silently begged for the end to come.
She’d yelp and groan, tossing her head back and forth across the pillow, and I looked at the nurse, tears streaming down my face. “There has to be something more you can do,” I said, pleading with them over and repeatedly.
“Soon,” they said.
The clock continued to tick.
I held my mother’s hand. Brushed a wet sponge across her lips. Stroked my fingers down her arm, trying to comfort her.
The minutes turned to hours, and as Mom’s agitation grew, so did my confusion. And my frustration. She was in so much pain, her body spasming with every moan, and I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t just relent. But then, that’s how she’d always been. Unwilling to cede an inch. Refusing to back down from anyone or anything.
Afternoon turned to evening turned to pitch black night, and my mother’s moaning grew louder, the writhing more violent.
The hands on the clock made their slow revolution, the mechanism clicking with each passing second. I wanted to throw it against the wall.
I rubbed my neck. Stretched my back. Glared at the nurse, who I was convinced wasn’t doing enough. Cursed the doctor who wouldn’t send over more medicine.
“What time is it?” Mom asked once more, her brown eyes bruised and hollow.
“A little after midnight,” I told her.
“Oh good,” she whispered, and her body went still.
The nurse climbed on the bed beside her and pulled her into her arms. “You did good,” she said, stroking Mom’s hair. “You can let go now.”
My mother took a jagged breath, then melted against the nurse’s chest. A few minutes later, she was gone.
I looked at the nurse, my face soaked, burning from tears. “Why did she keep fighting?”
The nurse laid my mother down, then turned to me and smiled, gently resting her hands in her lap. “What time is it?”
I turned to the ticking clock, and my heart stopped.
A little after midnight.
Mom waited until my birthday was over.
* * *
Steph Scott (she/her) is a queer writer and former English teacher who holds an MFA in Creative Writing Young Adult Literature. Her novel Come Back Alive was longlisted for the Voyage Literary “Love & War” contest and has been published by Sad Girls Club Literary, and in the upcoming summer volume of Just Femme & Dandy. She is represented by Lizz Nagle at Victress Literary and can be found at skscottwriter.com and @skscottwriter on Twitter and Instagram.