The adrenaline was starting to fade. My eyes felt heavy and my body ached, reminding me that even a healthy, uncomplicated birth still causes trauma and demands recovery.
A steady flow of visitors had come throughout the day — congratulating, adoring, bubbling with excitement. Now the room was quiet except for the chatter coming from the nurses’ station outside our door.
I forced my eyes open, gazing at my unnamed daughter sleeping peacefully in my mother’s arms. Joy seeped from the deepest folds of my heart. “I’m glad you’re here,” I whispered.
“Me too,” Mom said. “I wasn’t sure I would be.”
Four months earlier.
I tried to focus on the bouquet of flowers I had brought for Mother’s Day, but their bright colors now seemed out of place in this stark hospital room. My mom was recovering from relatively low-risk surgery to remove scar tissue from her digestive tract. The doctors had biopsied the tissue “just to be certain it wasn’t cancer.” It was. The stomach cancer she had overcome the year before had metastasized to her intestine.
I remember the moment with surreal clarity and utter confusion at the same time. Specific phrases are engraved in my memory: Two to three weeks to live. Incurable. The results are not what we were expecting. And yet, the moment blurs into one heap of despair. One tangled mess of heartbreak, impossible to unravel.
I remember thinking of the delicate new life forming in my womb, while my mother’s life seemed suddenly delicate too. Life forming inside me, life fading beside me. A dichotomy between the two most precious female relationships a woman can have: my daughter and my mom.
The façade that life is predictable and safe was ripped away, revealing what we all know to be true but rarely choose to recognize: life is fragile.
I sat on the edge of my mom’s hospital bed, wondering if my baby would meet her Grandma Nancy, longing for this baby to meet her Grandma Nancy.
Against the odds, two-to-three-weeks turned into a month and then another month, and as time passed, my mom’s health actually seemed to improve. Life returned to some semblance of normal, except for chemo treatments every few weeks. As my September due date approached, I became more and more confident that my baby would indeed meet her Grandma Nancy.
The day came. In the same hospital where we had received such terrible news in May, we now greeted a beautiful new life.
As planned, my parents watched my toddler while I was in labor and then brought him to the hospital to meet his new baby sister. He climbed up on my lap and stared at her tiny face. He giggled with delight when she squirmed. He yawned when she yawned. He laughed when she sneezed. He was smitten. And then he was bored. Climbing, poking, whining.
“I’ll take him out and go get dinner,” my husband suggested. So everyone left. Only Mom stayed with me and the baby.
My mom held my daughter while I rested in the bed nearby. A prayer answered, a dream fulfilled. The preciousness of this moment could have passed in silent appreciation, if not for those simple sentences exchanged between us.
I’m glad you’re here.
Me too. I wasn’t sure I would be.
My husband and I decided to give our daughter the middle name Nancy, in tribute to a great woman — the one who formed me and loved me and showed me what it means to be a woman, a wife, a mother. The one who taught me by example what it means to sacrifice, to serve, to give, to worship. The one who demonstrated immeasurable strength and courage when faced with her life’s biggest fear. The one who clung to her faith and did not waver.
Six months later, my mom passed away. Although her battle with cancer lasted nearly two and a half years, the end felt sudden. All scans showed “No Evidence of Disease,” yet her body started shutting down, and we didn’t realize it until the final days.
My sweet daughter was with me by my mother’s bedside. Mom was very sleepy and couldn’t speak much, but she opened her eyes to see my baby kicking and smiling, oblivious to the gravity of the situation.
“Hi, big girl,” Grandma Nancy whispered with as much of a voice as she could muster.
As far as I can remember, those three words may have been her last. I can’t say for sure, because the next twelve or so hours were a blur. However, those words are forever imprinted on my heart.
My mom, present during my daughter’s first day of life. My daughter, present during my mother’s last day of life. The height of joy, the depth of grief. New life, lost life. A beginning, an end.
Growing up, I never liked change. Honestly, I still don’t. Even in my thirties, I’ve still been known to cry when vacation ends and pout when summer fades to fall. I often remember the millions of times my mother reassured me that when one good thing ends, the next good thing begins. To be clear, I don’t believe my mom’s life had to end in order for my daughter’s life to begin. And I sure as heck wish it hadn’t. But I do choose to believe that something good is beginning, and that something new is coming from such deep loss.
Guest post written by Karen Otto. Karen Otto is blessed with three sweet children — a two year old son, a one year old daughter, and a new baby boy due in March — and an amazingly supportive husband. She finds great joy in building relationship with people, whether over a quiet cup of coffee or a rambunctious game of trains in the living room. She works at a humanitarian aid organization in Cincinnati. She enjoys laughing, running, writing, and going on adventures with her family.