The Gift I Did Not Recognize At the Time

My mother was diagnosed with cancer in March of 1992.   There are moments, both little and small, of the journey we spent together during her illness that are still full of sharp edges.  Many of them have to do with their proximity to a holiday.  This story below happened three days before Christmasin 1992, when I was twenty two years old.   It's taken me eighteen years to finally be able to delve back into these memories and finally share them with others. 

“Miss, can I speak with you for a moment?”

I was walking down the hallway at the hospital.  It was early evening, and I was spending it with my mother.   She'd been in the hospital for a week now.  I'd put up Christmas cards and a small tree in the corner and was working every minute to keep the mood light and her spirits up. 

“Sure,” I answered, looking in the direction of the voice.  It was my mother’s doctor.  He led me into a small food prep area, brightly lit despite the dusk that I knew had fallen outside.

“You do know that her cancer has returned.”  It wasn’t a question.  It was a statement, matter of fact.

The world stopped.  I looked around and heard the amplified sounds of the nurses at their station down the hall, the sound of a patient door closing, the rush of a faucet turning on somewhere.  “Yes,” I said, just as matter of factly.  Of course I had known it was true for weeks now.  It was the only possible explanation.

“She is terminally ill.  She will die from this.”  He looked at me directly, as if to be sure I understood the gravity of his words.  I understood.

“I understand,” I said, feeling very small and childlike.

The doctor reached for a napkin and pulled a pen out of his white coat.  He started drawing on the napkin.  I looked down to see lines and curves start to form.  What was he doing?

“This is your mother’s chest.  Do you see?”  I looked down.  Yes, now I could see.

“Here is her heart.  And this here is her esophagus.  The tumor is growing here, around her heart and pushing inward on the esophagus.”

“I see,” I responded numbly.  I needed to remember this, every word, every bit of it to tell my brother and sister.  I needed to know.  Finally, someone was telling me what I needed to know.  I forced myself to focus, not to let my mind wander to the awfulness of what he was saying and to stay in the moment.

“See, this is why her heart rate is elevated.  Her heart cannot pump fully, because it is constricted.  So it has to beat faster to get the blood oxygenated.  Which is also why we see her oxygen levels dropping, because it’s starting to be less effective at it.”

“You can’t do aerobics every second of the day without getting tired at some point,” I offered.

“Exactly.  So your mother will die one of two ways,” he continued.  “Either her heart will just tire out and stop beating because the tumor is constricting it too much, or the tumor will infiltrate the esophagus  and block her airway to the point where she will suffocate.”

“Oh.”  I could feel the breath leave my chest, as if it was being sucked out.  I looked around me, cornered in this tiny awful breezeway with this very direct doctor, amazed that people were going about their business as if the world hadn’t just cracked in two.

“We’ll be talking to your mother tomorrow about Hospice and palliative care.  We will probably not give her quite this level of specificity in what we tell her, but I wanted you to know since you are her primary caregiver.”

“Of course,” I answered, trying to sound like the grown up that I was supposed to be in this moment.  “I appreciate your honesty.”

The doctor reached out to shake my hand.  I put my hand in his, surprised to feel the warmth in his hands.  Mine were like ice.  “Good night,” he said, and then walked away.

I stood there, alone, in the tiny breezeway, looking at cups of pudding and boxes of dry soup, unable to move.  No tears, no anger, no thoughts whatsoever.  As I had nine months prior, all I could think about clearly was the date.

December 22, 1992.  Three days before Christmas.

I didn't know it at the time, but that doctor who had been so brutally honest with me that day so close to Christmas had actually given me a gift.  He had given me the gift of knowledge, of knowing, and of time.  Time to speak to my mother, to say all of the things that go unsaid in the course of normal, day to day life.   I was able to know that three days later would be my mother's Last Christmas.  As hard as it was to know, the alternative of regret at missing the opportunity to make the occasion as perfect as possible would have been much worse.


Check out my year long journey back in time at My Former Life.


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