I got the call at 11:15pm from my brother.
My uncle (Mom’s brother) and my brother were each holding her hand, one on each side of the bed. Her best friend had been in to visit and had just left 5 minutes before.
She was surrounded by loving hands and hearts in her final hour, and for this I am grateful.
Strangely enough, I am also grateful for the gift that cancer gave our family: the chance to say goodbye over time. The grief process began in early January, when Mom was diagnosed with cancer. By mid-March, we knew exactly what type of cancer we were dealing with (stage 4 appendiceal cancer) and we knew the prognosis. We had 3 months (to the very day!) to prepare for her death, three months in which to say “I love you” and grieve and say goodbye.
So now, I am not numb. I had my tears and I will have them again, but I am feeling strong tonight — strong enough to face the morning with a different kind of farewell. Tomorrow is the last day of school for my younger kids, filled with goodbyes and thank yous.
And I can do this. I have to do this. EB’s graduation is Saturday morning.
I said goodbye to my mother today. Just 8 days ago she was having a terrific day, although of course “a terrific day” is all relative when a person has stage 4 cancer.
This photo is from 2 years ago, when she was 70 years young. She looks nothing like this today. Today she is skeletal-thin and frail.
She went into the hospital on Friday night after being cared for nearly ’round-the-clock by my younger brother & SIL since Wednesday morning. Mom was in a great deal of pain — something she always insisted she had very little of, although we suspected she was just good at repressing it.
This morning my brother called from the hospital, told me the current situation (no more machines, just oxygen and a morphine drip), and then gave me about a minute to talk to Mom on the phone. She was so weak that one minute was her limit for talking. She was so weak it was difficult to understand her — the weakness prevents her from forming words clearly and she sounds like a stroke patient — but she did try to talk.
I told her I loved her and that I take comfort in knowing she will soon be with her mom and dad and ~M~ (her husband who died 13 years ago). I said I was sorry I couldn’t be there with her now (although honestly? I’m a little bit relieved that I’m not there. It would be so very hard. I’m obviously a big chicken) and that I loved her very much (true). And then she told me that she loved me. I’m glad I could understand those words.
So that is that. I’ve been given a gift, that one last time to say “I love you.” So many people don’t have that opportunity. I”m grateful to have been given that gift.
Now I wait for the phone call that tells me she has passed from this life.
I’ve discovered something about myself: I can only handle 2 crises at once (and of course I’d prefer only one crisis — or none at all — but life doesn’t seem to work that way).
Here, in current order, are the 5 crises I am juggling for those top 2 spots:
1. My mother’s cancer and continual decline despite her denial (definitely the top stressor this week)
2. Selling our house (trying to be top stressor but being trumped by Mom’s cancer)
3. The logistics of moving (When? Where? How?)
4. The arrival of 4 more adults next weekend– bringing our household up to a count of NINE — for 2 weeks of graduation festivities and moving mayhem.
5. The graduating senior who must be prepared for college (he will probably be fine, but his mother isn’t prepared to send him off)
Grief is a difficult and unpredictable beast.
There is no “right way” to grieve, but there is much to learn from the traditions of others. I think Christians have missed out on some wonderful and useful traditions when it comes to dealing with grief. We tend to quickly pull together a funeral or memorial service, but after that? Nothing. Grief is a longer process than just a memorial service or a funeral.
Carmi has written so poignantly about life and death and saying goodbye to his father. He has shared about the Jewish customs after death (e.g., Sitting Shivah, Unveiling). The more I learn about the Jewish customs that relate to death and the grieving process, the more I wish they were universal, because they provide a form — a frame — a ritual — within which to understand and acknowledge the emotional journey we undergo when a loved one dies.
One of the most moving homilies I’ve ever heard was at my step-father’s memorial service when the minister spoke about how we need to say goodbye. With my step-father, there was no chance to say goodbye in person. He took a sudden turn for the worse and died within hours; I was living far away. I had to find a different way to say goodbye after his death.
Now, my mother is undergoing a long process of saying goodbye. She continues to weaken as she loses weight, and she has lost a lot of weight. There is noticeable difference between her now-fragile frame and her distended abdomen; there is a growing mass in her abdomen — growing despite chemotherapy — a mass that wasn’t there 2 months ago during surgery. Hospice can’t be that far off (although she does not acknowledge this, I know it to be true). She doesn’t want to talk about “the end” being in her immediate future; she is still trying to believe that this new chemo will stem the tide and hold off the inevitable. I, however, am facing reality. I’m sifting through the layers of my heart, mind, and soul, searching for the things that need to be said and discarding those things that don’t really matter anymore. It’s a cleansing sort of internal decluttering.
I suppose the ultimate goal is one that Cricket writes about in his moving post The Long Goodbye. (Thanks to Hilary for bringing this beauty to my attention as a Post of the Week.) Go ahead and read it. I’ll still be here when you are done.
A long, drawn-out ending is painful but it does give us multiple opportunities to say goodbye; a sudden and unexpectedly early death can leave us with words unsaid.
These are the things on my mind lately. Your thoughts?