**I haven’t done this before, but I felt compelled to share an excerpt from my book in honor of my mom this Mothers Day. This piece is about the love for a mother and unexpected life lessons.**
Working in physical therapy I have seen many diagnoses that included joint replacements, strokes, and balance and muscular disorders. Cancer was one diagnosis that I hadn’t dealt with first hand, active cancer that is. Many of my patients fought cancer in the past but, thankfully, were in remission when I worked with them.
During the period when my mother was fighting her last battle with cancer, ultimately losing the war, I treated several patients with devastating active cancer. Each patient was in different stages of metastatic progression and emotional status. At the time, I tried to compartmentalize what I was seeing and dealing with because it felt like a cruel sick joke from God. Why now, was I starting to deal with patients with cancer? Why now did I have to listen to families talk about how hard it would be to lose their family member? Why now did I have to let them vent about how horrible it was to watch their loved ones slowly die wasting away from the formidable person they were? I knew it all too well and wanted nothing more than an escape. Now, I was getting double doses of it. Work was no longer an escape but another nightmare.
When reflecting on that chapter in my life, I can see Gods reasoning. At the time the complexities of Gods plans were too intricate for this human brain to comprehend. And this is why, at first, I saw it as unfair.
Two patients in particular tested my strength the most. The first patient God put in my path was a female, I’ll call her “Faith”. Faith had a smile that warmed the room and a kindness that said she knew no strangers. Her devoted daughter that was never far from her side and was very involved in her care. Faith loved to talk about how proud she was of her young granddaughter, the star of her swim team. Because of her family, Faith decided she was going to be a fighter to the end.
Faith’s breast cancer had spread to her lungs and liver. Treatments, illness and fatigue had robbed her of her energy and strength. She came to our rehab facility because she no longer had the ability to walk to the bathroom. Faith was fighting, but not to live longer. She was fighting for the best quality of life for the time she had left. She refused to use a bedpan. “ I want to go out with my dignity”, she firmly told me the first day I met her. I remember dreading her. My mothers’ cancer had returned and I did not want to face my mothers’ future through this patient, day in and day out. I could not see that Faith was in fact a Godsend.
We spent our time together learning from each other. I helped her body get stronger and taught her to safely transfer out of bed and use a bedside commode. She was proud and thankful that she could go home with her dignity in tact. While we worked together she let me talk about my fears, my anger and my hurt in watching the most important person in my life dwindle away both physically and emotionally. My mother was not fighting, and I wished she would. Faith inspired me with her strength and determination. She fought bravely, but understood her story was ending. It would only be a chapter in her family’s life and she didn’t want it to be a depressing one. In Faith’s mind this was God’s plan and she would finish her story with happy memories with her “girls”.
I wanted my mother to express that same fighting attitude. It was selfish of me. Faith held my hand and reminded me everyone deals with things differently. Even though I wanted to understand, I didn’t understand. Faith was an unexpected blessing to me. We both gained so much in our short time together. Not long after she mastered her transfers and I had a new perspective, Faith went home with her girls.
I never heard from her after or of her passing. I prefer it that way. Happy in my ignorance, I like to think of her at home being loved by her daughter and regaled by her granddaughter’s swimming tales of glory. Faith taught me that everyone handles life and what hand you are dealt differently. There is no right or wrong way. Sure, I secretly wished my mother had Faith’s moxie and can-do attitude at the end but I couldn’t fault mom for not being able to conjure it up.
As years pass, I start to think my mother did know the end was coming. The chronic pain and fatigue that set in was her warning sign. Mom’s fight to stay clear of doctors for as long as I would tolerate was her way of understanding the end was in sight. She preferred to live out her last days on her own terms and not by a doctor’s definition. For her, too, maybe ignorance was bliss. Maybe it wasn’t denial but her way of choosing to go out her way for as long as possible. She knew if I knew the grizzly had returned, I would have weapons at the ready. Mom heard enough about cancer over the years to know when it returns the battle would be harder, the bear hungrier with less chances for winning. She chose not to fight and to enjoy life, as best should could. Choosing to live without a multitude of MDs conferring over her choices, doling out medications and fearful words and living in a sterile environment was what she wanted. Maybe that was her moxie, rebelling against what family wanted because after all it was her life. It was her right to choose how it ended. She chose to stay home in her haven for as long as possible. I wish I could have realized it. I’m sure I was also in denial of the signs and fed into her reassuring words of, “I’m fine.” Or “ Its not that bad”. I would have soaked her up more.
The next patient I encountered was just a week after my mother’s death. I had returned to work after my too short bereavement leave. I had to go in and work on mild strengthening exercise and bed mobility with a new patient. He was in his late 40s and his body was infested with cancer. Weary from my recent ugly defeat, I felt angry dealing with more of the grizzly’s victims. This man was slowly being devoured and I wanted none of it. My boss questioned putting this patient on my caseload, but on top of everything else, I didn’t want to be a drag on my team so I accepted with my game face on, but anger in my heart.
Standing outside his room, I saw this young man lying in bed, his body a stranger to him. He was white as the sheets his body rested on and weak as a wounded soldier knowing he has fought his last battle. Normally, this sight would evoke sympathy, but it only inflamed my anger. How many people have to suffer through this awful disease? Though not a believer in suicide as an option, I was starting to understand how others came to this decision. Taking a deep breath, I put my tired game face on. I decided to compartmentalize my feelings on cancer and see him as a really weak patient just needing some good strengthening to get him back on his feet. (Lying to oneself can at times get you through a difficult situation.)
As I walked into his room, my game plan came to screeching halt. There she sat. His young wife unable to sit still with bags under her eyes and nails bitten down to the quick. I was in jeopardy of busting at the seams. I was her only two weeks ago. Fighting to keep that loved one alive; knowing that if I failed the grief would eat me alive. Only I fought for my parent, this was her spouse. Her partner that should have at least 30 more years to watch their children grow up and grow old together. Sadness washed over me, but I pulled out enough strength to keep the tears from flowing. I introduced myself and explained what we were to try and accomplish with our therapy session. He was extremely weak and had severe pain from the cancer making a home in his bones. His wife danced around the elephant in the room, speaking of future events while the patient tried to talk about final plans, since he was not in denial land. His lethargy made him appear laid back contrasted his frantic wife. I couldn’t blame her. I may have just lost my mother, but losing my husband would be impossible to fathom.
He was not with us long, as his body continued to fail him. On my third visit, I could not stand to hear his wife in her panicked state anymore. She was concerned when they went home about care and pain medications. Between caring for her children and trying to keep her husband for as long as possible, she was losing her sanity. I decided to pull her into the hall after my treatment finished. I asked her if anyone had ever mentioned “hospice” to her. Her eyes were wide at the sound of that terrifying word. I told her that speaking on the subject of hospice was not my place or with in my scope of practice, so it was completely off the books that I broached this subject. I explained to her through tear filled eyes, the immense aide hospice was to my mother and for my sanity at the end. Hospice should be viewed as a service to help families cope and care for the patient. It didn’t have to mean the end. If he got better (which we knew he wouldn’t), hospice would pull out. I told her a family member helped me see the beauty and absolute need for me to allow hospice to help. Even though they were apart of our lives for only 2 days, I couldn’t have cared for her as best we did.
I knew talking to her about hospice was not my place, but I saw a calm come over her after our talk. The subject had been brought up to her before, but like me she originally rejected it. It took a conversation from someone fighting the same battle, to believe that was the best option. I directed her to the social worker for more details and then proceeded to the bathroom for a good cry so I could continue my day.
He was discharged home a couple days later with hospice. His wife profusely thanked me later for helping her get on the right path. She appeared more focused and prepared. Knowing you have an army of hospice angels at the ready can do that.
I can’t say that these grueling yet beautiful experiences healed me. But I can say they were life lessons learned in unlikely places. As much as I needed to feel angry about my reservation for an extended stay in hell there were newcomers around me in desperate need of a road map. Life and the people in it are apart of a continuous cycle of seasons. We make conscious decisions everyday how we chose to be apart of that circle of life. The length of each season is out of our hands, but how we effect and help lift up others around us is within our grasp. I don’t mean to say that those choices are always easily attainable. Choosing to be apart of those patients last chapter took an emotional toll on a girl who had little left give.
Subconsciously, I think I knew I was the only person for the task, considering my expertise on the subject. Maybe, making hard decisions for the sake of others was a life lesson that assisted me transition from a girl into a woman. Though our seasons together were very short, that had great purpose. As I physically assisted those patients, they helped me not only progress past the anger stage of grief, but gain another perspective of my mother’s journey.
I had only 28 years to enjoy my mother and best friend, but it was a season never to be forgotten, full of immense love, lessons and laughter. One of the biggest lessons she taught me was of putting others first. Being a blessing to someone else will always in turn be a blessing to you as well. I’d like to think even in death she was teaching me this lesson. It’s ironic that when death surrounds you, you can learn the most about life.