Friday, March 28, 2008

The Perfect Word

I accompanied my mother to her doctor's appointment today -- THE appointment. The appointment that we were dreading, even though we knew what was to come of it.

As the oncologist flashed her peculiarly inappropriate smile (I call it her "picnic smile" because the woman, brilliant as she may be, is a freaking loonball whose smile exudes sunshine and barbecue while uttering phrases like "last ditch effort" and "less than five percent chance), she calmly, between bites of her roasted wienie (in my imagination) explained that there is nothing more medicine can do for Mom.

I already knew this in advance, but Mom, although knowing deep within this was it, still could not accept that fact without hearing it from the doctor's mouth.

I watched my mother intently as the doctor cheerily rattled off the many facets of palliative care, the whats and the what-to-comes, and with each syllable, my mother's face, which has changed so very much in the last month or so, grew more and more unrecognizable until she took on the appearance of someone else's mother.

Mom has lost so much weight that the once-snug pink pullover shirt she wore today hung loose about her frame, the neckline fluid, sliding off over her left shoulder. I gazed at the nape of her neck as the doctor sang of chemo pills and home health care aides, and was startled by the yellowness of the skin, the slight hump that was never before a part of her bodyscape. I looked at her face again, wondering about the yellow. Her face didn't look yellow, but there was a disquieting artificiality to the tone...I peered harder, focused as much as my pitifully hyperopic eyes could, and realized that she had applied so much makeup, the yellow cast was hidden beneath layers of Cover Girl.

And as the doctor chirruped on about how very strong Mom was, and how impressed she was by what Mom had endured, how she'd seen patients half Mom's age endure much, much less, and OHfuckingBLAHblahblah, I stared at the nape of my mother's neck and thought about what it will be like to live in this world without her.

We are not close, for various reasons, and I still struggle daily with my life experience playing on a perpetual loop, the sights, sounds and smells just as clear as the day they were produced, but she is my only mother, and I love her.

And I have so many wishes that I'd hoped would be granted during our lifetimes, many of which have been waiting patiently since I was a little girl. Those wishes, I now realize, will never come true, but that doesn't stop me from believing in them. Because she is my only mother.

When the doctor left the room, Mom put her head near my shoulder -- not on, near, kind of bowed her head and moved it toward me, and so I leaned in, put my arm around her shoulders, and patted, patted, patted. It felt awkward, alien, and in that moment, I forgot how to feel.

The patient advocate walked in just then, and I, grateful for the interruption, quickly removed my arm. The woman was pleasant, just the right kind of cheerful (no barbecue), and genuinely compassionate. She asked Mom how she was taking today's news, and my mother, perplexed, asked what she meant by that. The woman gently reworded the question, adding "Many people have a hard time coming to terms with this."

Mom didn't answer her, so I spoke up, said "I think this is all still so surreal for her." The woman nodded vigorously and said that that was a "perfect word" for this situation.

Surreal. Not real. Someone's else's reality. Someone else's face, someone else's skin, someone else's pain. Bizarre. Dreamlike.

Someone else's mother.

And all the years between 1965 and 1989.

And strange lights in the sky, and whispers of goodbye in the dead of night, and laughter around an oval table, puppies, lasagna, and secret journals hidden beneath someone else's bed, the phantoms that visited us both, the angels with no names, the charcoal sketches and pastel ribbons, the houses in suburban tracts, the hope, and one thousand tiny wishes that will always be alive...

All still so surreal.


At 5:19 AM, Anonymous guernseygal said...

I am so sorry. We went through all this three years ago ( was it really that long ago already) with FIL. I know just what you mean about the yellow cast to the skin - almost waxy. I hope you find a way to come to terms with the situation. The really hard thing for me was that whether they come to terms with the situations or not isn't really the issue, because once it is all over, it is you who is left to cope.... Hugs

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Cheryl, the Jungian Knitter said...

I had something similar with my mother before she died that gives me a visceral understanding of what you wrote. That you wrote so beautifully touches me. Thank you.

At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have put into words so beautifully an awful situation. My mother and I had our "issues" as well but when it came down to it, the issues didn't matter. All that mattered was that she was my mother and I was her daughter. It was a long, drawn out process but she is finally at peace. As time passes, the sweet memories overshadow the not-so-sweet ones and I miss her terribly. Those who will tell you that it gets easier with time don't know what they are talking doesn't get easier, you just get better at living with it. Your strength will get you through. Hugs, ...

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Pam the Yarn Goddess said...

We, as children (no matter what our ages) all have to face this sooner or later. For me, my mother is still vibrant and well at 70, but I'm facing it with my grandmother (who was the one who raised me). She will be 90 this year and is ready to go. She often speaks of how she wants to see her brothers, her father, the rest of the family, and how tired she is of existence. She speaks of it with a calm and anticipatory demeanor. I, of course, cannot even imagine it and can't bear to speak of it. So I pretend that she is immortal, much as I have my entire life.

I did face this with my beloved grandpa in 1989. There was a protracted illness with me acting as his nurse (the roles reversed - me now the strong one, he the weak - it wasn't right and felt alien), and me ultimately the one he trusted to do the right thing, to take him off life support. It was a horrible time, and for a year after his death, I'd call his phone just to hear his voice. I couldn't say he was dead - I'd say he was on a trip or some such thing. I also thought I'd killed him for that year instead of realizing that I'd set him free.

I have no words for you - being trained as a hospice worker, we were taught that we don't know how you feel - but I empathize with you and know the grief and numbness. You will make it through this, no matter how painful. Lean on your friends, for your family will be too close to it all and immersed in their own grief. Your friends will be the ones who ultimately get you through this. You family will play a huge part in it as well - please don't get me wrong - but your friends are enough removed that they can offer solace without injecting their own agenda into it.

I wish you and Mom all the best, and I pray that you get through this all with grace, beauty, and the knowledge that she will be going to someplace better than this and will be out of pain.

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Liz R. said...

h, sweetie. My heart breaks for you. I went through the same thing with my mom 5 years ago. She had lung cancer (she didn't smoke) and died at 61. Her sister (my favorite aunt) died a few years earlier of breast cancer at 48. The only piece of advice I have for you is to say and do everything you've ever wanted to for her. I believe in no regrets and was able to use the time that they both had left to shower them with adoration and thanks, andseeing how happy it made them made a horrible time just a little bit easier.
Hang in there. I'm praying for you.

Liz R

At 6:49 PM, Anonymous Jennyff said...

That brought tears to my eyes, I lived through the same situation more than 25 years ago. You too will live through this and time will dull the pain though it will always be there. Make the most of what time you have together now and concentrate on the good times you have had. Thats all that matters.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger Jeanne said...

From another one who was just there in 2006 with my own Mother (cancer of the esophagus and liver) less than six months after losing Dad. Surreal is accurate. It's impossible to know what it will be like in a world without her until that day arrives.

I heard somewhere not long ago... someone said they weren't sure they had the strength to get through a bad situation. The response was "of course you don't—because you don't need it right now; but when the time comes that you do need it, the strength that was always inside of you will be there."

Very sorry about your Mother. Say everything you need to say, ask everything you need to ask, and hold onto every remaining moment. {{{hugs}}}

At 6:27 AM, Blogger Shiva said...

I'm so very, very sorry!

At 8:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I may have mentioned in the past, I sat the watch with my mom in her "final illness." Alone.

Thank you for this posting.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger FUZZARELLY said...

Lori, I am so sorry.

My story is cold comfort for you, but be thankful that you have time to say goodbye to your mom.

I didn't. She took her own life at age 42 and I was 17. Little brother was 7. I've spent a very long time wishing for just a minute with her, to say I love you.

Make amends now. Sometime, there isn't any Later.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Linda said...

Thinking of you and your Mom. Hugs.

At 3:07 PM, Anonymous aphid said...

I'm sorry. But you're strong, and you'll deal with it okay. Aside from that I don't know what to say. I'm no good at comforting people. I'm sorry.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger April said...

There are really no "good words" to say at a time like this. But you will be stronger than you ever thought possible. This I know.

At 6:44 PM, Blogger Margaret said...

Wishing you strength and grace to get through what is ahead, and hoping for peace for your Mom.

You have provided me with a great gift. In many ways I am also not close to my mother, though I am responsible for an increasing number of her affairs, and she may be moving here soon. And we will face your situation or one similar in time and I am grateful for the perspective now. She is my only mother. Thank you.

At 5:03 AM, Blogger PICAdrienne said...

Perfect words don't really help. In 2003, my step-dad, aunt and brother's mil all lost their battles and their lives. I have not been through what you are facing. Live your life so you do not have regrets. There is not time to have a redo.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger pacalaga said...

prayers are all I have, but they're yours.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger tenacious knitter said...

Like so many others, I can relate so well to your experience - I went through it with my mother and breast cancer 7 and a half years ago.

I persisted through the awkwardness and I am glad I did. Although I still mourn all the expectations she wasn't able to meet, I'm glad she and I rose to the occasion and did what we could.

I wish you strength and peace.

At 9:30 PM, Blogger FiberQat said...

I hope you're where you have excellent hospice care for your mom. It will help the passage go easier.


At 2:18 PM, Blogger dragon knitter said...

i'm so very sorry. i know what it's like to lose a parent.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Oh my god. I know exactly what you mean when you say she is your "only mother." The most difficult of all relationships, I think.

I'm so sorry. I'm glad you found the perfect word, because I can only think of imperfect ones. But I send you both love.

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Ms. Lori said...

All I can say is THANK YOU so much for your kindness, everyone.

At 8:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life is being so unfair to you right now. I can't imagine how you must be feeling... every time my morbid imagination imagines losing my folks, I can't get past the condolences book at the front door without bursting into tears. I wish there was something to make it easier for you both, but I can't think what it might be. I'll just have to think warm and fuzzy thoughts at you, and hope that you and your mum are doing all right.


At 8:22 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

What hard, hard news. I am so sorry. My heart goes out to you both.


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