Marguerite Conrad was not a New Friend. She was not an old friend. She was not my best friend. She was so much more. She was my mother. It has been three years since I kissed her forehead and told her I’d be back soon. “It is taking a while, Mom. But, I will see you again. I just have some things to do first.”
Merriam Webster is wrong. Being “brave” has nothing to do with being “fearless”. This lesson boldly crashed my life the day I learned that the cancer in my mother’s esophagus set up new camp. The words, “Bad news. Cancer. Brain. 3 to 6 months,” solicited an array of emotions. But, fearless was not one of them. And yet, while the dialog speaks candidly of fear, I consider this a story of courage—for it is without hesitation the bravest thing I have ever done. Not surprising, it is also the most loving.
Peanut M&Ms will never be the same. That was my dinner the night I learned my mother was going to die.
The medical team had taken Mom back for a full body MRI. As I was awaiting her return, one of her friends called to arrange a coffee date. Fingering the yellow candy wrapper, I spoke quietly into my mother’s cell phone. “Pat, I am in the emergency room, alone with my mom. What will I do if we receive bad news? I am so afraid.”
“I know you are scared, Kerry. But, you will know what to do. It will just come to you,” Pat reassured.
But, I wasn’t convinced. I thought I had been brave the past few months, supporting my mom through her cancer diagnosis and treatments. I shortened the long chemo days by bringing color pencils and extreme dot-to-dots. And, I knew how to decrease waiting periods in exam rooms. (Start building paper airplanes and sailboats. The doctors will show up sooner than later to spoil your fun.) But, then I had a sufficient supply of hope—the kind that often accompanies cases of early detection. Without hope, where would I find the strength to stay the course?
The young ER doctor with a full head of springy curls confirmed our worst fear. Mom wasn’t experiencing neuropathy, a potential side effect from the chemotherapy. Instead, the cancer had metastisized to her brain. She was “sorry”. The disease was now “incurable”.
At that point, fear—no—terror pulsed through every cell in my body. Mom sat completely still, a sterile sheet wrapped around her thin frame. I clambered onto the hospital bed beside her. I laid my head on her chest. The cancer had won. Death was coming to take her. There was nothing I could do to stop it. But, still the words came, “I love you, Mom. I just love you.”
Our family got a brief respite from the looming prognosis of “3 to 6 months”. Mom received a cycle of full brain radiation and the disease responded well. We were able to enjoy a wonderful family Christmas and continued to hold out hope for a miraculous remission.
Mom’s oncologist, who was normally very pragmatic, offered a slice of hope. “I had a male patient with similar cancer and mets to the brain. We treated his brain and he lived another 12 years. It’s rare, but not impossible.” Not impossible. That was all we needed to hear.
Unfortunately, as the new year unfolded, the familiar symptoms presented themselves. Her spine was now affected and the brain malignancies were growing. An additional course of radiation was prescribed and Mom white-knuckled the possibility of a round of chemotherapy. Having accumulated a vast collection of jewelry from her world travels, she decided it was time to start sorting and labeling her treasures.
Throughout her illness my mother’s greatest fear was that her doctors would one day stop treating her. She described the feeling as “falling off the edge of the world.” Tears would fill her eyes and her body would tremble. In those moments, I felt like a small child seeing her mother cry for the first time—riveted with fear. I did all that I could to reassure her that she would never be alone.
“Mom, we are in this together, remember? You will never be alone. I promise. I will stand beside you and always care for you.”
Although I knew my presence was comforting, I felt horrible that I couldn’t promise that her doctors would continue to treat her. Even worse, I never imagined what was soon to transpire. I was to serve as the catalyst behind their decision to end treatment.
It was quickly apparent that the radiation therapy was no longer working. And, because I had been regularly communicating her symptoms with her medical team, Mom’s oncologist decided that chemotherapy was out of the question. The nurse explained, “There is no way her body could handle it. The cancer is winning.”
Witnessing the physical decline of a loved one with end stage cancer is brutal. Seeing the terror in your loved one’s eyes is indescribable. The only thing worse, perhaps, is being alone with the knowledge that her greatest fear is soon to be realized.
Today was the day, and I knew it.
A cold and blustery Valentine’s morning, Mom was in a fog of her own. Now unable to walk, the transfers to and from the car terrified her. The nurse recommended an anti-anxiety medication “just to take the edge off.” Boy did it work! Mom could barely keep her eyes open. However, when we arrived at the cancer center, Mom perked right up. She was an expert at making herself appear in optimum condition for the benefit of the doctors. But, apparently this was a familiar tactic and they saw right through it.
My mom, husband and I sat in the examination room, trying to keep things normal. “Hey, did you see that they started a new jig-saw puzzle in the waiting room?” Bah! What is normal anyway? After twelve months on this roller coaster ride called cancer, I concluded that “normal” is just a cozy illusion for people unaffected by tragedy. It no longer belonged to us.
Our wait was only about as long as our time with the oncologist. As straightforward as ever, Dr. Mitch didn’t mince words. This certainly wasn’t his first “end of the line” conversation.
“Your red blood cell counts are too low to even consider chemotherapy. Your body wouldn’t be able to handle the toxicity. I am sorry, but I can no longer treat you.”
True to her nature, my mom responded to the doctor with grace. She looked him square in the eye, nodded her acceptance, and asked some trivial question about her medication. This was it. What else could she say?
“But, Doctor,” I pleaded. “What if she gets stronger and we get her blood counts…”
He cut me off sharply. “No. She will not get better.” Then he turned back to my mom. “You are at your high point right now. From here it is all down hill. I highly recommend that you admit yourself to a full-time care facility.”
“But, Doctor,” again I tried. “An institution? Can’t we care for her at home? She wants to stay at home!”
The doctor sternly reiterated his recommendation and was gone—off to care for a patient who could actually benefit from his services. Or, maybe, it was an act of personal emotional preservation.
I rushed to my mom’s side. “Mom, are you okay?” Stupid question.
“Would you like to use the bathroom?” Where was this stuff coming from?
It was there, holding my mom in an upright stance just before lowering her to the toilet, that she lost her bearings. She cried long and hard the words I will never forget, “I just want to finish my jewelry.”
“You will, Mom. I promise.” And, she did.
After calling in home hospice, the final weeks of my mother’s life were pleasant. Although we had instances that continued to call upon courage, we also had many moments of joyful living. With the treatments out of the way, we could finally concentrate on doing what we did best. Loving.
My story of bravery is not unique. (Millions of people serve as caregivers to their loved ones every day.) My story of bravery is not extreme. (Certainly the greatest champions are the thousands of men, women and children like my mother who take their cancer diagnosis and somehow use it to teach the rest of us what it really means to live.) And yet, while my story is not unique or extreme, it is one that is rarely told. Perhaps this is why it is important. In sharing my story, I hope to help other caregivers stare down their own fears, accept but not judge their loved ones fears, and bravely stand by with pure loving support.
I have come to learn that a person has two choices when faced with a challenging situation. She can respond out of fear. Or, she can respond out of love. Fear is useful in keeping the self safe, at least temporarily. But, love always works towards the greater good of all. And, only in love can true courage be attained.