In my life I have experienced many losses; two dogs, a handful of fish, and a distant grandparent. None of which have come close in comparison to the pain I felt when I lost my mother to Inflammatory Breast Cancer on May of 2015. She struggled against an aggressive cancer for a good two years, and managed to fit in time to do all the things she wanted before she was plucked from this world. Thankfully, my mother wasn’t an idiot, and she properly set things up in the event of her untimely demise to ensure that her two children would be properly taken care of in her absence. I am the oldest child, with my sister being four years younger than myself. We are both well into our 20’s and have had our share of trials and tribulations growing up, from less than ideal fathers, to mental handicaps and unforeseen hardships.
Over the course of our lives, our mother had been the silver lining on a life that while looked ideal from the outside was riddled with it’s own trials and tribulations. She was a beacon in a foggy storm of shit and so on, and so on. Basically, without my mother, the lives of myself and sister would have been a struggle between misery and angst. While she had previously dealt with cancer when she was younger and beaten it back, when she was diagnosed again, we admittedly felt a bit of hope that she would manage to pull the same trick twice and claim an award for beating cancer multiple times in one lifetime. Unfortunately we were wrong, and left to sit in discontent at the loss of that support and strength we had come to rely on.
For myself, I had known that she was going through her treatments like normal, but tend to stray a bit from the exact details. It wasn’t that I was disinterested in how she was doing, I just had this unrealistic optimism that she was going to beat it, and hearing constant progress reports weren’t really worth my time. As I took a family vacation to Disneyland with my grandmother, aunt and cousins, the entire time I just wanted to be at home. It was mostly because the weather wasn’t to my liking, and most of the rides I liked were undergoing maintenance during the off-season, but a small fraction of it was just a feeling I should be at home. While on the trip, I was sitting outside in the rain and gave my mother a call, she said that she needed to shave her hair since the treatment finally started to kill her roots (for the second time). I checked with her to make sure everything was good, and she explained that she needed to be on oxygen, but otherwise everything was good.
I was apprehensive about the oxygen being ‘good’ but I trusted her and came home to what looked a lot less than good. My mother looked like she had undergone a sudden aging spurt. Her hair was shaved off, she was barely able to walk around and had to constantly be on oxygen. When I left, she was still going to her job and now she was unable to get out of a chair and walking to the bathroom without assistance. At that time I decided to become her caretaker and began working to make sure she had anything she needed; food, comfort and company. After a week or so she told me that the doctor had given her 1-6 months to live, my heart dropped. One moment she was battling cancer, and the next she was given an expiration date? I tried my best to keep a positive attitude, but there were a lot of times I just laid in my bed, wondering when and how. Would she die in her sleep? Would it be tonight? Will I get a chance to say goodbye? Does she know how much I appreciate and love her?
My mind was in a flutter all the time. I was running inside to make dinner for her, and to make sure she was content, then running back to do some work, then trying to maintain a social life with friends. It was this cycle of me running around back and forth, but not in an exhausting manner. I wanted to make sure that everyone was doing okay. I didn’t want to ignore my friends, I didn’t want to lose my job and I didn’t want my mother to feel alone or hopeless. I am not trying to tout like I am some amazing person for doing this, in fact, I regret not just rejecting my social life or work and spending all the free-time I had with my mother. There were a lot of things I still have left to ask her, and things I wish I got to know. She was my repository of a past I have no recollection of, a being filled with experience and advice that could last generations. All of it gone, as if it never existed in the first place, minus the photos and fragile memories stored in an brain that will slowly forget over time.
In the days that followed, she had to take heavy medication to make her ‘comfortable’. I use quotes because comfortable, and sleeping all the time, are apparently the same thing in medical terms. I talked with a friend who was in the medical field but unfortunately there wasn’t much I could do about the dosage, as she was just reacting to small dosages, and deceasing them would make taking them worthless for what they were primarily for. So I coped with it. I made sure she took her pills when she was supposed to. Tried to make sure she got some exercise in the day and saw some friends and family as often as possible.
It is hard to watch a human slowly degrade from functioning to bedridden. You see them unable to muster the energy to sit up in bed and there you are able to get up and go grab them something they otherwise would never be able to get without your help. The feeling is both scary and depressing. Over time though, she slowly began to sleep almost the whole day, unable to get out of bed or even talk for long periods of time without having trouble breathing from her lungs slowly shutting down. She required the oxygen to be on at all times and every night was a fear it might be the last.
One night, I was getting ready for bed when I heard her call my name. I ran to her bedside and she said she was having trouble breathing. I helped her sit up and gave her one of her pills to take. She asked me to call Hospice (which is basically a nurse-on-call), so I proceed to talk with a nurse who came over and made sure things were okay. The nurse left around two in the morning and I decided to stay in my mothers room in case she needed anything else. I was 25 years old, I could easily recover from not sleeping for a night. As I stayed there, holding her hand and listening to her struggle to breathe, I thought back to a conversation me and my sister had earlier the night before.
Sister “When is the right time to let her go?”
Me “When she can no longer respond to us. If we say we love her and she gives no response, it is time to let go.”
Sister “Okay…Will she be okay?”
Me “She is just in a rut right now, she should pick back up, but just in case I’d make sure to see her at least once every other day just in case.”
By the time my mind had finally felt at ease enough to rest, my mother awoke and said she was having trouble breathing again and to call Hospice. I Proceeded to do so, and while we were waiting for the nurse, she also asked me to call my grandparents. I was hesitant at first, but she seemed really adamant so I did. The nurse arrived and began to give her a checkup, increase her dosage, and so on. I tried to keep up with what pills she was being given, how many dosages and so on, but running on no sleep and a constant surge of adrenaline made it hard. Eventually things calmed down, she was able to breathe again and my grandparents arrived. As the nurse was leaving I felt the adrenaline start to wear off and I was more exhausted than i’ve ever been before. I told my grandparents what had happened and they told me to take a nap, and that they’d watch her for me. I made sure my mother was alright, and laid down. About an hour and a half later I was awoken violently with my grandmother telling me that my mother can’t breathe and she isn’t calming down. I immediately rushed over to her side and tried to help her out.
I tried to give her some medication, but she didn’t want any. I called Hospice and told them the situation and they sent someone immediately out. As I sat there holding her hand, I watched as her body began to slowly shut down. I wont get into the details, but it was one of the most haunting things I’ve seen in my life. As she was getting near the end, I remembered the test me and my sister had, and the last words I spoke to her were “I love you Mom”. No response. Only continued heavy breathing and her holding back convulsions. At that point I broke down and sat on the floor sobbing. No planning or preparation could make me ready to deal with the surge of emotions. A few minutes later, my mother took her last breath and passed away.
Once it was all over, the family all stood in the living room, unsure of what to say or do. At some point, most began to cry, others just sat frozen trying to accept what had just happened. I sat there both shocked and in disbelief. After some time had passed I decided to let some close friends know of her passing. Most of them had their days pretty much ruined, and came over at some point in the day to both grieve and give condolences. I called my work, explained what was going on and was given the week off to get things in order. From there on, what transpired was what I would slowly come to know as coping with loss.