In which the storm rolls in
The fall of 2014 brought with it a storm unlike any I’d experienced to that point. Not a storm on land. A storm at sea. Roiling and raucous, where even in the breaks, you’re still on a rocking boat. Unable to find your bearings. In a state of constant vigilance. A state of fear from when the next wave will crash.
In June of that year, my mother’s COPD diagnosis was confirmed. Almost sixty years of smoking could no longer be outrun or outsmarted. Her lung capacity was diminishing rapidly, and they wanted her to quit immediately and go on oxygen. She said she’d think about it.
A few months later, my siblings and I joined my parents at an appointment. Things had been progressing, and they were doing a biopsy of her lungs as cancer had become part of the conversation.
That Friday, I had just arrived at home with my kids after picking them up at school, ready for the weekend, when I received a text from my husband. He’d just been let go from his job. No warning, no reasonable explanation, no nothing. Just a check slid across a desk.
Two weeks later, on Halloween, we met at my parents’ house to call the oncologist for the results of the biopsy. The seven of us gathered in the family room, with the doctor on speaker phone, we listened as he relayed the grim news. Stage IV small cell lung cancer. Small cell is aggressive, he said, and can very quickly spread to other parts of the body. He estimated she had less than six months to live.
They had noticed another spot on my mom’s shoulder blade. They wanted to biopsy it, and if it was benign, they could aggressively go after the lungs with both radiation and chemotherapy. But even then, there was only a 20% chance of remission. Twenty percent.
Rising from the brick in front of the fireplace, I stepped over my mother’s outstretched legs, sat next to her on the couch and fell to the side, laying my head on her lap. 35 years old and wanting nothing more than the comfort of my mom’s thigh against my cheek, her hand caressing my hair, as tears carved rivers down my face.
We thanked the doctor for his time, and sat quietly, each fixated on a different focal point in the room. The eclectic collection of art on the walls; the classic books on the built-in shelving; the coffee table that had been a part of the family longer than I had, strewn with the day’s newspaper; the well-worn, woven, greyish-blue carpet. Someone broke the silence and asked my mom what she thought. She shrugged, and said, “It is what it is. I’m not going to do the biopsy. I’m not going to do the treatments.”
I don’t fault her for it. She was 76 years old, already dealing with her swiftly deteriorating lungs. Nothing could reverse the COPD at this point, and the cancer was only going to speed things along, especially if it had spread to her bones. Quality over quantity. I probably would choose the same for myself. But there was a finality that came with it. The weight of understanding, how much more finite our time just became.
Shortly thereafter, we met with a palliative care team. A social worker, a psychologist, and a nurse walk into a bar… They emphasized how the goal now was to keep my mom comfortable until we reached the hospice phase. They were there as resources for all of us, whatever we needed. They asked a lot of questions directed both at us and my mom. She’d always been a stoic woman, rarely showing emotion of any kind, but during all of this, she’d been especially impassive.
One of the team members asked her what concerns she had. She shook her head, and said she had none for herself. She paused, her eyes went glassy, and she pointed at me as she breathed, “But I’m worried about that one.” Her voice tremored, “She’s my baby.”
It is the only time I ever saw her cry.
Not long thereafter, it was Thanksgiving. Our big family holiday. If you must choose between coming to Thanksgiving or Christmas, you probably want to choose Thanksgiving. The food is top notch, the company divine, and we put on a mean talent show. Stories of old, interpretive dance, stand-up comedy, singing, skits…you name it. We look forward to it every year, and some skits take months of planning.
Although we knew somewhere in the backs of our minds it was the last Thanksgiving all together, it didn’t dominate the day. As I sang that night, looking at my mom, the words, “Stay present,” kept drifting in and out of my consciousness. “Remember this.” But we did not know things would escalate so quickly after that day. We didn’t know within a week, we’d be rotating night shifts at my mother’s bedside. We didn’t know in less than a month, there would be ambulances and emergency rooms and hospice facilities.
We didn’t know it was the last holiday we’d have our whole family completely intact.