Part 1: Watching Your Mother Slowly Die

May 2006:

The phone call was not out of the ordinary. Mom and I talked a bunch of times throughout the day, emailed one another. This day she dropped the bomb, “if something happens to me it’s not a sudden thing; something is wrong.” I stumbled on the words “What are you talking about?” Mom sounded fine on the phone; mom had sounded fine on the phone. It was then she confessed that recently with walking she was becoming winded; and it took more energy.

Obviously that leads me to more questioning. How so? That’s when she said “taking the trash out, going from the bedroom to kitchen.” I knew the length of the lane way, from the house to the edge of the road, that didn’t concern me. It was the going from the bedroom to the kitchen (20-30 feet) that drew my concern.

“What do you think is going on mom?” She laughed “Oh hell I probably have lung cancer.” Her saying that touched a nerve with me “don’t say that.” When I was 5 she stopped smoking (cold turkey) and she never picked up one again. That doesn’t mean someone will not get lung cancer. Her to put laughter behind it, made me uneasy.

“Have you made a doctors appointment yet?” I asked her. Then the defensiveness came out. “Can’t get one. You know how it is up here. You seem to have forgotten in your years of living in the states that you don’t just go to the doctor up here.” It was true, for years growing up it was hard to get into a doctor; the wait sometimes took 2 weeks. When I was sick we never went to the doctor. By the time we would get an appointment, the cold, flu, whatever had been gone. My chronic ear infections I had as a child, we would go to outpatients (ER) and wait 8-10 hours for a doctor to see me. I didn’t have a family doctor growing up.

I also knew my mother very well. Despite being a strong, independent woman; she had a tendency to bury her head in the sand. Something in my gut told me, she had been burying her head in the sand for awhile and this wasn’t going away and now she was concerned.

Over the next few days I did some investigating on my own. It’s amazing what the internet brings up for you; doctors in your hometown 1500 miles away. The first one I came to was a female doctor (we NEVER had a female doctor before in our hometown). I called up the doctors office in-between working up my patients and found out this doctor was taking new patients. I then called mom, “Here’s the name, the number and she is taking new patients.” Mom has always praised me for my tenacity, questioning and sheer will…accept when it pertained to her. “You can’t just demand things. That’s not how we do it here.” She also knew I didn’t like it when she told me what I can and can’t do. “Something is wrong mom, quit burying your head in the sand and go see about it. Call this doctor, they have openings. You have until the end of the week to call me back with an appointment time and date.” She paused, “Or you are going to do what if I don’t. You can’t just make people do what they don’t want to do. You can’t just come in and take charge.” I tapped my pen on the office desk, “Young lady you are not too old for me to turn over my knee and spank you.” I said with a laugh because even as an adult she would tell me that. She kind of chuckled, “If you don’t make the appointment mom, I will drive up there and drag your ass to the doctor myself while you are kicking and screaming.” She paused, “you can’t do that, you have your work, school, the kids and you don’t have the money to come up here.” Mom knew everything because we talked. “It’s amazing how our parents teach us all those years of kindness, compassion, helping others, caring for others, but yet when it comes to children doing it for our parents, apparently there is some unwritten law that children cannot be concerned for their parents, like we witnessed all those years our parents showing that concern for us.” She also taught me how to argue. “How the hell did you get so smart?” She asked. “Meh, I had this great woman who raised me.” I said.

Within hours, through email she gave me the appointment day and time. I wasn’t happy with the way I had to do this. It certainly didn’t make me feel good, to talk that way, to be that way to my own mother.

My gut on this was screaming. I had learned to listen to my gut years ago as a young child. When I would try to talk to Jack about it; he would shut me down. I was over reacting, I was a hypochondriac, it wasn’t my problem. “You mean to tell me if this was your parents you wouldn’t be doing the same thing?” No was his response. It wasn’t his problem.

I had a lot on my plate before mom announced this. I was working full time 40-50 hours, I had just started full time school in March, a dream of mine that I had put on the back burner for my family.  Taking care of two children, a husband working nights, trying to keep up with the housework, outside work, bills, finances; I had no support from Jack on any of this.

My days consisted of getting up at 5 or 6 am, getting two kids ready for school or daycare, getting myself ready for work, getting my son on the bus, driving my daughter to the daycare (a day care that was out of the way but was worth it to know my daughter was in good hands), then work from 830 to 6 most days, sometimes until 630 if it was my turn to close. Jack would drop off our son around 4:00 to my work (which luckily my boss was ok with, but still it’s MY work), gather up my son, go get my daughter before the daycare closed, sometimes have to run back to the grocery store to get groceries because that was the only time I had to do it, then finally get home. On just a regular day of pick up with the kids and no grocery store stop, my son and I would pick up lil miss by 630, and it would be 7 by the time we got home.

Once home, it was discovered my son hadn’t done his home work. I am trying to get supper cooked, while the battles of homework ensued (my son hated doing his homework) and the two year old is climbing my leg or demanding something of me, or getting into something she shouldn’t. By the time supper was done, it was 730-745 depending on what I cooked. Shit I still have to get two kids bathed and ready for bed before I even hit the books. Once I would run lil misses bath water, I would look at my son “go to mom and dad’s shower.” My son was quick in the shower, my daughter would just mosey in the tub. My son knew the routine, so by 830 he was in bed. My daughter a lil more headstrong, it would be 9 before I wrestled her to the bed. Shut the door slightly, breathe a sigh of relief. Mom dashes downstairs because the live online class is about to start (it wasn’t mandatory we attend the live sessions but it was an opportunity to ask your questions directly to the professor, and to classmates etc.) Oh you managed to put a load of clothes in the washing machine (Despite there are about 10 more loads to do). Five minutes into the class, lil miss peers around the door, with blankey bear in tow. “I gotta potty.” Or “I’m thirsty” or “I’m scared.” She won’t stay in her bed, she hasn’t stayed in her bed since she moved into it, hell she didn’t even stay in the crib once she figured out she could scale it at 7 months. You do 30 minutes of the up/down, and finally you have enough and just put her into your bed. She goes to sleep within seconds and stays there. You dash back down to the computer room/laundry room and get the tail end of the class, which you have to review the assignments. You see your other tabs on the internet, Online banking, your Quicken program opened, and also your schooling stuff opened. You are also working at home to make yourself better at your job by learning all the terms, how to make the office run better, ideas that swirl around your head that we can do. This was before my mother got sick. Add an extra tab of research once your mother does get sick. Oh and that load of laundry in the washer, you wake up in the middle of your 4 hours of sleep “CRAP!” Run down quick and put it in the dryer

Before I had started school, the advisor I was assigned to stated, you need the support of your family. I lied to her. I told her I had the full support of my husband.

When mom announced something was wrong. I knew it was big. As much as I tried to talk and express my feelings to Jack on it, they got tossed aside. What was I stressing about?

Over the next course of weeks, she went to her doctors appointment. The information she provided was vague. From her doctors appointment she was set up with an oncologist. Listen the Canadian health care is crap; when they move and your mother is visiting that oncologist within weeks, you know it’s not routine. It takes MONTHS in our area to see an oncologist. It takes MONTHS to see an OB/GYN to get your pap done. Don’t tell me I am stupid, and overreacting when my mother is being seen within WEEKS.

The end of May was when she announced something was wrong. She had seen a regular doctor, and was seen by the oncologist where they did a biopsy. July 4th as I was watching my two children play in the yard and I heard the phone ring…and it took several minutes for Jack to give me the phone. My mother announced, “it’s breast cancer.” And the phone clicks. I dialed her number back. “Oh hell no you did not just hang up on me, after announcing that!” What the hell do you mean it’s breast cancer, no one in our family has a history of it. What stage did they say? I knew I came at her with a bunch of questions she wasn’t ready to answer. It was apparent by the dial tone I got after the announcement. In a frustrated voice she said “I don’t know, the last one.” My mouth dropped, “the last one as in fourth stage breast cancer?” I guess so if that is the last one, was her response. “Mother, fourth stage breast cancer just doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen in the time frame that you announced this even with the most vigorous form of cancers. How long has this been going on? You are not telling me everything.” I got it was none of my business, it was private personal information. She didn’t want to talk about it. “Get your head out of your ass mom. I know I am probably coming at you too strong and you need time to absorb this. You cannot drop a bomb of fourth stage breast cancer and not expect me to be concerned or to ask questions mom. We NEED to talk about this.” She didn’t want to do it right now. I dropped it even though I didn’t want to. Mom needed time to process the news. As soon as I hung up the phone. My phone was blowing up, a couple of her sisters called me. She was pushing all of us away. Sometimes that is a protection for the person going through it either for themselves or to protect the ones who care.

While the person going through the cancer has a lot on their plate, they do not realize what their family and friends are going through as well. I took it upon myself to get the information my family and I needed to be there for her. I found a site breastcancer.org that provided a wealth of information. It had a chat area, where I was welcome with open arms even though I was not going through cancer myself. I asked questions; the women going through cancer gave me tips on how to help my mother.  Talking to them, getting an outside perspective was like a breath of fresh air. I knew mom, the more I pushed, or her family pushed, the more she would hold back. Being 1500 miles away and not knowing what was truly going on stressed me out. I knew my mother better than anyone.

While talking to mom, I was finding pieces of information out. I just listening to her talk, I found out about things. It was talking with her and not even realizing she was spilling the beans, that I found out she had been using a walker for months. She said that when she got pissed about a friend callin her up and said “so and so said you’ve been using a walker.” When she said that, my ears perked up, “why the hell would someone spread a rumor of you using a walker?” Silence on the other end, busted. “Mom….tell me you are not using a walker to get around. Why is this coming out now and why didn’t you tell me?” She told on herself and I was just listening. It was then she had to tell me, she was using a walker. You wonder if she isn’t telling you about using a stupid walker, what else of more importance she isn’t saying. You learn to keep your ears open in the conversation.

July 13th, 2006 was when the oncologist had her first chemo treatment set up. You ask even though you know the answer, “would you like me to come home so I can drive you to the appointment.” That morning you call her just before you go to work, wishing her all the best, and that you will not call her until tomorrow. If she wants to call after the treatment it was fine, but you knew she would be exhausted. It would be an all day trip for her.

You go to work, you do all the same things you have been doing for a long time. The day creeps on; you look at the time, and wonder if she is getting the treatment now. You wonder if she is ok, you wonder if she has asked questions. Even though it’s on the back of your mind, you get through the day; you do all the routine stuff you are used to doing. The next morning you call and the answering machine picks up, you laugh, “Tell me a day after chemo my mother is not out interviewing someone for the next front page in the paper. Call me when you get a chance. Love you.”

You laugh after you hang up because that is exactly what you thought took place. She woke up after chemo felt great, she went to work on an article and talk to people, she went out to go capture the morning light for an awesome photograph. You don’t think anything else about it. You work on your class assignments; take care of your children.

Sunday morning at 11 am; you get the call.