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The Night Will Always Win March 3, 2011

Posted by monty in personal.
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Tomorrow I make the long drive from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio, most likely to see my mom for the last time.

It seems harsh to say she’s dying, even though she certainly is.  And I don’t mean that in the existential, “we all start to die as soon as we’re born” way. And I don’t mean it to be melodramatic or hyperbolic.  After battling cancer since 1995, she decided five days ago to forego any further treatment and turn herself over to hospice care.  I know I need to prepare myself for what’s going to happen – soon, much too soon – but I still feel the need to soften the blow.

Her story, briefly:

In 1995, shortly before I moved to California, she was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer.  It’s uncommon, but similar (as I understand it) to ovarian cancer.  Her doctors discovered it when she went in for routine hernia surgery, and they found it at such an early stage that everyone was hopeful for a full recovery.  She had surgery, followed by chemotherapy.  Distance afforded me a sort of comfort: I was on the other side of the country, and I don’t think I ever had a complete picture of just how difficult this treatment was for her.  Hair loss.  Nausea.  All the usual suspects.  But within a year or so it appeared she had beaten it.

And that’s the way it continued for a dozen or so years.  Cancer was a spectre that hovered on the periphery, an unwelcome guest that lurked just outside the door but never quite crossed the threshold.  There were semiannual checkups with an oncologist, but the results of her bloodwork always came back looking just fine.  A lot happened in this time.  My brother got married and went to grad school, then to law school.  I taught high school, then returned to grad school myself.  My mom and dad both retired and began traveling regularly, around the U.S. and to Ireland.  They became obsessive walkers, going out once or twice during the day, and always making sure to find time for it on their travels.  They volunteered through their church, doing immeasurable good for people in their community who were without family and resources themselves.  If possible, they were busier in retirement than they were when they were teaching.

A little over two years ago, though – just as I was finishing up my Ph.D. and looking for teaching positions back east – my mom suddenly found herself suffering from shortness of breath.  It first manifested itself during her walks with my dad.  She couldn’t go as far, had to stop and sit for a while. Soon, even walking from one room to another required that she sit at the midpoint to recover.  After a trip to the emergency room, it turned out that her hemoglobin levels had plummeted, and she had to undergo the first of what was to become a dozen or more blood transfusions in the next 18 months.

As it turned out, there was tumor growth in her intestine causing internal bleeding.  The situation was dire, and the prognosis wasn’t good.  She went back on an aggressive form of chemotherapy, and, amazingly, it worked.  She had to alter her diet substantially, and her plans now had to constantly revolve around her chemo schedule, but for most of the last two years she’s been in decent health.  She and my dad were still able to do some traveling – to California to see me receive my degree; to Atlanta a couple times after I had moved into a new place and taken a new job; and, most significantly, to Zion National Park in Utah, where she was actually able to do some hiking.  My nephew was born a little over a year ago, so my parents sold the house I grew up in and moved to a condo in the suburbs of Columbus so they could enjoy being grandparents.  I was just a drive away, and in a good relationship of my own with a girl my parents adored.  The family was as close as it had been in 15 years.

Two weeks ago, she started suffering from symptoms of jaundice.  My dad immediately took her to her doctor, and we got the kind of news that we had been dreading all this time.  The cancer had spread to her liver and become more deeply entrenched in her intestine.  There were things she could do – emergency stomach surgery, some hyper-intense form of radiation – but it was made pretty clear that it would only be a stopgap, a temporary way of prolonging the inevitable.

Four days ago, she decided that hospice was the best route.  She’s tired, and I understand her decision.  She’s lived with this for years, had several different abdominal surgeries, done the bloodwork regularly, endured the transfusions.  She’s tired, and I think the prospect of subjecting herself to another surgery or as many as 15 debilitating radiation sessions is just too much to bear.  I can’t be mad at her.  It would be selfish.  But the hurt – the sense of loss – is just starting to seep in around the edges.  Day to day, my biggest task is just holding it together.

In many ways, I’m as sad for my dad as I am for my mom.  They started dating when they were teenagers, and now they’ve been married for over 40 years.  This can’t be how he envisioned them ending up, and I can’t imagine what this is like for him – to lose someone who’s been with him for all but the first 13 years of his life.  But this teaches me what marriage is all about.  This is, as they say, where the rubber meets the road.  To care for your wife in her last days.  To see her across to the other side.  And to do it without flinching.

I talked to her on the phone yesterday.  She still sounds good, still has her sense of humor.  I don’t know how she does it.  Is it easier for the person who’s leaving than for those who are left?  I do a good job of talking to her, I think.  Keep it light.  Focus on me.  Be funny.  Is that dishonest?  Should we say the things we’re supposed to say at this time, or is it more important to try and keep the darkness at bay?  I honestly don’t know.  Nothing about it feels right; it’s all varying degrees of wrong.

And of course there’s the guilt.  One or two visits a year for nearly fifteen years.  All the times I dodged phone calls because I wasn’t in the mood or didn’t have anything exciting to talk about.  The stupid childhood rebellions and the things I said that I didn’t mean.  As the clock ticks down, I’m suddenly faced with an inventory of regret, and I realize that all the clichés are true.

Treasure the time you have with the people you love.

Tell them – repeatedly, honestly – just how much they mean to you.

Tomorrow I make the long drive from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio, most likely to see my mom for the last time.

I’m not ready.

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