Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Loss of a Parent is so Final

My mother-in-law’s funeral was the day after Mother’s Day in Seattle. We had told our Chicago kids not to make the trip out—the airlines just gouge you now on last minute reservations—but our son and daughter-in-law insisted they come so we could all be together with them and our daughter’s family. I am so thankful they did.

My mother-in-law was ninety and her quality of life was so diminished by dementia and heart failure that we shouldn’t have been shocked that she died. But we were stunned by the phone call at 10:00 am on that Friday morning. Maybe it was because I had talked to the social worker at the Home the day before, and she’d said that Esther was pretty much the same as she’d been the month before when we’d visited.

90th Birthday Party in November.

“Just fading a little more each week?” I asked. “Going gently into that good night?”

“I couldn’t say it like that, but yes. And she’s comfortable, not in any pain, and still eating.”

My husband and I talked about it a dinner, wondering how much longer she would be able to last. Would she make it to her 91st birthday? That she was still eating seemed an affirmation of living, but what kind of life was it anyway? It took two peopIe with a hoist to get her out of bed. She rarely opened her eyes. We didn’t want her to suffer and we knew she wasn’t going to get better.

Yet, we both felt anguish when she died. Death is so final. There it is and nothing will change it. Anything you wished you’d said or done—so what? Not happening. Ever. The line that separates the living from the dead cannot be crossed.

My husband had had major surgery three weeks before and wasn’t really cleared to fly, but we started packing. We were definitely spacey and unfocused. Just after noon, we got a call that the orchid I’d ordered for Mother’s Day had arrived at the Home. That was a little weird for everybody.

The flight to Seattle was difficult even sleepwalking through it. We barely talked to each other, and both of us went into deep sleeps at times. Then our daughter picked us up at the airport with her 11-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter. The endorphins stared flaring as soon as we saw them. Everything calmed down a bit. When the Chicago family arrived in the evening, all of a sudden it became a celebration of life. Sadness and loss were set aside as the new baby met her cousins! The beaming smiles on all the faces as they passed baby Joeli from one to the other, helped heal my shaky heart.

Although this is off topic, I have to add a conversation I heard between 9-year-old Quinn and her cousin, Eli, the new big brother.

“So, the last time I saw you, you couldn’t wait to have a sibling. How do you like it now?” Quinn asked, sounding a bit like Dr. Phil.

“It’s okay,” Eli said. His enthusiasm level wasn’t high.

“It’s not what you thought?” Quinn asked.

I couldn’t resist. “He thought he was going to get you, Quinn. Someone to play with.”

Eli laughed a little, but agreed. “Yeah, Joeli doesn’t do anything.”

Quinn nodded sagely. “Just you wait. When she starts crawling, it will be better. She’ll be more fun.”

Quinn, wise beyond her years, feeding her little cousin.

I looked at her in amazement. How does she know that? I wondered. Just listening to that conversation was priceless. I have to thank my mother-in-law for bringing me all these treasures.

Our return to Palm Springs was easier, but looking back, I realize we settled into a gloom that bordered on depression. On the one hand, we were lucky to have the luxury of quiet days and evenings. So often in the world today, you’re expected to “just get on with it!” No more weeks of coming to terms with the seismic change death brings in your life. On the other hand, we suffered from a malaise that almost paralyzed us. Mid-week, I received a note from a friend that helped so much. Joan wrote, “The loss of a parent is so final, bringing up past loss and grief, as well as the acknowledgment of the fragility of life.”

It was an “ah-hah’ moment. I realized we had been grieving not only for Esther, but for all our parents. This last Sunday was the tenth anniversary of my dad’s death, and I cried more that day than when he died. We lit a candle and said a prayer for all our parents—very healing. Then we did go out—to a 100th birthday party. Talk about an affirmation of life!

This week is much better. We are more normal—whatever that is. We are moving forward. I did clean out my office, which I’ve been going to do for four years. I also sorted through my father’s stuff I’ve kept on a shelf for ten years. The garbage and recycle cans are full. We both are aware of the sense of an ending in our lives. We’re leaving the past behind—the goal is to appreciate each day that much more.

Writing DOs and DON’Ts

Writing DOs and DON’Ts.

Cancer is a word, not a sentence.

I am driving in heavy traffic to Cedars Sinai Medical Center. It takes all my concentration to navigate the 405. This freeway is always clogged with crazy L.A. drivers. A lot of them think their destination is more important than anyone else’s. Talk about entitlement in action!

My appointment is at 9:45 and it’s already 9:10. I feel like I’m in a capsule creeping along a slow moving conveyer belt. My mouth is so dry I have to gulp down some water. I re-grip the steering wheel and notice that my palms are damp. My palms are never sweaty! I order myself to take a deep breath. RELAX, I say inside my head. BREATHE.

I know it’s not just the traffic that’s making me so anxious. I’ve been nervous for two days, but in an under-the-radar sort of way. I was edgy and impatient even if I didn’t show it to our grandkids who were visiting from Chicago. This personality transplant is nothing new. Well, not for five years anyway. It happens every time I have to go to Cedars.

I’ve tried to “get over it”—even went to a therapist to talk about it. It’s been five years since I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Logically I know I’m fine. I was lucky to have caught it early. Lucky to have a daughter I could confide my symptoms to—lucky that she listened and insisted I see a doctor. I remember thinking she was over reacting, but I made an appointment with my gynecologist, who did a biopsy that same day. The results showed early stage cancer. I share this with you in case you have the same symptoms. I consider myself intelligent and savvy, but I didn’t have the knowledge that this “period” was no laughing matter.

“You have no idea of how many women come to me too late,” my oncologist told me. “They’re too busy, or they think maybe they’re really not done with menopause or that the bleeding will stop.” She shook her head. “With you, surgery will get the job done. You won’t even need chemo. It could be this way with everyone if they just came in before the cancer spread.” She seemed so sad. I remember that clearly even though I was still shell-shocked by my diagnosis.

The surgery went really well. At my six-week check up, they explained there is no 100% certainty you are cured and will continue to be cancer free. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over is more the case. “While I feel certain we got all the cancer, that is not proof. So we’ll want to see you every two to three months for the first two years,” the oncologist explained. I liked the way she looked me in the eye. “Then every four months.”

Five years later, I’ve graduated to every six months. That is a good thing—Now I only put myself through this torture twice a year. I leave my house, a functioning person concerned about the economy and the coming elections, and I evolve into the woman who is afraid to trust her own body—a woman who’d had cancer.

Today, the bumper-to-bumper traffic ratchets up my anxiety so I get off the freeway at Sunset Boulevard. It’s a pretty street and I can relax for a moment as I wend my way towards Beverly Hills. But somehow, even though I have been driving this route for five years, I overshoot the Cancer Center once again. I’m lost and have to figure out how to get back to Beverly Boulevard. By the time I get to the parking lot, I have five minutes to check in for my appointment.

I go into the lobby and get in the elevator, my mood descending with it. It’s as if a time machine hurtles me back the five years. The fear and disbelief I felt back then reappear like spectral holographs, hemming me in. I start repeating the mantra my cousin told me, “Cancer is a word not a sentence,” but then I think, what does she know? She’s never had it.

I check in at reception, get my wristband and go to the waiting room. It’s filled with men, women and children who come and go as if they’re playing musical chairs. The teenager who’d come down in the elevator with me starts to pass out. His mother calls out for help and a white-coated man rushes to grab the kid before he hits the floor. This mustn’t be an unusual occurrence because no one pays much attention to it. Or maybe it’s because I’m a writer that I watch it all—the mother sagging against the wall for support, then straightening up to shuffle along side the wheel chair, her hand hovering over the boy’s shoulder.

I finally get called. I go into the examination room and the transformation is complete. I’m a cancer zombie, again. This sterile, cold room with its diagrams and cancered models of female parts is where I was given the diagnosis. That moment starts instant-replaying in my head.

It’s better when the young resident comes in. She asks me questions with a caring and attentive air. The doctor breezes in, trying to look like she doesn’t have a dozen patients waiting for her. As she examines me, she asks what book I am reading. We always talk books. When she finishes the exam, I sit up. She is pleased, finding everything healthy. “You’ll get the PAP smear results in a week,” she tells me. “I’m sure the results will be negative.”

Once I’m dressed, I walk to the elevator, keeping my eyes on the linoleum floor, not looking to the left or the right. It’s become a ritual of safe passage. I come out of the building and stand on the curb, waiting for my car. The warmth of the sun soothes me. I hadn’t realized how cold I was. My hands are like ice.

For some reason, tears fill my eyes. I really can’t tell you why.