Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cancer in III Acts: Act III

Act III: B.Y.O.B.

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Only days after I left for Scotland, the doctors discovered that while Mom’s lungs were free of cancer, the disease had spread to her brain.  There were no more treatment options.  Mom made my family and Scott promise not to tell me anything until the end of my trip. 
“Jenna will come home and miss out on everything,” she argued.  “Let me be part of this experience with my daughter.”
My stomach lurched when I saw my mom, the strongest and most energetic person I’ve ever known, confined to a wheelchair.  There was no sign of defeat on her face, however; only love and excitement.
“I want to hear everything,” she told me, as we waited on my luggage.
I spent the next few days curled up beside Mom on the couch, showing her pictures and videos from my trip.  She had never traveled abroad, and wanted me to describe everything to her, from the food to the scenery.
My brother was finishing his final year of law school several hours away, so Dad and I divided up our time in order to care for Mom.  I moved back home and took only evening and online classes so I could take Mom to her early appointments, while Dad went to work in the mornings.  Often he decided not to go into work at all, so he could stay with Mom.  I remember walking into the living room one morning to find my mom and dad cuddling on the couch.
“What’s on the agenda for today?” I asked, as I went to the kitchen to start making Jell-O, one of the only foods Mom could still eat.
“Hanging out with your dad, I guess!” Mom laughed as Dad tickled her and pulled her close.  Everything I know about love, I learned from my parents.  As high school sweethearts who were still madly in love after being married for forty years, I considered them experts in the field.
Within a month of my return home, Mom had lost all feeling in her arms and legs.  She was confined to a hospital bed, which we set up in the living room so she could watch the deer out the window and be a part of our daily activity.  Despite her paralyzation, Mom insisted on having the graded art show that would complete her Masters Degree.
“I may be dying,” she said, “but I paid my damned tuition.  On with the show!”
The art show was held in my parents’ home and done at Mom’s direction.  It was incredible, moving, and well-attended.  Mom was awarded her Masters Degree six months later at graduation.  She was not there, but Dad, Matt, and I proudly accepted it on her behalf.
Mom never stopped smiling and laughing.  It was as if every word she spoke was meant to comfort us.  She was a caregiver, a nurturer, to her very core.  She often sat my family down to give us direction or pieces of wisdom. 
“When I die, and I am going to die, don’t bury me with this cancer in my body,” Mom told us one evening.  “I want to be cremated.  That way I can die knowing I will beat this disease one way or another.  And in my obituary, please just use the word ‘died.’  None of that ‘went to heaven in the arms of angels’ nonsense.  God knows I love Him, and I know He loves me, it doesn’t have to be spelled out in flowery verse in the newspaper.
Make sure you remember to take Uncle Jerry to the Wilderness Lodge at Disney World.  He has always wanted to go.  And will you buy a gift card for that nurse who was so nice to me during my hospital stay?  He always came in to show me pictures of his children.  And, Jenna, promise me you will keep taking your anxiety medication.  Your hands can’t withstand too many more washings.”
Once, Mom overheard Dad telling someone that he would always wear his wedding ring. 
“Bob,” she said, “when you start seeing another woman…” (Dad shook his head adamantly) “…and you will, make sure to treat her as well as you treated me.  How you treat her is a reflection of the expectations we had in our relationship, and what we taught one another about love.  You do not honor me with that ring, you honor me by the way you treat the one who comes after me.”  She paused and then added with a laugh, “You going on dates will be hilarious.  I only wish I could be there to see it.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mom said, “When I am gone, I know you will miss me.  But, please don’t grieve for more than a few minutes at a time; after that you’re only feeling sorry for yourself.  I loved my life, and I will be in a better place, so you won’t be mourning for me.  You can still change the world.  Promise me you won’t waste that.”
My parents and I found comfort in making games out of everyday chores.  When Mom had to go to the bathroom she would call out “Pee party at my place!  B.Y.O.B.!”  The last “B” stood for “bedpan.”  Mom was unable to keep much food down, and her taste buds were on the fritz, so we experimented with exotic flavors of Jell-O and pudding to see what she still liked.  It became difficult for her to speak, so if she liked the food I was giving her she smiled, and if she didn’t, she gave me what she had previously dubbed the “Edvard Munch” face, based on his famous painting “The Scream.”  Once, when Mom no longer appeared responsive, my brother farted as he walked by her bed.  She started laughing.
For several excruciating days we watched while Mom’s body shut down.  I sang her “The Owl and the Pussycat” and wet her lips with a damp washcloth.  Every second with her was precious, and I didn’t want to waste it crying or mourning her as if she were already gone.  As I saw it, she still needed us, and I wasn’t giving up until after her last breath.
            Mom died several days before Thanksgiving in our living room surrounded by her family and closest friends.  I quickly learned that in these situations, perspective is everything; it can save you or bury you.  It would be dishonest of me to describe Mom’s death in all dark and morose terms.  It would contradict the way she handled her illness and the way she thought about death.
            Since the day she was diagnosed, Mom spent every minute preparing us for her departure.  She was strong and smiled when many would have fallen apart.  She made it clear that she had no regrets, and that her life was as fulfilling as she could ever have hoped.  She dedicated her life and death to making sacrifices for her family.  I hope to one day be half the wife and mother she was.
Shortly after her death, I wondered if Mom had left me a letter.  I desperately searched her closet and dressers for anything new I could read from her.  I wanted to hear her speaking to me one last time.  Then I realized how greedy that was.  Mom had already prepared me for everything as best she could.  Our last words to each other were “I love you.”  There were no loose ends, and no regrets; just pleasant memories of the love between a mother and her daughter.  I don’t need a letter to remind me that I had twenty-one years of nurturing and teaching from the most amazing woman I have ever known.  And I will be forever grateful for that time.

May 28, 1948 - November 20, 2006.  I love you, Mom.