Just When You Think It’s All Going to be Okay…

I was in Nashville, Tennessee, my hometown, last week. I wish I could say I’d gone for a lovely and scheduled visit with my family, but that would be a lie. I was in Nashville because my mother, who has a rare form of ovarian cancer, was in the hospital following emergency surgery for fluid accumulation around the heart, caused by cancer that has migrated to her chest cavity. For a few days there it really looked like the months we’d all been hoping we still had with her were evaporating in an eyeblink.

By the time the family decided I should fly out, Mom had already had the surgery, but instead of bouncing back as expected, she was struggling, spending days in the ICU, breathless and with an irregular heartbeat. I arrived on a Thursday night; my aunt and uncle picked me up at the airport and took me straight to the hospital.

I’ve never seen my mother look so frail. She’d lost a lot of weight, but worse, she couldn’t lift her head. She had an oxygen mask strapped to her face, and though I’d expected her to look bad, I hadn’t realized how little she would look like the Mom I remember. The elastic straps of the mask cut into her cheeks, making them look even more sunken then they were, and there was something about seeing her without her glasses that just changed everything. I remember that first night sitting at her bedside, looking at her, and thinking, “This isn’t my mom anymore. This is a changeling, someone else that cancer has put in my mother’s bed.”

But then she spoke, and it was Mom after all, hidden inside. She called me Zach, her son, and told me she loved me and was glad I was there, and it was all I could do not to weep.

Over the course of the week I was there she recovered strength and stamina, and more than that, the will to go on. She’s home now, and though she’s lost ground, she’s at least able to be in her own surroundings, with good art and good music, with the comforts and safety of home and family.

If she is able to regain her strength over the next couple of weeks she will resume chemotherapy with the addition of a new drug, Avastin, which can limit the accumulation of fluid in her chest and starve out the cancer by eliminating its blood supply. I have a good friend who works at Genentech, the company that makes Avastin, and he tells me that when the drug works, it really works. I’m hoping and praying that Mom will be able to resume treatment, that it will work for her, that it holds the magic she needs.

I don’t have any illusions — at this point we aren’t looking so much for a cure for Mom’s cancer as a way to buy time. Time when she can feel, if not well, at least well enough. Well enough to play dominoes with her friends, or watch a movie with my stepdad, or share a meal with my sister. Well enough to tell me one more family story, to enjoy a piece of caramel cake, to see the Christmas amaryllis bloom.

My mom isn’t alone. My sister lives in Nashville, and my mom’s sister and her husband, my cousins and their wives and children, and of course my stepfather and all Mom and Stepdad’s friends. I’m the only close family member who is far away.

Maybe it’s because I’m not there that I’m trying so hard to hang on to hope. While I was there, I could see my aunt and sister both already beginning to grieve. They see the same future I do — one where if we get six more good months with Mom we’ll be lucky — but where I see potential they see dreadful loss looming. I’m trying not to face that loss yet. I’m trying to hold on to hope that the time we have now is the important time.

I know that even when Mom isn’t in her body, she will be with me, and I know that my role is to be the hearth for hope’s tiny flame. But every now and again, I realize that I’m not okay.  I can feel a well of grief sitting just under my breastbone — a terrible fragility. A dangerous thing that might erupt as impatience or anger or neediness or fear. Or dry, choked back tears.

I’m grateful to my friends who are edging around the powder keg and haven’t abandoned me. I’m trying so hard to be the man I want to be: to have integrity and courage, kindness and fortitude, compassion and faith. To face the unfaceable with grace. To be a source of strength for my family. For my mom. For myself.

I feel like a tightrope walker with a vast chasm to traverse and no clear idea of what lies on the other side. I know that every soul that’s come before me has faced this journey. My own parents have traveled this way, lost their parents, found a way to go on. Day follows night follows day and season follows season. I’ve loved and lost dozens of pet rats — my short-lived animal companions have taught me much about grieving and surviving grief and finding life again. About enjoying the present, because the future is too soon. Maybe that’s why rats are the animal companions I’ve chosen, because I needed to learn to face death and remember that life will follow.


~ by Nezu on 26 October 2011.

10 Responses to “Just When You Think It’s All Going to be Okay…”

  1. *hugs you so hard* I’m thinking of you, and your mum, and your whole family.

    • Thanks so much. I know you’ve been there, facing a loved one’s cancer. It means a lot to have your support. Hope you and your love are winning the fight and finding happiness.

  2. My heart goes out to you. We lost an uncle to cancer last week, and it sucks something fierce.

    Remember one thing: it’s okay to cry. it’s okay to grieve. it’s okay to be angry.

    I think I’ve read that you’re a Buddhist, so this may not apply, but I’ve got a great book called The Pagan Book of Living and Dying by Starhawk, and it has some really great ways of coping with loss.

    Sending hugs and strength.

    • Thanks, Victoria. I am sorry for your loss. Cancer really truly does suck supremely.

      That sounds like a really interesting book, one I should get my hands on. I’m as much Pagan as Buddhist, with a little bit of Christian thrown in for good measure. In the end it’s all one Divinity, I think, aspected in ways that allow us to connect from wherever we are most comfortable.


  3. What V said.

    Also, sooo much sympathy as to how an oxygen mask makes a loved one look. That was probably the worse visual I got when I went to see my mom when she was dying.


  4. *hugs* I’ve been thinking of you, and I was glad that we were able to talk a few times while you were there. Love you.

  5. I’m sending prayers for the time she has to be good time. I think holding up hope is a really valuable role in the the constellation around her, that is a great thing to do for her.

  6. Zach,
    Hoping to be the man you want to be….”I’m trying so hard to be the man I want to be: to have integrity and courage, kindness and fortitude, compassion and faith. To face the unfaceable with grace. To be a source of strength for my family.”

    Having just met you today in your mom’s hospice room I can tell you…You ARE the man you want to be. You are taking one breath at a time, loving your mother, telling her you love her, and being a kind, gentle, loving man. You needn’t LOOK strong nor fear tears; don’t trap the sorrow behing your breastbone; breathe in and out; say what’s on your heart, be genuine, honest, real. Allow your family and the hospice nurses and social worker to hear and see your emotions. Be the man you are!

    And as a friend to your Mother, step-father, and sister, I extend to you the comfort, love and grace of the Universe. Peace, Mary B.

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