the morning my mother died

15 hours after I last hit “send”, my mom, Rhonda Zacharias, took her last breath on Earth. Though she was on hospice, it still felt sudden. The doctor had just told us we probably had a good week left with her. I try not to ruminate too much on what I was doing in the hours leading up to her death, because it fills me with guilt and self-loathing that I did not spend every minute holding her hand, brushing her hair, or trying to coax out more conversations. Instead, I unknowingly spent my final hours sharing the Earth with my mom doing things like:

  • Staring at my phone to attempt NYT crossword puzzles

  • Getting a manicure

  • Facetiming my friend to see his Edgar from Men in Black costume

  • Scouring Buzzfeed for the Halloween mini-bitch

  • Writing a Twitter thread about falling in and out of love with a guy at the hospice center

  • Spending an hour on the phone in the lobby

  • Eating macaroni and cheese at midnight

  • Making my friend bring me beer to the hospice center

None of those things sound so bad until you tag it with “then my mom died the next day,” and suddenly I feel like the worst daughter in the world. Even as I write this, I feel sick replaying these moments over and over in my mind.

Guilt, I’ve decided, is the worst emotion. It plagues you, consumes you, eats you up inside until your skin crawls and your muscles seize. It latches its claws into your thoughts and overpowers all logic by just making you feel horrid about everything.

I spent 20 months devoting every aspect of my life to taking care of my mom, yet guilt locks my focus on merely the last 24 hours.

I have written a lot about my mom in the last two weeks, from her extraordinarily long obituary, to my eulogy, to reflections on her funeral. I feel a certain responsibility to keep the world’s memory of my mom alive, and writing about her is the only time when my body and mind feel still. I have yet to write about my feelings of guilt, because I know I will immediately be met with dozens of comments from perfectly nice people telling me that I did nothing wrong! and that there is no way you could have known! and that you have to take care of yourself, too! While I can accept all these things as true, it does nothing to relax the muscles tightening in my throat every time I picture my mom sleeping alone in her room, without me by her side.

Great, now I’m crying.

The morning my mom died, she was making jokes. She was mouthing along to songs. She was making sarcastic comments to my dad. She was smiling, really smiling. She was being so silly, so much like the real Rhonda, that I don’t even remember if I told her a heartfelt “I love you” before I left her to drive home and take a shower.

After I showered, I tied on a robe my mom bought me before college from TJ Maxx. It’s one of those cute, thin ones—we picked it out specifically for me to wear while “getting ready” (our favorite thing to do) so I would never get makeup on my new college clothes. This robe always makes me feel a little special and a little sexy, like a suburban version of an old Hollywood star primping in her studio trailer. I bounced around the house in it, swishing the skirt and feeling happy and relaxed because of how good my mom looked when I left her. I had danced my way down to the basement to do laundry when I heard the back door slam. At first I thought it was my friend’s dad, who had been watching my cats. Instead, I heard my dad’s voice.

“Lil? Lily?”

I bounded up the steps two at a time, ready to yell at him for leaving my mom alone at the center for the one! hour! I had asked him to stay with her.

Then I saw his face.

I wish I could say that everything after this point was a blur, but unfortunately it appears to be cemented forever in my mind. He couldn’t even get the words out before I started shouting “No. No. NO!” I collapsed on the floor. I tried to run my hands through my wet, knotted hair. I clung to the side of a chair pleading “no, daddy, please, no” to a man I haven’t called daddy in 15 years. I felt nothing but sheer panic as hot tears poured onto my cheeks while I alternated between pacing, screaming, and slamming pieces of furniture.

Finally my dad calmed me down enough to tell me what happened. While I was showering, my mother was, too. She asked her nurses to bathe her, and she would not accept a sponge bath as an answer. She insisted they give her a real shower, and more importantly, wash her hair. See, even on hospice, my mother was a very persuasive woman. She could not stand nor walk on her own, but nevertheless she convinced them to give her what she wanted—all fall risks included. They sent my dad out of the room and helped her into the shower. When they were finished, they dried her off, got her safely back in bed, and brushed out her hair.

My mom said “thank you.” Then she smiled, closed her eyes, and took her last breath.

My mom battled an aggressive form of rectal cancer for almost two years. 20 months of her life were filled with physical pain, mental agony, anxiety, panic attacks, mutilating surgeries, emergency hospitalizations, chemo rejections, and every other form of pure cancer hell. Somehow, after enduring utter chaos, she died in complete peace.

This, of course, is what everyone says I should be grateful for. “At least she’s not in pain anymore” is apparently the consolation prize for when your mom is dead. Yes, I’m grateful that she died in peace. But I can simultaneously be grateful that she died in peace and livid that she had to die to begin with. I can be relieved that I didn’t have to see her die and heartbroken that I didn’t see her die. I can be thrilled I got to spend 20 straight months with her and jealous that my dad got that one extra hour. I can be thankful she wasn’t completely alone and devastated that a stranger got to see her last smile.

I can feel anything I want to feel, because my grief is mine and mine alone.

I had already decided that I could grieve however I wanted when we drove back to the hospice center and I shouted “I don’t fucking care!” after my dad told me to wait for our pastor before I saw my mom’s body. I pushed into her room and ran to her, immediately pulling out her wet hair tie, blubbering “mama, you would never wear a ponytail.”

I demanded a blow dryer. I needed to dry her hair before my brother arrived. He loved her hair as a child, always clutching it like his favorite stuffed animal. I couldn’t bear the thought of him seeing her with wet curls dripping down her pillow. Three of us made our way through her thick hair, pulling it straight and curving it in just below her collarbone. My brother walked in right after we finished.

He crawled onto her bed, clutched her hair, and wept.

I had originally intended for this email to be an essay in remembrance of my mother’s life, but it feels wrong to juxtapose that with the story of her death. My mom was so much more than her cancer, so much more than a tragic tale to scare people into getting colonoscopies. Though the story of her death is entangled in my own feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and grief, it is still one I wanted to tell.

Don’t worry, you’ll get the full Rhonda Memorial Spectacular next time. I promise there will be more stories, more jokes, and definitely more photos from the 70s.

Until then, hug your mom and tell her to get a colonoscopy.