I'm impatient by nature. But I thought I had learned how to remain still in yoga classes, coaxing calm and patience from an overactive mind. I thought I learned patience when my daughter was born 2 1/2 weeks late. But I didn't really learn anything until my mom was diagnosed with renal cell cancer.
Her diagnosis was an ugly interruption into a wonderful life. She was active, fiercely independent and interesting. Recently retired, she was busier than ever, volunteering at the Los Angeles Arboretum, enjoying dinners and plays with friends, color coordinating the blooms in her garden and devoting every other spare moment to my daughter. She didn't have time to be sick, much less stop everything for experimental treatments and emergency surgeries.
I quit my job, and together we refigured our lives as cancer patient and caregiver. There were hundreds of doctor appointments, blood draws, PET scans, CT scans and bone scans. Sometimes we talked nonstop, gossiping, replaying every step my daughter took or remembering vacations. Sometimes we sat in silence, both wishing we were anywhere but there.
Together we weathered long waits at the oncologist's clinic, longer lines at the pharmacy and the slow drip of drug infusions. Once we waited nearly 12 hours for a room in the hospital. We waited for test results and bad news, and held out still for better news.
There were middle-of-the-night fevers and panicked exchanges over the phone with nurses and doctors, ibuprofen, cold compresses and more.
Eventually, there was nothing more to do. I kept thinking of Emily Dickinson's words, that hope is a thing with feathers, then adding my own feeling, that it had flown from me.
Because of her illness, I was (somewhat unwillingly) pushed from being a spring-into-action, knee-jiggling list-maker to someone who had to learn to slow down and sit still. I was changed by my love for her. I did slow down. I stayed close, knelt by her, trying to memorize the lines on her hands or the sound of her voice, all the while resisting the urge to do something. The stillness was rewarded with some of the most indelible moments and exchanges my mom and I had, and made space for even more.
Now that she's gone, I just have to be patient with myself and with my own grief. Neither is easy. Mark Doty articulates the rough, uninvited spotlight of the death in the family in his book, "Dog Years": "The public revelation of grief is unseemly, an embarrassment of self-involvement. Or at least that's how it seems on the surface. The truth is we probably want to remain invisible because we can't do anything about it. . . .
It's true, I can't do anything about it, can't fill the hole in my life, can't bring her back. I can only sit still, learn how to extend patience to myself and wait out the storm of grief.
Cynthia Copeland is a professional writer living in the Los Angeles area, currently working on a historical young adult novel about the body-snatching trade in pre-Victorian England. firstname.lastname@example.org
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