My mum Susan was vivacious, charismatic and the life of the party. She was always the first person on the dance floor. Mum was loyal as anything and incredibly protective of her family. You always knew when she was coming because you could hear the jingling of her gold bracelets. She was immaculately polished, but blue-collar to the bone. She was black and white, hard and fast. She was all about authenticity; if youweren’t real, you couldn’t hang out with Susan.
My relationship with my mum was challenging when I was younger. She owned a fashion business with my dad and worked from 6am to 8pm most days, with overseas trips to Paris, New York and London every six weeks. I was the youngest of four kids (Ashley, 45, Sally, 42, and Josh, 32), and until I was 13 I was effectively raised by nannies.
My parents separated when I was 17 and when my dad moved out, it was just me and Mum in the house. Her drinking escalated and it was really intense. She wasn’t a nice drinker. When I came back from a gap year, I moved straight out. I feel a lot of guilt about that now; I left her completely on her own.
Eventually, when I finished university, I moved back in with her at age 21 and we became inseparable. She was different, she had softened. We spent all our time together; we liked to have a casual drink and talk shit about people. She called me “baby girl” because I was her youngest. Every year, for the past 10 years, we’ve holidayed in the South of France together. We first travelled there when I was a teenager and I have so many happy memories there. It is home to us and where we felt ourselves.
It was at the beach in France in August last year that I first noticed the lump. Lying next to me on a sunbed wearing a swimsuit, I spotted an ugly, bulbous, purple lump under Mum’s arm. It looked irritated and uncomfortable. “What the fuck is that?” I asked, shocked. “Oh, don’t worry about it, it’s fine,” she said, covering herself with her scarf. When I kept pushing her, she told me she thought it was a sebaceous cyst. She’d had cysts removed from under her arm before, so I didn’t overthink it, but I still made her go to a doctor four days later – despite her protests.
After having tests at the Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco, we found out Mum had a tumour and needed to have an urgent biopsy. Mum made me promise not to tell my other siblings until she knew what was happening. She was adamant; it was her business to tell and it wasn’t my place to say anything.
Within a week, Mum was flying back to Sydney early with me, cutting her holiday short for the first time in her life. At home, a biopsy revealed she had stage-four melanoma cancer. It had metastasised and was moving through her lymph nodes. When she got the diagnosis, Mum didn’t even cry. She was more worried about breaking the news to my siblings and how it would affect everybody else.
Three weeks after we got home from France, my boyfriend of seven years, Kelly, proposed to me in our living room. He explained that he wanted to propose in our first home because it’s where we’d done everything together. After I said “Definitely yes,” we sat and cuddled for five minutes before I called Mum. She screamed with excitement – finally we had some good news.
Mum was over the moon about my engagement and immediately went into wedding planning mode. Since I was 22, I had always dreamt of getting married in the South of France in a villa in Antibes. It was going to be beautiful. We pencilled in September 2020 to give us enough time to save and plan.
While we were wedding planning, Mum started immunotherapy. Kelly and I went with her to her first immune session and sat there for two and a half hours while she was pumped with medication. It made her nauseous and gave her diarrhoea and vomiting. She was so sick. She couldn’t keep any food down and lost 10 kilograms in a short amount of time. At home, she couldn’t move from the couch. She was just wasting away with a bucket beside her. I’d never seen her that helpless before. It was brutal.
Mum had been doing immunotherapy for three weeks when we had our engagement party in October. She was 45 minutes late and I remember being upset with her. When she arrived, I felt so bad because she was struggling. That day was really hard for her, but she stayed at the party for three hours. Sitting on the couch, she was so graceful.
The next month we found out that the immunotherapy wasn’t working and her body was rejecting the treatment. She pulled me aside and said, “All I want is to see you get married. That’s something I need to see before I go.” When I told Kelly, we agreed we didn’t care where we got married, we just wanted her there. We brought the wedding forward to Tuesday, January 29, 2019, and booked Chiswick restaurant in Woollahra, Sydney, for the ceremony. Tuesday is a religious day for Jewish people to get married and it was also our eight-year anniversary as a couple. Mum was avid it was a sign.
I tried to go dress shopping on my own and walked out crying. It felt so wrong without Mum. I ended up going online to Net-a-Porter and finding an Etro dress I loved – and she loved, too. When it arrived, I tried it on at Mum’s house. “It’s perfect,” she said when she saw me in it. I knew it wasn’t the typical wedding experience, but I was just so grateful she got to see me trying on my dress.
But Mum’s treatment was not going well. The weekend before the wedding, she went into palliative care because she was struggling with her breathing and wanted to get it fixed before the big day. I went to visit Mum in hospital on Saturday and the doctors raised the red flag: “She’s not doing great.” They told us to consider getting married as soon as possible. I called Kelly and said, “We’ve got to get married now.” Kelly, his parents, the rabbi and my dad rushed to the hospital. My parents hadn’t spoken in 10 years, but when my dad walked in, Mum looked up at him and said, “Mazel tov.” It was like an air of forgiveness. It wasn’t the day we’d dreamt of – but we knew it was do or die – literally.
The room smelt like hospital disinfectant. Ten of us crammed around Mum’s bed, we pulled the blue curtain around us for privacy, but you could still hear the nurses and other patients outside. Mum signed the marriage certificate, with oxygen tubes up her nose and a patient band on her wrist. It was the last thing she ever signed. There are photos of Mum sitting up in bed clapping, looking so dignified. I just kept thinking, “I hope this brings her peace.”
After the ceremony, I wanted to stay overnight with Mum, but I couldn’t do it. I was so tired. Kelly and I spent our first night as husband and wife together at home trying to sleep. I cried. He cried.
The next day, I went back to the hospital at 8am and Mum had cornflakes for breakfast. I played her Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and she swayed in bed. We didn’t know that would be the last day. They just kept injecting more morphine into her. She slept for four and a half hours, which really freaked me out. We could see her breathing getting more and more laboured. She was taking short baby breaths. I can still hear it if I close my eyes. They don’t tell you about the sounds people make when they die.
Earlier in the day, my sister Sally had asked Mum what her goal was for the day and she said, “To not be here.” That night my sister looked into Mum’s eyes and willed her to go, “You go to grandpa, you go. We’re here, we’re holding you.” Outside, a huge electrical storm erupted. White lightning cut through the black sky. At 10pm, Mum left us. She always believed you’re born alone, you live alone and that you die alone. I truly believe we proved her wrong; we did not leave her side.
When mum died, I just wanted to disappear. I’d lost my soulmate and my best friend. I thought about cancelling the wedding, but in Jewish religion you need to celebrate before you grieve. Plus, Mum would have killed us if we ruined her plans! For better or worse, the wedding was going ahead.
When I woke up on Tuesday morning, it was a beautiful, sunny day. Getting ready without Mum was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I opened a bottle of Billecart-Salmon rosé, which was Mum’s favourite, and toasted her.
Mum was so present the entire day, even though she wasn’t there. Her spirit was in the flowers we chose together, the dress she watched me try on and the hair and make-up we booked. She was everywhere, which hurt even more.
My dad walked me down the aisle and when I got to the end, my sister stood under the chuppah with me and did all the stuff Mum was supposed to do. Standing at the chuppah, I looked at my beautiful husband Kelly beside me and our family behind me and I realised I wasn’t alone. Mum left us with something profound as her final parting gift – a day where we were all together in peace. I knew I would never take another second for granted.
We didn’t have a dancefloor at the reception, it didn’t feel right without our Dancing Queen. Instead, I made a speech in Mum’s honour. “I miss you so much today, tomorrow and now forever,” I said.
The day after the wedding was Mum’s funeral. She was buried in a black coffin and I remember thinking she would have liked the colour but hated how claustrophobic it was. In Jewish tradition, the people who grieve have to bury the body. As Mum was lowered into the grave, each of her four children had to shovel dirt onto the coffin. I’ll never forget the sound of the rocks hitting the coffin. It was horrific. That was the moment I realised she was really gone. My mum was gone.
Mum left me her engagement ring from my dad. She’d had it totally redesigned when they divorced, and we called it her “F You” ring because she was always flipping the bird to people – even in the hospital at the very end. She was so cheeky. Now it’s my “F You” ring; it’s my source of power. I wear it whenever I need strength and channel my inner Susan. I wore it on my birthday on March 10, which was also the day of the Melanoma March. We walked for Mum and raised more than $4000.
It’s been five months now since we lost Mum. The grief is so much that I can only handle it in pieces, otherwise it would swallow me whole. I still talk to her all the time; she doesn’t answer. But every time there is a storm, I feel her presence. She was a lightning bolt in life and death; bold, powerful, hard and fast, black and white.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of marie claire magazine.