The Big Picture

February 2005

I got the call as I was walking up the back stairs, the caller ID said HCMC (Hennepin County Medical Center). What the Hell? Mom said, “Well…yah, I think you’d better come down here.” Her voice had that no-nonsense, nonchalant tone to it. This was bad. I stopped mid-step. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the hospital, HCMC.” I knew that.
“What’s wrong? Mom, what happened?”
“Well… they don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just had this horrible pain, and my stomach is blown up like a balloon. I thought it was an appendicitis, but it’s not.” The blood drained out of my face. My face and hands went numb, my stomach lurched, I froze.
“Mom, when did you go into the hospital?”
Two days ago,maybe more. “I didn’t know what was wrong, and I didn’t want you to worry for nothing. I didn’t call because I didn’t have anything to tell you until now.” Until now.

I have no idea what I was doing, or how I was able to just drop everything and go there. I remember the sun was shining on my back stairs. Everything stopped. I dropped everything and I went, chastising myself the whole way to Minneapolis about the melodramatic things running through my head: “Cancer, cancer, cancer” I tend towards the melodrama, or I think I do. I leap to the worst conclusions. It’s a kind of magical thinking. If I suspect cancer, it won’t be cancer.

Ramon had been there with her for two days. He begged her to let him call us. When I finally came, he went home for a shower and came right back. He sat quiet, sometimes crying, sometimes smiling, holding my mom’s hand. He was falling apart.

While I was there, doctors came in and started to teach us new words: Ascites, adenocarcinoma, peritoneal wall, transdermal… The realization about what was happening came neither gradually nor suddenly. The nurse was incredibly nice and acted like my mom was the only person in the hospital. She was the same age as my mom, had daughters our age. She’d sit on the bed and chat. She’d sigh and shake her head. My mom made her sad. I think that’s a big deal for a nurse. She called down to the cancer center and made sure her friend, David was the person assigned to my mom’s case.

I called Jenny first. Out in the hall, on the 5th floor at HCMC. My lips weren’t working right. “Um, I’m at the hospital with Mom… I think you better come down here. She’s really sick. They don’t know exactly what’s wrong” “What?! The hospital? Since when? Why didn’t she tell us? You want me to come down now? Tonight?” I was mad that she hemmed and hawed. I did want her to come down right then. I wanted her to already be there. I needed her to come down.

She came. Erin came, too. And while everyone else cried, Erin paced. My mom was worried about her. She told Erin it would be OK to shed a tear. Erin put her chin up, looked at my mom and said, “Somebody’s got to keep it together, here. We can’t all be basketcases.” She resumed pacing.

Mom was in the hospital that time for maybe a week, they struggled to drain fluid off of her abdomen (“ascites, which is usually associated with ovarian cancer” they told us). Someday maybe I’ll tell the story of the interns my mom called ‘The Keystone Cops’ of fluid draining.

We cried, we waivered in and out of the here and now. “Is this how it starts? Is this it? Is this how it happens?” I couldn’t get a good grip on the idea that I was starting on this journey. I hadn’t prepared, none of us had. Ovarian cancer wasn’t even on my radar screen. My mom had too many other things she needed to get straightened out. This couldn’t be happening. But this was how it happened, how it started, and this was it.

They wanted to start chemo immediately and do surgery after 8 courses or so of the chemo. We took shifts and spent nights afterwards to help her. They said she might be weak, nauseated and need some help at home. They didn’t say she might start throwing up two days after chemo and not stop until she went back into the hospital. That happened twice. Everything they predicted went worse than they imagined.

Chemo was hell. The actual 8 hours at the hospital wasn’t too bad. We chatted, we snacked before mom got too sick (the day or two after). We watched the other people and felt sorry for them. Especially if they were alone. We knew their prognosis was bad, but our cancer story was going to be different. Jenny and I, Renee and Ramon were the team, always there, or taking turns. Patrick came by when he was up to it.

Jenny was a relief to have around, because she understood, and we made each other laugh. Renee was a delight because she made my mom smile when she walked in the room,almost always. With her smokey-sweet voice, “Hey girlfriend.” She’d grab mom’s hand or knee and give it a shake. She always brought good snacks. Ramon was a drain because he was heartbroken and bereft from the beginning. And he couldn’t fake it for our or her benefit.

Patrick was good to see because it meant he was up and about, which was a good sign. He is so funny, and when he wasn’t funny, we ruminated and worried about him after he left. It was such a normal way for us to be. Worried about Patrick.

And Erin couldn’t make herself come to chemotherapy. She never did, never could. She simply could not do it. This fact which seems so sad to me now, was at the time, a cause for righteous indignation and analysis. It was so much easier to focus on her and her troubles than on the real deal.

We did the chemo over and over, every three weeks, got through it, barely. Waited to do surgery until her blood numbers were back up. Just like they told us. So she had 8 weeks without chemo, her hair started to come back. Her body seemed relieved and ready to get back on track. She felt good.

She went through the hell of surgery and post surgical complications.

She would have done anything they told her had a good chance of helping her. And she did. They told her to walk, She walked. Walked like a woman possessed. She walked when she couldn’t eat. Walked when she was in pain, walked when she was hooked up to 3 different kinds of IV lines, and there was nowhere to go but up and down the hospital hall.

They told her to drink the high calorie sludge in the cans, she drank it. She hated it with a passion, she was already full of fluid, and nauseated, but she drank the Ensure and the Boost. “I never let it touch my tongue.” Was her mantra.

It wasn’t worth it. All the horrible moments we went through because we thought we had to do it to get to the other side of cancer, we didn’t have to do it. We never got to the other side.

My mom wasn’t ready to die. Not even close. She was scared from the moment she learned she had cancer until she died. She had moments of exhaustion, moments she was miserable and wished it would stop, even some moments of acceptance, but more than anything she was so, so scared. She tried her best. We all did.

By the middle of October she was gone. She was 56.

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