NOTE: This post recounts a bit of my experience during the last few years of my mother’s life, and feelings that were triggered the other day while watching a scene in the 1942 movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. My mother died of ovarian cancer on September 3, 2014, after entering hospice on August 1, 2014.
Grief: First Hand, 16 months later
I started writing this a couple of weeks ago and I had to stop. It was too much to share. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to. But I think it might be helpful to me, and maybe to you. I’m just going to run with this and publish. Maybe I’ll read it later and do that whole editing thing, but for now – raw.
This briefly recounts a bit of my experience during the last few years of my mother’s life, and feelings that were triggered the other day while watching a scene in the 1942 movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. In the scene, near the end of the movie, George Cohen is called to his father’s deathbed, to comfort him. Cohen senior is hallucinating, speaking to and about his dead wife and daughter, as if they were present. George sits beside his father, holding his hand, nodding, responding and agreeing. A good son, a good man. Doing the hardest thing a person can do: being present and loving in the face of death, at the impending loss of a parent.
My mother was diagnosed just after Thanksgiving 2011. Literally, the Friday after the holiday. She called to tell me about the possibility of cancer as my then-husband and I drove to Phoenix to spend the holiday with his family. We hadn’t gotten very far and there was a lot of time to think about what my mother told me.
The diagnosis was positive. There was a surgery just before Christmas. A recovery period that was filled with complications. We almost lost her to those complications on January 16, 2012. She pulled through. Following a grueling 18-week bout of chemotherapy, which my brother and I alternately attended along with some of her closer friends, she eventually entered that blessed period: REMISSION.
Her hair grew back, her sense of humor returned, she became almost as she was before the diagnosis. She got a dog, one of her life long desires. A sweet little fluffy white, hypoallergenic dog. In June 2013 she moved into a home she purchased. Living life, borrowed time when surviving cancer.
During her time fighting the cancer, she and I took the opportunity to heal many old wounds. We had a new, better relationship following the cancer. We were closer, fearless, honest and real. From tragedy comes some amazing things. I am forever grateful for those days of pain and growth.
October 2013. Another phone call. Cancer markers were increasing again. Doctor was keeping an eye on it. Thanksgiving was at her house that year. One of my best Thanksgiving memories. Later, in 2014, after agreeing to one chemotherapy treatment and completing it, she decided to end the treatments.
During the last week of July 2014, she complained of abdominal pains that the doctor could not explain, so tests were ordered and run. We all waited. On Friday, August 1, 2014 my mother entered hospice. On Wednesday, August 6, I moved in with my mother to care for her. My brother and I were by her side, for five days after a thorough in-service with the hospice nurses. See, once the nurses effectively balance a patient’s pain medication, they leave and the family takes over. My brother and I each spent 12 hours with her, administering medications, changing her, washing her, making her comfortable, keeping her comfortable. We finally called in nurses to help us, because it was too much. (that is another tale for another day, or never) The lack of sleep, my emotional attachment, it was a very difficult time.
And that brings us up to speed, doesn’t it. T0 the movie, the deathbed scene, the trigger. Because my mother didn’t have those hallucinations just before her death. She had them for a few weeks, because of the medications and the cancer. She would talk to people who weren’t there, she sometimes thought she was in an airplane (the sound of the oxygen concentrator motor confused her), or in a moving vehicle. She was angry that she wasn’t permitted to get out of bed, she was sad and took the blame for “burdening us”, she accused us and the nurses of awful things, she would hug me and love me and cry with me. The worst of it was because she wasn’t like that the whole time. She would be her normal, ill but present self, and then – suddenly – she wouldn’t be. She was someone else.
There were several funny times as well. On a particularly good day, she had an appetite and wanted something to eat. I’d come into the room with a cup of coffee. She sniffed the air and smiled and said, “I’d love a cup of coffee.” She’d taken her coffee black for years, so I replied, “Sure” and turned to leave when she stopped me cold: “I’m not done with my order.” I turned back, smiled and said, “Forgive me, what else can I get for you, ma’am?” We laughed. I brought her coffee. She’d forgotten she wanted it. Sigh.
My mother died peacefully, at 4:22 p.m. on September 3, 2014, while my brother and I held her hands, stroked her back and whispered terms of endearment into her ear.
When I saw that scene at the end of the movie, those emotions, those few weeks at the end of my mother’s life loomed up as if they’d happened just moments before. I experienced sorrow and loss and love and I was a mess for a time.
I miss her a lot. I move on in my life, because that’s how she’d want it. I don’t forget her, and I don’t dwell either. It’s not healthy for me. She lives on, in my heart and on my face. And every once in a while something will come up that will remind me of those final days, and I believe that will be true until I pass from this plane to hers.
after note: I was watching an interview with John Kirby, Jack Kirby‘s son the other night, and when John spoke of his father, he had to pause – to regain his composure – because talking about his father brought tears, and the feelings of loss. He said, “Forgive me. This still happens on occasion.” His father died in 1994. We may handle it better but, I’m guessing, we never ‘get over’ the loss of a parent.