The cancer diagnosis made me look to the heavens, asking in utter scorn, “Really?!”
She never smoked, and besides a few young adult escapades, she didn’t drink either. By most standards, as far as self-inflicting, harmful habits were concerned, she exemplified sainthood. The one bad habit she did have, however, of internalizing emotions, proved more deadly than all the rest. Hastened by a drop of morphine, the negative mental and emotional energies she harnessed literally ate her up from the inside out, and ultimately killed her, under the guise of cancer.
The phone rang Saturday, on the eve of Mother’s Day. Felicia was on the end of the line, calling from McLeod Hospital in Florence. Mama’s vomiting blood the night before, urged a visit to the emergency room. Stomach bile eroded her esophagus, triggering the bloody vomiting, and abdominal x-rays exposed a tumor blocking her intestines. The ER physicians were confident it was cancer.
As I dressed and packed a bag, a belligerent dialogue scrolled in my mind, “What kind of God are you? All she has suffered through, with Eric and Tony, now you are giving her cancer?” Insidious anger, resting at a slow simmer, bubbled to a rolling boil. “The injustices of this damned life” I fumed, “are despicable!” Grappling to maintain composure, disgruntled and peeved, I set myself in motion.
Mama and I spent Mother’s Day in the hospital, waiting quietly. During the early morning, I ducked out and purchased a card and some flowers for the holiday, but the gesture paled in comparison to the gloom overhanging. Each of my feeble attempts to chat about nothing ended in earsplitting quiet, amplifying the voice in my head’s chanting
“She’s gonna die. My Mama’s gonna die.”
After confirmation of an ovarian cancer diagnosis, she transferred to Roper St. Frances Hospital in Charleston, under the care of a gynecologic oncologist. They transported her on her 56th birthday. Once again, endeavoring to lighten the mood, I stepped out to buy a card and a gift. A pair of fuzzy, white slippers, embellished with two fish, peering wearily out of their bowls, and ‘this sucks!’ overstated below, exhumed a few chuckles, and I secretly applauded myself for a job well done, but the mood didn’t remain light for long. Daunting quiet kept creeping back in.
Testing ensued, along with introductions of several surgeons, as assessments were compiled and a plan of action fell into play. While removing the obvious tumor, the surgeons would also explore for growths that might have gone undetected.
My sister and I spent the Friday of her surgery together, waiting again, one nerve wrecking hour after another, after another. When the oncologist rounded the corner, still in his scrubs and cap, his look of exasperation karate kicked me in the chest.
He spoke soft, but too swiftly, and then walked away. Swallowing the surge of anxiety rising from my toes, I stood there, watching the back of his head, suffocating. Turning on my heel, I abandoned Felicia, rushing down the hall to find solitude in a courtyard beside the hospital. I sat on a bench, buried my face in my hands, releasing a monsoon, and sobbed as I processed what he said.
My mother WAS going to die……soon.
Tumors were scattered throughout her abdomen, wreaking havoc on several organs, particularly her digestive system. They removed all they could before her blood loss reached critical levels. A complete hysterectomy was performed and her stomach bypassed to an ileostomy bag, so that her intestines could heal from the trauma. The remaining cancer, he would treat with chemotherapy, beginning as soon as she stabilized. “I’m confident I can give her at least five more years” he said.
She just celebrated, for lack of a better word, her 56th birthday, and could be dead by 61.
“Damn you”, I rebuked the sky.
Camping by her bedside that night, I stewed, feeling sorry for myself. Our relationship had just begun to mature; she, in fact, was one of my only friends. We talked on the phone for hours, at least every other day, overcoming communication barriers that once distanced us. She was private and proud, but I clawed my way over her wall, into the grounds of her guardedness and was just beginning to appreciate the choices she made in her life, specifically the ones that affected Eric, Felicia and me. The ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’ clouding my perception of her, were clearing, leaving room for a newfound clarity of her individuality. I wasn’t ready to lose her, we had more growing to do together.
The expectancy of the fight she had in store, with death as its only reward, crushed me.
Six days later, she was released to go home. Within two weeks, she was back at the emergency room with a blood clot in her lung. A week later, a second chemotherapy treatment. A week later, another trip to the emergency room for dehydration…..a taxing nightmare had begun.
(I would spare the monotonous details of the proceeding years, but the agony of what cancer does to a family is worth noting.)
Following two more ineffective treatments, and booster shots in between, a second surgery, in September, included implantation of a screen in her groin, to prevent blood clots, reversal of the ileostomy and removal of her gall bladder, along with tumors from her small intestines, upper abdomen and colon. The cancer had also spread to her liver. By year’s end, subsequent to two additional treatments, irreparable side effects took their tolls: her feet were numb, her vision blurred and her memory toyed with her. The first six months of 2008 were focused on the nerve damage in her feet, monitoring her blood counts, with a break from chemotherapy.
In July, cancer reared its head again, growing rapidly, necessitating a less invasive chemo. She took the first of twelve treatments in October and continued those monthly, dealing with a whole new set of side effects, blisters in her mouth and hands and feet, in addition to the normal nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation. Immune to the ongoing treatments, the abdominal pain persisted and her cancer cell counts continually increased.
A third, more aggressive therapy was started in December 2009, causing immediate reactions, often halting the treatments mid-course. Her body was only capable of withstanding three more, the last of which was in February. She continued to suffer the long term side effects of all the chemotherapies, along with the symptoms of the ever growing cancer, without any doctor appointments until July, when after four days of intestinal blockage, he started her on a fourth type of chemo, only to return to the hospital within a week, with no relief from the blockage.
An NG tube drained her stomach, and a PEG tube, hooked into an intravenous port, supplied her nutrients, contradicting her medical directives. A second chemo was administered before her release, with feedings scheduled twice a day, once in the morning and the second twelve hours later.
Felicia and I rotated shifts, synchronizing our schedules to coordinate with the feedings. The afternoons were rarely a problem for me, besides delaying dinner for my boys, but the mornings were insanely strenuous. Rising at 5 a.m., I drove the thirty minute drive, in sometimes as little as twenty minutes, racing down those county roads like a mad woman in my little Nissan Sentra. Most days I made it before the timer alarmed, others I walked in to it blaring and Mama thinking I had forgotten about her.
Working full-time, raising two sons on my own, and making myself available for my mother, stretched me to unfathomable limits. The demands opened my eyes to the extent of stress Mama had been dealing with the years prior while she nursed Eric and her dying husband. Admiring her tenacity, I tipped my hat to her, realizing I was nothing like my mother. Seeking an outlet, I cowered, comparing myself to her and drank habitually in the evenings when I got home, feeling guilty for doing so. ‘What if she needs me in the middle of the night?’ wasn’t enough to curb my desire to drown my sorrows.
On September 16, 2010, when she went in for a fourth round of the latest chemo, her oncologist tapped out of the fight. The cancer wasn’t responding to the treatments and she would not survive a third surgery. Depleted and ravaged, her body surrendered its fight for survival. He patted himself on the back for having given her 3 1/2 years, and passed her care off to Hospice, sending her home with a death notice of two to six weeks.
Still internalizing her emotions, she didn’t react, except to say “Well, I guess that’s it.” She didn’t cry; I never saw her cry over or during her battle with cancer. She did once tell me she spent many days while home alone, pouring her heart out to God, crying and asking ‘Why me’, just like she had after Eric hung himself. One of his doctors asked her once how she held herself together, because he never saw her upset. She told him she cried all the way to and from the hospital, every day, when she was alone; that’s how she dealt with it. This tragedy was no different. She would suffer alone, rejecting the emotional comfort of sharing her feelings with anyone.
The Hospice orientation visit played out as a tragic comedy. A male nurse, with his hair spiked to its full length in gel, showed up, brochures and pamphlets in hand, and asked all the difficult questions: “What are your concerns Margaret?”; she didn’t express any. “Do you want to die at home, or would you prefer to go to the Hospice center when that time comes?”; she chose the Hospice center, stating “I don’t want the girls to go through what I went through when Tony died” “Do you have loved ones that will support you during your final days?”; “I’ve got the girls”, she hesitated. Matter of fact in all her answers, she exhibited no emotions.
Soaking in her replies, I knew the truth that she wasn’t telling. She had plenty of concerns, specifically about Felicia and me taking care of her; she didn’t trust us, she didn’t trust anyone, but she would rather die a martyr than ever admit that.
Smacking his gum, he recited: what roles the Hospice organization would fill, what assistance and supplies they would provide, who to call if there were any questions or concerns, how often a nurse would be out to check on her. I couldn’t wait for him to leave, and the minute he did, to break the uncomfortable silence, I asked a few questions of my own: “Was it just me, or did he smell like a French whore?” “And that gum! He was tearin’ that gum up wasn’t he!?” We laughed and made fun of him, desperate to talk about anything but the fact that she was dying.
Visitors drifted by, some unable to choke back tears when they saw her, some merely saying their last cordial goodbyes. One afternoon, while sitting with her, the local pastor and wife came calling, to pray for her soul and make sure she was ready to meet Jesus. She calmly and coolly declared her wish to reconfirm her salvation, and as we all gathered around her bed and joined hands, the pastor looked to me and asked of my soul’s standing with the Lord. Flames of hell burned my ears as I grinded flatly “I’m here for my Mama preacher, not for myself.”
Still angry with this ‘God’, conflicted by the tragedies allowed to dismantle our lives, I wanted no part of asking Him for peace, or relief, or salvation, I tried that before and my prayers had gone unanswered for Eric. I wanted no part of thanking Him for His blessings and goodness, from where I stood I couldn’t see any blessings or goodness to thank Him for. I didn’t understand Him or His ways and I didn’t want to accept His divine will. I wanted no part of God, period.
Praying the sinner’s prayer, Mama repeated after the pastor and according to the Bible itself, made her soul right with her Lord. I remember not praying, but thinking to myself, “If this helps her find peace, so be it. Maybe she can leave this world with hope and joy, believing she is going to a better place to spend eternity with her God.”
Chronic nausea resulted in her spitting into a cup continuously. Refusing to drink anything, taking only a few sips of water to moisten her parched mouth, she withered quickly. Within days she was so weak she could barely hold her head up. Contrary to the visiting nurse’s evaluation, I arranged her admission to the Hospice facility.
She livened up, consuming more fluids with the aid of nausea medications, during her stay. The facility was a mere two minute drive from my home, so I was able to visit every morning before work and every afternoon. We talked a lot during those visits, about her last wishes.
She lit up like the sun the day I asked what kind of flowers she wanted at her funeral. She missed flowers; under doctors orders she wouldn’t allow them around her the entirety of the 3 1/2 years of chemo. “Orchids, I really love orchids” she gleamed. “If you can’t get the tropical orchids, I like lilies too”, she conceded. “You know what”, she settled “wild flowers will do just fine.” I thought it a travesty that now she could have flowers, at her funeral.
The day we talked about the music she wished to have played, or whether she’d like to have anyone sing something in particular, she was indecisive between ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross’. She felt undeserving the day we spoke of where she wished her services to be held. She wasn’t an active member of Center Baptist Church and she felt guilty for asking if the church would accommodate her services. “The funeral home chapel will be just fine”, she said. I reminded her of how much the church did for her and Tony, pointing out their grace for her. In my opinion, it was the only logical choice, I explained. She humbly agreed.
She was torn the day we talked about her wish to be cremated. “I want to burn every cell of this cancer up” she exclaimed. But her in-laws purchased her a burial plot adjacent to Tony’s and she felt obligated to use it. I suggested a compromise: “Mama, you can be cremated; we can spread part of your ashes and bury part to appease the family.” When asked where she would like her ashes spread, she responded, “A beach somewhere would be really nice, I would like that.”
Sent back home after a short stay at the Hospice center, the proceeding days rolled into weeks and she began to fade. She talked less and less and eventually not at all. Her physical appearance transformed into a picture of death, dark circles around her eyes, sunken cheeks, her strength dissipating as her vitals weakened. Those were the longest hours sitting with her during that time. Just sitting, quietly…..waiting…..for death to arrive. I felt inadequate, like I was disserving her, unable to conjure up topics to keep her from drifting away. I was grateful to give her a sponge bath or change the sheets on her bed because it forced her from her cocoon and she at least had to mutter a few words of direction while I carried out the tasks.
When the visiting nurse wrote the orders for her return to the Hospice center, I tore between relief and grief.
Her room, near the end of a long hall, pristinely framed a large window, where winter showed off its arrival, robbing the trees of their foliage. After she settled in and introductions with the staff were made, we sat quietly together, taking in the drab view. Birds began to flock into the barren trees perching themselves for a rest. Cardinals were Mama’s favorite, and among the flock sat one lone, very plump cardinal. His majestic red plumage flickered like a candle among the brown tones of the others, bringing Tony to my mind. I believed it was him, come to watch over Margaret. That cardinal perched outside Mama’s window faithfully, for days, comforting me each time I left.
I kept up the routine, visiting before work every morning and sitting with her a while each evening, feeling less guilty for leaving her each night, knowing the staff was there to care for her. Exhausted, I selfishly wanted the nightmare to be over; I wanted to get drunk and stay drunk but I didn’t want to be called back to the center for her death, smelling like whiskey, so I couldn’t. She lingered for weeks inconveniencing my alcohol intake, depriving me of the liquid potions numbing security.
The Friday before she died, I went by before work as usual. She mostly slept now, dragging the half hour visits into what felt like eons. Watching her sleep, my ears pricked to a rasp, her breaths were sporadic. On her rounds, the nurse also noticed death’s calling card symptoms and administered a morphine drop. Within seconds, behind slightly opened lids, Mama’s eyes rolled back in her head and her jaw dropped open. The nurse gently nudged me to call the family in.
Sunday morning, as the sun rose, she left us, but I don’t think she was ready to go, not that anyone ever truly is. Her last breaths, shrouded by death’s moan, a sound I will never forget, quieted by one last drop of morphine.
Response to Daily Prompt: Drop