Friday, July 24, 2015

Mum's the word

Most of you who know me know I'm not a believer in the fanciful, but I got what I consider definitive proof that there is no such thing as karma. On the first Tuesday of this month, I was ordering take-out from a restaurant, because my mom loved the rice balls from this particular place and I wanted to get her something she would eat. She was not doing so well the past couple of weeks, but she always asked for this whenever I asked her what she wanted to eat. So, rice ball it is. The person handling the order gave me an extra $10 bill as part of my change, then turned around to get a piece of carrot cake, another of my mom's favorites. About 2 seconds passed where my eyes lingered on the money and I contemplated keeping the extra cash, but I thought that if the register was short, the girl would be docked $10 and ten bucks probably means way more to her than it does to me. My mom raised me better than that. So, when she came back, I told the young woman she gave me too much money and there was a wave of confusion, panic, and then relief in her face. The look in her eyes seemed like a mixture of being stunned and thankful. I felt pretty good about being honest and helping someone else out. I did a good deed and neither asked for, nor needed, anything in return.

Two days later, my mom died.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer in May of 2014. The cancer was not only in her right breast, but had traveled to her liver and bones as well. One year ago today, July 24, I found my mom on her back, blood caked on her mouth and mumbling incoherently. I called out to her and she raised an arm up, but not towards me, just up. An ambulance came moments later, and in the hospital it was determined she would be put into an induced coma. I wasn't sure she would make it. I was not sure we would ever speak again. By October 25, she was home, after surviving having a Tracheotomy and then having the tube removed, plus a lengthy stint at an in-patient physical rehab. She was a tough woman. She raised me by herself from when I was three years old, and her body had been worn down from years working in a hospital and then a facility for the mentally disabled, where she received multiple herniated discs after being kicked in the head by a 22 year old with severe developmental problems as he was being lifted onto a stretcher. That was followed up with an accident a few years later, when a bus rear ended her vehicle. She took her licks and kept on going.

Following her initial spinal accident, she went back to university and earned a Bachelors and a Masters, the latter following one year after the former, and with a 4.0 GPA to boot. She moved herself, me and at least one cat (sometimes two) cross-country four times, by herself (the last one was 20 years ago this month, and took 2,512 miles across ten states in five days). When we were back on the East Coast, my mom purchased a ticket package for the 1996 season, which included about 16 games, plus one game per playoff round, if they could manage to make the postseason in back to back years following a 14 year drought. That season, of course, the Yankees won the World Series. The one game we went to? Game 1, where the team lost 12-1.

Doing those road trips from Pennsylvania to the Yankees games, we would often stop at some good food places in Brooklyn, her home town, although obviously it wasn't always feasible to detour into that borough to buy food to take home. However, my mom was a typical New Yorker, insisting the best food in the country came from there (this was before all the chain restaurants moved in). We would also sometimes stop in New Jersey, sometimes getting a monster sized corned beef sandwich. We almost always stopped at a pizzeria in Wayne, where we would order 8 pies, half cooked, to take home, put in the freezer, and cook up when the mood struck. Pizza was serious business, and central Pennsylvania pizza was not what either of us grew up on. In the age before podcasts, we listened to a lot of music on those car trips, including Queen, George Michael, Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues, Aerosmith, and Elton John. We saw the latter three in concert together, which included camping outside for 16 hours waiting for Elton John tickets. Although my musical interests diverged from hers, we could at least bond over those musicians.

These are the memories I try to hold on to, but the past month has been rough. On June 30, exactly 20 years to the day we first began our last cross-country move, we were told the cancer had spread and her course of treatment was no longer working. We tried a new medication, but things were too far gone. Nevertheless, my mom refused to give up. That was in her spirit. Indomitable. Even when the simplest things were a monumental task, when it took her an hour to get herself from one room to another, she refused to stop, she would not give up, and she would never surrender. If you've ever seen a movie where a boxer is bruised and cut up, can barely stand, and is still trying to throw a punch, that's basically where she was. She was standing only through sheer force of will. I didn't know how bad things were, because no matter how bad things got, she was always forcing herself back up. She was back in the hospital for some minor surgery this February, went back in in-patient rehab, and then was told she had to leave. She wanted to train to walk up stairs, but the facility said she would never do it, so it was time to leave. Within two weeks of leaving, she was walking up stairs by herself.

On the morning of July 7, despite her efforts, I finally put my foot down and said she needed assistance. I called her oncologist who then referred her to a hospice agency. I went in work late and then came home early so I could meet with the nurse. When I got back from work on July 8, she went to the bathroom and three hours later, she was still either on her way there or trying to go back. I found her trying to sit on the television stand because she was too tired to go anywhere else. The hospice nurse finally came and noticed she took a turn for the worse. Her hospice nurse and I finally convinced her to go to in-patient hospice late Wednesday night. She bargained with us. She said she would go the next day. The nurse told her it wasn't safe. She couldn't get up and she couldn't lift her head. When the nurse went to the 24 hour pharmacy to get some pain medication, I was alone with her and tried to walk her from her bedroom to the living room. I had to bring her a folding chair to sit in because she couldn't make it the whole way, but she was determined, got up, and tried again.

As I was walking her to the couch, she looked at me and told me she was dying. I asked her when and she said, "soon." I dismissed the claim, because over the past few months I tried to remain as optimistic as possible, for her sake. I kept telling her to make plans. Although she would probably never retire to Panama like she wanted to, she could get a smaller place which would give her independence. We would make it to her great-niece's Baptism. We would go to a nice Italian restaurant that Sunday. And even though I knew she was going to die, at some point, I didn't know how on the mark her words were.

We sat down on the couch together, my arm around her as she slumped forward. I offered her a drink, but she could barely suck anything through the straw. She was so weak. When the medical transport came with the stretcher, she was confused, and I thought this is why we need to get her to a place where we could manage her pain and keep her comfortable. She did not even remember the nurse at first. Then, when it was time to get her onto the stretcher, she refused. She cried out, "I'm scared, I'm scared." Aside from losing her, that is the worst thing about the whole experience. I didn't want her to be afraid.

On the stretcher, she reached out to me, and when I came over, she hugged me. I told her I would follow her to the hospice unit, and they wheeled her out. She waved to me from the ambulance, clearly nervous about what was happening. She waved to me, and I waved back briefly, but then used my hand to shield my eyes from the ambulance lights. Her face was full of confusion, sadness and fear. Why didn't I wave more? Why didn't I blow her kisses? Why didn't I do more to comfort her? I knew I would be following her to the facility, a half hour away, but I had no clue these were her final hours. I did everything I could, but I also didn't do enough. This is part of my guilt, my pain.

When I met her at hospice, my mom was more relaxed, finally getting relief from the crushing pain and also cleaned up. We chatted briefly, and I promised that later that day (it was already 3:00 in the morning), she could make the decision of when she would leave. I let her know, since we were in town, I would rent out a luxury suite at the minor league baseball park a few miles away, and we could watch a game in peace and comfort as soon as she was ready to leave the facility. I pulled up the schedule and told her they would be in town that weekend, that it was great timing. Since it was so late, I told her I would leave, but she asked me to stay a while, and so we sat together. I don't remember, but I'm pretty sure I didn't say anything, but just sat there. Why didn't I tell her I loved her, over and over? Why didn't I explain how much I was grateful for all she did for me? Why didn't I tell her not to worry, that everything would be alright in the end? Finally, she told me to go home, and we hugged, and I told her we would talk later, but that was not to be.

When I came back about 8 hours later, she was already in the last stage of life. She could not open her eyes. I was told she was not going to be around much longer. I cried, I say that with no shame, because my pain is too great to be worried about keeping up appearances. I talked to my mom, kissed her, and held her hand. I told her I loved her, respected her, and was so thankful for everything she did. I hope she heard me. I don't know. People say the dying can hear, that it's the last thing to go, and even if she couldn't make out the words she could recognize my voice. But people say things like that all the time, lies to make the suffering feel better. It's why we believe in Heaven or an afterlife, to help manage the pain. My mom believed in God, and prayed, and had a prayer book. I hope it brought her some peace, but I already knew she was afraid. Maybe believing that faith brought her peace is as foolish having faith in the first place.

All I know for certain is that I watched the woman who was there when I took my first breath pass on as she breathed out her last breath. George Michael played quietly in the background. She thought he had a beautiful voice. I agree, but at that moment, all beauty was darkened. The sun would still shine on in the universe, but it would never shine was bright to me. A part of my heart was scooped out and I'll never be the same again. I've gone through waves of grief, of sadness, but the worst has been the hindsight and regrets and things like that. I recall every argument of the past year, every time I was a jerk, every stupid thing I did, every time I did something else instead of spending time with her. I recall her pain and fear and kick myself for not trying to do more. She did not want to die and did not want to die that way and had so many plans she would never be able to accomplish. I feel sorrow, and regret, and rage. I just want to talk with her one more time.

She had so many ups and downs over the past year, it was not really possible to tell this was the last down, but I still look at it like “maybe I should have taken off that day” or “maybe I should have done more to be around her” type stuff. I know there’s nothing I can do about it now and I probably did everything I was able to do, but it’s not an easy thing to deal with. I took her to doctors' appointments and I drove her to out-patient rehab. I cooked meals for her. I sat with her and listened to her talk about things I wasn't necessarily interested in, but I knew it was good for her to have a conversation (even if we did argue about the fact that conversations were two way streets). Instead of listening, I feel like I should have been more engaging. I was a fool for not taking the time to sit and ask her more about her past. I thought I knew so many stories from her life B.C. (Before Chris, one of her jokes), but there's a million stories I'll never know and a million questions I never bothered to ask.

Now I'm emptier than I have ever been, deeply wounded. The person I knew better than anyone else, the person I spent the most time with in my life, the person who single-handedly raised me and made sure I could work my way through school and land a job and be a functioning human being, is gone. Forever. No more conversations. No more hugs. No more time together. Without her, I would not be where I am today, and now I have to figure out the rest of my life without her guidance and presence. We did not always get along, we did not always see eye to eye, but I'd still rather argue over something stupid than face the silence. I miss her. The void is vast.

I am 33. She was 66. Her life was cut short, and I'm faced with the prospect of spending the majority of my life without my mom, provided I live longer than she did. We’ve been cheated out of so many years we could have had together. I keep on, but I feel broken. There are times I am drowning in my anguish.

If you've read this far, I ask you for one favor. Please consider if there is a parent or special person in your life that you should call. Make time to see them. Let them know you love them. A time will come when you'll never have the chance to do those things again.

Goodbye, mom. I love you and miss you.

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