Days of Love and Cancer
July 7, 2006
Is it better to tap into memories of your mother when you’re sad, or serene?
I don’t remember the details of my mother’s last 22 days the way I wish I could. The way I feel I should in order to fully memorialize her.
Part of me feels like a bad daughter – perhaps there when she needed me but not fully present enough to remember the conversations, activities, or emotions that would have compelled me to ask the important life questions of those you love. When they needed to be asked. When time was running out. But was time really running out? I had no idea.
The rational side of me knows that some of this is ridiculous – most or all? – but I just can’t help anguishing over the valuable time and conversations I let slip away, and will never, ever get them back. The questions that will forever remain unasked. I will never learn my mother’s favorite memories. She will never know my top 10 favorite memories of her. The true depth of my thanks. How proud I was of her. What a wonderful conversation that would have been. Would have.
There was plenty of time. Plenty of alone time.
When my mother didn’t answer her phone on December 4th I knew something was terribly wrong. I had spent the past few days with her, caring for her as she grew weaker before my eyes, while I didn’t see it happening. She was scheduled for a procedure on the 3rd and was told not to eat or drink beforehand. She collapsed on the floor of her apartment that afternoon just after telling me, “Sam, I think you should come over right away.” I did come over, after sending a few more emails, taking a shower and busying around the house for about 45 minutes. “Right away” wasn’t a term I’d heard from my mother in the year and half since her diagnosis of pancreas and lung cancers. “Right away” didn’t send the message – or I just chose not to hear it.
My mother, lying on her side, curled in a semi fetal position staring at the front door was the first thing I saw when I entered the apartment. Staring at the front door, as she had been doing for the past 45 minutes since hanging up with me. Wondering when she would hear the building entry door open, hear footsteps across the entry stone floor, hear the key in the door and see it open. Staring to see when her daughter, her caregiver, the one who shared her cancer with her as if it was her own, would be there to help her. To save her. Her eyes looking scared and helpless. Exactly what I swore I would shelter her from the very first moment we learned of her cancer. I failed her. I failed myself. She was terrified and I wasn’t there to calm her, to carry her, to catch her before she fell to the floor.
At nine months pregnant, I tapped an unknown agility to lift her up and, with a little strength still left in her legs, work together to move her to the bed. I cared so much more for my mother at that moment than for my little baby Boo living large below my chest. “You can’t carry me, you need to be careful,” my Mom said. I didn’t care about being careful. I didn’t matter.
“Where were you going Mom? Oh my God, what happened?! Oh my God, I’m so sorry I was so late!!” I was forcing tears and my broken voice back into my chest. Don’t cry, I said to myself. Be strong. Why the fuck did I take so long to get here? How can I do this to her? Oh my God. I said it over and over in my chest.
“I was trying to go to the bathroom and I just fell. I can’t move.”
“Okay, let’s go to the bathroom.
“I’m so sorry, Mom! I’m so sorry I wasn’t here right away!” I was choking on my words. My throat constricting like it was being strangled. I deserved to be strangled.
I was able to carry/lift/drag my mom to the bathroom. I continued to choke on my breath and disappointment, and she made jokes about how she “fell and couldn’t get up.” We then worked as a team – as we had been doing every day for more than a year – to carry/drag her to the bed, where I felt successful, but then helpless.
Now what? Why did she collapse, was it the blood sugar because she didn’t eat? What about the 3:00 appointment? Should we still go? What do I do now? I can handle appointments and procedures and questions for the doctor and emotional support, but I hadn’t, until that point, had to deal with a bona fide issue. I had felt so in control of the situation until then that I honestly thought her falling down and being unable to move was a result of the diabetes and not eating.
Wake up, Samantha! I had no idea it would be the last time my mother really moved well on her own at all. I had no sense that this was the start of the cancer taking her body for its own. Taking yet one more piece of her – her weight, her confidence, her independence, her strength, her hair, her dignity...
“Maybe we should call Alice,” my mom said. Of course! Why the hell didn’t I think of that? I called our nurse, Alice, who told me immediately to call 911. How dramatic. I’ve managed this long on my own, I think I can handle this issue without 911.
Alice taught me a lesson on that call that I will never forget for as long as I live: when in doubt, call 911. Calling the paramedics does not buy an immediate ride in an ambulance, she informed me. It buys you a house call by a team of specialists who know what to do, how and when to do it, and how to keep spirits calm, the mood light and the body safe, all at the same time. Right. Okay. That sounds like a good group to have here now.
And, as my Mom and I had a great laugh about later, the paramedics’ were darn cute! Something about a young man handling an aging woman with total control, care and compassion, knowledge and strength, and humor. Of course, my mom and I made light of this situation too. She wishing she was 30 years younger and I wishing I wasn’t knocked up. I’m sure the adorable, smart, medical boys were thinking the same thing. Of course they weren’t.
After a few quick questions, they took her blood sugar. Of course they did. Why hadn’t I done that. I had done it nearly every day for a year, when we learned that her pancreas cancer had destroyed her body's insulin production.
Her blood sugar was 39. Twenty points lower than the emergency low point. Thirty points lower than I had ever seen it before. Unchartered territory. The space I was entering from where I would never return. Where none of us would ever return.
We – the cute paramedics and I – were able to get her blood sugar back up to normal (although my contribution involved pouring glasses of orange juice and making peanut butter and crackers), climbing steadily with tests at 5-minute intervals. 40, 43, 50, 62, 75, 90, back on track. “Call us again if it goes lower.” You bet I will.
Not understanding the importance of “Right Away” was the first mistake of two I would make that weekend, and the first of many in the 22 days I would have left with her. The second fuck-up was leaving her side at all that weekend, which resulted in me rushing back to her apartment the next day.
We had friends in town and plans Saturday night, which, hindsight being 20/20, disgusts me to think were actually more important than staying with my mom for as long as she needed me. Of course she told me to go, “I’m fine now, I promise to eat.” We were both still thinking that the blood sugar crash – the great crash of December 2005 – was a result of not eating prior to the procedure. The procedure that never was. The blood sugar crash that was merely a symptom of the far greater problem.
Until it happened again. I stayed with mom that night, helped her sip orange juice, drink chicken broth and eat peanut butter crackers. We lay in bed together watching CNN, talking about the Seahawks, making plans for rescheduling the procedure. It was a wonderful evening and the joy in her eyes when I told her I was spending the night made me want to move in and spend every night. I wish I had. I wish I could today.
I left the next afternoon, Saturday the 4th, to spend time with our friends and get ready for the play we were seeing in Seattle that night. I put the phone in mom’s shirt pocket and told her to keep it with her at all times. I would call her to check in. We spoke a couple of times that night and she was doing well. I called her first thing Sunday morning and she didn’t answer. My throat again. My chest. Nausea. I dropped the phone and ran out of the house.
I called my mom again and again on my way to her apartment. No answer. I then called my brother and sister-in-law in California, crying and nervous and terrified about what I was going to find. Mom was in bed when I got to the apartment, sleeping soundly, snoring a bit and looking fairly comfortable.
Ollie was clearly in need of a potty break and so he and I went outside and I called my sister-in-law again. “She’s asleep,” I said, “so I think we’re okay. I’ll call you if anything changes. I’ll go in and wake her up and let you know what’s going on.”
I couldn’t wake my mom. I called her name a couple of times, started shaking her a little in the bed, started pushing her hard and feeling abusive. I started screaming her name. Shaking her, crying and yelling, shaking uncontrollably myself. I called 911. After a few calm questions by them, hysterical responses from me, they informed me that I needed to administer CPR. What?! I don’t know how do to that! I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that! What are you talking about?!?!?!
The phone voice talked me through CPR – on my mother, something no one should ever have to do. Because she was breathing, I only needed to keep her heart pumping. I interlaced my fingers, pressed my palms into her chest and gradually, with the encouragement and insistence of the calm voice on the phone, pressed harder and harder in five step sequences. I felt that maybe I cracked her rib. The nice voice said it didn’t matter.
Apparently I was able to stabilize her until the paramedics reached the house. They came in a rush through the front door. They lifted my mother off the bed, onto the hard wood floor between the living room and dining room and cut open her shirt. They needed access to her chest. They needed to assist her breathing. They moved at the speed of light.
I was horrified at the sight of my mother, lying lifeless on the floor in the clothes I left her in the day before. Bare breasts exposed in a room full of strange men. She would be horrified. We would not joke about this. Her dignity as frail as her breathing. I couldn’t watch and I couldn’t turn away. I thought she was going to die at that moment. Had she already? It was the most terrifying moment of my life, following the moment just a day earlier that formerly held that post.
I joined Ollie just a few feet away from my mother in the dining room, where we were both semi-watching, wondering, terrified, crying. Comrades in a long road that involved the one person we both loved more than anything else on earth.
The paramedics informed me that they needed to insert a breathing tube, which would be a horribly uncomfortable procedure, and therefore needed to accompany that with a shot that would paralyze her for a few hours. “Paralyze” was where this was headed? Sleeping one moment, CPR the next, death in the living room, and now paralysis? It was more than I was capable of handling. I didn’t have the emotional strength to comment, to question, to respond. I stared blankly. They took that as an “okay.”
As the help team – 2-3 men, I’m not exactly sure – inserted the breathing tube, another team appeared through the front door with a stretcher. She was on the stretcher, tube in place, blanket covering her exposed chest, out the door and in the ambulance before I could comprehend that she was still alive. Was she alive?
We – my mom and I – were hovering together someplace between illness and death. It was a place we had never been, had never knew existed. It was a place, and a path on the journey, that was never explained, never anticipated. We were not prepared. I recognized none of these signs. I had nothing to say, to advise, to give.
For the first time someone other than me was taking her where she needed to go. There were no orders from Dr. Gold, our quarterback and our hope on this journey, to follow. This trip was not scheduled in our big red binder, no one was expecting us on the other end.
Only, they were. Dr. Gold was there. He was expecting all of this.