I’m not really the one to type page-long texts about my feelings and life experiences, but there is one exception I would gladly make, because there are a lot of people in this kind of situation right now or dealing with the aftermath of it. I hope it brings a bit of help, a bit of sense you’re not alone in it and there actually is light at the end of a tunnel. Or sunshine after a rainfall. Anyways, here goes..
Normally, February 14th is a joyful day where people celebrate their cupid known or unknown. In my case, it’s also the anniversary of my mom & dad’s marriage and we would travel to them for it to celebrate. My mom would cook even more delicious than she did normally (cooking was her passion) and we would have a joyful day. About 12 years ago, my mom indicated that they would visit us instead of the other way around. Intuitively, I knew something would be very wrong. When they did come around, I remember one of the first questions I asked was: “How bad is it?”
She was having some pain the months before and saw a doctor who just prescribed some painkillers. unsatisfied by this approach, my mom came to visit the dentist because she thought the pain might be originating from the jaw and she didn’t trust it at all. They took X-ray photos and could see something wasn’t right. They send her over to the hospital to take a better look and it was all one roller-coaster from there, when they discovered she actually had cancer in her neck, mouth and head.
Tears burst as the story unfolded in our living room that day. More than 2 years followed where we visited my parents very frequently, sometimes a couple of times per week although it was 150 kilometers round-trip every time we did so. We did everything we could to be there and make the best of the situation. One day, my mom was supposed to undergo drastic surgery, in order to extend her life. They would remove the lymph glands from her neck (which is done by a neck wide incision from side to side), amputate a breast to use the tissue to rebuild part of the necks volume for aesthetic purposes, remove the bedding of the mouth and remove most part of her tongue. Even then she would joke she could live without the breast cause she already had a husband :), but loosing most of tongue… as a passionate amateur cook. The doctors said she would never be able to speak again probably, let alone taste.
Just before the operation she was bend on shooting a professional family photograph and I never thought anything of it until much, much later. So we went ahead and one day, she underwent the hours-long surgery. When she woke up at the ICU, we could visit her two by two (sometimes smuggling) and the first time I was really spooked. The strongwilled, stubborn but loving mom I knew was beyond recognition due to all the swollen wounds from the surgery and not able to speak at all. We had this magic white board that kids sometimes play with, so she could write us some things, although this was very tough on her. Weeks later, the swollen parts were gone, but so was her original vocal capability. And the means to taste.
We all know that smoking and alcohol can be an enabler for these kinds of cancer and my mom didn’t make a secret out of her smoking habbits and did enjoy a drink now and then. But at one time in the hospital, when she was walking around finally with her IV bag trolley following her, she went to a smokers room and made clear to the people in there that they shouldn’t take the risk, because this is what can happen to you. The awkwardly frightened faces still put a smile on my face when I think of it, this was exactly who she was. Even in a bad place making statements with a flair of humor and shocking some in the process.
With all obstructions aside, my mom and us still managed to communicate with each other. Although they said she would probably not speak ever again, she made the most out of it and it was quite enough to even understand each other through phone calls! She really showed true willpower and perseverance there. And with the earlier mentioned mix of stubbornness and willpower, she kept on cooking too (probably using my father and sometimes us as a willing subject to taste everything for her ;)). At some time, my grandmother was on visit on a Sunday and she had been cooking for them while she enjoyed her daily energy through drip feed (Nutrison, if I remember correctly. Yum.). The Monday after, they called me at work that my mom was admitted to the ER with dangerously low oxygen levels in her blood and a new roller-coaster began.
That week was the longest ever. We felt fear, anger, some joy, shocks and surprises and all the levels between them. The first two days, she was very conscious. Everyone that she really needed to be there, was there except our grandma, her mother. Wednesday arrived and my grandma did too. After that, my mom went into a coma. Like she had been waiting for this to lay it all to rest. At some point, she snapped briefly out of it and followed everything in the room with her eyes, as to say “I’m here, I’m wake”. I wrote on the magic whiteboard that she had done a good job with me and my brother Marc and we all did write some things. Shortly after hat, she went back into coma. We had instructions to up the morphine when we felt she was in pain, because the staff can only do so up to a certain level. After that, it’s a family decision because of the risk the hospital cannot take with a patient. Our decision was clear, she wouldn’t have any pain.
Thursday may 12th, my mother decided to embark the final journey. Questions were raised like: would you like to wash her, do her hair, put on jewelry, all the stuff you never ever think about. She did plan a lot around her own farewell, she even thought to bring specific clothes to the hospital in case this would happen. Talking about planning ahead.. My brother and I rinsed her body, put on her own clothes instead of the hospital gown and put on her jewelry. By doing so, we got a real big sense of respect and doing some of the last things back for her, which was beautiful in it’s own way. When all was done, I remember walking out the hospital after almost a week being there with scarce sleep (it’s hard in the room next to your mom with the sound of machines supporting her..) looking at people like you would observe an anthill. Everyone is very busy, but to what end? What perspective?
After the final farewell (at which more people turned up than the funeral parlor could seat), our period of grieving began. My grieving wasn’t that well. Looking back, I spend almost 8 years keeping myself busy, being angry mostly because of powerlessness and adjusting my ambition in my profession to keep my head of the real issues.. This has cost me friendships, refrained me from enjoying some things in life and I feel it almost cost me my relation too, although she has proven every time again what true love means. It was the love of my life that finally put me on the right path and I pursued my own happiness by finally admitting my problems and visiting the doctor, who put me in touch with a psychologist. Admittedly, I was feeling a bit ashamed I couldn’t cope with it myself while at the same time I realized I needed the help. The best decision was allowing myself being helped. In one of the first sessions, she asked me for a photograph of my mother and I brought the family photo with me. She asked me what my thought were, when I would think of her. “Dying, grasping for breath, slowly passing away while we push the morphine button to keep pain at bay” was my answer. Through exploring and learning about feelings, situations and countering them and with excellent guidance, I came to feel a bit better with time passing. In one of our final sessions she asked me the same question again and to my own surprise I thought of the photo that was now at home on a nice display stand. It had finally occurred to me that this was her intention all along.
This is how she would like to be remembered and now I finally really do. Love you mom, in this live and the next one.