Memories of My Mother

Memories of My Mother

From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Tough Stuff

Memories of My Mother

I still miss those I loved who are no longer with me but I find I am grateful for having loved them. The gratitude has finally conquered the loss.

Rita Mae Brown

In January of 1998, I got the kind of call all actresses hope for: I had won the role of Julie Emrick on a new TV drama called Felicity. It should have been one of the most exciting moments of my life, but three months earlier something had happened that would forever put things in perspective. In October 1997, my mom, Christine Johnson, was diagnosed with cancer. Ten months later, she died at age fifty-three, and my life would never be the same.

My mom was my best friend. She taught me to appreciate every day. I think that is the key to life. I try to keep remembering that, to kind of make it a habit. And when I get all caught up in everything, I just stop and think about her.

I was like her sidekick growing up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My brother, Greig Jr., now thirty-three, and my sister, Julie, now thirty-two, were both older than me (I’m twenty-nine), so when they started school, it was just me and my mom together all day, running errands or just hanging out.

We even remained close through my rebellious period. In high school, I was staying out too late, doing the normal teenage stuff, so my parents sent me to a private boarding school in New Hampshire. I got kicked out after eight months for getting caught in the boys’ dorm. Oops! My punishment was having to go to a small local church school. When I did something wrong, if I tried to deny it or hide it, my mom would get angry. But if I admitted and apologized, she’d be totally cool. She was really fair.

She was also super-supportive. Ever since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to perform. She was always my biggest fan. She wasn’t a pushy stage mom at all, but she was definitely in my corner. She was really into personal growth (a longtime clothing store manager, she opened a self-help bookstore at one point) and encouraged the people around her to follow their dreams.

When I decided to move to New York City at nineteen to pursue an acting career, my mom and my dad, Greig Johnson, a car salesman, never said, “That’s risky,” or, “Don’t do that.” Two years later, in 1993, I moved to Los Angeles and got my first TV role as Kimberly, the Pink Power Ranger on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Everything was going smoothly until the fall of 1997, when my life came to a screeching halt. My mom’s doctors thought she had cysts on her uterus that had grown and needed to be removed. But what should have been a simple hysterectomy turned into something far worse. Mom already kind of suspected. A couple of days before her surgery, she called me up really frightened and said, “Amy Jo, what if I have cancer?” and I was like, “Mom, you can’t say that. No. No. No.” So she went in for the operation. They didn’t expect to find cancer, but it was everywhere. A rare type of cancer, it had started in her appendix, and by the time the doctors found it, it had spread all over her body.

I’ll never forget the moment when my dad called and told me the news. It was Halloween. In shock, I flew back East to be with my family. I remember sitting up one night with my dad, probably two days after we found out. He told me he knew she was going to die, he just knew it. I was like, “No, we’ve got to have hope.”

Mymomhandled the news—and her terminal prognosis —with incredible bravery. That Christmas, which she knew would probably be her last, she bought us all tickets to see The Lion King on Broadway in New York. It was really emotional because the story is about the circle of life and dying and coming back again. I looked over at my mom during the scene where Simba sees his father’s ghost. She had tears in her eyes. But she never broke down in front of any of us kids or her friends. I think my dad’s the only one who saw how frightened she must have been.

In the beginning, we had several disappointments. My mom tried different chemotherapies. She also went to a hospital in Washington, D.C., for a surgery the doctors hoped might give her more time. My sister and I slept on little cots in her hospital room. It was like a slumber party.

But the surgery was a letdown. They opened her up again and said there was nothing they could do. The cancer had spread too much. Everyone was trying to help, recommending holistic medicines and special diets. We searched on the Internet for anything that might cure cancer. There are just a million things out there that people are trying to sell and tell you. Finally, my mom said, “Stop! I don’t want to try anything else. Don’t bring me any more crazy teas!”

That winter and spring, I traveled back and forth constantly between L.A. and Cape Cod. The people at Felicity were incredible. A couple of times, they stopped production or rearranged the schedule so I could go home. And the producers would send my mom hats and T-shirts and letters saying, “We love your daughter.” I think it was a comfort for her to know that I would be taken care of when she was gone.

My mom didn’t want to die in a hospital, so hospice workers came to our home in July of 1998. They were great because they helped my mom accept the fact that she was going to die. That allowed her to say good-bye to everybody. One day, she gathered her favorite jewelry and possessions and had each person she loved come upstairs, and she gave everything away. She gave some people back gifts that she remembered they had given to her, like, twenty years ago.

She kept her sense of humor until she died. Four days after the doctors had predicted she’d pass away, she was sitting in bed and started singing! She looked at my sister and me and jokingly said, “What am I going to do? A woman can’t live without her jewels.”

She wanted me to go back to work, where they were rearranging production for me, but I told her I was staying with her. Finally, she insisted: “This could go on for a month. You have to go.” I said good-bye so many times. I’d hug her, kiss her, run downstairs, get in the car and then run back up. I did that, like, seven times. Finally, she said, “Amy Jo, this is getting ridiculous. Just go.” It was the hardest good-bye I’ve said or will ever have to. Three days after that, on August 19, 1998, she died.

My sister called and told me the news. I cried all over my house. Then, I went to my living room and just sat there, and suddenly, I got the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had. It was like my mom was in the room with me. It was like she came over and gave me peace, and it made me feel ready to go home for the funeral and be strong for my dad and the rest of the family.

Amy Jo Johnson
As told to Linda Friedman

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