When a loved one is dying from cancer, there comes a time when you know it’s over. The doctors start saying things like “keep you comfortable” and “make the most of the time you have left.” Trips to the hospital become less frequent; instead, a nurse comes to the house and helps the person to the bathroom. Furniture is re-arranged to allow a walker to get through, a TV is moved upstairs because the person can’t get down the stairs anymore. The TV volume is turned up so loud that you start googling how to use sign language so you can communicate with the healthy visitors. Oh, and the visitors. People you haven’t seen since the Reagan administration start showing up. They’ve come to say good-bye, so they can talk to all of the mutual friends and say, “I went and saw [friend] today. I felt like it was the right thing to do.” That’s the outer-circle friends. The inner-circle friends, the ones that come over for tea once a week and play golf on Wednesdays, they disappear and you won’t see them until the funeral when they’ll come up to you crying and say, “I just couldn’t bear to see her like that. I’m so sorry.” And you do feel bad for them, but you’re a little mad, too, because you couldn’t hide. You were there every step of the way.
I was in this predicament in the winter of 2007-2008. My mother was dying. She had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer the previous February. The doctors performed a surgery called the Whipple Procedure. Most people probably know it from its more common name, the roll-off-the-tongue pancreaticoduodenectomy, but I preferred Whipple. It sounded like something you’d use to top off a sundae. Three scoops of ice cream, some hot fudge, and some Whipple topped with rainbow sprinkles to make it complete. In reality, it isn’t as fun (or tasty). Half of almost every organ in her abdomen was removed. The doctors said if this procedure didn’t work and the cancer came back, there wasn’t really anything that could be done. The cancer came back, and it let my mother know it was back like a fall down the stairs lets you know you’re drunk – painfully. She was on a cruise in the Mediterranean Sea with her sisters when she had to be helicoptered off to a hospital in Sweden, and then transferred to somewhere in England. She would call every day and she would say, “They’re working on getting me out of here. I don’t know what’s taking so long.” But we knew it was because the doctors didn’t think she was strong enough to survive a flight that long. When she finally did make it back in late October, I could tell why. My mother, who had seemed to be almost back to her normal self when she had left in August, was brought down the runway in a wheelchair. She was a small woman in the best of times (4’11”) but she was 30 pounds lighter and without at least half her hair. I started crying, and when I realized I was crying I ran outside. I called my sister (“She looks horrible!”), then composed myself and walked back in. My mom smiled when she saw me, and it started again. I couldn’t help it. The sight of seeing my mother, as frail as she was, smiling at me and not just with her face, but her eyes, was too much.
“Are you okay?” the flight attendant who had wheeled my mom through the international terminal asked me.
“I’m fine. I just got punched in the nose outside,” I said hoping she would laugh, but she just gave me a look to tell me that this was no time for jokes.
This woman who had taken care of me when I was a child, who I burdened with so many problems as an adult, needed my help. And I was going to do it. I was going to be strong for her, take care of her every need, and if she needed me to help her into bed or change her clothes, or if she just wanted to talk to me, I would be there. There was no question about it; it was decided at that very moment. I gave the flight attendant a shoulder block, grasped the handles of my mother’s wheelchair and headed straight to the car.
“How are you feeling, Mom?” I asked her.
“Oh just lovely, thanks. How do you think I’m bloody feeling? Gawd,” she said with a laugh in her English accent that I still miss. I laughed, too. Even when she was crass, it sounded like class. Thirty years living in America had done nothing to lessen her accent, thank God.
When we got settled back home (she held my arm as we went up the stairs), she called the hospital. They told her to come in right away, and she was admitted. My sisters, my brother, and I visited her every day. On Halloween day, my brother Chris and I were visiting when the doctor came in.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he said. “The cancer has come back.”
Oh, I thought, when my mother called and said she had blood coming out of every orifice, we figured she had the common cold. Perhaps a spot of the flu, yeah?
He continued. “Would you like to know how much time you have left?”
The room was silent except for my brother’s constant bodily functions. He sounded like Ferris Bueller’s keyboard. Clear throat, clear throat, stifle burp, clear throat, cough in hand, sniffle, sniffle, clear throat.
“No, I don’t think so,” my mother finally answered.
The doctor stood up. “If, uh, you guys,” he said looking at my brother and me, “have any questions, I’ll be in my office.”
After the doctor left, it was just us three in the room.
“What are you thinking about, Mom?” my brother asked.
“What the bloody hell do you think I’m thinking about?” my mom said. She looked at me and rolled her eyes. “Gawd.” My mother just received her death sentence and she wanted to make me laugh. I was cracking up.
“Okay, Mom. We’re going to go have a smoke. Do you want anything? Coffee?”
We left her room and walked to the doctor’s office. I knocked on the door and poked my head in.
“Six months, maybe less. Probably less,” he said. I nodded and left.
We took my mother home a couple days later and set up the house so she could easily navigate her way from her bedroom to the couch. There are a lot of things I regret doing in my life, more that I regret not doing, but I realized that this was a time that I needed to take advantage of. I’d lost my father suddenly, and there were a ton of things I wished I had said to him. I wasn’t going to let that happen with my mom.
As luck would have it, I was laid off from my job in mid-November. I would spend all day with my mom. I made her breakfast (buttered toast every day), and I drove her to her doctor’s appointments. We’d listen to John Denver CDs and we’d sing along on the hour long trip to the hospital. She liked “Leaving on a Jet Plane” the best, and I liked “Follow Me”, but we ended up knowing all the words to every song on the record. In the afternoons, we’d hang out listening to a blaring TV, shouting to each other. I’d ask her all kinds of questions. My mom told me she was engaged before she met my dad (say what) and that she hated pretty much every girl I had ever dated. She’d tell me old stories about her and my dad. There was a time when they were living in England in the 60s and they were out to dinner. My dad broke his dinner plate so the waiter brought him out some more plates and he broke them, too. They kept bringing out plates, and my dad kept throwing them on the floor and pretty soon everybody in the restaurant was breaking plates, throwing them on the floor, then getting up and dancing in the little pieces. My dad loved it. Then he asked for the check and it was $600.
I’d make her dinner. She usually wanted a frozen chicken pot pie. We’d watch Jeopardy, my favorite show, at 7, then Wheel of Fortune at 7:30. And I’d help her to bed around 8:30 or so. One night, she told me to help her into the kitchen. She showed me how she made my favorite meal, some goulash casserole.
“Put some paprika in it.”
“How much paprika, mom?”
“I don’t know. Until it’s red, I guess.”
We talked about her funeral.
“I want that Celine Dion song ‘My Heart Will Go On’ played.”
“Come on, Mom. You can’t be serious.”
“I bloody well am. And play some Elvis. I always liked Elvis. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’”
It went on like this for a couple months. Towards the end of January, she was getting weaker and weaker. On a Friday morning, she got up and said, “Let’s go to Penney’s, but we need to stop by Exxon and get some gas.” Uh oh. She couldn’t walk down the hall, let alone Marley Station Mall. She had to be helped in the bathroom for the first time that morning and she was talking nonsense.
The nurse was there that morning and my sister Terri happened to be up from Virginia. The nurse told my sister to go home, grab some stuff, and come back Monday. My sister didn’t leave. The nurse said that she was down to her last few days, but she died that night. A half hour before she died, my mom, somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, started waving her hand. I was standing next to her bed and I reached down and grabbed her hand thinking she wanted me to hold it. But she kept waving her hand. Finally, I put my face down by her hand and she rested it on my face, a finger on each one of my eyes. Then she moved it to my cheek and she patted my cheek for a few seconds before she dropped her hand to her side. She died as I held her shortly after. Then I walked into the kitchen, took a shot, had a beer and called the coroner.
At her funeral, we had to argue with some Catholic priest who didn’t want to play Elvis. My sister told him to either play it or leave and we’ll run the show ourselves. He shut his mouth and played the song. He turned out all right, even crying when my niece couldn’t get one word out of the words she had worked so hard on. People I never met, and some that I had, came up to me to offer their condolences.
“How sad for you the last few months had to be,” one person said.
“They were the best, most beautiful, most cherished months of my life.”