Monday, May 12, 2014

The Year

Turns out you can get a lot done during chemo. During the year my mother battled lung cancer, I was often the one who accompanied her to her treatments. I went out of a sense of duty, so she wouldn’t have to be alone, and to educate myself about her disease.

I also went looking for shreds of hope that my mother would not die. I needed to be near her.

Her diagnosis with lung cancer in the fall of 1999 changed everything. Just a few years earlier, my 53-year-old mother, a busy realtor, had started working out at a gym and lost weight. She felt younger than her salt-and-pepper gray hair made her look, so she decided to go blond. She looked great driving around to appointments in her white Saab, talking on her car phone.

“Someday I’ll have a convertible,” she said, tossing her hair.

She joked with my sister and me that we shouldn’t rush into marriage and having babies.

“I’m too young to be a grandmother,” she said.

I, too, was having the time of my life when my mom got sick. I was looking forward to my wedding to Matthew, who proposed to one summer night on a beach on Cape Cod. I was 27 and living in Boston since being promoted to State House bureau chief by the newspaper where I worked. Matthew and I were still enjoying the glow of a newly engaged couple. Even at work, typing my stories, I smiled every time the sparkle of my diamond ring caught my eye.

When I visited Matthew, even though my parents’ lived in the next town, I spent little time at their house. It was one of my mother’s running jokes that she had to get reports of my whereabouts from our mutual friend Debbie, who lived next door to Matthew.

“Have you seen my daughter lately?” my mother would ask Debbie. “I heard her car was parked on Garfield Street.

“Is she married yet? Does she have any kids?”

Mom could really crack herself up.

That September, on the night of my parents’ 25th high school reunion, my father raced my mother to the hospital while she held a bag of frozen peas to her side.

I was visiting Matthew when she called me from the hospital the next morning.

 “I’m going to see a specialist,” my mother said.

“Oh,” I said, imagining, just for a moment, that the floor had shifted below my feet.

I leaned against a stool, cradling the phone on my shoulder. My hands went to my forehead, pushing back my hair. I didn’t want to ask the next question. But I had to. I didn’t know it yet, but I was already defying my own expectations of myself.

“What kind of specialist?” I said.

“They found an admor . . . abnormality on my X-ray,” she said.

Mom always had trouble pronouncing certain words. It was something about which my family often poked fun of her. In fact, my mother was always an easy target for my father, my sister, and me. We made fun of her stammering and difficulty articulating herself, especially when she got excited. We made fun of her inability to drink more than one and a half glasses of wine before getting tipsy, calling her a cheap date. When she nagged us for not cleaning our rooms or using too much salt on our food we told her to “take a pill” or “take a back pill.” We called her clumsy or “clutzy” – as my grandmother liked to say – because she was always stubbing her toe on the furniture, a trait she passed on to me.

“What kind of specialist?” I asked again.

I was both angry and relieved when Mom didn’t answer my question directly. I don’t know what forced me to ask again. I knew the answer and yet I couldn’t believe it.

“An oncologist,” she said.

I sat down fully on the stool, not trusting the floor, not trusting my legs.

“But,” I paused, “that’s a cancer doctor.”


“Why would you be going to see a cancer doctor?” I said.

There was something creeping up my throat that felt like a scream. I swallowed hard, stifling it for now.

“There’s what they’re calling an abnormality on my X-ray, a spot on my X-ray,” she said. “So the specialist is going to check it out. Check out the abnormality. It’s good that I’m seeing a specialist.”

A few days later I was lying next to my mother in hospital bed after a biopsy confirmed her doctors’ suspicions that she had cancer. My mother did not ask me to lie with her, but a need to be near her and touch her was overpowering.

She was lying on her side, favoring the hip where doctors had drilled into her bone to test for cancer. I crawled on the bed behind her and wrapped my arm over her side, careful to avoid the painful spot on her hip and buried my face into the back of her neck.

I thought I was comforting my mother by lying with her in her hospital bed, but in doing so, I was hoping to receive some comfort from her.

On the morning of her first chemotherapy treatment, Mom wore a button-down shirt. This would make it easy for the nurse to access the catheter that had been surgically placed in my mother’s upper chest, just under the skin near her collar bone. The catheter was connected to a vein and would allow the nurse to deliver the chemotherapy drugs, directly into my mother’s bloodstream without having to stick a needle in her arm every week.

“I probably shouldn’t have worn white,” Mom said that morning.

She was told she’d lose her hair, so she’d picked out a wig even before starting treatment. That first morning, we took photos so she could see what she’d look like wearing it. In one photo, my mother sits between me and my father on the couch in their living room. My father is smiling with his arm around my mother. Like so many photos of my mother, this one captures her between smiles, and she looks as if she was caught by surprise. She looks directly into the camera, her brown eyes wide and mouth in a half-smile. Her hand is at her head, holding the wig as it slides sideways down her head. I sit next to them, kissing my mother’s cheek.

Chemotherapy is much more mundane that I had expected. It’s less invasive than going to the dentist. You don’t have to change into a hospital gown. You wear your own clothes. It’s like giving blood, without all the blood.

Most patients at the oncology clinic had their treatments in a large room. Reclining chairs lined the four walls facing a nurses’ station in the middle of the room. The patients’ chairs were separated by curtains for privacy.  For the treatment, a nurse hooks up an IV that contains a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs to your arm or a catheter. Then, you wait. You wait until the IV bag is empty. It usually takes about 30 minutes for the IV bag to fully drain, and you can be in and out of the clinic in less than an hour.

While you’re there, you can get up to go to the bathroom, with your IV bag in tow, or get a snack or a drink from the communal kitchen. You can even walk around in the clinic or visit with other patients, though that rarely happened. To pass the time, patients usually watched one of the several television sets mounted from the ceiling around the room or flipped through magazines.

Over the next year, my mother and I used the stretches of time during chemo time to plan my wedding. We consulted each other’s calendars and synchronized our daily routines to fit in time for dress fittings and seating charts. During chemo, my mother bragged to her nurses about my upcoming wedding, while I sat beside her with my arms loaded with bridal magazines and disorganized folders of guest lists.

My mother and I always got along well. We never experienced the bitter battles that many mothers and daughters do at certain times in their lives, the struggles for power that often stem from a mutual resentment. But while my mother and I were always close and found it easy to show our love for each other, until her diagnoses our lives were quite separate. We did not discuss the intimate details of our lives. I was not the kind of daughter who called my mother my best friend. She was not the kind of mother who involved me in her arguments with my father. But during the year between her diagnoses and her death – the year that I coincided with my engagement and wedding –I gradually came to know her fears and triumphs almost as intimately as my own.

Those hour-long chemo sessions were jewels of stolen time for use. Chemo paused our hectic “before cancer” lives, forcing us to stop moving, sit together in a room and share a space in time.

There were some things about my wedding that my mom couldn’t help me with. Since she had lost her appetite she didn’t bother tasting cakes with me. When a treatment had left her sick and weak, it was my father who accompanied me to my appointment with the florist to pick out my bouquet.

After chemo, my mother usually felt tired and nauseated for a few days. Sometimes she didn’t feel like eating much. Sometimes she needed blood transfusions to boost her white blood cell count, when her resistance to infections was knocked down by chemo drugs.
At first she tolerated the treatments well. As the months went by, and she began to have more pain, then weakness and seizures – a sign that the cancer had metastasized to her brain. But, through it all, she never asked me to alter my plans because of her illness or to change my wedding date, even when her body began failing her as my wedding approached.

My mother prepared for my wedding in her own way. With the help of friends and family, she had a fresh coat of paint applied to the walls of several of the rooms of her house. She made sure the guest room, my old bedroom, was neat and orderly. Decorated with a rose-patterned bedspread and matching curtains, it was pretty enough for any bride getting ready for her wedding. She had even sent my father out one night to purchase the finishing touch at a local department store – a full length cherry dressing mirror she had seen advertised in the newspaper that morning.

Eventually, she spent a lot of time resting and fighting the pain. When I visited her at home, I often found her sitting in front of the television swaying back and forth in a rocking pink recliner – a gift from her good friend Jeanne that had become her preferred seat in the house – with her eyes closed. When I asked her what she was doing she said, cheerfully, “I’m meditating.”

“What are you watching?” I’d ask, looking at the television.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she’s say. “Some stupid show.”

I have no way of knowing if my mother was meditating to ease her pain or praying that she would not die. Rather than join my father at church every Sunday morning, mom preferred to stay home, sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and browsing the sale fliers.

“Don’t worry,” Dad said jokingly, “I’ll pray for you sinners.”

After she became too sick for chemo, her once pin-straight hair grew back curly and white. Faced with the reality that her body would neither tolerate nor respond to further treatment, with the prospect of no recovery, she cried, “I want to see your wedding.” Then, after a moment, she said, “I want to see my grandchildren.”

People say my wedding kept her going. It kept her mind off the pain eased only by large doses of morphine and her fate. When my wedding day finally arrived, she was sicker than she had ever been. Though hospitalized for several days leading up to it, she somehow mustered the strength to attend my wedding ceremony, decked out in her best blond wig – by now she had many to chose from – and the navy blue dress we had picked out together.

After the ceremony, Matthew and I greeted guests as they filed out of the church. Then, I walked over to my mother, who was waiting for me in her wheelchair.

“Come over here and give your mother a kiss,” she said, feigning anger that I had not greeted her sooner.

The next day, we were at her bedside at my parents’ house. She wanted to die at home. Any notions Matthew and I had of a honeymoon vanished. The depth of my mother’s sheer physical pain seemed endless and so did her dying. Large and continuous doses of morphine dulled the pain but also stole away her consciousness. As her breathing became more and more labored, we prayed for her suffering to end, for death to come, for the agony of watching her die to cease.

At 3:50 a.m., five days after my wedding – after she had watched my tearful father walk me down the aisle as I beamed with a joy that couldn’t be stifled by any of the pain we had endured in the past year – my mother died. My sister stood at the foot of her bed, gently touching my mother’s stocking covered foot. I stood at the side of her bed, holding her hand. Matthew stood behind me. My father caressed her face as she took her last breath and cried for his “sweet, sweet baby.” We had prayed for the relief her death was supposed to bring. When life left her, I was startled to feel instead only a consuming desire to have her back, even with all the pain and suffering. I wanted for just five more minutes to hold her warm hand in mine, to feel the smooth, dry skin and examine the long fingers with their large knuckles that look so much like my own.


Nancy Cavillones said...

This is so beautiful, Nicole. In tears here. Happy Mother's Day.

Emily Ballard said...

This is so stunning that I can hardly think of words.

CarlaJean Valluzzi said...

This is so beautifully written, Nicole!
A fitting telling, and a wonderful tribute to the reality, and the commonalities of suffering.

Roxann Wedegartner said...

A beautiful tribute to you and your mother and the strength we can summon as the caretaker and the one who is sick. It is my endless sorrow that I was not able to be by my mother's side when she died, also of cancer after undergoing chemo. She died alone in the middle of the night 2000 miles away. If she knew she was going to die then she didn't let on in our phone call earlier in the day. She said only that she didn't feel very good and would call the doctor in the morning.