“Scott, you and your brother and your sister need to figure out what is it you want in my house. If you want it, get a sticker, put your name on it, and label whatever it is you want.” It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m speaking to my mother on the phone. Hardly the type of conversation one has with a parent on a regular basis, but mom doesn’t feel good today, nor did she get a lot of sleep last night. Mom’s doctor, when asked two weeks ago, told my mom she knew what the pain in her stomach was. It wasn’t indigestion, or heartburn, or even gallstones (especially since they removed her gall bladder last summer). “No,” the doctor said to my mother, “Youknow what’s causing the pain.” She did know, and deep down, we all knew he meant mother’s pancreatic cancer was still there, still slowly killing the 75-year old matriarch, still actively seeking to destroy the host in which it lived.
“Oh,” I say with a slight laugh. “I don’t think we need to start doing that, do we?” My choice of treating mom’s almost absurd request with humor may have succeeded in lightening the mood, but if so, the result is temporary at best. “Well,” she says, “I don’t know. I haven’t been feeling well, and you know what the doctor said about that pain.”
Yes, we all knew. Unfortunately no one knew the cause of the pain for several months. Mom had been feeling bad for almost a year before someone thought to do a chest x-ray months after the gall bladder surgery.
“Lung cancer?” mom said. That doesn’t make any sense. Breast cancer, maybe. That’s what took her mother’s life in 1966. Her father died 10 years later from colon cancer. Knowing the family history, mom made sure these cancers would not sneak up on her like they did her parents, but lung cancer was never a consideration.
The news of cancer was bad and the family looked for positives when news of the diagnosis hit. After all, mom was the toughest lady any of us knew. Fifteen years ago mom said she had a little pain in her side, but it wasn’t anything serious. It wasn’t until her appendix finally burst that mom actually went to the hospital. Growing up on a farm in Teton Valley, Idaho, made her tough, so tough she put the rest of us weaklings to shame when it came to personal constitution and the ability to handle pain.
The doctors thought since the tumor in her lung was small, the impact of surgery and recovery would be minimal—as minimal as possible for a woman turning 75 in a matter of weeks. “However...,” said the physician, the healer (we should have known the doctor’s expression of concern would change everything), “since you have no risk factors for this type of growth, I think it would be good to have some tests run, just to make sure we know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
Of course, we all agreed this would be best. Lung cancer didn’t really excuse the continuing stomach pain mom experienced, and maybe mom knew all along lung cancer was only a symptom of a larger problem, even if she never told anyone—not even herself.
A few weeks and a few tests later, it all became clear. The lung cancer was a satellite growth, a spur of a larger infestation emanating from her pancreas. Stage four pancreatic cancer. “How bad is stage four?” we asked one another, for none of us had medical training. Within a few days of speaking with those in possession of such medical knowledge, and of course, Googling “pancreatic cancer stage four” we found the knowledge we sought, but with knowledge comes responsibility, the responsibility to admit mom’s outlook was not good, not good at all.
“Mom,” I try again at comfort. “I know what the doctor said about the pain, but that could be from you not eating.” Life—in general and broken up into tiny bits—is many times described as a roller coaster, for obvious reasons. We’re up—we’re down. The cycle of life continues onward, sometimes things are great, and then things change. Mom started chemotherapy within days of the second—and more serious—diagnosis. Doctors told her to continue her daily routine, and continue she did. Working two days a week cleaning a business at night, as well as the part-time job as an elementary school crossing guard, mom didn’t skip a beat. Few could tell she was battling cancer, and that’s the way mom wanted it.
But as the roller coaster car rattled to its apex, the enviable downward cascade hit an already shaken family. With the cancer in retreat and the treatment end in sight, mom got sick, so sick she couldn’t eat. The very thought of food disgusted her, and mom began to lose weight. The year before the diagnosis mom lost weight, but this time, there was just so little left to lose. A month later mom’s appetite returned, but the damage had been done. Though she began eating, the pounds did not return as easily as they had disappeared. It’s never good for anyone to weigh their own age.
Always the fighter, mom dropped the cleaning job, but returned as a crossing guard. We wanted someone to go with her because now the problem was her strength. If she fell, she lacked the strength to pick herself off the ground. At first she accepted the assistance, but then complained in her own way. “Scott, thanks for sending your son to help, but I don’t think I’ll need him today. I feel better. I’ll be okay.”
These thoughts run through my mind as I talk to my mom. It’s later Sunday afternoon and I’m thinking about actually putting my name on a piece of tape and placing it on some item in her house, some physical object that’s supposed to suddenly change ownership when the previous owner no longer occupies a legal claim to the item. No—I can’t do that. I can’t go into her house, the house where she raised three children on her own after her husband, father to us three, died in 1974 from yet another form of cancer. It’s not right, not proper, not fair.
“I think you’ve just got another bug, and you’ll be gaining weight soon,” I say, unconvinced myself. “You’ve just got to gain that weight back and you’ll be on your way.”
We finish our conversation. I promise to come over later and we can talk. I look out my living room window and see her house. It’s a big house, built by my father. It was the last thing he built before he died. I see the smaller bedroom window, beneath which sits my mother in her bed. Is she thinking about the items in her house that may soon not be hers? Is she thinking about the evening’s sleep and hoping tonight will be different? No, she’s probably sitting up, and though the temperature in the house is probably in the upper 70's, she’s wrapped in her down comforter looking straight ahead at the open door to her walk-in closet and thinking, “I should get in there and clean that room out. That room is such a mess and I’d hate others to go in there when I’m not around.”