Memoir: My mother’s last smile

When the eighth month approaches each year, I cannot help thinking of my deceased mother — August 4th is the day she died.  In the essay “On Euthanasia”, posted on my last blog, I described how my mother had gone through unbearable pain before dying of terminal cancer.  She was hospitalized immediately after her cancer was diagnosed, but by then it was already at an advanced stage.  Her doctor had predicted that she would only live for three months, but she eventually lasted for six.  Nevertheless, her final three months were nothing but agony and pain so that it was difficult even for us, her family, to bear.  For this reason, what often comes to my mind when I think of her is her face contorted with agony.  However, I also remember vividly a radiant smile that was powerful enough to erase the image of her suffering face.

I was working in Tokyo when my mother was suddenly hospitalized back home in Fukui, about one hour northeast by train from Kyoto.  She was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile duct, and when my elder sister told me that our mother was expected to live only for a few more months, I could hardly believe it.  During the summer, only six months earlier, all of us, including her grand children, traveled to Tateyama and Kurobe, in the midst of Japanese Alps, where we had all enjoyed trekking up to Happo-One, about 2,000 meters above sea level.  She had climbed with us, showing no sign of poor health at all.  The only thing I remembered was that during dinner at the hotel where we were staying, she had mentioned she no longer had much appetite for oily food, like deep fried fish or pork cutlet.  We had therefore reminded her to go for regular medical check-ups, to which she responded that she did so every year.  So, who could have imagined that our mother, who had seemed in excellent health, would fall into such a dire physical state only six months later?

Having received the news from my sister, I went back home as soon as possible and visited my mother in her hospital room.  As her bile duct had been blocked by cancer, she was suffering from jaundice and her entire body had turned yellow.  A tube had been inserted into her gallbladder in order to allow the bile to flow out of her body, into a plastic bag attached to the other end of the tube.  Hanging from her shoulder and neck was a light cloth bag which supported and contained the plastic bag attached to the tube, but she seemed to be able to move around within the hospital without any difficulty.

Traveling on a bullet train and connecting to an express train from Tokyo to Fukui took 3 ½ hours one way.  Because of a heavy workload, I could not return home every weekend, but, having been told that she had only a few months left to live, I visited her as often as my situation allowed.  When I first visited her, she looked so sickly and even grotesque with jaundice that I felt compelled to accept the idea that she might leave us soon.

However, her jaundice subsided considerably by my second visit and I was truly relieved to see her fair skin almost back to its normal color.  Nevertheless, because of the chemotherapy, her hair was getting thinner each time I saw her.  She was also suffering from nausea and hardly had any appetite, resulting in steady weight loss.  She told me that a nurse weighed her once a week, but seeing her weight go down each time, she confided to me that she no longer wished to stand on the scale.

I feared that she would deteriorate rapidly, but after about two months into her hospitalization, I noticed her complexion gradually getting brighter.  She seemed to have regained a bit of appetite, as well.

One day, after about three months in the hospital, my mother was sitting up in bed, reading, when I arrived.  She must have felt well as the smile she gave when seeing me enter her room was such a radiant and impressive one, beaming with joy, the kind of smile I had never seen from her before.  It was like that of a young girl who had fallen in love for the first time and was dying to share her irresistible feeling of happiness with someone.  I knew immediately that something good had happened to her so asked what the secret was.  She told me shyly that earlier that day there had been another check on her weight, and this time she had gained slightly from the previous week, which made her immensely happy.

We had been told that she had only a few months left to live at the time of her hospitalization, but seeing that bright smile, I could not help a slight hope dawning in me for a miracle.  However, her condition deteriorated rapidly thereafter, and she left us three months later in great pain.  Still, I shall keep in my heart forever the young, beautiful maiden’s radiant and beaming smile that she had put on for me before her agonizing end.

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