I Was 16 When My Mom Died. I Raised My Sisters the Best I Could.

Snapshots of life at home.
Sept. 4 2013 11:31 AM

When Mom Died

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

Sisters
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.  

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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.”

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