Nearing the end
I've avoided writing an update post about myself the last few months, years, really, due to my mother's situation. In her shadow, I always felt my fears and post-cancer "news" were silly, were inconsequential.
But I've spent a long time in this shadow, so I guess I'll start from the beginning. And it'll be through my lens, not hers, so forgive me for some relaying some facets of this situation that may seem hurtful to her. But she will not be reading this. So, I admit, I'm being a coward and writing about it now.
In 2012, my mother's breast cancer returned. She was given a vast, and cruel, prognosis of 5 months to 15 years. She was told at the time that it was slow moving, and that although it had spread to her breast, liver, bone, and lungs, that all in all, they would treat it as a "chronic illness." This proved no comfort to any of us, really, when at its base, it was still a Stage IV, AKA terminal, diagnosis. Each year, we wondered if it would be her last, if the end was nearing. Every interval of decline, every ER visit or spread, would indicate as such.
But generally speaking, for about three years she was, essentially, okay. She lost her hair again, and was a cancer patient again, but she had her faculties. But around 2015, she began to get worse due to the spread to her spine, the pain exacerbated by any slight movement. The protocol, whenever something new sprouted up, was to "zap" - her term for radiation - the problem, and switch up her chemo cocktail. Time crawled on, and she grew weaker. Her mobility suffered, eventually moving from a cane to a walker.
Amid ALL of this madness, I was diagnosed in 2016. This awful, horrific "I have cancer too" dynamic caused our relationship to strain. And this is so sad to me now. But then, I was angry and hurt. My mother's chosen tactic for "facing" anything difficult up to that point was a mixture of denial, outsized confidence that she could surmount obstacles others could not, sheer stubbornness, and self-absorption. For instance, as I navigated treatment--treatments she'd gone through herself--I'd call her while in pain, hoping for a sympathetic ear, a Mother. However she'd respond with a story about herself-- about how she handled the same issue. And perhaps in efforts to calm me, she'd relay her experience flippantly, off-handedly. How it wasn't an issue for her. How strange. That enormous shot you had to get in your spine, the one reported to cause crippling pain for most everyone? Hm, well, I never felt that way, it never bothered me...
I'm sure in her mind she believed she was "relating" to me - but I saw it as her denying me my pain, that she dealt with it in a superior, stronger fashion. She was not a caring mother lending a sympathetic ear in these days. She was not capable of this. Living alone, and dealing with a worse prognosis, everything was about her, and had been for some time. There was not room for my worries, my fears, because I think in a way they threatened to bring hers to light, something she chose doggedly not to do.
In August of 2016, the same week I was due for breast surgery (lumpectomy), my mother started falling, and it was determined the cancer spread to her brain. The week ceased to be anything about me, and all about my mother - my worries swept under the rug for the more dire situation: my mother likely not making it through brain surgery. But she did make it through, and afterwards, She didn't ask me how my surgery went, and yeah, I know, boo hoo, but I felt neglected, dismissed. Afterward, it continued. One example: my mother chose to send out her email announcements about her own status, her own issues and health updates, on Wednesdays. I'd get these emails as I sat in my chemo chair. Wednesdays were my treatment day. I'd stare at the email, wide-eyed. She knows what day it is, doesn't she?
Between the two of us, the situation has been frightening and exhausting and at times, seemingly never-ending.
But what has become very apparent in her sharp decline the last few weeks, is that it will end. Recent falls, caused by more lesions in her brain, have led to a steep decline in her mobility (she can't walk at all, at this point) and cognition. She now needs 24/7 care, which eclipses the cobbled-together care team of friends (mostly friends, mostly her angelic, wonderful friends) and family. So as of yesterday, hospice has been invoked.
It's just been....a lot. The prior week, Mike and I spent hours in fertility offices and my oncologist office, trying to build a future, trying to hope about kids and a normal life. On my way to a CAT scan my mother falls, lands in the ER, and sharply declines from the same disease that I just so-called "beat". I try to cling to moments of levity. She eyed me yesterday with a strange scrutiny. "What?" I asked.
"So do your students say anything about your hair?" she asks back. I stared blankly at her, confused. She clarified: "With how you wear it the way you do. Do they say anything?"
I try to disentangle myself from an imagined shared fate. I try to stop the voice that says, "You will be her someday. Why would you be spared, if she's not? What makes you so special?" That voice is insidious and ever-present and terrible. It prevents me from feeling relief or happiness at my own good news, like sharing my husband's enthusiasm over trying for a child in a couple months.
It's been year after year of scare after scare - blood clots, surgeries, ER visits, last (maybe) Christmases. Re-configuring responses to people who innocently ask, "How's mom?" and feeling, again and again, like the Girl Who Cried Wolf.
But now it's all coming to an end and it's just as awful as we all imagined it to be - it's just as painstaking as I feared. I wish I could say it wasn't. I can only hope that there is light at the end, that I can have a portion of my life unencumbered by emotional distress and fear. Mike sent me a quote, which I've been running over and over in my mind:
“The future bears down upon each one of us with all the hazards of the unknown. The only way out is through.”
And as KV would say, And so it goes. Onward.