A little over a year ago I was sitting with my mother during her first chemotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Today, I find myself sitting with my mother again – this time next to what will most likely be her deathbed. As was expected, the chemotherapy treatments eventually stopped working and my mother made the decision to enter in-home hospice care a couple of weeks ago.
So much has changed in this past year.
After the whirlwind of medical appointments and surgeries following her initial diagnosis, we eventually settled into the rhythm of chemotherapy treatment. It was often a rollercoaster of good days mixed with bad days, with unpredictable side effects popping up around every corner. Given the stage of her cancer, the doctors gave her 6-months to a year to live, with treatment. In keeping with my mother’s stubborn nature and true grit, she set her sights on reaching the milestone of a year and never looked back.
I have so many thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head and my heart right now that I am not sure where to begin – but I feel like the prudent thing is to at least get them down so that I’ll have something to reflect upon at some point in the future. So, if you are so inclined to stick with me, below are some of the things I’ve been pondering recently.
There is compassion in naming it.
I don’t know if it is just because I am getting older, but it seems like every time I turn around friends and loved ones are being impacted by cancer. Some are just beginning their journey, while others have been in the game for a while. Some are in remission – caught in the tenuous existence of elation at being cancer-free and fearful of what the results of the next scan may hold – while others are, like my mother, at the end of their fight.
Twenty plus years ago I lost a precious grandmother (Clarabelle), an amazing sister (Theresa) and a beloved aunt (Claudia) to cancer. Although those experiences deeply saddened me, I think I was too young to fully understand the gravity of the situation. I look back now with much more empathy for what my family members were going through at the time. Now, I find myself with a full-fledged membership card to the inner-circle of people impacted by cancer.
I have learned a lot through my initiation into this dubious club. One surprise was to learn the cathartic impact of someone asking me about how my mom was doing. I have always shied away from asking friends how they, or their loved one, was doing with whatever serious illness they were facing. As though my asking would remind them that their daughter was fighting a brain tumor, or their wife was in yet another clinical trial for a new cancer drug. I worried that my asking would make them sad or bring up bad memories they would rather forget – as if it was possible to forget, even for a moment. I think I also shied away from asking because then I felt like I’d be expected to say the exact right thing to make it all okay, when really I’d just be at a loss for words.
To the contrary, I found that when someone asked about my mother it was as if I was wrapped, ever so briefly, in a warm blanket of compassion. I rarely went into detail in my response, but it meant the world to me that someone acknowledged the fact that I was carrying around such an emotional burden, even when my outward self may have appeared un-phased. I now know the importance of asking after someone’s loved one and acknowledging what a friend or co-worker might be going through behind the scenes. It’s a small gesture that can mean so much.
My mother totally kicked ass during her life.
I doubt I will ever fully understand the impact my mother had on my life, but I’ve certainly spent this past year reflecting on the many facets of this fact.
For example, there was never any question in my mind that I would go to college and have a meaningful career. I realize now how much of that certainty came from having such a strong role model in my mother. You see, my mother received a Bachelor of Science in Geology – which was very uncommon for a woman in the late 1970’s. She took a double load of classes and received her four-year degree in two years with a 3.98 GPA – all while raising two small children (I was around 6, my brother around 4).
My mother went on to excel in a career as an environmental compliance and reclamation manager in the male-dominated gold mining industry. Upon reflection, I see how this lit a spark in me to challenge the gender stereotypes of what were thought of as appropriate jobs for men and women. In her image I sought out opportunities to prove to myself, and others, that women were just as capable as men.
I didn’t realize how impactful my mother’s educational accomplishments were on others until a couple of close childhood female friends expressed such sentiments in letters they sent after they learned of her diagnosis. They told my mom that she was the first woman in their lives that had gone to college and had a career, and that she had inspired them to do the same. I look back now and realize that my mother spent much of her life helping not only me, but also countless other young girls discover their full potential.
I think I also get much of my adventurous spirit from my mom. When I was young she decided she wanted to own a hot air balloon. I still recall how exhilarating it was for me to see my mom learning to pilot the balloon, soaring over the landscapes below. I realize now that watching her achieve her goal gave me the confidence to pursue my own dreams of learning to fly and skydive.
Taking care of myself matters.
The benefits I’ve realized from living a healthier lifestyle in recent years are too numerous to count, but I’m so very thankful that I had made those changes before this all happened.
I recall sitting in several Weight Watchers meetings where returning members would introduce themselves and say that they were back because they had gained much/all/more of the weight they had lost previously on the program because of the stress of the death of a loved one.
At the time I didn’t truly understand how strong the compulsion is to stop taking care of yourself when someone close to you is so terribly sick. A common refrain in my head was “My mother is dying of cancer, why shouldn’t I eat that cupcake? It’ll make me feel better.” I have fallen victim to emotional eating more times than I can count and in the past year I’ve gained over 20 pounds.
That total would no doubt be higher if it weren’t for the time I still spend running. I don’t enjoy running as much as I used to (schlepping around that extra weight certainly has something to do with it), but I still get out and do it as much as I can. Running has provided me with three important things.
First, it has helped me maintain some semblance of a healthy lifestyle. I’m certainly nowhere near where I used to be in terms of my weight or my cardio fitness level, but I’ve maintained a reasonable foundation that I can build from going forward.
Second, it has provided me with the time and space to get inside, or outside, of my own head – depending on what I needed at the moment. Some of the best processing of my thoughts and emotions about my mother’s illness have happened while my feet where pounding out the miles.
Third, it has surrounded me with friends and loved ones on a regular basis. There is great camaraderie that comes from running with others, and in many cases these people got me out of bed to exercise when all I really wanted to do was lay around and be sad.
Time is a gift.
When my mother was first given her diagnosis of a terminal illness some people would say to me that I should make the most of the gift of time. I resented the very idea that anything about this situation was a gift – it was a death sentence, not a gift! But now I understand more fully what they meant.
Knowing about the impending death of someone you love has a remarkable way of bringing everything that matters into focus. Over this past year I have shared so many memories with my mother and my family that in times past would have gone almost unnoticed.
For example, without knowing my mother was going to die soon, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the sparkle in her eyes as she showed me the delicate hand-blown glass bottles of essential oils at her newfound favorite shop called the “Cosmic Depot.” I wouldn’t have cherished the experience of trying to re-create old German recipes from her childhood like sour-meatballs and apple pancakes. I wouldn’t have understood the pride she experienced in seeing my friend Kim publish her first book “The Yellow Envelope,” in which Glenn and I play a role.
Similarly, there are things that my mother spent time doing this past year that she wouldn’t have done if she didn’t know that death was knocking at her door. For example, my mother has always been into food – mostly pictures of food. As a child, I remember our mailbox was always stuffed with cooking magazines filled with colorful recipes. Even today, my mom has countless bookshelves filled with cookbooks…none of which she has used, but all of which she has read.
In this last year of her life my mom decided she wanted to start trying all of these foods she had spent decades reading about. Almost every weekend my nephew Tyler (her grandson) would take my mom out to lunch to try something new. During the week my mom would prepare for their food adventure by spending hours reading recipes and watching YouTube videos on how to cook and eat the food they were going to try for the first time. From pho, ramen, sushi, and Indian food, to Peruvian food, Middle Eastern food, and reindeer sausages — they made the rounds to various restaurants in town giving everything a try.
My mom has often said that her primary regret about getting cancer is that she wouldn’t be around to see what Tyler ends up doing with his life. These weekly food adventures became an important way for them to get to spend precious hours together – something they likely wouldn’t have necessarily made time for under other circumstances.
In the sadness, there is happiness.
Several friends and co-workers have shared their own experiences with the loss of a loved one through a situation similar to mine. Many remarked about the humor that comes intertwined with the sorrow. I have found this to be true as well and have shared some of the best belly-laughs with my mom during this past year. I’m guessing one can’t help but laugh about the absurdity of the situation sometimes.
For example, my mother is quite literally nothing but skin and bones at this point. She has two artificial knees that make a clanging metal noise when her knees knock together because she no longer has the cushioning of thigh muscles. I was picking her up off the bed the other day and made a comment about how it would be a heck of a lot easier to pick her up if her dang knees didn’t weigh so much. She let loose a long laugh, hit me on the shoulder and shrieked, “are you saying I have fat knees!?” I will forever cherish the laughter and humor my mother and I have shared during these difficult times.
One final adventure…together.
Several months ago I wrote a blog post about updating my bucket list. The first item on my updated list was to “help my mom die peacefully and with dignity.” I’ve never shared that item from my bucket list with anyone, not even Glenn. I think that is because I was worried that it might seem inappropriate, insensitive or maybe even a bit morbid.
Bucket list items are supposed to be happy, fulfilling things that one has always dreamed of doing, or maybe challenging things that may feel nearly impossible. In the end, I decided it was an important item to include on my bucket list because even though I don’t have a say in what is going to happen, I do have a say in how it happens. Like any of my other bucket list items, there are happy, fulfilling, challenging and seemingly impossible aspects to how my mother leaves this earth.
The final destination of this journey is set. There is no other outcome other than cancer taking my mother’s life in the coming days. But, helping her achieve a peaceful, dignified death on her terms is possible. I can try to give her that and I’ll be right by her side until the end.
P.S. I wrote and published this post with my mother’s blessing.