“Honey, what do you think I should do?” The beautiful blue eyes that I had looked to thousands of times for support were now turned to me. She was asking me to answer the impossible and I felt like I was failing her. I sat quietly for a moment, my insides shivering as if I were outside in the chill of that November Monday morning just outside the hospital doors. I was so weary. Cancer. Cancer, Cancer, Cancer! A merciless and cruel killer it is. Already pushed to a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, I could not imagine why anyone would voluntarily draw out this torture? Watching her die so painfully, it seemed senseless to want to prolong the inevitable, and yet that was exactly what she was proposing.
Earlier that morning her doctor came to her room with a new plan. Chemotherapy turned out to be an absolute catastrophe, resulting in the complete shut down of my mom’s colon. This meant that everything that made it past her lips and into her stomach now had nowhere to go. Because of this massive shut down, she was unable to eat or drink anything. A tube attached to a pump had been fed up her nose and then down to her stomach in an attempt to keep her gut vacuumed out. Maintaining pain was a nearly futile effort even though narcotic pain patches covered her back like a quilt. Her body was failing quickly and prior to this meeting with her doctor we had been prepared by other hospital staff that we would be taking her home to die. Hospice had been contacted, and it was evident that they did not expect her to live beyond the week.
I had arrived to the hospital that morning with my ‘game-face’ on and was ready. Well, as ready as one can be… Hearing the doctor propose a new course of action was completely unexpected. The suggestion was for my mom to undergo a surgical procedure called a Jejunostomy. Please pardon my very inadequate description, but essentially a Jejunostomy is when an opening is made and a bag is surgically placed at the place at the end of the stomach and before the colon so that when food or drink enters the body, it can only go as far as the stomach before it exits into the bag. The function of food would now mostly be for pleasure since it would not enter the colon anymore and not be delivering any significant nutrition. To solve the problem of not receiving enough nutrition, my mom would be administered a 12 hour round of TPN once every 24 hours. TPN, which stands for Total Parenteral Nutrition, is basically a specialized liquid concoction of everything a person needs nutritionally that can be ‘fed’ to that person intravenously. The TPN I.V. bag is inserted into a dispensing machine that is small enough to fit into a backpack. Cancer is a little bit like that game on the midway at the fair called “Wack-A-Mole.” As soon as you hit one of the moles, another pesky mole is popping up across the field!
This proposal fanned a flicker of hope in my mom that had been all but extinguished over the previous weekend. She really hated that she was dying during the holidays and longed to be able to spend one last Christmas with her family. While the doctor laid out the plan, which included the prospect of living for “many months” with the treatment that was no more inconvenient than “carrying a small backpack with you 12 hours on and 12 hours off” the room fell silent. I could see there were visions dancing in my mom’s head and the cynic in me wasn’t buying it. Not even for a minute. I could feel the shaking inside me intensify as this doctor continued to pitch her proposal. I looked to my dad and could see that he was buying the hope this doctor was selling. As I looked around the room at the faces of her loved ones, I felt alone in my pessimism.
I felt guilty for not buying in to this doctor’s latest plan, and I tried to avoid looking at my mother’s hopeful face. To my relief, she turned to my dad, “Sweetheart, what do you think?” she asked quietly. My dad nodded his head with a supportive, “Yes.”
That is when her gaze came to rest upon me. “Honey, what do you think I should do?”
To say I cracked is an understatement. I completely came undone! Weeks of raw emotion were so close to the surface my own breath was all that was covering them. Out of the pain of watching the vicious beast ravage her body, out of the turmoil of knowing she was leaving, out of the pure agony of it being powerless to stop it, I spoke.
“Why?” I said in a not so subtle tone and immediately stared at the floor. My heart felt as hard as the tile floor. “Why do you want to prolong this?” My breaking voice was nearing a hiss. It was difficult to contain the pain and anger shuddering through me. Would she understand I was saying this out of love for her? Her merciless suffering! As much as I tried, I could not soften my voice as I spoke. I continued to shudder and felt my adrenaline pulsing through me. I could not look up for fear that in the moment that I looked at her, watching her live would be worse than watching her die. I knew my reaction was a brutal blow. Desperately trying to escape the pain, I ran from her hospital room.
How could I? What kind of worthless daughter was I? How could I say that to my dying mother? I could hardly stand to be in my own skin! My mental state was deteriorating quickly. I was on the verge of a total breakdown. In my emotionally impaired state I could only think of one thing that would repair it. As I climbed into the driver’s seat of my minivan, I knew I had to escape. With an irrational plan to walk up to the ticket counter at the nearest airport, credit card in hand, to buy a ticket to get me as far away from ‘real’ life as possible, I started the engine of the car. If she was going to prolong the agony I wasn’t going to stick around to watch. Turning to look for traffic behind me as I prepared to back out of my parking space, I saw the little navy blue base to my infant son’s car seat, and knew I needed help.
For a split second the chaos inside me relented. Somewhere deep inside me I knew. It was what that little navy blue car seat base was telling me. I could no sooner leave my little newborn son or my two daughters behind and run from the pain of grief than my mom could leave me behind and run from the pain of cancer. That was why she was willing to prolong the agony! That was why when given the opportunity to live for even a few more weeks she was willing to do it. She would do it for me, for her child and for the others she so intensely loved. I pulled back into the parking space and turned the engine off. My shaking hand searched the inside of my purse for the cell phone that was the lifeline to my husband.
I wish I could say that with that revelation I jumped out of the car and ran back to her room and buried my sorry face in her lap. I guess I am a lot harder headed than that. It took me a while to really be able to articulate that moment in the car and in the meantime I continued to act out in my anguish. By the days end, it was my patient and loving husband who put it to me this way, “Honey, one of us needs an antidepressant. So, if you aren’t going to take one, I am.”
The next day I went to her, to my momma, who had always loved me no matter what. I did bury my head in her lap. She stroked my hair with the same hand that had comforted, guided, disciplined, and loved me for my whole life. In that most intimate unspoken language between a mother and her child I told her how I loved her and begged her forgiveness through my tears, and she forgave me and said, “I love you, too.”