That next day there were several phone calls back and forth between my sister and I. "It's the gall bladder..." "Waiting for a CT scan..." "Doctor is coming in 10 minutes..."
Around noon I called my sister to check in. She was obviously upset when she answered and said she couldn't talk before she quickly hung up. I sat in a chair, staring at the phone, my heart waiting to resume it's normal pace. I hated that conversation. I knew something was wrong and it could be a zillion things. I hated not knowing. So I sent my sister a text, "if you can't say it on the phone, please text it". She wrote back, "Not good. Tumors everywhere. Abdomen, liver, lungs."
The tears fell uncontrollably. I cried for the next 3 hours straight. We talked a few times in the next couple of hours, but neither of us were really in good shape to talk. The doctor said it could be 10 months or 10 years---it was up to her. The pain was a tumor pressing on her liver. But it was only one tumor of several. She had probably been sick for quite some time. I sent several texts to my sister asking about my mom. How did she respond, how did she feel, how did she look, was she scared, was she crying, was she in pain....I was desperate for any news about my mom.
They had trouble controlling her pain and so she didn't leave for two more days. Around noon on Friday, I remember seeing her number show up on my caller id and I excitedly answered the phone. She immediately said with forced seriousness, "I have been at death's door!!" I burst out laughing. Hearing my mom act dramatic in a time when she had every right to be was a welcomed distraction. She immediately protested my laughter, "Why won't anyone let me have my moment!?!?", she whined with exaggeration. She began her usual fast-paced recounting of everything, jumping from the jello to the radiologist, to the darling doctor's ethnicity and where he'd been on vacation, to the cost of medications, to the art on the walls in her room. It was always hard to keep up with her pace. For me, always. If I complained, she'd put it right back on me, "If you can't keep up, it's not my problem, it's yours". I wonder now if anyone else had the nerve to complain at her pace---I know I wasn't the only one who had trouble keeping up!
8 days later her sister, and dearest friend in the world, passed away. We knew it was coming, but the blow was insurmountable for my mom. She was devastated and felt completely abandoned. It had only been 9 months since her younger brother had passed away from a similar diagnosis.
It was too much and she sank into a deep, deep depression. I suspect only people who know depression intimately can know what this did to her. The Mom who called to see if Bo had slept better last night, or if the torn sash on Avee's dress had been repaired, or if Danyo would like a little stuffed turtle she'd seen at the store---was gone. Getting out of bed, eating, basic, perfunctory conversation was more than she could do most days. It was heartbreaking to witness. It was bigger than any of us. I realized how selfish I had been in my relationship with her, when I struggled to be a good friend and daughter for her during a time when she couldn't give back. Her voice had no lilt. This sorrow had engulfed her.
My mom was no stranger to sorrow and pain. Even tragedy had played a role in her life. She was not weak, by any standard.
She had a couple of "good" days throughout those months, it was about 3 and a half months total, and it felt like a lifetime. One of those good days was when most of my family was in town to visit. A kind of gathering that hadn't happened in a long time. My sister had rented out a pool for the evening, and my mom made an appearance. She was talkative and funny. At one point in the evening I caught her almost dumping her bottle of water down my front. Somehow I prevented it by "catching" the mischievous look and the slight movement of her water bottle. She caught me unaware about 20 minutes later, pouring half the bottle down the front of my swimsuit. I stared at her incredulously and she said, "Your boobs are huge---they were just asking for it."
My mom has ALWAYS been the picture of propriety and pose my entire life. She has been classy and proper, and never forgot the ways of a lady; a way of being that you don't see much of any more. I could NOT believe my ears when she said that to me. It really made me laugh.
She was always funny---but the sassy seemed to be a relatively new development. When she came out of her depression in early October, I got to see even more of it, and I have to say---it was awesome.
She had moved in with my sister in August, who cared for her so perfectly, in so many ways.
My mom enjoyed about 4-5 weeks of feeling pretty good. Almost feeling perfect. Then her physical health started to decline pretty rapidly. My sister said she could gauge on how my mom was on whether or not she emptied the dishwasher. My mom was a work horse and it took a LOT for her to not try and do something. She started having more frequent "Non-dishwashing days". About a week before Christmas she moved back home.
New Years Day, she went to church. That was also the first thing to return when her spirits improved. She loved going to church. That afternoon, she called my sister to take her to the hospital, as her pain was more than she could bear.
At the hospital they found that her oxygen levels were really low. With oxygen and her pain controlled, she was in good shape. She was in the hospital nearly a week with several really "up" days and some really really "down" days. Sometimes both, in one day.
I was here, 350 miles away, desperate to go see her. I wanted her to see AJ, but I was struggling with my recovery from the delivery and waiting until it would be okay to travel. We left the day after AJ's two week check-up.
I remember sitting in the hospital room, watching my mom hold AJ. I saw her eyes checking her over, looking for signs of the generations before, a grandmother's nose, a great-aunt's chin. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that AJ got to be in her grandma's arms at least once in this life. I knew she wouldn't grow up having the gift of this remarkable woman as a part of her every day life, but I would always be able to say, your grandma held you, loved you, kissed you, and celebrated your birth with all of us.
Here's the thing about the process of dying that I didn't know. It's a completely maddening roller coaster; and the anxiety of not knowing if today's the day, or if there will be 100 more days, is emotionally exhausting.
My mom was a little slower and her coloring not exactly right. She had to take more frequent pauses to catch her breath and the oxygen tube across her face was a constant reminder that things would never be as they were again. Her ability to gab and love for it was alive and well. I sat and listened to her recount her week, pontificate on the meaning of love and the journey of marriage. She told me about her wonderful nurse, and visits from different people throughout the week. I joked with her that she got cancer every time I had a baby girl. She threw her head back and laughed.
She come home later that evening and was checked into hospice care within a couple of hours. My sister sat with the hospice nurse and learned of the process and helped with paper work and answering and asking questions. My parent's home was alive and full of grandchildren and I worked to keep the crowd from interrupting the hospice nurse's visit. I felt an awful pit in my stomach the entire night, realizing the finality and the time frame that was inevitably place on going into hospice care.
As I sit here recounting these events, I see my mom so clearly. Alive, full of life. Visibly, her health is compromised, but her spirit is healthy, and the struggle for breath or ever-present pain are just hindrances to her that she will work around. She shuffled around the front part of the house in her big fluffy hot pink robe, stepping over the oxygen tube, tugging it closer as she sneaked into the kitchen to wash a few dishes. She laughed at my younger brother's references to her oxygen tube as a "short leash." I love my mom's laugh. For as long as I can remember the sound of it has been one of the best sounds in the world. She'd tip her head back almost as if to gain momentum for her laugh. It was breathless even before she struggled with enough oxygen. I loved her laugh.
There was always sort of an awkwardness about the oxygen tube that trailed from my mom's body. Its presence was a reminder none of us wanted. It was also a welcomed assistance to her struggle for air. One night, sitting around the kitchen table my younger brother acknowledged the long tube that my mom had just stepped over, after doing some dishes, to sit at the table with us. "We finally have mom on a short leash," he mentioned sort of offhandedly. We all kind of chuckled, humor a welcomed diversion, but not entirely sure we could or wanted to joke about such things. Then he added, "She can do the dishes and she can get ready for church...but she can't go to church." We all burst out laughing. I loved watching my mom's head tip back as she laughed and laughed and laughed. It was a perfect moment in time for me. David, always pushing the envelope. My mom, always loving a good joke, and her children that made them.