This is a creative non-fiction piece that got published in the 2010 Humboldt State University Toyon, a literary magazine. For those who never had the pleasure of meeting my Ma, she was a wonderful person who struggled much of her life with love and money, yet still never succumbed to the anguish both produce. She touched the hearts of every person she met with her eternal optimism and humor, even when she was given a six month life sentence in 2008 when the second wave of breast cancer emerged. She ended up scoffing that and lived for nine months before finally leaving this mortal world on Jan. 3, 2009. This story documents the last days before she died. This is for you Ma. Much love.
“Your mom’s not doing well,” my Aunt Sheri said over the phone. “You need to get out here.”
Merry Christmas. The news wasn’t a surprise. My Mother, Stephanie Jacobs, was given six months to live after being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. That was nine months ago. I found myself back in New York several days later, faced with a reality that still caught me off-guard. I knew I wouldn’t leave that place the same person.
My arrival seemed to give my Mom a second wind. When I talked to my Aunt days prior, the picture appeared bleak. My Mom was in so much pain, had peed an almost amber-red urine, and was so dehydrated that the end seemed imminent. But within a day or two, she gathered her strength, ready to fight yet another bout with the cancer that had spread from her breast to her brain, bones, and lungs.
Even in her reinvigorated state, she looked atrocious – a skin-sunken skeletal figure that reminded me of the pictures I’ve seen of victims from the freshly nuked cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War 2, irradiated and drained figures sapped of all their vitality. Despite this, her humor still showed as it always had.
“I thought my pillow was Buddy,” (her dog), she said, giggling. “Man, is that crazy or what?”
Being in that sterile white hospital room, the ambient sound from the television playing in the background, I couldn’t help but smile. Inside though, an anxiety grew.
“Oh, doesn’t that cake look delicious?” she asked, looking at one of those Food Network programs she enjoyed so much. “I think I’ll get some mashed potatoes with white gravy for dinner.”
“Didn’t you have that last night, and the night before?” I asked, glancing over to the nearly untouched tray of food stashed nearby.
“Yeah, but it’s the only thing I can eat that doesn’t upset my stomach. I also like the texture.”
Even after losing her ability to taste, my Mom still chose the food she would eat with careful precision, focusing on shape, texture, and, at times, the taste she remembered. Perhaps it was the cook in her, who couldn’t refuse to surrender such an entertaining and passionate activity. My focus stayed on her, mesmerized by her acceptance of what she faced, but then again, that was her style.
My Mom let out a quick, loud whelp as her eye twitched. She tried to rub her lower back. After letting out a frustrated sigh, she said, “The pain is unbearable at times.” She paused then continued, “Sometimes I just want it to all end. I’m not afraid to die. I’m ready.”
“I’m not afraid either,” I replied, though deep down I really was. “I don’t want you to suffer any longer.”
An uncomfortable air developed but not an unfamiliar one. We talked openly for months about her terminal state, discussing details like what kind of memorial service to have, or what kind of party to throw to celebrate her life, not mourn her death. It was the kind of bond we shared, one of complete honesty and openness. For her, I was one of the few people who understood the gravity of her condition.
She dozed off for a moment as she did at times, a by-product of all the pain killers coursing through her veins. For her, time existed in dosages and she made sure that the nurses never missed one. There was no comfortable living without the pain meds now. Not only did she depend on them, she also depended on the fluids pumped into her body to prevent infection. She no longer could create her own plasma. Her immune system gave up long before she did.
After a particular snooze spell, she awoke and stared off at an empty chair next to me, watching something invisible to my eyes.
“I can see your Grandmother,” she said in a sluggish tone. “She’s kind of blurry but she’s there, waiting for me.”
I looked at the empty chair and asked, “What else do you see?”
She paused for a moment, then replied, “Black dots, floating all over the place. They look like a swarm of gnats.”
“You think you’re hallucinating again?” I asked.
A sullen look formed on her face, a crack in her defenses surfaced as she answered, “I don’t know anymore.”
There was silence for a while after that. Then my Mom said, “If living with cancer has taught me anything, it’s that you have to live life to the fullest. Every day.” I nodded. “You never know when you won’t wake up, or if you end up getting hit by a bus, or something.”
Her fight with morality felt like my own, made me think about wasted time, about cultivating relationships with friends and family alike, about chasing my dreams through action, not words. It made me think about what I would regret not doing if I died. I wondered if I could even answer that question, because nothing came to mind, just a bunch of jumbled thoughts.
I nodded and replied, “I know. I try to live that way, but it’s hard.”
“I know,” she said. “You don’t realize how short life is until you’re given a time table for living it.”
The family stood at a crossroads, both paths bringing its own challenges and tragedies. We could continue radiation treatment in the hope that the tumors breaking her spine, causing most of her pain, would subside and move on from there, or we send her to hospice. The latter option meant my mom would die within days. At the same time, she wouldn’t feel any pain anymore, or be conscious for that matter. It was the nuclear option. But during one particular visit, that second wind seemingly brought about by my arrival dwindled. The reddish-colored urine returned, along with pain so excruciating it brought her to tears.
During that visit, my Uncle, Aunt, Grandpa, and cousins joined me. I can’t remember the conversation they had while I sat in front of my Mother’s bed, my head spinning and heart feeling pressure as if being squeezed like a stress ball. I never felt so sick, so stricken with a sense of loss. It was like floating in a void, feeling your breath being slowly sucked out of you, paralyzed by the gravity or lack thereof.
This is it, I thought. It’s coming to an end. I felt Death inside that hospital room, waiting in a corner somewhere, biding his time. He’ll do it when everyone leaves, make us sweat out the night in bed-turning anticipation wondering if that phone will ring, bringing with it that long-feared news. Yeah, that’s how Death rolled. I’ve seen it before.
As we left that night, I kissed my Mom on her forehead and held her hand. When I tried to let go, she grasped it tighter. I looked into her wide eyes. I felt what she wanted to say, as if she sent it telepathically. She smiled as our hands clasped. It felt as if we said goodbye in our strong stare.
The hospital visit had us all on edge. My Aunt and I talked long into the night.
“I don’t think she’ll make it through the night,” my Aunt said, sipping her tea in the kitchen.
“If she isn’t better tomorrow, we need to put her in hospice,” I said. “I can’t stand seeing her in pain.”
“I don’t think we’ll have to make that choice,” my Aunt said, almost hopefully. “I think God will make it for us.”
God, or whatever force guides the universe, did make that choice the next morning. I got the call early.
“Get to the hospital,” my Grandpa said. “She’s got hours at most.”
By the time we arrived at the hospital, my Mom’s breathing was labored. Hose attached to nose, mouth hung open, she slept deeply in a drug-induced coma. To see my Mother laying there on the precipice of death, to wait for that critical climax when life ceased inside her broken shell of a body, made me feel helpless. It was all so surreal. Surrounded by family, I counted the intervals between breaths, the only indicator I had of how close she was to dying. It wasn’t like television shows where doctors and loved ones watched the bouncing electronic line of the heart monitor, waiting for it to flat line. It was far more torturous than that. I didn’t know what to do, or say, in those final moments.
Eventually, a justice of the peace entered the room and gave my Mom’s last rites. As my family followed along in prayer, I couldn’t help but be silent as if her passing would also be, to a degree, the death of me. After the rites, I sat beside her. She clutched onto a metal pendant in the shape of an angel, along with a cross. I grabbed her hand and shut my eyes. Her pulse was weak and her skin cold. It felt like she was waiting for something.
Let go, I thought hard, trying to send her the message mentally. Let go. You’ve fought hard enough. Now it’s time to rest. I love you.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. It was in that moment I felt her soul evacuate her body, like a sink full of water swirling around the drain, emptying fast. I sniffed and cried, “It’s happening. I can feel it.”
My eyes still closed, I clutched even tighter and listened to her pulse as it faded. I felt a great build up of energy inside her, then an explosion, and finally nothing. I don’t know how long I sat there holding her hand. The world around me ceased to exist in that moment. When I opened my eyes, she wasn’t breathing, a tear drop frozen in the corner of her eye. I looked at her, what shell remained, and I couldn’t recognize it as my Mother. No, she was gone.
I couldn’t bear being in that terrible collective release of sorrow, when everyone breaks down, says they’re “sorry for your loss.” No. Tears flowing, I ran outside into the cold morning, where pockets of snow still lay fresh on the ground. I walked a lap around the hospital, let the sun beat down on my face. The world looked crisper as if I saw it though a high-definition lens. I watched as families entered and exited the hospital. With my eyes wet and red, I wondered if they could look at my face and know what had happened. I wondered if we ever did when we look at others plunged into the same pit of loss. People die every day, but when it hits home, it hits hard.
I couldn’t help but look upward while thinking about how she was at peace now, free from pain – wherever she was. If there was one place she was for sure, it was inside me. I foresaw the months to follow, a gauntlet of grieving, heartbreak, coming to terms with such a tremendous loss. Now was not the time to grieve though, not for me. I knew I had to be strong, like my Mother was, not for myself but for my family. I took a deep breath and walked back inside, no longer feeling like her son, but more like a living, breathing monument to her ability to create and mold life. A reflection of her.