Mother’s Day is almost upon us. I decided I’d try to write about my mom, but it hasn’t been easy. I have a million memories of my mom, but I’m thinking mostly about her death today. She died at the end of this month in 2007, and this year will mark ten years since her death.
You’d think this subject would get easier over time. I thought it would, until I started writing about it. I’ve had to chop this into very small bites, with a whole lots of breaks in between. At the rate this is going, I might be finished by Mother’s Day. Next year.
* * * *
It was in October of 2006. I think it was a Friday. I got a phone call at work from my youngest sister, Julie. My work day at the MVAMC was almost over, and I was checking my notes at the nursing station. Our mom had been visiting our oldest sister, Colleen, in Montana. Julie had gone to the airport to pick up our mom, but there was something wrong with our mother.
“She’s really confused and acting strange.” Julie said.
“Is she drunk?” I asked. My mom had been sober for at least ten years, but she could have had a relapse. I did, maybe a month before all of this happened.
“No. She’s just weird. I want to take her to the ER.”
“Do that. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I replied, then called my lovely supermodel wife to let her know we’d be taking an unplanned trip to St Cloud. I’m sure my memories of this are muddled, but I know I had a bad feeling about this situation, and I’m sure I tried to tell Lea that as we raced up Highway 10 to the St Cloud Hospital.
I think this is what I really said.
“My mom has cancer.”
* * * *
I wasn’t an Oncology nurse, or even a Med/Surg nurse. I was a Psych nurse, so you might think I would’ve thought my mom had had a psychotic break, not cancer. And you might wonder how I came up with that diagnosis when it was so far out of my wheelhouse, so to speak.
My mom smoked cigarettes, and she had smoked for something like unto sixty years. You hardly have to be a medical professional to know that smoking is bad for you. And I might be wrong about this, but one of the first major lawsuits against Big Tobacco was filed by a nurse, and in her sworn testimony, she stated she had no idea that smoking was harmful. If that is correct, she has to be the most stupidest fucking douchebag nurse, ever.
I already knew what the ER doc was going to say before I ever saw him. Be that as it may, I have to admit I was stunned to hear his pronouncement when he showed me my mother’s CT scan.
The first stage of the Grief and Loss process is denial…
“You’re the nurse in the family, right? Okay, well, the news I’ve got for you isn’t good. Your mother has lung cancer. She has a nodule in her lung, right there. Normally, we’d need to do a biopsy to be sure, but that’s not all. There’s another one right here, in her liver. Once cancer metastasizes there, well, I probably don’t have to tell you how bad that is. The oncologist can tell you more, but from my experience, your mom has about six months to live. Probably less.”
“What’s causing her confusion?” I asked. I think I saw my mom before I met with the doctor, and my sister wasn’t joking about mom being confused. She didn’t seem to have any idea where she was.
“Oh. That’s from SIADH.” he replied, like I’d know what the hell he was talking about. I didn’t. So he tried explaining it to me. I tried to comprehend what he said, but even after his explanation, I still didn’t understand what he was saying. I would have to call my nursing buddy, Don Nelson, for some clarification. He had worked in ICU, and he was the only person I could think of who might be able to translate this into understandable terms, but even his explanation left me confused.
If you want to try to understand this, you’re going to have to Google it, and even that may not help. I don’t think it helped me much. This surpassed me, and it confused me almost as much as it did my mom.
Even now, I doubt I’d understand it any better. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is something like unto this: it’s probably similar to what happens when an elderly person gets an UTI. Somehow, a bladder infection more or less scrambles their brains. Treat the infection, and they’re better in a couple of days. So, I figured that would happen with my mom.
* * * *
My mom was admitted to the hospital so she could be monitored and treated with Lasix to get rid of some of the excess fluid in her body, and then, hopefully, she’d be less confused. That’s what the nurses said, and they were confident she’d be better in a couple of days.
I can’t remember how many of my siblings were at the hospital that day, but we helped mom get settled into her room. She didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned about being in the hospital. All she cared about was her purse, and going to the bathroom, and the first thing she did once she was in the bathroom was light up a cigarette.
She was so pissed when I took her cigarettes from her and gave them to the nurses, she wouldn’t let me kiss her goodbye.
I probably had to work that weekend. I had every other weekend off, and I know I would’ve been with my mom if I wasn’t working. She was released from the hospital on Sunday. I think Lea and I took another trip to my parents’ house. The Lasix didn’t appear to have made much difference. My mom seemed to be every bit as confused as she had been on Friday.
I have a vague memory of my mother when she returned home. She was sitting on the couch, so I sat down next to her and held her hand. Then I smiled, and said softly, “You realize that you’re fucking up everything, don’t you.”
“Yeah, I probably am. Your father was supposed to die first.”
* * * *
I know my dad asked me to be present when they met with the oncologist. After all, I was a nurse, and if anyone would understand what was going to be said, it was probably me. My dad wasn’t very medically attuned. He rarely listened to his own doctors, so why would he start listening to his wife’s doctor? Plus, my dad was essentially deaf in one ear, and he couldn’t hear so good out of the other one.
The oncologist was a nice guy from India. He outlined his plan of attack, but what surprised me the most was he seemed to think he could save my mother’s life, which I thought was a total crock of shit.
“Your mother needs this treatment, and she’ll get better as long as she stays on it. If she doesn’t agree to the chemo, or if she decides to stop treatment, she’ll be dead in two weeks.” And then he left the room while I discussed the options with my parents.
“Realistically, the best this guy’s gonna be able to do is extend her life for a few months.” I told my mom and dad.
“Well, I’m not ready to let her go.” my dad said.
“I don’t think any of us are ready for that, but it’s not your decision, or my decision. It’s her decision, as long as she understands what she’s doing.” I said, then turned to my mom. “Mom, do you understand what the doctor said?”
“Yeah, I think so. I have cancer, and I’m going to die.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it. The only question is, do you want to go through chemo or not. It’ll keep you alive a bit longer, but there are a whole slew of potentially serious side effects from the treatment. This doctor thinks he’s going to cure you, but I don’t think he’s being very realistic. I think the best he’ll be able to do is keep you alive a bit longer, and you might spend most of that time feeling sicker than a dog.”
“But the doctor said he thought he could cure your mother,” my dad said. “And you’re just a psychiatric nurse.”
“Fair enough.” I replied. “But if this guy thinks he’s going to cure Mom, he’s fucking crazy. Mom has metastatic cancer, it’s already in her liver, and God knows where else it’s spread to. This is not going to be a life saving intervention, Dad.” I looked him squarely in the eyes until that sunk in, then turned to my mom. “But it’s your decision, Mom. I hope you can understand your options, and if you do, we’re going to support you, no matter what you decide.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“I can’t advise you what to do.” I replied, and I turned my gaze to the floor. I may have held my breath. She turned to my dad. “What do you think?”
“I don’t want to lose you, ever.”
“Okay. I think I know what I want to do. I’ll try the chemo.”
* * * *
To be honest, I’m not sure if any of that actually happened, other than the visit. I don’t have any clear recollection of the conversations we had. Whatever it was that was actually said, my mom seemed to be able to understand the situation, and she opted for the chemo. That was good enough for me. We called the doctor back into the office and let him know.
* * * *
If you never had the opportunity to meet my mom, you would have loved her. Sally as a good old gal. She’s one of the few people I’ve known that everybody loved. She was smart and sassy, and sharp witted. She was a dynamo, always doing something, always working a project or two.
And then, in seemingly one day, that person vanished, like unto a magic trick gone terribly wrong. The person she once was made sporadic visits over the following months, but those visits were brief. What I remember most was my mom sitting silently on the couch, staring out the window at nothing, or playing with the remote control, flipping through the channels without watching anything.
One of the local hospice programs came over to do an assessment, and they were critical in helping us manage my mother’s care at home. I cannot thank them enough for everything they did for us.
They set up a pain management program for my mom that was miraculously effective. Prior to that, it was a goddamn nightmare. We had to buy a lock box to put her pain meds in, or she would’ve taken all of them at once. The hospice program also set up an adjustable bed in the living room, and that’s where my mom slept. She would fall asleep watching TV, and that was the only time she stopped clicking through the channels.
According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five stages in the Grief and Loss process. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I know we all got together as a family to discuss what we going to do once we all found out our mom was ruining everything by dying. I didn’t have a lots to say, but I offered a brief rundown of Grief and Loss, and asked everyone to remember that our emotions were going to be all over the map.
“It’s not a linear progression, you bounce back and forth, and it can take a long time to work through.”
As a family, we decided to do whatever we had to to take care of our parents. My mom had taken care of our dad forever. Healthwise, my dad was pretty much a trainwreck, and all of us thought he’d be the first to check out. Even him. There was no way he could suddenly become mom’s caretaker.
We had a meeting in the dining room at our parents’ house to discuss our plan of attack. It led to the most memorable reappearance of my mom that I remember during those days. As we were discussing how we were going to care for Mom and Dad, and make sure they could stay in their house, my mom got up from the couch and walked into the dining room.
“If you’re planning on putting me in a nursing home, I’ll kill each and every one of you fuckers!” she said. There was real fire in her eyes.
“Mom, we’re not going to do that. We’re trying to find a way to take care of you here, at home.” everyone replied at once.
“Oh. Well, okay then.” she replied, and returned to staring aimlessly out the window from the couch.
After we all stopped laughing, two of my sisters, Denise and Julie, would walk point, so to speak. They lived the closest to our parents. They would manage everything Monday through Friday. The rest of us would fill in when we could, and on the weekends.
* * * *
Sally would go through two rounds of chemo before she decided enough was enough. It would take seven months for the cancer inside of her to kill her to death, but my mom essentially died in October, leaving a shadow figure of the person she’d once been.
We got to spend one last Thanksgiving together, one last Christmas. One more New Year’s Eve, and we got to celebrate her birthday in February. I wish I could say these were happy, joyous occasions. I don’t remember them that way. I’m not sure anyone in my family does.
My mom was drastically different in personality, and then in physical appearance. The chemo changed her so much. By the time she got dead, she was hardly recognizable as the person I knew as my mom.
It’s beyond ironic. I know people who suddenly lost their mother who wish they would’ve gotten an extra six months of time. For me, I’d probably swap places with them.
* * * *
My mom loved Perry Como. I bought a couple of his CD’s, and played them over and over on the weekends I spent as caregiver in Little Falls. Taking care of my parents wasn’t physically demanding. Our duties as caregivers mostly entailed cleaning the house, doing laundry, and cooking meals–and making sure my mom didn’t accidentally walk out the door and wander off.
As a nurse, I had cared for a lots of patients who were dying, but none of them had been my mom. I had no idea how emotionally exhausting it would be. I remember returning home from those weekends being too exhausted to even cry.
I remember one weekend clearly. I was semi-asleep on the couch. My mom was sound asleep on the hospital bed. It was about 3:00 AM, when I heard this:
“BILLY MAYS HERE, FOR OXICLEAN!”
I just about had a fucking heart attack. I leapt off the couch, and fumbled around, trying to find my glasses. Once I could see again, I located the remote and turned the TV off.
“Hey!” my mom said, sitting up in bed. “I was watching that!”
* * * *
Times of crisis bring out the best, and worst, in people. And sometimes within five minutes of each other. It’s a good thing I had quit drinking before this happened. Otherwise, my reactions wouldn’t have been pretty… As it turned out, the collective reactions of my family certainly had their ugly moments.
Watching our mother die took a toll on all of us. My youngest brother, Bob, couldn’t take it, and asked to be taken out of the caregiver rotation. My brother, John, couldn’t even come to grips with the fact that our mom was going to die. I can’t remember if he ever attempted any caregiver roles.
I don’t hold that against him. It wasn’t an easy task. I don’t hold what he couldn’t do against him. It’s what he did, and what he did was criticize everything the rest of us did while he drank himself into an ambulatory coma. I don’t hold his drinking against him. Drinking was pretty much the only coping strategy my family had. There was a whole lots of drinking going on during that time. If I hadn’t quit drinking before my mother died, I might be drinking still.
I remember spending a lots of time trying to reason with my unreasonable brother. And I was not always gracious, nor very professional, in my sometimes not so private interactions with John.
For that, I am eternally embarrassed, and very sorry.
About the time that my mother was dying, my lovely supermodel wife got a job offer in Phoenix, AZ. I encouraged her to accept the offer. If the position worked out, it would be a great opportunity for her. As for me, I needed to get as far away from my brother as I could.
For the longest time, all I wanted to do was kill him.
I’m better now, and I probably won’t kill my brother if I ever see him again. But I’m not going to lie. It’d probably be better if we never saw each other again.
* * * *
My mother endured two rounds of chemo. I think the side effects were worse for her the second time around, maybe. They certainly were for me. My mother no longer resembled herself. She had gained what looked like one hundred pounds on her tiny frame, and her face was bloated. As terrible as this is going to sound, she looked like Jabba the Hutt’s wife.
Her oncologist was right about one thing. She died two weeks after stopping her chemo treatments. Her condition rapidly deteriorated. Lea and I drove up to Little Falls to see her before she died, but she had already slipped into something like unto a coma by the time we arrived.
I held her hand, and told her all the things a mom would want to hear. And then we drove home. And went back to our life, and our respective jobs. And waited.
* * * *
My mother died early in the morning on May 28, 2007. It was the Memorial Day weekend. I worked a twelve hour shift on Friday, a double shift on Saturday and Sunday, and another twelve hours on Monday. I was at work when my dad called at around 5:00 AM.
“I just wanted to let you know your mother is gone. And I knew you’d be awake.”
We talked for a few minutes, there wasn’t a whole lots to say. I wasn’t the only person on my unit that lost someone that weekend. One of the nurses lost her mother-in-law. Another lost her cousin. Bad things happen in threes…
I took a break after talking to my dad. I went outside. The birds were chirping, the sun was starting to come up, a gray-blue light filled the sky. I looked up, and three Canada geese flew overhead. They honked, as if saying goodbye, and disappeared from view.
* * * *
I did my mother’s eulogy. I’m not going to repeat it here, but it was beautiful. Lea and I stayed at the Country Inn Suites in Little Falls. I had a dream about my mom the morning of her funeral.
She was driving our old car, a faded green 1963 Chevy Impala station wagon. My mom learned to drive when we were living in Modesto, CA. She drove that station wagon when we moved from California to North Dakota. When we arrived in Grand Forks, she handed my dad the keys and never drove again. As the car neared me in my dream, she rolled down the window, and waved as she drove past. And then I woke up.
“Really? That’s how you’re going to say goodbye!” I said to the ceiling of our room. “Couldn’t you have at least stopped? At the very least, couldn’t you have found a nicer car?”
* * * *
It’s been almost ten years. I miss my mom. I’m sure I always will.
Wherever she is, I hope she’s at peace. And I hope she’s driving a better car.