To me, there are few things in life worse than the feeling of helplessness. When Josie was a newborn, I remember that feeling each time she cried and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong yet. Like a screaming lamb, she would wriggle and turn red as I frantically changed her diaper, swaddled her, and then let her nurse. The whole time my heart raced, fearing I wouldn’t get it right or do it fast enough, that tiny little monster wailing and waking up the house. Then she would calm as I could hear her gulping the warm milk, a potion that put her right to sleep. And for a brief moment I felt like I could handle this mommy thing. That was until sleeping through the night became my greatest desire and the feeling of helplessness returned. Then months later as she was learning to pull up on tables and chair and cruise and explore, then came the inevitable. The boo boo. Josie’s grip slipped and she fell, sending her bottom teeth up into her gums and leaving her with a bleeding mouth. Talk about feeling helpless. You can’t instantly make things better. You can’t take away the pain. But there is a feeling worse than this. It’s hopelessness. I may have thought that I knew what that feeling was when a serious boyfriend would break things off or a 2-year search for a job never panned out. But that was not true hopelessness. Not really. Hopelessness manifested itself in my life on October 18, 2012. The day that I found out my mother had stage IV breast cancer.
My mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36 years old. Having been only 10 at the time, I don’t really remember this. But I do remember when she was diagnosed a second time when I was 14. Karli and Kelsey were young (12 and 7, respectively) and don’t remember much. I remember being old enough to really understand what was going on around me, watching my mother’s hair fall out from chemotherapy, seeing our clergy pray over her in our home, looking at the pictures of her in Hawaii, happy, healthy again. I remember certain things very clearly. Then time passed. Years went by. Who would have ever expected her cancer to remain dormant for so long, only to attack full force?
In the summer of 2011, Mom became sick with a cough. “It’s the pollen,” we’d say. Or “It’s allergies”. Finally she went to the doctor and was prescribed meds for pneumonia. She took the medicine but did not get better. She went back for tests and scans before Christmas of that year. The following year I received a phone call one Saturday morning. “I have cancer,” she told me.
I remember breaking down, but trying to breathe slowly so that she would not hear the panic in my breathing, in my voice. After talking with her a little and hanging up the phone, I turned to my husband who was looking at me wide-eyed and told him. Then the panic set in. We had just moved away from home less than a year from then and I had such guilt for leaving, feeling like I was ruining what was probably her dream for the later part of life: to have her children nearby and to have the house crawling with grandchildren one day. But when the Army calls, you answer. We were a 10-hour drive or an hour and a half flight away. All I wanted to do was to be able to drive to my mom’s that second and hug her, hold her hand, just be with her. I couldn’t believe how this could happen again, three times to one person. Three times. This is it, I thought. No one can beat it three times.
Time went on and Mom took her medication, an experimental form of chemotherapy in pill form. The side effects were odd and painful. It turned the palms of her hands and the bottoms of her feet a deep purple, as if she’d been squishing blueberries. And it made her skin peel. And it was painful for her to walk and hold things. The doctor played around with her medication. Once the side effects were bad, he said, take it one week, then off a week. The side effects became less severe and somehow they knew they had the dosage right because of the blue hands and feet. Mom pushed on, as she always did, living what appeared to be a normal life. Only immediate family knew of her condition. She told her boss as she would need to miss work for doctor’s appointments and due to the effects of the medication. Mom didn’t want anyone to know. She didn’t want people treating her differently, looking at her differently. Months went by. After coming to visit us in DC, Mom, Kelsey, and Dad returned home Sunday, October 7, the whole family knowing that the next day Mom would go in for a full body scan and that scan would tell us all what we never wanted to hear, what no family ever wants to hear.
Feeling hopeless is infinitely worse than helplessness because hopelessness swallows helplessness. It becomes part of it. Mom’s appointment was on Wednesday, October 17th. All day I was nervous and praying every moment that my mom popped into my head. I sent texts back and forth to my sisters:
Hey, Kels. Heard anything?
Not home yet. I’ll let you know.
Ok. Love you.
So I waited until the evening because I knew these appointments could take hours.
So I called my Dad. No answer. I called Karli. No answer. I called Kelsey. No answer. I called the house phone. No answer.
Finally a response from Karli:
Mom’s asleep. Call dad
Why would Mom be asleep without telling me what the doctor said? A thought in the back of my mind crept forward.
But I waited and called my dad again 30 minutes later. He answered. He said that the doctor said that the place in Mom’s lungs was gone, and that nothing else had gotten worse so things were moving in the right direction. Great, I thought. And I scolded myself for my usual pessimism. I got off the phone with him and relayed to my husband what was going on. “Why didn’t’ anyone just call you and tell you that?” he asked. “I have no idea.”
With Wednesday behind us I felt like I could breathe. I woke up to the sound of the baby calling me to get her, nursed her and made my way down the stairs and into the kitchen to cook breakfast. I decided I would use the iPad to Facetime my mom so she could see Josie. The battery was dead. So I got on my iPhone and Facetimed her. She answered. We said our hellos and she gave Josie a sweet “Hey Josie! It’s Grammy!” and Josie smiled in reply. I positioned the camera so that Mom could watch her and not see me. I was about to ask about her appointment and I felt uncomfortable knowing she could see my face as I asked. I was afraid.
“So Mom, tell me how your doctor’s appointment went yesterday.”
There was a pause.
“There’s good news and bad news. The place in my lungs is better. But the places in my liver, lymph nodes and pelvis are the same. The doctor said it is stage IV and I won’t get better.”
There was no good news. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart ached like it had never before. I broke down. I told her I was sorry. I told her I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock. I still am.
I am writing this on October 21, 2012. Each day I mourn for a loss that is inevitable and that seems far too early, earlier than I could have ever thought. I mourn for my father who will lose the greatest love. I mourn for my sisters who may not have their mother there the day they say “I do” or when they have their children. I mourn for the grandchildren who will not be able to be held by their Grammy. I mourn for a future that will never be the same, will never feel complete because she will not be here. I mourn for her suffering, her fear, her anger that will come. My heart is broken and the feeling of hopelessness seems to envelope me until I feel like I might suffocate.
6 May 2014
So much has happened since I last wrote about mom.
John, Josie and I traveled home to Georgia for Thanksgiving 2012. It was during this trip that we told our parents we were expecting our second baby in the summer of 2013. It was a joyful time to be with my family. But before our trip, I struggled with telling mom the news. I didn’t know how long we had with mom and I didn’t want to tell her if I thought she wouldn’t get to see the baby. But at the same time I wanted to share my joy with her. So I did. Josie walked into my parents living room wearing the same “I am a big sister” t-shirt I wore when I became a big sister. Mom was happy but I could tell she was sad for the same reason I was reluctant to tell. My sister confirmed this with me months later. But in June 2013, three weeks early, we welcomed another sweet baby girl, Scout, into the family. A week later my sweet mom held her second grandbaby and everything felt perfect.
Mom continued her normal life. She went to work, went to movies, went out to dinner and went to family functions. Some days were better than others. She felt sick, tired and in pain but she pressed on. Because that’s how she is. She’s a fighter.
We made another trip down for Christmas 2013. It was a special time. My grandmother got to meet Scout and my grandfather baptized her. Mom was so happy to see the girls. Her face always lights up to see them. And no matter how bad she felt, she made the most of every second with them. She’s a wonderful Grammy.
The new year came and with it more bad news: moms cancer had spread to her brain.
She was still undergoing IV chemo treatments once a week that left her tired. But now Mom was complaining of worsening eye sight. She went to the eye doctor and he said she had cataracts but because of her brain tumors, she could not be put under general anesthesia to have the surgery to correct the cataracts. So she worked until she was no longer able to see what she was doing. And things were changing quickly. Radiation treatments to shrink the brain tumors and chemo treatments left her body defeated, her hair gone.
My grandmother passed away in the spring and it was after her passing that the rest of the family learned just how serious my mother’s condition really was.
Later her memory became less strong, the swelling in her brain caused her to be incoherent. Sometimes non-responsive altogether. Mom was slipping away. Sometimes she would have moments of confusion and ask people if she was still there. If her body was there. I prayed each day that if mom mentally wasn’t there, that wherever it was that she wasn’t scared.
People have blessed my family with meals and prayers and love. It has been so wonderful to feel so cared for. I am especially grateful for it since I cannot be home. Friends from high school, family members and some strangers have been so supportive that I could never show them what their love and support has meant to the family. Except to pay it forward. Which I intend to do as often as I can. It’s funny how God shows you how awesome people can be. Who your true friends and family are. It’s the hard times.
7 May 2014
I got a call from my Aunt today. I need to come home. Our flight was originally for Saturday but I am going to call tonight to get it changed to tomorrow (Thursday). I’m terrified. I’m sad. But more than anything I want to say goodbye. And I want mom to be in peace. Cancer cannot steal eternal life.
9 May 2014
Today is Friday and we are at mom’s house. We spent the night at Chila and David’s and then this morning, after some play time, cheerios, bird watching and playing catch, we headed over to be with mom. Kelsey took the day off work today to help care for mom and see me and the girls. Josie was thrilled to see her aunt Kiki and has been entertaining her and by her side ever since we got here, her little shadow. The nurse came in today and bathed mom. I came into the room after she left and mom smelled like soap, her skin still ever so soft and dressed in a new set of pajamas pants and top, her knitted purple hat on her head. Right now Kelsey and Josie are napping together, while scout and I are in a room relaxing as well. Dad is mowing the grass. The hum of the mower and the buzz of the bathroom fan are the only sounds in the house. Downstairs, Chila is sitting with mom. Her head resting on the hospital bed, her hand in mom’s. Aunt Chila had been indescribably amazing through all of this. Such a nurturer with a heart like no other. She cared for nana so well and now she cares for her baby sister. But more than that. Aunt Chila has been like a second mother to my sisters and me. She has loved us unconditionally and demonstrates her love for us and mom by the amazing care and devotion she displays daily. I am so thankful for her and my uncle David. So much more than I could ever say.
And as I write this, I think about what the past two days have been like. As cliche as it is, I must say that everything is a roller coaster. I have moments of feeling almost numb, like I’m in shock, to moments of pure panic because how is the world supposed to spin without mom here? How is anything supposed to make sense or work? How does life just go on without mom here?
Too many questions. Some will be answered in time. Others will not. But that’s just the way life goes, right? It’s an ebb and flow. But eventually the ebb and flow begins to sound like the waves crashing on the rocks, fighting and raging through a storm. Then they will become calm and lead to peaceful shores as the sky fills with gold and orange red. I hope mom can hear the waves. The peaceful waves of love that surround her. She deserves some peace now. It’s been a long fight.
10 May 2014
I was reading through this entry and I was wrong about something. I had written that mom’s anger would come but I’m not sure it ever did. Even up to now, I never heard my mom get angry about things. That has never been in her nature. We’ve all been angry at some point during this journey. Angry at the situation and sometimes angry with God.
The day before I flew down to Georgia with the girls, a good friend called me. She is a new friend that I’ve made in Virginia and has been a real blessing to me, especially as things have progressed and gotten worse. She made this same journey with her father a few years ago. We talked for almost an hour. She let me cry, let me express my true feelings and her words were like medicine on a wound. She said the things I needed to hear, that nothing can diminish the love of my mother and me and nothing can diminish the love and promises of God. Her words were and are a blessing. She prayed with me and cried with me. And it was during that conversation that I realized that I couldn’t be mad at God. He didn’t cause this situation. This happened because life happens. Because life here on earth is imperfect. And this is why I don’t think that things happen for a reason. There’s nothing my mom did or didn’t do to cause her cancer. It wasn’t because she didn’t eat enough organic foods or pray enough or exercise enough. It just happened. And God didn’t cause it because He loves her. It just happened. And I can’t be mad at God because He promises that in the end, she will be in paradise. She will have a perfect body with no scars, no chemo port, no bruises, no cancer. She will be in perfect peace when The Lord is ready to take her home. This is not the end for her but the beginning of eternity in perfection. How can I be mad at that?
11 May 2014-Mothers’ Day
It’s a little past 3:30 in the morning. I am already feeling the weight of this day. It’s our first mothers day without Nana and most likely our last with mom. It’s odd to think that slightly over a week ago we were planning a Mother’s Day picnic. Chicken salad sandwiches, beautiful cupcakes, hummus and chips and fresh fruit, a wonderful lunch under the shade of the trees in mom and dad’s backyard. I was imagining mom sitting on the deck with her feet propped up, enjoying the breeze, holding Scout while Josie sang “Twinkle, twinkle little star” for the fifth time while hopping and twirling for her Grammy. It’s amazing how things can change in a week.
It’s 3:45 and I’m thinking I should get some sleep. The plans for today no longer include a picnic but they still include my mom. I want to continue celebrating and honoring the mother she is. I want to, more than anything, look into my mother’s eyes and tell her that I love her beyond comparison, to have her tell me she loves me too and to feel her arms around me. Instead I will comfort her and kiss her and hold her and pray for peace for her soon. My mother deserves to be free. To be perfect again.
—- Mother’s Day is coming to a close and it’s been so bittersweet.
13 May 2014
Mom’s levels are slowly declining and as I see her lay in her bed, I just pray that the Lord would take her soon so that she can be in paradise. There’s a picture beside mom’s bed of her holding Scout when she was first born. Mom is so happy, looking at the face of her second granddaughter. I can see her smile and almost hear her laugh and her voice saying “Hey Scout! I’m your Grammy!” This is how I will remember my mom. I’ll remember her as the mom who did cartwheels with me and my sisters, the mom who would take us to the mall for school shopping, the mom who would come see me at work at trivia night, the mom who helped me get into my wedding dress, the mom who would call her Starbucks drink a “la-ti-da” instead of a latte, the mom who took us to church by herself, the mom who prayed for us, the mom who loved me even when I was a know-it-all, smart mouthed teenager, the mom who would comfort me after a breakup, the mom who came to my track meets, the mom who loved my writing, the mom who sewed dresses for me and my girls, the mom who sacrificed so much for us, the mom who worked two jobs to help pay for college, the mom who was so compassionate, the mom who would sometimes smoke a little cigar out in the hot tub, the mom who had a terrible singing voice but who I loved to hear sing, the mom who encouraged us to be nice to each other as sisters, the mom who would spend all day gardening on the weekend, the mom who could get a full summer tan in about 15 minutes, the mom who was the first person to rub my belly when I was pregnant, the mom who came to see the girls whenever she could and no matter how she felt, the mom who danced with us at home, the mom who helped me sell the most Girl Scout cookies in my troop, the mom who means everything in the world to her three girls because she was truly special and a gift from God. I want to remember the good things because the bad things are too much to bear. I want to remember her the way she was in that picture, happy and full of love.
14 May 2014
Today is my 32nd birthday. It is also the day that my mother went to be with The Lord. It has been a bittersweet day for me and probably will be the rest of my life. I will miss my mom every day for the rest of my life. I will miss her smile, her laugh, her soft smooth skin, her cute expressions, her gentle soul, her compassion, her desire to serve The Lord, her hugs, her kisses, her friendship, her fun spirit, her love. But I rejoice in knowing that on this day she went to be with The Lord, where she could be healthy, happy and at peace.