I had this surreal dream once while my mom was dying. In the dream she was healthy, and pink in the cheeks. The yellow tones of jaundice were nowhere to be found on her face and she was dressed in her everyday clothes, not pajamas. She was sitting at her kitchen table with one of her brothers, her sister, and one of her sons and they were doing something she absolutely loved to do at family get-togethers: they were playing a board game. She was happily laughing, her loud chuckle filling the room, and they were all acting as if there wasn’t a care in the world. All the while, as they played their game, every wall in the house was engulfed in flames. Chaos had erupted all around them, stray flames were licking at her feet, but she played on. As she noticed the flames, she would stamp them out and continue laughing and playing. With her back to the walls and the others across the table, it felt like the walls were closing in around her, and yet she still chose to play that silly board game. The dream really spoke to me, and from then on I resolved to be a much more active participant in her living than her dying.
To live while you are dying must feel something like the scene in my dream. There are only moments left, only so many more times you can extinguish those insistent flames, before the fire will win out. In my dream my mom was intent on living despite knowing she was unable to defeat the death that had come for her. It was time for me to help her make that happen. For weeks she had been talking about her desire to live past Christmas, the problem was, none of us were quite sure how to accomplish the ‘living’ part. We had gone so quickly from ‘no cancer’ to ‘dying of cancer,’ that we completely skipped the ‘living with cancer’ chapter of the story, and it was clear that if there was going to be anything to write in that chapter, the time was now. We needed to get on with the living part.
My sister, sister-in-law, mom’s best friend Joy, and I arrived to my parent’s house with a plan involving some of mom’s favorite things: her grandchildren and Christmas shopping! In her prime, mom practically elevated Christmas shopping to an Olympic level! She was an avid Black Friday shopper and would go to the ends of the earth for that perfect something she knew her loved one wanted. When I was in high school I asked for a pair of navy blue penny loafers for Christmas and she delivered, driving some 60 miles to get the only pair left in my size in the region of Nordstrom stores! She loved to spoil us on Christmas morning, and she was good at it! Sometimes she even knew what we wanted or needed before we did.
Mom was pretty excited about the shopping excursion. Her only request was that we not tire her out, so we set a time limit of 3 hours. My dad was much less excited. He reminded me of when I was a new mother, preparing to leave my newborn baby with a babysitter for the first time. He hovered over her and recited every detail of her care, “Did you pack all of her medications? Do you have The Notebook? Make sure you put the break on the wheel chair before you set her down into it. Don’t tire her out, she gets tired real easy.” He checked and double-checked that all of her necessities had been loaded before he gently and reluctantly placed her in the front seat of my van. With a firm, “3 hours,” he shut the door. We were on our way to do what living grandmas do; we were on our way to Christmas shop for the grandkids!
At the shopping mall, I carefully I loaded my precious cargo into the wheel chair, all the while my dad’s voice echoing in my ear, “Make sure you put the break on the wheel chair before you set her down into it.” It was no small feat, talking him in to this scheme and I wanted it to come off flawlessly. The only damage done on this day was going to be to dad’s credit card, so with her safely installed in the wheel chair we were off on our Christmas shopping spree.
She was very thoughtful about what she bought each of her 9 grandchildren. She decided on clothing for each of them, wanting to buy nothing to sentimental. Gifts of clothing were a grandma specialty of hers, and with glee she had flooded her grandchildren’s closets over the years. With a smile spread wide on her face she directed each of her ‘elves’ to help her reach the clothing racks. This time she wanted to choose things that she could see them wear right away. Cautiously, I wove the wheelchair through the maze of hanging clothes. It was a bittersweet moment for both of us. We were finally enjoying something we had loved doing for years and yet trying not to think about how this would be the last year we would Christmas shop together.
After mom finished making her selections, she and I headed to the parking lot while the rest of the group waited in the long checkout line. We were approaching the 3-hour time limit, and I was determined to follow my dad’s instructions to a ‘T’. The others would rendezvous with us at the van once the purchases were made.
Outside the air was misty and cold, but neither of us seemed to care as I maneuvered the wheelchair to the outer parking spaces. The pavement was a little slick and I could feel the wheelchair pick up speed on the gentle slope of the parking lot. Evidently mom could feel it too, because I heard her say under her breath, “Faster!” It took me by surprise, and I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly, but then she left me with no question, “Faster!” she commanded in a louder voice. It reminded me of being a backseat driver as a child!
“Mom, No! I can’t…” she wouldn’t hear of it, “Faster!” mom insisted, and with excitement my feet picked up the pace. Soon I was running through the dark and misty parking lot and we were both giggling like children absconding with the forbidden! The more she commanded, the quicker my steps, the gentle slope almost carrying her away, and then she began again, “Let go!” she urged.
“No,” I said trying to keep the little wheelchair under my control. “If something happens to you,” I panted as I slowed down, “Dad will be so mad!”
“Faster!” she prodded me, and I picked up the pace!
“Let GO!” she begged. “Mom, this is dangerous…” I said, my voice trailing off. “I don’t want…” sensing where I was headed, she cut me off. “What the worst that can happen?” she appealed, “It could kill me? I’ll take my chances!” Excitedly she pleaded, “Let go!
And so I did it. I gave in to her relentless requests and I let go. As the rented wheelchair wobbled on the pavement, she arose her tired hands in the air, and with pure delight she exclaimed, “I’M LIVING!”