Question Mark

Mom and I at a favourite Bonners Ferry, Idaho cafe two years ago.

My mother is dying of cancer. From the looks of things, combined with my extreme lack of experience with cancer, or of death, I think she has anywhere from a few days to a few weeks left. Or maybe a month, but I hope not, because this is no life.

I wish I had written sooner. I wanted to record my feelings as I went through this, so it might be of some help for me when I grieve in the future. But it is very hard for me to write about my denial, and then shock, and then determination, and then despair.

She’s my mom! My pretty Momma. The woman who was always there is now mostly gone, though some of her is still here, like when she was fighting me just now. I’m trying to get her into the bathtub, because it’s the first time I’ve seen her stand in 24 hours. But she won’t go. And what power she yet yields! It makes me smile.

And so yes, the despair is gone and now I have an immense sadness, and an awed sense of beauty and love.

I am so very lucky and grateful to have spent Veteran’s day weekend with her, and then Thanksgiving. It was shocking to see the vast changes from the middle of November to the end of November. During Thanksgiving she asked me to help her write her living will. She has a terrible fear that she will be taken to the hospital, because she does not want to die in a hospital. So, I was sitting beside her on the couch, the Friday after Thanksgiving, and she was asking me to read and explain things to her. She made a few notes to herself, so she could go ask her doctor about them. Her pen hovered above the paper for a moment, and she made a curve in the air with her finger, then turned to me, “Sis, how do I make a question mark?”

Mom's question mark on the living will

It’s the loss of her clear thinking that I did not expect, and that I have the hardest time dealing with. My mother, who has written long, detailed letters her entire life, couldn’t remember how to make a question mark. During that late November week, she had frequent periods where she would fade out, and fade back in with conversation from a different topic. But I could talk myself into believing it was because of her fatigue, or the pain meds. I talked with her on the phone December 3rd. She drifted and stopped talking a couple times, but it was still very easy to communicate with her.

But now, she speaks only a few words a day. Maybe she’ll say “no” or “water,” but that’s about it. And as vastly helpful as those few words are, I sense they will not be around much longer. I remind myself to transition to non-verbal communication.

She hears just fine, though sentences are often too confusing for her to understand. But simple ideas get through. “My beautiful Momma,” I said to her, as I stroked her hair, and though her eyes had been closed, she smiled. It was so wonderful to connect.

P.S. My mother and her husband Jim do not have health insurance, and she’s too young for Medicare. I made a website to solicit donations. There is also a prize for one person, whose name I will draw from the donators. So, even if you don’t know us, maybe you’d like to have a little holiday fun for a good cause. Please see the website.

6 thoughts on “Question Mark

  1. I read your story because of a friend I went to school with, Theresa Coleman, and I am very sorry to hear that you and your family are having to try and deal with this. I watched my own father deteriorate between 2004 – 2006, though not with cancer. He had numerous health issues as a result of life long smoking and his inability to quit (Lord knows he tried). I send my heartfelt prayers to you and your family.

    1. Thank you Susie. Theresa is among the most wonderful friends I have met in this life, and you are lucky to be able to call her friend too. I know that you and I now share a kind of loss that is indescribable. Thank you for reaching out, and thank you for your prayers.

  2. *hugs*

    My Oma died of leukemia. It took four years of illness for them to finally diagnose her, and at that point only palliative care could be given. During those four years there were many times that she *almost* died — I think I wrote grieving blog posts at least four times. The random assortment of medications she was on made her scattered and forgetful; sometimes she thought I was my aunt, who died when I was a kid, or that my mom was my aunt, or that I was my mom. She got confused easily and forgot words.

    It was hard to watch this from a woman so smart that I generally felt overshadowed in her presence. She was brilliant. So is my mom. My mom thinks I’m brilliant too, but if I am it’s hard to see it around all the learning disabilities and mental health issues. Oma was scary-smart. She routinely whipped us all in Scrabble with ridiculous scores. She was a nurse in WWII, and then spent many years being an accountant for my parents’ law firm. We actually joked that she might choose to die on the first of September, because then that would be easier for the accounts. She didn’t, though. She died on August 27th, 2010.

    When she died, I didn’t feel grief right away. It was like it was still in the past, waiting for her to go, and then it caught up to me like an elastic band fired at my skin from across the classroom. It took me a month and a half to suddenly realize she was gone — at Thanksgiving, I kept looking down the hallway, waiting for her to walk down it from her room, saying how good the food smelled and what a good cook her daughter was.

    It was harder on my mom. Sometimes when we talk on Skype she cries, saying she misses her mommy.

    The summer that Oma died was horrible. I came home and two weeks later our dog, Major, died in my arms. My mom had cancer and needed surgery; my ex assaulted me; I lost my job; and Oma passed right before Labour Day. Add to that it was the summer I quit drinking, and I wanted to kill myself most days.

    But after it all happened, I met my partner — Labour Day weekend, actually. And while the next year was anything but perfectly smooth, it was definitely better.

    It was almost as if after she died, she got closer to God (or the divine, or whatever) and was able to argue on our behalf to make our lives better. I’m not Christian, but she was, and I believe that she’s in Heaven and continues to look after us in death as she did in life.

    Your mom will never stop being your mom, even after she’s gone. Whatever you believe about the afterlife, or even if you don’t, she’s always with you. And it sucks and your heart breaks anew every time you realize she’s gone, but with time it gets easier, and at some point you find you’re laughing more than you’re crying, remembering the good times more than how much you miss the person.

    I’m not sure if you have any ancestor-honoring practices, but it’s something that I find helps me deal with the loss of those I love. This Yule I’m holding a holy supper, where I cook a bunch of foods from my various backgrounds and have a huge feast, and then leave the food out for all my ancestors to come and eat at their dumb supper afterwards. Oma always made applesauce, so I’m making that for her.

    This is also something you can do for Dia de los Muertos, on Nov. 1st and 2nd. Mom and I celebrated that day when I was growing up. It helped me deal with the deaths of our dogs. We left pistachios out for them. Furbrains *loved* pistachios.

    I also have an ancestor altar, that has her picture, a picture of my dad’s parents, some things that belonged to Ariel (my aunt), etc.

    I’m rambling now, but know that my thoughts and prayers are with you both. *hugs, again*

    1. Jana, thanks for your rambling. I have valued our friendship, and I am honored that you choose to share your intimate thoughts with me when I need them.

      “I’m not Christian, but she was, and I believe that she’s in Heaven and continues to look after us in death as she did in life.” I like how you wrote this. I have been wondering what it is that I feel, since I am an atheist and my mother was a devout Christian. With the help of another friend, I have been able to open up my heart to her faith and appreciate the prayers and wishes from others on her behalf. I have even been able to share her joy and peace that she is going to Heaven. Now, with your words, I see that I have been able to believe with her, that she is exactly where she trusted that she would be. Mom is going to whip Heaven into shape and tell Jesus when he’s slept in too late and scold all the saints for using too much dressing on their salads. The angels will learn to flap their wings more gently so it doesn’t kick up the holy dust and make a mess. She’s still going to be the only person in the Universe who understands me, so she will be up there, telling me I am sane, and good, and those others just don’t know anything. It’s comforting to be able to believe her version.

  3. Crystal
    My thoughts and prayers are with you. I am currently grieving the loss of my dad. He just passed last week (December 7th) and the service is this coming weekend. He was 90, and had lived a great life…but his sudden departure is only the least bit bearable in that he passed peacefully.

    I have fond memories of our backpacking trips all those years ago.

    Sending you love and strength
    Mary Bullwinkel

    1. Oh Mary, my love goes out to you while you adjust to life without your dad. I am glad that he died peacefully. It tells you that he was ready, and satisfied with the ways things went. That must be very comforting. I, too, remember our backpacking trips as some of the best times in my life. You are a particularly special friend. Thank you so much for leaving a message and giving your friendship to me again, when I need it. Hugs.

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