Would-be birthday and the summer that wasn’t

Today would have been my mom’s 82nd birthday.

Any other year would have me looking forward to about 10a, which was the appropriate time to call and wish her a happy birthday. I used to call earlier, but over the past few years, she’d developed a habit of sleeping in a bit later. Since this falls on a weekend, chances are we’d probably have been at her house for a visit, likely having a nice dinner tonight, complete with cake and candles.

But not this year.

Mom died on August 17, just two days past the fourth anniversary of my dad’s death on August 15.

She’s been gone exactly seven weeks today, and I miss her so much. My heart aches each time I habitually pick up my phone to give her a call, on my way home from work when traffic makes the trip longer. My heart aches more when something happens that I want to share with her, or a question pops into my head, to which only she would know the answer. But now my commutes are spent listening to music or in silence. And my questions remain unanswered.

It all began with a phone call in late March, when Mom told me she had pneumonia. Naturally, I was concerned, but she was a healthy 81. And with the exception of swiftly defeating an early-stage breast cancer in her late 60s, I struggle to remember a time when she was ever sick. But this would be different. I thought this was just a temporary sideline.

“They found something on the x-ray,” she told me a few weeks later.

The calendar began filling with more medical appointments and tests. Then came the words “cancer” and “oncologist.” However, it wasn’t until the biopsy that I truly understood the depth of the situation. Until then, by the way Mom spoke of it, the “something” the doctors saw was small. When the oncologist spoke with us and brought up her recent scan, I wasn’t surprised to see the small glowing area in her lung. What I wasn’t expecting was watching that small glowing area grow larger and larger as he progressed through the images. “This is a significant mass,” he said, and I read the prognosis by his expression.

By the end of May she was using oxygen 24/7. Radiation therapy was determined to be the best course of treatment, which she began in the first week of July. Treatment, it turned out, was more of a hindrance than helpful. After just five days of 15-minute zaps, she took a drastic downturn–no energy, no appetite and a drastic decrease in her strength. Walking from her bed to the bathroom–just a short distance away–was impossible to do alone. We rallied quickly and determined Mom would come live with us. She was a hard-sell on this idea, which I completely understood. She didn’t want to leave her house. Period. This, I believe, is where she felt closest to Dad, since she was surrounded by all reminders of him. But the fact of the matter was, she couldn’t care for herself. When I proposed the choice between our home or assisted living, she grumpily decided we were the better choice.

“Geez, you don’t have to sound like that about it,” I said, laughing. “We’re a fun bunch!”

She smiled. Well, kind of anyway. The problem was, in addition to not wanting to surrender her independence and leave all her memories of Dad at the house, she was determined not to be a burden to anyone. Fiercely determined. No matter how much I reassured her that she could never be a burden to us, still she worried.

As the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I worried to myself the entire two-and-a-half hour trip from her house to ours. I’d never cared for anyone with more than the flu or post-surgery. I knew we had the local Visiting Nurse Hospice lined up, but that was only a couple times a week–what on earth were we going to do the remaining time?

Turned out all my worries were for nothing. I won’t say caring for a terminally-ill person (especially when that person is your parent) is easy… not by a longshot. However, even when I felt like I was doing everything wrong, we were reassured by those whom we trusted that we were doing fine. More than fine. It was clear, however, that “doing fine” and “feeling fine” are two very different things. Receiving reassurance that what we were doing was commendable, didn’t help the fact that we were literally walking Mom to Heaven. The time we spent with her was precious in every sense of the word, but incredibly heartbreaking as well. Watching and monitoring the process of death is excruciating, and when I inevitably prayed for God to ease her suffering, I felt guilty and extremely selfish. One of Mom’s nurses eventually mentioned it’s common and completely OK to feel relief when a terminally-ill loved one dies. I was grateful to hear that, because I wasn’t easily reconciling the grief/relief combo in my head.

In the end, and now looking back, I feel at peace about Mom’s time with us, her journey and our roles as care-givers. As with my dad, I held her hand until her last breath. Letting go after that moment, I realized Jesus now had one hand and Dad had the other. All was well.

The span of Mom’s illness and her time with us completely spanned the kids’ summer break from school. In my head, this is why it’s “the summer that wasn’t.” We were consumed–mentally and physically–with her care. And while I wouldn’t have done it any other way, it didn’t escape my notice that our 10-year-old was along for a ride that most certainly didn’t boast all the fun and excitement summer vacation usually holds. But this young man of ours… let me tell you… not one complaint, eye-roll or sigh of discontent. He rolled with whatever came his way, usually with his iPad or a book in hand. (Well, mostly the iPad.) We’ve mentioned to him a few times how much we appreciate his attitude and willingness to go along with whatever we needed to do for Grandma, and he’s said he’s glad we could have her with us. Bless his heart

One of the biggest silver linings of the entire situation was the fact that we were able to host my brother and his family every weekend Mom was at our house. Being that he’s nine years older than I am, we were never super close growing up, then I moved away after college. Being able to have him, my sister-in-law and their entire family here every weekend was amazing, and I love the new direction our relationships found.

I’ve been told by a few people to do something today that Mom would love to do. As I responded to one, “Mom swore by convenience store vanilla cappuccinos, and as much as I love her… no. NO.”

Even if I sub-in a nice glass of wine later tonight, I’ll probably buy some scratch-off lottery tickets and see if I have the same luck she always seemed to have with them. And anyone who knew my mom knows that I’ll do this while watching Wheel of Fortune.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you and miss you.



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