When Mom Died

I was 16 when cancer killed my mother. I raised my sisters the best I could.

A teenager raising her sibilings occupies an awkward, indeterminate place, somewhere between sister and mother.

Photo by Jaroslav Kocian/Flickr via Getty Images

We never expected my father to take care of us after my mother died, and we were right. Mom was 53 when colorectal cancer killed her. She left me three girls to raise and a household to run. I was 16.

My sisters and I grew up in Manhattan. Dad worked as a doorman and brought home a paycheck. He ate meals alone and went out on Saturday nights to the Copacabana with his friends. His impeccable clothes and constant hand-washing were at odds with the disorder that comes with kids—the toys on the floor, Cheerios stuck to sweaters, apple juice dribbling down chins. My father liked infants for the same reason he liked cats: He could sit with both of them for hours as they napped on his chest, not talking or demanding more.

When my mother got sick, I saw pitching in as an extension of my normal eldest sister responsibilities. I didn’t mind at first. But as her symptoms worsened, so did my childhood. Soon Mom’s world shrunk down to our apartment and the one-block radius surrounding it because she could walk no farther. New items appeared on the regular list of things I fetched from the store, like oversized packages of adult diapers. My errands also grew more involved. Instead of just picking up milk or bread, I took over all the grocery shopping. I’d arrive at the supermarket armed with the weekly sales circular marked up by Mom’s red marker. A complex system of circles and stars mapped out the items she wanted me to buy. I liked strolling down the aisles and felt like a grown-up as I plucked items off shelves and occasionally slipped in an unauthorized purchase, like a bottle of Mystic fruit punch we couldn’t afford.  

In the middle of my mother’s illness, my family moved from New York City to the Poconos. Mom had wanted to move for a long time, and so did I. Back then squeegee guys still ambushed cars headed for the Lincoln Tunnel. My father was mugged, and he armed me with mace when I went out alone. The stretch of Ninth Avenue where I lived couldn’t compare with the suburban idyll of my favorite sitcoms, and I longed for all the references—station wagons, shopping malls, Dairy Queen—that spilled from the mouths of my television families. The Poconos would be the perfect launching pad for my new life, I decided. I’d crush on the boy next door and share secrets with his sister, my new best friend. 

But then Mom was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer. She wasn’t just ill anymore—she was dying. Actually, the doctors said she should already have been dead. I wasn’t going to have much time for DQ.

* * *

My accident happened while bike-riding with a friend—exactly the kind of outing I’d dreamed of. The brakes quit as I barreled down a steep road. I blacked out and have no memory of falling. Seconds later someone hovered over me, asking if I was OK.

“Yes,” I said, though I wasn’t. No, I didn’t want to go to the hospital. We didn’t have a car, and my mother was dying. 

That night, though Mom hadn’t been upstairs in months, she braved the steps to wake me every two hours to check for a concussion.

“What’s your name? What’s seven times seven?”

Cancer had wreaked havoc on her lower body, and a heating pad covered in yellow floral fabric lived permanently on her recliner. She couldn’t sit up easily or lie flat. My back throbbed from the pain of the accident, so we took turns sharing the numbing heat, but it was never enough. Cancer trumped a sprained back, and she needed it more.

* * *

We never had a formal discussion about what would happen after my mother died, but Mom spent two years preparing me to take over. I helped her cook Thanksgiving, assembled Easter baskets, broke up my sisters’ arguments, and attended their school performances in her place. I learned how to unclog a toilet and where to get the best price on heating oil. I thought of this arrangement as one long babysitting stint. But some days I locked myself in my bedroom and calculated that I wouldn’t be free of caring for my sisters until I was 24, when the twins would turn 18.

One day after school Mom showed me how to write a check. I received an allowance of $5 a week, but soon I’d handle all of the family’s finances and master forging my father’s signature to pay household bills.

Mom sat in her recliner and readjusted her heating pad. A cigarette rested in an olive ashtray beside a crowd of prescription bottles. Mom’s turquoise sweatshirt hung off her shoulders, and her thin legs dangled like twigs below the hem of her nightgown. She looked like an old woman with her stooped form and labored movements, but also like a baby, with only peach fuzz left on her head.

On her lap she held a shiny navy folder. Papers peeked out the sides, and she handed me a stack. The top sheet showed a grainy black-and-white reproduction of a pale blue check from her Citizen Savings Bank book. 

“I made them so we can practice.”

The week before, my mother showed me her system for paying the bills: a hand-drawn grid on a sheet of loose-leaf taped to the wall.

“Pretend you were paying the oil bill. First, you’d put the date, then on the line that says ‘Pay to the order of,’ you’d write Pennywise Oil Company.”

I wanted to get back to the episode of The Cosby Show waiting for me in the other room. But I followed Mom’s directions and wrote in my neatest handwriting. I studied my signature. It looked too practiced, like the signature of someone who had just learned penmanship a few years ago. My letters didn’t slant like my mother’s, with the ease of someone who had signed her name for years.

“Good,” Mom said, looking over my shoulder. I made three or four more checks out to imaginary payees until I got the hang of it.

* * *

That November, she died. I walked downstairs one morning to find her hospital bed empty and stripped. Her body had already been removed, my aunt said. In two days we would see my mother again lying in the casket she had picked out weeks before. She had already paid for her own funeral.

I went upstairs and woke my sisters by tugging off their covers.

“I have some bad news,” I said, as though we’d run out of milk. Instead, I was to announce something like a nuclear bomb going off. “Mom died.” I’d already come to loathe expressions like “pass away” and vowed never to pretty this reality with euphemism. In the weeks ahead, when creditors called to collect on unpaid medical bills, I’d relish giving it to them straight. “Is your mother home?” they’d ask. “No, she’s dead.”

But my bluntness startled my sister Joelle, and she fired back, half-irritated, half-fearful, “You’re joking.”

“No, I’m not,” I giggled in a fit of nerves. I was not a giggler. I cried easily. But that morning I laughed harder and repeated that our mother had died as my other sister Shauna sobbed.    

Candor became my trademark move. As Christmas approached, my father and I scrambled to cover the gaping hole my mother’s death had left—logistically, emotionally, and financially. Dad didn’t have much money to give me for my sisters’ presents. What I was able to put under the tree looked paltry, even after I strategically propped up a few flat packages to give the illusion of abundance. Sensing disappointment on Christmas morning, I told my sisters, “You know Santa isn’t real. Dad and I had a lot of funeral bills, so I hope you understand.” I was certain they already knew the truth about Santa. They were savvier than I had been at that age. And anyway, I couldn’t risk them thinking they were bad or undeserving. It was tragic enough to lose your mother at 10, let alone think Santa had punished you with crappy presents the same year.

“What?” my sister said, looking confused and wounded.

“C’mon, you knew,” I said, annoyed at myself for underestimating their naïveté. I had become not only a poor substitute mother, but also official bearer of bad news, guiding my sisters through a world of loss.

For the last two years of high school, I lived a double life. I was quiet, responsible, and a straight-A student. No one really asked me much about the life I went home to, and I didn’t want to talk about it anyway.

My father continued working in New York, a 2½-hour bus ride away, and spent most of the week there while my sisters and I stayed in Pennsylvania by ourselves. On nights he didn’t come home, I prayed nothing happened, like a fire or break-in that would alert the authorities to our questionable arrangement. In addition to the “no punching your sister” rule, I instituted new ones for our changed circumstances: No opening the door to strangers. Not even if it’s a cop or a fireman—especially if it’s a cop or fireman. Never say “Dad’s not home” if someone calls. Say “He can’t come to the phone right now.”

After Mom died, I had more freedom than I’d ever had in my life and no idea what to do with it. Mostly I just bought previously unauthorized purchases at the grocery store, like gummy worms. I never had to worry about getting in trouble again, but I liked to imagine that Mom had just gone somewhere for a while and would be back. Dad made that easy enough. After reporting to the Social Security office to collect on our mother’s death benefits, we didn’t talk about Mom again.

But her absence was always felt. With Mom gone, we had no one to serve as a buffer against my father’s temper. She’d often taken the brunt of his outbursts. A typical argument with my father stemmed from any number of minor annoyances, such as his dislike of the TV shows we watched, the food I cooked for dinner, and the scent of our nail polish. Fortunately, distance helped. We saw him weekends and maybe one night a week. My father never stayed longer than he had to, so the periods we spent with him came with a definite expiration date that helped us all manage our time together.

Managing situations is pretty much what we all did. During the eight years I raised my sisters, I never mothered them. I made sure the house didn’t burn down and that everyone had a bowl of spaghetti at dinner. A combination of delayed grief and teenage invincibility powered me through, but I didn’t have the ability to nurture myself, let alone those girls. When a caring college professor hugged me one day, I realized that no one had done that in four years. In my family I occupied an awkward, indeterminate place, somewhere between sister and mother, daughter and wife. That undefined space still shapes my relationships with my siblings and father 17 years after my mother’s death. I’ve accepted that this strangeness will probably never go away. I don’t have any children of my own yet, in part because it’s still hard to wrap my mind around ever having that staggering responsibility again. I feel sorry for those little girls who lost the most important person in their lives too early. I wish I could have been a better replacement, but that was never going to happen.