Day 321/365 Her Lens

I have told the story before about how, after my father’s death, I became more keenly aware of a lack of photos of my mother. The reason being, she is an avid and talented photographer, thus is always behind the lens.

When I mentioned this to my mother, she said, “When I die, I will leave behind photos of all of the people, places and things that I loved…as they were through my eyes. Isn’t that better than a bunch of selfies?”

I was so struck by that, as was my daughter, Beau, who heard my mother say it. She still brings it up now and then…remember when Nana said…

My mother’s photography is how she expresses her love of the world…of her world…to all of us.

It is her. 

Nine months after her husband’s death, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I cannot speak for her, because it begs a question I have been afraid to ask, but…

If my partner…the man I had loved for fifty-five years had just left this Earth, I think I may have wanted to die, too. If the doctors told me that if I did nothing, I would soon be with him…I may have curled up and quietly said, “As it should be; take me too.”

My mother didn’t do that.

She chose to fight for her life…and I know in my heart that she did it just as much for us as she did for herself…perhaps for us even a bit more.  

I was there with her every step, but I can never truly know how awful it was for her – still freshly grieving while enduring a heavy course of chemotherapy, followed by major surgery.

I marveled constantly at her strength, and I was frequently overwhelmed by gratitude for all she was willing to endure.

She fought. She struggled.

She did not pick up her camera for eight months. She did not share her view of the world. I think it was just too dark a place.

In late April she was given a clean bill of health. She was (is) considered cancer free.

Florida bound for our annual family trip, she brought her camera.

Once again, she was ready to show us the world through her lens.

Day 294/365 (You Don’t Have To) Do It Yourself (This Time)

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she was caught completely by surprise. She had not felt the least bit ill.

It was odd explaining to my daughters that their Nana is sick.

She certainly didn’t look sick.

As time went on, the chemo treatments did what the cancer had not – they made her feel incredibly ill. It’s surreal, watching the nurses don smocks and gloves to protect themselves from accidental contact with the very concoction that will soon course through my mother’s veins (and believe me I don’t blame them one bit).

“We aren’t supposed to come into direct contact with it,” the nurse explains without a touch of irony as she hooks the bag of poison up to my mother’s chest.

I’ve had to explain to my girls that it is the medicine that is making Nana sick….but it is going to make her better. I’ve reassured them that when she stops getting the medicine, she will feel well again.

It’s a bizarre concept, one that I can’t really expect my 8 and 11 year old daughters to understand. Even I have been worried that it isn’t just the chemo.

Mom got really sick last week, so sick that they had to give her a blood transfusion and suspend the chemo protocol for an extra week.

We were all scared by how sick she got, and we felt a mixture of relief and disappointed that her treatments would have to extend a week further into February.

We knew she needed a break, but we all just want it to be over…especially my mother.

In the end, the week “off” ended up being a real gift. She actually had the opportunity to feel well. This is a woman who is accustomed to being in perpetual motion; who never ceases to amaze me with her style, and her passion for do-it-yourself home improvement projects of all sizes.

Lately she has felt winded simply by walking from one room to another. So you can imagine what a wonderful surprise it was when, one morning this week, I walked into her house to find that she had been repainting her living room….changing the wall color and adding an accent color on the fireplace mantle. “I have never liked this wall color – it’s too green….and the fireplace is supposed to be a focal point…and I’m finally going to put in a gas insert,” she announced, pleased with herself.

In that moment I could have cried from relief and joy.  To see that it was actually true, what I’d told my girls. It really was the chemo that was making her feel so sick, and she will feel better when it’s over (and the tests show it’s working, too).

Yesterday she started back up again with the chemo. Two more treatments spread over four weeks. We know what to expect this time. We know it will take all of her strength to get to the other side of this.  It’ll be an all-hands-on-deck kind of month – or at least a one-hand-on-deck at all times kind of month.

She will not have to do this particular “improvement” project herself. 

I have no doubt she will get back to her (no doubt, serious) DIY backlog when all of this is behind her.

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Cheers to that.

 

Day 280/365 The Wind (A Flashback)

Early morning, September 22, 2017…

Standing on my front porch with a warm cup of coffee between my palms, I assess the damage. Strong winds from a tropical storm off the coast have been lingering for days. The street is littered with small branches, and leaves torn prematurely from the trees. Trash cans are overturned in the street.

“Distress is the wind spirit of transformation” he’d said, when I had told him how I was feeling the day before.

As the wind whips the hair around my face, his words seem eerily prophetic.

I brace myself for the day (…weeks…months) ahead.

I have known of her diagnosis for less than two weeks. She kept it from us all, wanting to soak up the rest of the summer without being weighed down by sad and pitying expressions on the faces of her children and grandchildren. She still insists on keeping it from the kids. She doesn’t want them to worry.

“Mom, where are you?” I hear a small voice call from inside the house. Ruby peeks out the door and then steps out onto the porch. “Is it going to clear up today?” she asks.

Not today,” I reply.

“Are you okay?” she asks, searching my face.

I force a smile, “Of course I am! We’d better go, or we’ll be late.”

Moments later we arrive at the bus stop. I hug the girls, and watch as they climb onto the bus and find their seats. I smile and wave as the bus pulls away, suddenly aware I’d been holding my breath.

I exhale loudly.

I stand there in the parking lot, feeling raw and exposed to both the howling wind and the fearful anticipation of what lay ahead. I would be driving Mom to her first chemo treatment this morning.

I turn and see him standing there beside his truck, watching me…waiting to offer a hug or a few words of support. He’s one of the few people who knows of my mother’s diagnosis.

As I walk toward him he asks, “How are you?”

“Fidgety.” I say, looking down at my shaking hands.

We lean into each other. He wraps his arms around me. I try to relax into him, but it seems an impossible task. I step back to look him in the eye. “This is going to be hard,” I say. He nods, “I know.”

I notice we are holding hands. I realize don’t know if I grabbed his hand or he grabbed mine, but it doesn’t matter…neither lets go. I am grateful for this moment of comfort. I lean into him again, and he wraps his arms around me once more. I want to hide here, sheltered from the wind…and from what lay ahead.

Hours later I find myself sitting beside Mom in the infusion center…another loved one hooked up to hanging bags, tubes and wires. I startle every time the IV peeps…flashing back to January in the ICU with Dad.

In some ways it’s harder to sit beside someone who is conscious. I didn’t have to pretend to be brave or strong or optimistic while sitting beside my dad. He couldn’t read the fear and sadness on my face, nor hear it in my shaky voice.

I know I need to dig deeply for my inner strength…for her and for myself.

“I’m tired of feeling like a perpetual damsel in distress…”

That’s what I’d said, as I was telling him about my mother’s cancer diagnosis, right on the heels of grieving the loss of my father a few months prior.

“Distress is the wind spirit of transformation…” he’d said.

And so it is.

Day 253/365 No Words

Chemotherapy is the oddest thing. My mother didn’t feel the slightest bit sick until they started trying to cure her…until they started pumping her with poison to make her well. I spend time with her almost every day, but sometimes (more and more often) I don’t know what to say…

Everything I say seems wrong.

If I am happily talking about things I’ve done or plans I’ve made, that feels wrong. She isn’t getting out much these days….certainly she isn’t planning trips or buying concert tickets.

When I find myself complaining about my ordinary, day-to-day woes, their triviality hits me.

My problems are small.

I suddenly feel small.

Insignificant.

Helpless.

Sometimes I just sit quietly. I listen. I know that just showing up is much more important than finding the right thing to say. Nothing feels right at the moment, and no words will make it so.

Perhaps (I hope), ‘I love you’ can be heard the loudest,

when it’s quiet.

Day 238/365 The Elephant Revealed

“…and so I start chemo next week,” she said, exhaling.

My heart started racing the moment she told me I should sit down. Then it all became a blur of words like “tumors” and “biopsies”.  I struggled to bring this information into focus – to process what she was saying.

She has cancer.

She’d known for a month. She’d gone to all the tests and consultations before telling any of us. She didn’t want to ruin the summer, she said. “You had so many fun things planned. Why would I want you to spend the month worrying and waiting for test results? Besides, it would have ruined my summer too…all the sad, worried faces.”

“Mom, I can’t believe you’ve been going through all of this alone.”

“I wasn’t alone,” she said, “Your father was with me.”

I crumbled.

Initially I was angry at her for not telling us right away, although I soon realized I probably would have done the same exact thing. We’ve all been through so much. She wanted to spare us all until she had all of the facts – a plan of action, answers to the questions.

I wasn’t angry at her. I was just really f’ing angry. Period.

When is enough, enough? Can’t we cry “UNCLE”?

It had only been eight months since dad died from a heart attack.img_3696 My parents met when they were fifteen. Twenty years ago he had a heart attack, and she had breast cancer. Obviously they both survived that time around, but now…it was all lining up too eerily. I couldn’t help but think that maybe they are simply a matched set, meant to be together. It is a thought that is both romantic, and terrifying.

Not her, too.

However…

The thing about my mother is, she is one of the strongest women I know. If she sets her mind to doing something, she will find a way, from moving an enormous piece of furniture she has NO business moving on her own (because she couldn’t wait for my father to get home! Lord, no!), to starting her own business, to standing up to a bully neighbor.

When it comes to cancer, she is already a survivor. 

If she doesn’t believe she is ready to leave this Earth, I have to believe she isn’t going anywhere. Not without a hell of a fight.

So, we have our weekly “date” at the infusion center, she and I. Every single week she tells me to just drop her off and go home…or to the mall, or something (the chemo infusion takes 3-4 hours).

The thing about stubborn, strong women is that they tend to birth other stubborn, strong women. So of course I insist on sitting there with her, whether she likes it or not.

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Mom, I can’t do this for you (not that you’d let me), but I can do it with you.

We’ve got this.