Last January, my mom passed away from end stage terminal lung cancer. From the time she was diagnosed until the day she died was less than six months, and during that time, she showed the same grace and strength she always had. She didn’t tell me right away that something was wrong. One day while we were talking on the phone, she told me that she’d had some routine blood testing done as part of her yearly check-up with her oncologist and that one of results was slightly higher than it should be. She’s had breast cancer about 15 years before, been treated with surgery, radiation and chemo, and beaten the disease. That experience made her realize that everyone’s days are limited, and to make the best of the ones you have.
She started traveling, and visited most of Europe, the Caribbean, Alaska, western Canada and the western US, and was in the middle of getting her next vacation plans made when she got the new test results back. Everything had been normal, except for that one result, so she needed some further investigations. I knew she was nervous, and when the results came back the she had lung cancer, she was really scared. I was visiting her and my father with my husband and kids around the time she got the news. She and I would spend hours talking every night after the kids went to bed. She’d be starting chemo, and she hated the idea. She didn’t know what the exact combination of drugs would be, and she said she didn’t want to. She’d known what they were when she had cancer before, and she said she’d looked them up online and spent hours reading about them and making herself feel even worse. She didn’t want that this time. As she put it, for her, “ignorance was bliss”. She started her chemo and got really sick, but she endured it because it was her best chance. She couldn’t have surgery or more radiation therapy, so chemo was her only option. She was trying to remain positive and even kept up with the planning for her trip. Things seemed to be going well.
The one day I got the call. The chemo hadn’t worked. When you hear news like that, you are in a state of shock and it doesn’t fully sink in at first. My mom, being the pragmatic sort that she was, was already looking into palliative care and other options. She was trying to stay upbeat, but I know she was having a very difficult time. I’d talk with her on the phone every day, and as time went by, she told me that she had accepted what she’d been told and was making the best of the time she had left. She and my dad would sit together in the evenings and have long talks about all the good times they’d been fortunate enough to have, and in sharing those memories, they both realized how much they loved each other and how lucky they’d been in the 49 years they’d been married. They were given a gift of time to say the things they wanted to say to each other but had always put off, thinking that there would always be time later. For them, there wouldn’t be.
She had told me that when they had first found out that her cancer was terminal, neither of them really knew what to say to each other, which I can understand. After all, what could you really say? As time went on, they reached a point of acceptance, and found that their good times together weren’t over. They’d still joke with one another. I’ll always remember my mom teasing my dad about something and him saying ‘yes dear” in a sarcastic voice. She laughed and said that she’d make a recording of herself nagging him so that after she was gone, he could listen to it whenever he wanted and that way, it would seem like she was still around. As odd as it may sound, I think being able to joke like that helped both of them.
As time went by, my mom’s health deteriorated and she was able to spend less and less time doing the things she loved. I knew she missed spending time in her garden, so every week or so I’d send her a bouquet of fresh carnations, sunflowers, or some other blossoms. She’d fuss over them, arranging them the way she wanted. I sent her a gift certificate for lunch or dinner at an inn about an hour away, and she and some good friends drive there in the early autumn when the leaves had turned color, which was something she had looked forward to every year. That was pretty much the last time she went anywhere, other than to see her doctor.
As the days went by, she got weaker and spent most of her time in her chair. She started needing more pain medication and palliative care and the visits from the VON nurse made sure she got what she needed. We still talked on the phone every day, and she would offer me advice about the different things I told her, and she’d tell me how she was doing. At first, we’d sometimes talk for over an hour a day, but as she began to fail, the calls got shorter, and she’d spend more time resting.
She hated the idea of being in the hospital, so my dad looked after her with some extra help form palliative care. She was able to stay at home until a few days before she died. I’d been quite sick and in the hospital myself and hadn’t been able to get down to see her for a couple of months, but I was finally cleared to travel a few days before that, so I was able to sit with her, talk to her, and hold her hand. My brother, father, and I took turns so that she would always have someone with her and not be alone.
She passed from this life surrounded by love.
In loving memory of
January 27th, 1942 – January 15th, 2014