My mother’s health failed rapidly, once we finally heard the diagnosis of cancer. And I have had multiple stages of not dealing with any of it gracefully. This is probably because it has come on so fast. Just when I make peace with a stage, we move on to another shocking phase.
In a meeting with her doctor on Monday, he reminded me of the date we first suspected cancer. Not too long ago, Mom had abdominal pain and went for care. A subsequent x-ray included the bottom of one lung. Something abnormal appeared on the lung, so she returned for another x-ray, just of the lungs. This showed masses on both. It was October 19th, 2011.
My sister-in-law is a nurse for a skilled pulmonologist in Boise, so Mom went down there to get some first rate attention. They ran her through a battery of tests, and importantly, a high-contrast CT scan. This showed not only masses of concern in the lungs, but also in the liver. Mom told me that she knew it was cancer, and that it confirmed what she had suspected for years. (She has been having a complex combination of undiagnosed health problems for two years.) A biopsy of the liver confirmed cancer, additional results confirmed cancer of the lungs, and both kidneys. Compared to the x-ray from north Idaho, the lung masses had already doubled in size in about 10 days.
Before Mom had a chance to speak with an oncologist, she reached the limit of her tolerance for the city. She lives in a cabin on the top of a mountain in a very remote part of north Idaho. After two weeks in Boise she could no longer bear it, and begged for her husband to take her home. The day after they arrived home, Tara and I were able to visit for Veteran’s Day weekend. Mom seemed herself, she had decided to fight the disease, even though previously she told us she would refuse treatment. I really wasn’t too upset at that point, because I planned to be by her side till we kicked this thing.
November 14th (exactly one month ago), she talked with an oncologist (cancer specialist) for the first time. She said the doctor wheeled her chair right up so they were knee to knee, the doctor took Mom’s hands and said to her, “You have stage IV cancer. It is very advanced and very aggressive. We do not recommend treatment, but rather, to focus on maintaining a good quality of life for the time you have left.”
Mom called me at work, crying. But she was resolved again to accept her fate and refuse all treatment. And that’s when I became angry. My whole life I have been extremely adept at making things happen. I can fix stuff, I can take care of stuff, I can prevent stuff, and prepare for stuff. I help others, help myself, smooth the way, and tie up loose ends. And here was something I could not help. Not one damn thing I could do. I asked Mom, “Is this the point where I step in and give you a pep talk? Should we get a second opinion, or talk to your herbal health care advisor?” She told me, “No, Sis. I know I am going to die. I am ready to go. I have fought so hard just to live, and now I finally get to relax. This news is a relief to me.”
Angry at life, at disease, at the unfairness of it all. Mom is the healthiest person I know. Never smoked anything her entire life, would have been aghast to consider drug use, and in fact avoided all pills and doctors as much as possible. She grew her gardens, canned food and prepared all meals for all us kids growing up, and for her husbands and herself. She lives on a mountaintop with no smog, no noise or light pollution, breathing fresh air and working hard every day. Mom saved up her money last winter to buy a new chainsaw this summer, and was so thrilled to tell me how great it was to use. She did everything right. She got body slammed by fate anyway.
I am living with her and her husband now. Her husband has been traumatized and – a very traditional man – is learning how to do things for himself for the first time since he was in his twenties. He is not up to assisting with caregiving, but is proud about having learned to make coffee and wash the dishes. He can keep the fire going. I leave him to that, but I can’t help but get irritated that he requires as much time and attention from me as Mom does. He is completely out of his element, in pain, lost, and scared. His helplessness bothers me. It’s another example of my failure to do this gracefully.
My mother requires constant attention now, all night long. I am so tired. My back is killing me from all the lifting. And I’m still not dealing with it as I suppose I should. Mom’s twin brother is here to help, thank the gods. My cousin is coming to help. Another strong woman – hallelujah! Despite the offers of help, I hate having so many people around me. I am not a social person. I particularly despise having witnesses to my shortcomings. I am not a nurse, and it’s not even something I’m good at. It’s the one area of life I’ve always been quick to admit I am not cut out for. But, here I am: full time nurse. Feeding Mom water with an eye dropper, applying chapstick, wiping her mouth, changing her when she wets herself, listening to her gasping breaths and trying to guess what it means. Pain? Constricted windpipes? More awake than a little while ago? Need something? Hungry? Roll over? She can’t talk, so it’s all guessing. And again, I get frustrated and angry at my own incompetence. Me. The woman who can do anything. But I feel like I can’t do this.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You, and Hospice too, everyone says, “Oh, you can do this. You know her better than we do. You’ll do just fine. Everything you’re feeling is OK!” I just want to smack them. I know I have PERMISSION to be frustrated and angry. Well, DUH. My mom is dying. But I am not good at being incompetent. That’s what it is: a control freak who is in a non-controllable situation. I’ll get through it and soar again, even if the journey is not pretty. I always get through catastrophes. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.