Why I Rejected My Mother's Dying Wish
“Promise me you’ll never get divorced.”
This was one of the last things my mother said to me as she was dying from cancer.
I replied, as gently as I could, “I can’t make that promise, and I don’t want to tell you something that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill.”
In the six months that I was my mother’s caretaker as she transitioned from this life to the hereafter, my life went through a seismic shift, which began with a cross-country move from Brooklyn, New York, to Las Vegas. My husband, 7-year-old son and I packed the car and headed west, with no idea what lay ahead of us. We had no idea that my mother would not recover from the surgery that removed a tumor from her spine, nor could we possibly have known that what we thought was a temporary move — we loved living in New York more than anything and didn’t envision not going back — would turn into a permanent one. And we certainly could not have known that our marriage, already in a precarious state, would not survive the emotional upheaval brought on by such a change.
I tell this story now to friends, about my mom’s deathbed wish, and they are shocked at the request. But it very much speaks to the unbreachable generational, cultural, and religious divide that separated us. She grew up in the Philippines and was a staunch Catholic (she was, in fact, a missionary for the church in the latter years of her life), and divorce was a cardinal sin in her view. She had been married to my dad since she was 22 — a total of 43 years upon her death — and while there were many, many years of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, dissolution of marriage was not an option she felt she had. The Philippines and the Vatican are the only two sovereign states in the world that prohibit divorce. And while she had lived in the United States for decades, the cultural pull was strong, not to mention the social and familial ostracization she would have faced had she chosen a different life.
"She gave me the freedom to write my own narrative, to change course when I had to, to diverge from the well-trod path, even if it differed from her own."
So she stuck it out with my father because she thought she had to, thinking she would outlive him (he was eight years older and had been in poor health for at least two decades), and then her life could begin. She was the most vibrant and youthful person I’d ever known, and when she was diagnosed with cancer, no one could quite believe she wouldn’t recover from it. And yet she didn’t. The life that she imagined would begin never did.
Her twin devotions to church and marriage defined her life, and when she made that request to me, I understood that she was seeing it through the lens of her experience, not mine. She knew there were issues in my marriage that had been years in the making, and yet from her point of view, that’s what marriage was all about — a long slog through the bad parts, because the reward is in being able to say that you endured. After all, Catholic martyrdom is all my mother had ever known and been conditioned for. There’s a certain feeling of righteousness and perhaps even triumph in not throwing the towel in, regardless of one’s own unhappiness.
But I had other choices. I was not shackled by the grip of religion, nor was I beholden to the judgment of others, not even from my family members. And for better or worse, I grew up in the U.S., where I had choices. Though she may have not realized it, this was my mother’s greatest gift to me bringing me to this country. She gave me the freedom to write my own narrative, to change course when I had to, to diverge from the well-trod path, even if it differed from her own.
A few months after my mother passed away, I filed for divorce. It was not a decision I took lightly, nor has it been an easy road for me and my son. But during that most difficult year, watching my mother slip away — still so young and full of hope at 65, even in her last days — I knew time was not on my or anybody’s side. We have but a finite amount of it on this earth, and, even more cruelly, we have no idea just how much. To not squander a moment of it waiting for happiness is a promise I can give to myself. I only wish my mother could have given it to herself, too.