The Disappearance of Rose Sheehan

Rose and Walter Sheehan, County Cork, Ireland

Today, my mother would have been 79.  She was born October 2nd, 1932 and she died November 14th, 1996.  According to the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry, my mother was one of 26,700 cases diagnosed that year and 1 of 14,800 that died.  The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance(OCNA), says “The mortality rates for ovarian cancer have not improved in forty years since the “War on Cancer” was declared. However, other cancers have shown a marked reduction in mortality, due to the availability of early detection tests and improved treatments. Unfortunately, this is not the case with ovarian cancer, which is still the deadliest of all gynecologic cancers.”

Fifteen years ago when my mother died, there was no test to diagnose ovarian cancer.  Today, there still is no test.  Perhaps it claims too little lives.  My great-grandmother died of breast cancer.  In 2010, 207,090 women were diagnosed with breast cancer.  Nearly 40,000 died that year. Ovarian cancer was diagnosed that same year in 21,880, 13,850 died. The death sentence of ovarian cancer is shocking and it has remained steady. Sixty-three percent of those diagnosed died in 2010, 19 percent of women with breast cancer died from it.

There are symptoms, sometimes.  Specifically:

My first birthday. Mom was pregnant with my sister.

Bloating, Pelvic or Abdominal Pain, Urinary Urgency or Frequency and Difficulty Eating or Feeling Full Quickly. (source: OCNA)

My mother had gone in to get her bladder tacked up in 1994.  That’s when they found it.  They believed they had removed it all.  She had chemo and was good for two years.  In March, 1996, she began throwing up frequently.  The ultra sound found the cancer.  When they operated, the doctor said it was pitted throughout her intestines and inoperable.  She lasted eight months.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my mother.  When my daughter comes to me with worries or fears, I comfort her just like my mother did.  When she says, “I love you, Mom.”  I always reply, “I love you more.”  Just like Mom.  I intervene in her life more than she likes, give her advice when she doesn’t ask, tell her what I think of her friends, and even tell her friends what I think of them.  Just like, Mom.  I didn’t say she was perfect.  She was perfect for me.  Happy birthday, Mom.

In the months after she died, I wrote down my thoughts, thinking perhaps I would draft it into a book, but I never could finish it. I’ve posted the first chapter below.


It has been several months since my mother’s death.  The grieving process takes strange turns.  It begins with complete disbelief.  Death and the process of dying is the act of disappearing, going somewhere not completely understandable.  She’s gone, but where?  Can she still hear me? See me?  Because I can no longer see or hear her and that silence is what grief sounds like.  There have been many moments when I think I need to call Mom. Even when she died, it was my first instinct – to tell her that she died…grief has no sense…and I imagined her saying, “I can’t believe it she seemed like she was doing so well.”  There is some relief when I forget, if only for a split second, but the fluttering and heavy lump in my stomach returns only seconds later and reminds me that it is her death that is causing this confusion and pain.  I feel the loneliness and remember her, in the last moments of her life, laying in her hospital bed smiling back at me.  There seems to be no conclusion or closure in this stage of grief, at least not that I am aware of yet, and I am equally unsure of how many stages there are or how long each lasts.  The length of time I will grieve is not important now because I am not yet ready to let her go from my thoughts.  The strangest part of grief is that it doesn’t seem like grief at all, it seems more like everyday life for an obsessive compulsive like me, only more intense – complete and unadulterated FEAR about everything.  Death is like a strong wave that knocks you off your feet and as you struggle to find your footing the undertow sweeps you back.  Most of the time I am not even aware that I am grieving, I just know that I don’t feel so well and there are times when my face feels hot and my palms are cold, when my insides have the same sensation as if I have just been yelled at or embarrassed and a large lump sticks in my throat with thousands of tears waiting behind my eyes, ready to pour out.  It is a feeling of all consuming sadness when only I can comfort me.  I suppose that is where the loneliness comes in.

Me in the foreground probably crying because I didn't want to be in the picture.

And then, sometimes when I am trying to understand what it is that I actually feel, I realize, with great hesitation, that I feel guilty.  Guilty because I could not save her.  Instead, I let others try to save her – doctors and nurses – but they did not love her like I did.  They would not feel the loss when she left them.

My faith, the belief that I have always held that there is life after death, there is a purpose for our existence, seems ridiculous to me now.  Did she go to Heaven or is that just something I conjured up so that the dying process is easier?  I mostly believe, or hope, that she is in Heaven and Jesus is taking care of her, but I am afraid to think otherwise.  Partly afraid that she needs prayers to keep her in Heaven and so I kneel down every night and say them, just in case.  While my doubts remain, once in a while I feel she is with me and for that I am grateful, whatever it is.

Death is not a part of life, no matter what some will tell you.  It is simply the absence of it, nothing more.  It is not beautiful nor a blessing, it is silence.  It is the moment when you reach for faith and it evaporates as if it never existed at all.

Life goes on and sometimes I wonder if that is what makes dying so difficult to accept.  Days after her death, my brother, sister and I were in her apartment, packing up her things.  Her room was just like she left it, the blue, cotton sheets she once laid upon were still tucked under the mattress.  A small cup of water in a paper cup sat next to the sink in her bathroom, but she was gone.  Her clothes were hung waiting for her, her toothbrush in its holder, her slippers by her bed.  It seemed as though all of these things should have disappeared as well, at least out of respect.  But they stayed, waiting for their owner to return.  I felt as if we had to break it to her apartment, her car, her dishes, her jewelry, let them know that she would not be returning.  And what was even worse, they were no longer wanted.  The clothes were packed in bags and donated.  Her furniture was sanctioned off to some of the family and then what was left was given away.  When my sister, Michelle, was packing up her closet the light inside it flickered.  We all wondered if it was a sign from her, “I’m doing great, but don’t give away my black sweater, you keep it, it’s a good sweater”, but maybe it was just a short in the wiring.

I kept her glasses, they were always an extension of her face.  She was practically blind without them and I can almost see her eyes on the other side of the foggy lenses peeking over the frames.  As I try to remember her, I realize that her face has always looked the same to me, neither old nor young.  I also wear the St. Anthony medal she always wore, “He helps you find things,” my mother once told me.  And so, I pray that I can always find her.  Even if it’s only in the deepest corners of my mind.  I never want to lose the outline of her face, the sound of her laugh or the memories of her strength and sometimes I even believe I might see her again.  At times when I need to feel her Spirit close to me, I replay those days between March and November over and over in my head.  I think about how each one of us was affected differently.  Davey seemed to find it hard to watch her die.  He almost seemed frightened.  My mother knew this, but she still missed him when he wasn’t near her.  He was her first baby.  A boy that feel in love with his mother, like all boys do.   It’s so strange how mothers treat their children, even as adults, always like their baby.  Davey was never grown up in her eyes, I could tell when she looked at him he was always five.  Michelle gave birth that March to her second child.  It was a kind distraction during the initial stages of the disease, except that the grandchildren reminded my mother too often that she would be forgotten by them.  All under three, their memories would probably not hold her image into adulthood.  While Michelle was busy and Davey was afraid, it was I who took over for her, paying her bills, talking to doctors, trying to understand the diagnosis.  I think the one thing we all shared was that none of us thought she would die.  We knew she would, but it never fully permeated our thought process.  It wasn’t that I didn’t think about it.  I thought about it everyday and imagined when I would find out, where I would be and who would tell me.  I also believed that when it was over, I would heal, move on with the understanding that everyone must die.  But none of the things I imagined came true.  It wasn’t a call in the middle of the night that broke the news of my mother’s death, nor did I feel any sense of relief when she died.  I was sure I would feel her as she passed through this world.  She would put her hand on my shoulder and say goodbye and I would accept her death.  But it wasn’t like that, I was surprised when she died and I never even felt her leave.  My mother once said that she didn’t believe that people could come back and communicate with their loved ones because many a mother would be back to comfort her children.  Perhaps she was right, but I still need a sign, something to let me know that she is ok, that she is happy and in a place better than the one she left.  She has disappeared from my sight, just as her body first began the fading process, slowly slipping away, first 10 pounds then 20, then 30.  I wasn’t with her when she died, perhaps she would have said something then, called out to an already deceased loved one and at least then I would know that she was not alone.  And so I wait for my sign, my dream where she comes to me to tell me she’s fine.  Until then, I grieve and hold onto the yesterdays.  The beautiful memories we made in such a short time.