In September 1997, three months before our twin boys were born, my Dad died of complications following cancer surgery. In 2004, my Mom called to let me know she had cancer, too. She fought it through a round of chemo but in August 2005 I got another call. This time it was from her nurse. The cancer had come back and my Mom had six weeks. I was shocked and it took me several hours to realize what had just happened and what it meant.
My Mom had a wonderful spirit. She was loving and tough-minded. I learned a lot from my parents but especially from my Mom. She had a strength in her that was masked by her blonde hair (bottled but stunning nonetheless), love of gold jewelry and bling (never missed a sale), and love of loud patterned clothes (Lilly Pulitzer never went out of style).
When she was younger, my Mom used to say that if she ever got to the age when she couldn’t take care of herself that she wanted to go out old school; the way they did it in prehistoric times. Take her to the top of a cliff and push her off. Then, after saying that, she’d laugh out loud.
With cancer, she met it head on. She got the news about the chemotherapy regimen and she got second opinions. When she knew in her heart that her only chance was to aggressively go after the cancer, she was ready. She was immensely supported by my step Dad, Lou, whom my Mom had met and married after my first Dad had died. Lou had lost his first wife to cancer several years earlier. Lou’s strength through this period of my Mom’s life was astounding. I love him so much for how he supported her.
Her form of cancer, though, is called peritoneal, which refers to the lining of much of your abdomen. Once it takes hold it’s a total bastard. And when it comes back, as it did within a year following my Mom’s chemo, you have the nurse calling. Six weeks.
When my Dad died I was angry. I wasn’t ready at age thirty-five to have him go. My wife, Catherine, was expecting in several months and carrying twins. I had visions of grandparents and it was all supposed to be. Following surgery, though, my Dad aspirated, which means he threw up in the morphine delirium after surgery, and inhaled it. He was on life support for a week and his brain was dying as his lungs recovered. The last thing I ever told my Dad was that we were having boys. He looked at me and his eyes widened. That’s how I know he heard me over the tubes and machines.
When my Mom was dying it was different. I had been through one parent’s death and I had more time with her. It wasn’t sudden as with my Dad. I flew down to Florida to be with her and Lou. The night I arrived was rough on her. She had started to lose any ability to keep food down or in. Lou had been cleaning up after her for weeks and she wanted to go to hospice, get comfortable and get care. She was ready.
I didn’t really understand or know much about hospice care beforehand but my view now is that it is grace in a building. The difference between the chaos that had taken hold of my Mom’s house in the attempt to care for her and the calm of the hospice center was profound. The whole purpose was to allow my Mom the dignity to leave this Earth with some peace.
Lou and I took turns visiting my Mom at the hospice. Also, my niece, Wahe, visited and was wonderfully supportive. My Mom’s diet at this point was reduced to water and ice chips, with an intravenous drip chaser. As I saw my Mom crunch cups and cups of ice chips, in the first week of hospice she ate them as if they were her favorite candy. By the second week, they had become cloying.
On my Mom’s last Sunday, we were watching football in my Mom’s room but all she seemed to really notice were the ads. Most of the ads during football are for trucks, burgers, pizza and beer. Lots of beer. It was the beer ads that got her salivating. She said to me, in a way that was almost pleading, “I would kill for a beer.” I knew she wasn’t just saying it and that if she had the strength she would have just walked on out to the store.
I went to the nurse and asked her if I was permitted to bring in a beer to my Mom. Her response was direct and she said, “I’m not allowed to have beer in the room.” I thought for a second and then saw that the nurse was still looking at me but saying nothing more. I said again, “Can I bring in a beer to the room.” The nurse just looked at me and said “I’m (pause) not allowed to have beer in the room.” I knew what she meant. I was off to the convenience store to find the best beer in the brownest bag I could sneak back into the room.
When I returned with a Heineken twenty ounce, my Mom sat up. As I poured the beer into a plastic cup she watched me to make sure I was not wasting time or a drop. I will always remember what I saw as my Mom drank her last beer: Pure, total joy. After nearly two weeks of water and ice cubes she was overjoyed at the simple pleasure of a cold beer. After half a cup she got the hiccups and all of us in the room, including my Mom, started to laugh until we realized my Mom was so weakened that she had lost the ability to burp. The nurse had to come in and give her an antacid in her saline drip so that my Mom could go back to the beer.
In that day I was reminded of two simple, important things that I always carry with me. First, the grace of the nurse to just let my Mom have a simple indulgence that was against the rules and second, my Mom’s pure enjoyment of the ordinary. I always remind myself to not wait for everything else to be taken away from me in order to recognize and find joy in what’s right in front of me, even if it’s a cold beer.