"I don't have cancer do I?" Those were the first words out of my mother Betty's mouth as she came out from under anesthesia. The answer to that dreaded question stuck in my throat like glue. I didn't know how to respond or even if I should respond. How could I tell my mother that not only did she have cancer, it had metastasized already? My head swam and I felt as if I would be sick. Looking at the strongest woman in the world lying in that hospital bed looking as vulnerable as a baby bird was nearly more than I could handle. Apparently, I did not need to speak the words. My face had become a book of sorrow, punctuated by the silent tears rolling down my cheeks. She looked at me, shook her head, and said, "There will be none of that. We will fight this, and we will beat it."
For several months before that dreaded day, my mother had been ill. Abdominal pain and bloating had become the norm in her life. She had gone to her regular doctor, they had performed all the standard tests and had begun treating her for diverticulitis. After several months of treatment, and no improvement, she was sent to a specialist, who then sent her to another specialist and so on. During an examination, one of these specialists felt an unusual pocket of fluid and ordered a CAT scan of her abdomen. It was on this CAT scan that a large mass was seen in her abdomen and a surgeon was quickly consulted. Surgery was scheduled for the next day and the course to the longest two years of my life was set.
During her surgery I was wandering about the hall of the hospital. Having been employed there myself for several years, I could not just wait in the waiting room. I just so happened to see my mothers regular doctor in the hall, and he came over to me. I asked him if he had heard anything yet, and he promptly handed me a Polaroid picture. Not thinking anything of it really, I casually looked down at the picture and realized that it was a huge tumor. Not just ANY tumor, but the one they had just removed from my mother. It was over four pounds, and it looked as angry as I felt. I dissolved into tears, and the doctor quickly realized his error. At that point, I was not a nurse, I was a family member. He quickly gathered me into his arms and apologized profusely, but the damage was done.
So began our long journey. Just like everything else in her life my mother faced this challenge like any other. It was a speed bump to her, and she was not going to let anything slow her down for long. She began her chemotherapy with gusto. It sapped her energy physically and emotionally. She anxiously waited for her hair to fall out. Wondering when that day would come, and when it did, she called me and asked me to come over. When I got there I saw my mom sitting at her vanity with my step dad shaving her head. The site struck like a blow to the solar plexus. My breath left me, and my knees buckled, but she turned to me and said, "At least I have a pretty shaped head." I smiled at her through my tears, and she said, "This means we need to go on a wig hunt." So with that, we laid the ground work for the shopping trip of a lifetime.
The morning dawned bright and cheerfully setting the tone for the day. I met my mother along with my sister Kelly, Aunt Mary, and Aunt Myrtice at my Granny's house. We loaded into the car and went to the beauty supply store that had all of the wigs. I have never seen so much fake hair in my life. My mom quickly whipped the scarf off of her head and said, "Let's get this party started." She began going through those wigs like a whirlwind. She was trying them on left and right, and then insisted that we try them on too. I do not think I will ever forget the sight of my granny in a Dolly Parton wig. Once again, my mother had made what could have been a very sad day into one of the most cherished memories that I have.
Months went by. Chemotherapy, 2 more surgeries, and no more hope. The last CAT scan showed that the cancer had returned, and that any further efforts would be futile. My mother opted to end the chemotherapy. She apologized to all of us for giving up. We all told her that she had fought the good fight and was the bravest woman we knew. Never once did she complain, or ask "why me?" She took it day by day, and day by day I watched the cancer take her life breath by breath.
Christmas Eve 1993, I was at my mother's house. She had become so weak by this point that she was virtually bed ridden. We had acquired a hospital bed and set it up in the living room so we could all be with her, and so that she would be in the mainstream of the Holiday Festivities. We all knew that her time was short, but we wanted to make it as normal an experience for her as we could. After lunch that day, I was sitting by her bed and she said, "I don't want to live like this." I told her that I knew she didn't, and that we would miss her but would be ok. She then turned to me and said, "Geri, I know I'm dying. I want to die before the first of the year." I quickly asked her why in the world she would say something like that and she replied quickly, "I don't want to pay that damned insurance deductible again." I could not help but laugh, and she and I laughed and cried together.
New Years Eve 1993, I had been at my mother's home since Christmas Eve. She had been comatose for several days now. Nothing but an occasional moan from the pain she was in. Morphine was dripping into her veins to help alleviate some of her discomfort, and we were all sitting around feeling helpless and hopeless. My granny had gone home to see to my grandfather for a bit, and we were chatting quietly. We heard my mother stirring in the bed, and we all jumped up and went to the bedside. She turned her head and looked at us all for the first time in several days and said, "I love y'all," and with that being said, she breathed no more.
My mother was only fifty years old when she died, but she lives on in the hearts of many people. I see my mother in the fireflies of the summer. Here only for a short time, but the pleasure and happiness I derive from seeing them will last a lifetime.