Please Don't Ask Me How She's Doing... (... because it's variable and complicated...)

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The fun(ny) is gone.  

And I’ve been gone- from 50 Shades for a while. The cover story is that I’m too busy to write because of my day job, but the reality is that I’m too sad to write… or to think creatively… or to talk about what I did today… because I did Mom all day, more often with a tear than a smile.

If I wasn’t doing her physically, I was doing her mentally… pondering and postulating what each next step would be.

Several biopsies on several body parts have yielded an undeniably dire diagnosis for Mom: “Stage 4 bladder cancer in the ureter and cancer of the lymph nodes”. After the last scope, it was back to rehab for Mom to “gain strength” before going home. But she didn’t… she hasn’t… and she won’t.

Mystery pains that were once bearable, have become intolerable… pains that at one time, responded to a single Tylenol, now require a “small dose” of methadone (isn’t that heroin?)… her pains now have the oncologist talking about hospice instead of hospitals or rehabs…  and I feel her pains more deeply in my heart, than in my head.

Yes, it’s been a pain-full month.

Over the years, many of Mom’s too-many-to-count doctor appointments have been to the dermatologist for removal of squamous or basic cell cancers. Upon exiting each time, we’ve nonchalantly predicted that cancer won’t be what takes her out… that despite the profound proliferation of this killer in our family, Mom’s ripe old age of 93 would preclude her from a prolonged period of a killing-cancer. So when the doctor uttered the “C” word at the hospital, Mom and I rather ho-hummed it away, both of us believing old-age would be her reaper long before any elevated white blood cells could claim her.

The error in our thinking was that we never even considered she might get a “Stage 4” cancer diagnosis that would completely change the course of her remaining life… a diagnosis that would slow her recovery progress so much, that “comfort and care” would supersede “rest and rehab”, and that Mom herself would say she’d rather stay at The Home than go back to her home.

As this new paradigm unfolds, it’s changing the way I look at my mother in unsettling and upsetting ways; Sunday evening, the doctor is sitting with me and Mom, explaining the ins and outs of hospice… the economics… the practicalities… the options. Suspending my emotions, I listen intently, nod knowingly, and ask all the right questions.

Looking frail and weak in her hospital bed, Mom concurs with the doctor and agrees that staying at The Home for hospice may be the best idea. When I glance over, I’m taken aback at how fast my lip quivers and tears tingle. With a motherly hand, Mom assures me that she’s “ok” with everything… that she’s “ready to go”… that she just wants “to be comfortable”. While the doctor speaks, I replay the oncologists words in my head; Her situation is ominous … We’re talking months, not years.

This whole picture sounds and feels so final… so over.

“Sunday” Mom

“Sunday” Mom

Once dismissive of her mystery pains as false or fake, I now cling to them as keenly credible and seek to alleviate all that ails her in any given moment; rearranging pillows, changing the TV channel, helping her to the bathroom, holding her hand, or just kissing her forehead… Months, if not days, seems far more likely than a year at this point.

Leaving this visit, I ponder all the practicalities that await me… paying her bills, changing her accounts, making phone calls… making arrangements.

But Monday, things look completely different;  Mom is almost effervescent sitting in her chair with make-up on, eating lunch and watching the news with her roommate and daughter. She’s happy to see me and tells me she’s working on her strength because she’s decided she’d like to go home, and she appears to be a woman on the mend.

But wait! Yesterday I had you dying at any minute… I put the wheels of the death machine into motion. I mean, I’m beyond happy that you’re doing so much better, but are you sure? Should I stop everything? Are you here for 2-3 years instead of months? Should I buy those green bean seeds you wanted? Are we having your 93rd birthday party in June? I have a lot of questions Mom…

Thankfully, my lips don’t say what my mind is thinking; I’m sure Mom is as confused as I am.

“Monday” Mom

“Monday” Mom

On Tuesday morning, Mom is riding the rail between the two juxtaposed states of Sunday and Monday; neither coiffed nor comatose, she’s in a suspended state of existence… happy to see me, but  unsure of her own feelings or future. Her excitement about rehab and returning home has waned, and we settle into a conversation about days gone by. She looks clear and speaks coherently, but there’s a distance in her eyes and I can tell she’s just a little stoned on the methadone. But she’s not in pain. 

Like a rabid reporter, I research all things related to “Stage 4 Cancer”; it’s daunting, confusing, scary, frustrating, overwhelming, ominous - just  like the doctor said. Despite my earnest Googling efforts, I continue to feel clueless, still unsure of the timing, the meds, the diagnosis, The Home, The Plan, and most of all – the future.

Not one to revel in uncertainty, I understand it’s time for me to go with Mom’s flow… to resist my default demand for clarity… to lean in to my softer side and be emotionally present for her. The truth is that I find this all very difficult and am living each day with anticipatory grief. Lest a caring individual sincerely ask “How’s your Mom?”, I’ll smile and say “Fine”, but really, she’s not, and I’m not, because it’s variable and it’s complicated.