Today would have been my mom’s 79th birthday. She passed away last month.

I’ve struggled to come up with anything coherent to write about it. I still don’t know if I’ve got anything coherent, but I really wanted to write.

People ask if it was sudden and I don’t know what to say. My mom was first diagnosed with the cancer that’d finally claim her life a little over three years before the end. But then we’d thought she’d beaten it, after chemo, radiation, and surgery, until a mutated version was discovered about three months before the end. Subsequent treatment was more experimental and less promising, but we thought it’d buy more time, right up until we got the “you should come here now” call about three weeks before the end. Those last three weeks, she had good days and bad, but it became clear that we didn’t have any more treatment options; the focus now was on keeping her comfortable. She was in hospice for one week before she passed away.

So… is that sudden? In a sense, we had three years to prepare for the idea. But then, it was Tuesday, and I kissed her goodbye while her brother was visiting, and she was fine, and then I got a call that she had died.

She died peacefully, in her sleep. The last person who saw her alive was her favorite caretaker at the hospice, who happened to be on overnight. My mom got anxious a few hours after her last visitor left, and this caretaker came in and held her hand and talked with her as she went to sleep. I don’t know what a “good” way to die is, but having someone you like hold your hand as you go to sleep be your last experience seems like certainly not a bad one.

In her last weeks, she was surrounded by family and close friends, and I know she felt that love. And for months, a handful of family had been all that enabled her to keep her life… keep fighting through treatment, keep living in her home. So much of my mom’s experience over those months is just this perfect example of how families are supposed to operate in times of trouble. She knew how blessed she was to have that.

In an effort to build some healthier relationship patterns with my parents, I took a break from my family for a year or two. When I started talking to them again, I tried to figure out what were “safe” topics. For my mom, a lot of those early conversations were about food (for my dad, finance and economics). I started making her eggplant parmesan recipe somewhat regularly… and it may have gotten famous with some friends. My mom was never an adventurous cook, but she had a lot of things down really well. I remember the bread balls she’d make with leftover breading from eggplant or veal or sole, and years later realizing not everybody knew such things. I remember getting off the school bus and knowing 5 houses away we were having veal for dinner because I could hear her pounding it with a mallet to tenderize it. And wishing she’d make her New York cheesecake more often, and how silly I thought it was that she cared so much about whether the top cracked while cooking it.

Wow, what I’d give for slice of that cheesecake right now.

Anyway, this mostly worked. There were still some rough moments, but we were able to create new patterns and habits with each other. In 2015, my sister and I took a trip to Italy with our mom. I was nervous, but it went really, really well. It was the most fun I’d had with my mom since… well, since the three of us took a similar trip 25 years prior. Clearly we just should’ve gone to Italy more.

On this trip, we got to see her mom’s childhood home, which was the one thing my mom always talked about as being on her “bucket list” whenever such things came up. Not only that, but the family that lives there now invited us in and we got to talk with three generations of women in the house. It was really moving for Gabrielle and I, and for my mom I’m pretty confident saying it was the best part of her last decade, outside of her grandkids. Other than that, and my sister’s wedding, I don’t think I ever saw her happier.

When we lost our son a year and a half ago, I don’t think anyone was as affected by it as my mom, aside from Emma and I. She sent him an ornament at Christmas, had a memorial plaque designed, and was always careful to include him when she talked about her grandkids. She found a local astronomy club and researched the constellation Orion. It meant a lot… more than I would have expected. It was, I think, the most profoundly validating thing my mom has done for me in my adult life, and, under the circumstances, I think the most important thing anyone could’ve done.

I’m incredibly grateful she and Celeste got to meet. I wish my mom could’ve seen Celeste grow up, even just a little more, and I’m sad for Celeste that she won’t get to know her grandma. When we told my mom Celeste’s name, she talked about a cousin named Celeste they used to call Celestele (“Celeste-el-ee”). We call ours that sometimes now, too, and I think of my mom and smile.

Grandma really, really loved you, Celestele.

We’ve gone back to Jersey once since she passed so far, and I’ve got a bunch more trips in my near future. It’s weird being back there without her. Emma suggested a restaurant we like and I thought “oh, Mom will really enjoy that”. I find things around the house I want to ask her about. I want to make the new recipe for pignoli cookies she found so we can see if mine turn out like hers.

I want to tell her she did a good job.

I miss you, Mom. Thank you. I love you.