Jenny called me Sunday night. Her mother is dead. She called me about an hour after it happened. This was not unexpected. A year ago this Christmas Eve Shelly was diagnosed with liver cancer. At the time I had been living with them a little over three years, first as Jenny’s nanny, then as a roommate. I helped raise Jenny, but she was never like my daughter, more like a favorite niece whom you spoil and scold and expect much from. My relationship with Shelly had always been more ambiguous. She trusted me and relied on me, but we were never really friends. We lived in the same house, but somehow we never got past firm acquaintances. And now she’s dead.
I still remember the shock of Christmas Eve. A week before she’d seemed fine, if a little under the weather. She had a cold she couldn’t seem to kick, but that was all. We’d all been supposed to go cut a Christmas tree together, but then both Jenny and I got pulled away by other commitments. So Shelly had gone out and done it herself. She was like that. Then she threw up at work, and for some reason her doctor ordered a CAT scan. It showed a mass in her liver. The biopsy came back cancer.
And then it was Christmas. On Christmas Eve I watched Shelly and Jenny baking their family’s traditional Christmas breads. Jenny was doing most of the work while Shelly bossed from the other side of the island. I saw something in the way Shelly watched Jenny, an anxiety that Jenny really know and understand what she was doing. I saw a mother saying good-bye to her daughter, passing on the generational knowledge she would need as an adult. I knew then, though I didn’t want to know, though I wouldn’t let myself know for months.
We were pretending everything was going to be fine, celebrating while we waited for the oncologist’s office to open again after the holidays. The only real treatment was surgery, and the surgeon she needed to see was in Texas. She left the day after New Year’s, and just as quickly she was back again. The tumor was already too big. The only hope was chemotherapy, and pray that it would shrink. It didn’t. And here we are, not even a year later, and Shelly’s gone.
What do you say to a girl an hour after her mother’s death? What comfort is there in words? Do you say, “It’ll be ok.” No. There is no ok here. There won’t be for a long time. Do you say things about “God’s will,” and “a better place?” As true as those may be, when death is so fresh they sound like obscenity. Platitudes are useless here. In the face of death, sometimes there are no words to say.