Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Battle hymn of the jellyfish son: On life after a parent's death

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

"Here," my mom's oncologist said, handing me a thumb-sized vial of her spinal fluid, "take this down the street for analysis."

Too shocked not to do exactly as told, I reached out over my mom's anesthetized body and took the vial. It was still warm. I slipped it in the little pocket of my jeans, the one where only your thumb and forefinger will fit, and headed out in the direction the doctor had told me. I fumbled past the flimsy curtain that separated my mom from others in the ICU, past all of the other patients—some comatose, some crying, others in the middle of surgery—and stumbled out onto the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City.

There was nothing I wouldn't have done for my mom that day, even as I knew that the spinal fluid analysis would only confirm that her cancer had spread to her brain and there was nothing left for us to do. Cancer, after all, is an ironic survivor, and perversely finds a way to infiltrate the central nervous system where toxic chemotherapy drugs won't reach it.

Carrying that little vial through the open-air market that separated me from my destination, I felt like some kind of misplaced soldier carrying a miniature, wounded comrade through a war zone. The whole experience had a surreal quality about it that seemed diametrically, almost sarcastically, opposed to the sterility of the vial in my pocket. Roaring buses spewing roaring clouds of smoke, open-air taco stands with TV's tuned to the drone of the World Cup, a security guard to the hospital entrance making out with someone while people walked freely through the gate. This was the chaos of Mexico City: 20 million people, each going in a different direction.

jellyfish Yet, as I rushed through the market to deliver the warm fluid, I felt an utter loneliness and silence, as if I were but a jellyfish buffeted this way and that by the enormous, anonymous current that is watching a loved one die. You are not in control; you are swept, invisibly and inevitably, towards that final moment when they will come to rest on the ocean floor while you continue to be swept away.

My mom made me promise that I would never write that she had lost a brave battle to cancer. She recoiled at the false sense of agency that the analogy of a battle implied.

Yet, in our day and age, it is precisely that sense of agency that keeps us going in our daily routines—the reason we rush to work, the reason we insist, tiger-like, that our kids take gym and piano lessons, the reason we follow presidential debates. All in the hopes that we and our loved ones will have a brighter future that we've played some role in shaping. Forced to interact in the World of the Agentic when mourning a dying parent , one feels invisible, detached, driven by a different set of currents. Bring up the topic of death, and you receive sympathy but, true to form, it is like spreading electric, poisoned tentacles into the conversation.


This memory came rushing back to me as I read over this editorial that recently appeared in the New York Times. Do read it: written by the mother of a terminally ill child, the essay is a meditation on what it means to have a deep relationship with someone when you know you cannot plan for a future with this person, and the lesson is particularly poignant when that relationship involves your child.

The essay is by turns sad and centering: when your loved one's future is limited, time perspective is reduced, and the focus of life becomes the here and now. Loving the person and making sure they are comfortable, bathed, and warm. Meals together become ends unto themselves. No tiger mothers with Big Plans. The only plan is to love.

Not many of us will experience a relationship such as the one described in the New York Times editorial, but many more of us will live through the experience of a parent or older relative passing away. These relationships are an opportunity to celebrate life. They are also our parents' most lasting lesson: learning to enjoy fleeting moments with loved ones in the moment, with no agenda or plan ahead, only to enjoy each other's company and give of oneself with no expectation of return. It is the gift of realizing that, even in a world of tigers, there are currents out there that are stronger. It is a memory that helps me put away my cell phone or close my laptop when my little ones are tugging at my leg or begging to play Pokemon.

That is the battle hymn of the jellyfish son. It is not a battle already lost: rather, it is a battle cry for the importance of being present in one's relationships.

Cross-posted from Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton’s blog on the Psychology Today website.