There are some things a person never wants to write about. Like the death of her own mother.
But for me, writing offers a sense of healing and peace. This post is written with a tear-streaked face and a heart torn to shreds, but it’s something I need to do.
My beautiful mom left this earth a week ago. She tried so hard to live, but when the body starts shutting down, there’s little a person can do but pray and hope.
She battled the horror that is cancer for over three years. As soon as she found out she was in remission from breast cancer, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare type of cancer with no known cure. With this condition, a group of plasma cells becomes cancerous and multiplies. The disease damages the bones, immune system, kidneys, and red blood cell count.
After being diagnosed, we were comforted to know it was “treatable” but also terrified to know it was a permanent fixture in her body. We knew deep down that if it was always going to be there, every day a war would rage in her body.
The treatments worked relatively well until about three or four months ago. Before that, my mom would have days where she’d be in pain or feel so fatigued she could barely walk, but she was determined not to let it slow her down and for the most part, she was able to do the things she had always done. I could tell she wasn’t getting as much joy out of them, but they still brought her a semblance of happiness.
She fought to truly live every day. Many people didn’t even know she had cancer. She would barely talk to my sister and me about it. She didn’t want the cancer to define her.
Something shifted this past May. She began to not only feel sicker and more exhausted but began to retreat into herself emotionally. She didn’t have the energy for extended conversations. She couldn’t remember things. She didn’t look forward to future events or dates. She was sad, so sad, because all she wanted to do was wake up and not feel horrible.
She didn’t just want to exist. She wanted to live.
We would constantly ask if she was okay or if she was feeling well, and she would always say, “Feeling a little better today.” or “A little tired, but I’m okay.”
Her favorite thing to say on a good day was, “I’m feeling like myself today.” We loved when she said that. She missed her old self so badly.
Not only was she fighting the cancer, but she was fighting the chemo. Multiple myeloma requires weekly chemo, platelet infusions, blood transfusions, bottles upon bottles of medications, bone density injections, and other treatments.
Physically, my mom handled all of this like a fighter, but mentally, it took a tragic toll on her. She was someone who’d never taken anything stronger than Excedrin. She couldn’t stand the thought of so many foreign agents entering her body just so she could function at a minimal level.
We could see the effects of chemo take hold of her. Her hearing and vision diminished. Her memory and mental clarity were hindered. Her mood was shaken and her body was a mess. She had no taste buds and was often horribly nauseous. We also found out the chemo was weakening her heart. She would say, “I hate this chemo, but I guess it’s keeping me alive.”
We all hated the chemo, but we were so grateful it was keeping her alive.
On Thursday, August 11, I was sitting at a training, my husband was at work, my sister was home with my niece, and our boys were at summer “MeMe Camp” with my mother-in-law for four days.
My mom went to her regular chemo appointment, but when she got there, she had a fever and began coughing up blood. They transported her to the hospital. When I arrived at the hospital, she was sitting up in bed. She looked very sick, weak, and was still coughing up blood, but her fever had gone down. She was also having severe back pain.
She said to me, “Hey there, darling. You didn’t have to come. Did you and Todd have plans tonight? Are the boys having fun with MeMe?” I assured her and said, “Mom, this is where I want to be. I had no plans tonight and yes, the boys are having a good time. Now, just rest.”
Mom was always worried that her sickness or us taking care of her was interrupting our lives. I hope she knew that she was so much a part of our everyday. That nothing was more important than taking care of her. At that moment, we were hopeful because her fever had gone down, she ate a little soup, and was drinking water. The doctors thought the main concern was pneumonia and the blood was coming from the myeloma causing such low red blood count.
She said her feet were cold so I put socks on her and commented about her pretty toenails, and she said, “That’s from the pedicure gift certificate you and the boys gave me for my birthday.” I said, “Well, they sure look prettier than my toenails.”
That was the last conversation I had with her.
After that, the world came crashing down.
About an hour later, I was alone with her in the hospital room and she became restless. I thought her fever was going up, but it was something much worse. She couldn’t breathe and was holding her throat. It looked like she was drowning or suffocating. I called the nurses, screaming into the little speaker it was an emergency.
Her lungs filled with fluid and her oxygen dropped to a critical level. She went into respiratory failure and they transported her to ICU. At this time, everyone still thought she had severe pneumonia and would respond better if in ICU. She stabilized for several hours, and the doctors were hopeful everything would turn around.
At this point, I went home to see my boys who’d just returned home. My dad stayed with my mom. My sister was leaving early the next morning to join us at the hospital. My mom has been hospitalized before because of her myeloma, so we all truly thought she would walk out with us in a few days.
I felt okay when I left the hospital that night. I was encouraged by the doctors’ words and looking forward to seeing the boys.
I slept on and off and was planning to return to the hospital at 5:00 am. Right before 5:00, my dad texted and said something was going horribly wrong. He didn’t know what it was but they made him leave the room. He needed me there. He said he was scared, so I knew something terrible was happening. I jumped in the car, put the hazard lights on, and drove as fast as I could to the hospital. I ran in and saw my dad in the ICU waiting area.
My mom had coded.
Moments later, the doctor came out and said, “She’s very, very sick. It’s a tenuous situation.” I’ll never forget those words or the look on his face.
Right before my dad had texted me, her lungs had filled with fluid again, and she went into cardiac arrest. I later learned that the lungs and heart are interrelated and one can easily affect the other. The doctors seemed confused as to why she went into cardiac arrest when she’d never had heart issues. We were confused too. Later we learned she had sepsis along with other issues. The cardiac arrest could have also been a side effect from a new type of chemo she’d began two weeks earlier.
Nevertheless, she stabilized again, her fever went down, her kidneys were working, and she was still cognitively responding to commands. She would squeeze the nurses’ hands when they asked her to, and at one point she rubbed her head while my dad was standing beside her. He asked if her head hurt and she nodded. He had the nurse give her more Tylenol.
Again, we were hopeful. Very hopeful. It’s interesting how the human mind holds on to hope with such ferocity.
My sister, brother-in-law, and two nieces soon arrived from DC. My sister brought renewed energy, so we made my dad go home and rest a little. From that point on, two of us were at her bedside the entire time. Oftentimes, it was all three of us. We became very close to the nurses and the staff coming in and out of her room.
I think it was clear the three of us adored her and felt beyond helpless. We played Marty Robbins and Elvis for her. We talked to her about our kids, her beloved grandchildren. We rubbed her hands when they got cold. My dad sang to her. We wanted her to know we were there.
On the second day, I called or texted all of the greatest prayer warriors I know. There are people in my life who, like me, believe in the power of prayer. I needed them. A texting/calling prayer chain began, and amidst the frightening things going on around me, I felt a sense strength and courage to do whatever I had to.
My pastors came and prayed over her. They prayed with my sister, my dad, and me. To all of my prayer warriors during those days, thank you. We were praying for complete healing, but as one of the pastors told me, “complete healing” sometimes means leaving one’s earthly body. Watching my frail mom struggle in the hospital to live, I knew exactly what he meant.
The following morning, my sister was with her when they tried a heart medication. We could tell the doctors had a lot of faith in this medication. If it worked, things could turn around.
It didn’t work.
As soon as it entered her body, her fever went up and her blood pressure spiked. From there, things went downhill. That day, her kidneys began shutting down, her oxygen levels decreased further, the fluid remained in her lungs, and she no longer responded to cognitive demands.
It was a horrible, downward spiral. The amazing machine that is the human body was no longer working. Even the powerful minds of the doctors and the gentle hands of the nurses could do nothing to prevent it.
Later that day, they unhooked all of the machines. We stood beside her and held her hands. She passed away peacefully with my sister, my dad, and me beside her. Her family. There was nothing more important to her than family.
Before she died, my mom told her friend that she was fighting so hard because she wanted her grandchildren, my two boys and my nieces, to remember her. She loved our kids more than anything, would do anything for them. In fact, she’d taken my two boys to the zoo one week before her death, despite her being gravely ill.
When I learned of this conversation with her friend, my heart ached. I now spend every day talking about her, lighting a memory candle, and ensuring my boys remember their beautiful, strong, determined grandmother.
Since then, we’ve all been in a very dark place. Faith, friends, and family have held us up, but we’re all broken-hearted, utterly sad, and physically ill.
Psalm 42:3 says, My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ But I also know that Psalm 34:18 says, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and comforts those who are crushed in spirit.
We don’t always agree with God’s timing, but what can we do but ask him to help us through it?
I’m hurting so deeply. I miss my mom. I’m worried about my dad who lost the love of his life, his soul mate of 53 years. I’m worried about my boys who have been solemn, sad, and asking questions that seem way too burdensome for young hearts. And I’m sorrowful for all of us who have to continue without her.
I’ve found great comfort in talking with others who have lost someone very dear to them. It’s something that until you survive it, you have no idea what the grief feels like. It shakes you to the core and you shock yourself with your own strength. I’m not only grieving for myself but I’m grieving for all people who have felt like I do. I just hope one day I’m strong enough to be there for others when they are trying to function and cope during these first days of raw pain.
My mom wouldn’t want me to end this blog post in such a sullen way. She always wanted her loved ones to be happy. In fact, that’s all she wanted in this entire world. So to celebrate that, I want to share some photos from happier times. Her entire life centered around our family. Her love was fierce and unyielding, and we knew that. We still know that. And always will.
My sister’s father-in-law passed away at the end of July and the night he died, my brother-in-law saw a twinkling star in the night sky. Last Sunday night after my mom passed away, my brother-in-law saw two twinkling stars in the sky. He took my dad outside to see. When our loved ones leave us, they are still all around us. I know that now.
My mom mentioned that she didn’t want a big funeral because she didn’t want us to endure talking for hours on end if we didn’t feel like it. She was a private person, and I think she even wanted to be honored privately. She wanted her ashes sent out to sea. The beach was a special place to our family. We had a small place at Ocean Lakes Campground, south of Myrtle Beach. I spent my summers there from infancy until college. The memories of my family at the beach permeate all that I am, and I think it was the same for my mom and the rest of the family.
We got home last night from the beach. Our small family traveled down there together to fulfill her last wishes. Our pastor here connected us with a pastor in Surfside who performed a holy, comforting service.
Then under the moonlit sky, we said good-bye..for now.