one day your life is going along as usual, and
the next day it gets turned totally upside down.
Everything changes during a three minute conversation
with a doctor. That's what happened to me and
my family last week. It has happened to millions
of people, but last week it happened to us.
A little over a week ago, my 77-year old mother
turned yellow. She'd been complaining about feeling
weak and tired for months, but we all thought
it was because she leads such a sedentary life,
so we urged her to walk more. She'd been saying
her stomach hurt, and that she had constant diarrhea,
but we all thought it was because she refused
to eat right, and wouldn't do any of the things
we recommended to make herself better, so we urged
her to eat fiber and take Citrucel. But when her
eyes and skin turned a sickly yellow, we all thought
she was sick. I took her to the doctor immediately,
and the ultrasound revealed a probable gallstone
stuck in the tube connecting the gall bladder
to the liver, causing the bile to build up in
her system. The solution was relatively simple….something
called an ERCP, which meant running a tube down
her throat, through the intestines, finally reaching
the stone, and either blasting it or removing
it. Not a big problem.
I took her to the hospital on Monday as the doctors
instructed. They didn't perform the procedure
until Tuesday, when my daughter and I waited for
the results. I remember that we weren't really
worried; we were sure she was already on the road
to recovery. So, we had lunch, and returned to
the waiting room. I know that the gastro-interologist
came out after about an hour or so, and started
talking to us about the tumor they had found.
I remember asking what they were going to do about
it, and him saying something about the fact that
they couldn't do anything, and that there was
no way to treat it. Mostly, though, I remember
the shock, and my daughter and I holding onto
each other. We had been expecting good news.
Then everything started happening too quickly.
My mother was already out of recovery and back
in her room before we had even begun to adjust.
She was feeling very positive, extremely upbeat.
All we could tell her was that they had put a
stent in her so that her bile would start flowing
properly, which was true. We didn't tell her it
wouldn't last very long. We couldn't stand to
ruin her good mood. And then the visitors started
arriving: my brother, my son and his fiancé, my
girlfriend. For awhile, when my daughter had to
leave and my brother and I were there alone, we
just sort of clung to some hope; after all, they
hadn't done the CAT scan yet, we hadn't spoken
to the surgeon, or the oncologist. Then, just
as my brother was leaving, the surgeon talked
to us in the hallway. He made it definite. He
had the CT results. He said she had pancreatic
cancer that had metastasized to the liver. He
said she had months to live.
Everyone "lost" it at some point or the other:
me, my husband, my brother, my son. But the hardest,
I think, was telling my daughter, who had returned
home. I will never forget her screaming "Nooooooooo"
into the phone and then crying hysterically, uncontrollably.
And through it all, I took these calls in the
hall, or in the Women's Room, because everyone
was keeping up the pretense, trying to seem cheerful
and chatting with my mom.
That night the family met at my house and grieved,
planned, talked, phoned, and prayed for wisdom.
I was the only one who didn't think she should
be told. I thought we could protect her. I thought
she couldn't handle it, that she'd crumble. I
couldn't imagine telling her, but everyone else
was convinced that she had to know. My husband
said it was her right as a human being to know.
My uncle told me that she'd surprise me, that
she'd rise to the occasion. I guessI was
the one who was crumbling. But, of course, I was
also the one who wound up telling her.
I went to the hospital the next morning and met
her doctor in the hallway. We went in together
and he told her the diagnosis. She didn't flinch,
just turned to me and asked, "Does this mean I'm
going to die?" I sobbed in her arms, and from
that point on she has, indeed, surprised the hell
out of me. There must be something that clicks
on when a person is given that kind of devastating
news, some transcendent switch that changes an
ordinary person into a person who can accept their
fate calmly, with dignity. Or at least that's
what happened with my mother.
The rest of the week went by in a blur of frantic
activity. Basically, the whole family pitched
in and packed up her entire apartment (no small
task considering that my mother is not only a
compulsive shopper but also a pack rat) ordered
a van, moved all her extremely heavy furniture
into our house, and surrounded her with the things
she loves. But much more importantly, she is also
surrounded by the people she loves, and the ones
who love her. It's exhausting. It's demanding.
There are moments when I don't know how I'll manage.
I have a full-time job that already stretched
me thin, and now another one. I have a marriage
that means the world to me, and that I refuse
to neglect. I have my family, my friends, my dogs
and cat. I have my own body to take care of, and
my own mind to keep sane.
But I also have an incredible gift. I can
do this thing for my mother. I can do her laundry
and fold her socks. I can bring her ice water
and cook her meals. I can wash her hair, and answer
her questions, and drive her to the doctor's office.
I can hold her hand, and take her temperature,
and test her blood sugar, and when the time comes,
I can ease her pain. I can do all of this, drained,
aching, tired, and thanking God that I have this
amazing opportunity. How many of us get to demonstrate
our love in both huge and trivial ways? How many,
instead, have to live with guilt and regret. But
I was given this gift; I can live the rest of
my life with the serenity that I have done everything
in my power to fill her days with contentment
and peace. She will die, but she will die
knowing that she was loved. I will love my mother