Thursday, March 30, 2006

A Place That Isn't Sad

Written by Antheia

Earlier this week I drove my mother to her final chemo treatment. I’m used to celebrating final chemo treatments with huge parties for my patients… I always order a cake, decorate the clinic, and use my “discretionary funds” for the purchase of a big ticket item that the particular child has been hinting that they wanted. Ending treatment is cause for celebration, it is an end to the nausea and vomiting, the end of the fatigue and body changes. But for my mother, the end of treatment marks something very different, it’s not so much a victory in her case as much as it’s throwing in the towel, she didn’t cease treatment because her cancer is in remission but rather because she’s exhausted all medical options. She went home at the end of her last treatment to prepare to die.

I’ve sat with her during every treatment. I remember the first time she went in for chemo, and the nurse warned me that I may want to step out of the room for my mother’s “port access” which involves inserting a needle into a reservoir which is surgically implanted beneath the skin of her chest to administer the chemo directly into an arterial vein. “Do you think that you can sit through this?” she asked.

“I’ve been through worse,” I responded, slightly turned off by her insinuation that I wouldn’t stay. I didn’t know if I had actually been through worse, but I knew that in order to get through the following minutes, the following days, and the following months of a seemingly endless treatment, that I needed to convince myself that I had.

The truth is, there’s nothing worse than watching someone you love being injected with a medicine that makes them sicker than the disease itself ever would. There’s nothing worse than watching someone you’ve known all your life morph physically and mentally into someone you don’t even recognize. All of her hair has fallen out strand by strand, she wears brightly colored scarves as if covering up her bald head covers up the fact that she has a debilitating disease when the truth of the matter is that there’s an emptiness in the eyes that gives her away, an emptiness that cannot be concealed with a scarf. My mother, who once ran the Boston marathon, has resorted to using a wheel chair when she has to travel a distance farther than the space between my living room couch and the bathroom. I was wrong to assume that I’d been through worse, because I hadn’t.

I suppose that I have been grieving over some sort of loss since the moment that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. For with this sort of diagnosis one can never return to the state of normalcy that they once inhabited before, and you mourn the loss of that normalcy. Once you’ve been to a place where you understand the limitations of the human body, where your life becomes about treating a disease, placing eating, sleeping, and breathing at a distant second, when you’ve been to a place where every treatment is nothing more than the role of a dice which has an equal chance of working as it does of not working, can anything really be “normal” after that?

I know that my mother is grieving too. She’s trying desperately to make amends with her own parents, to contact friends from college who have only existed to me in stories and year book pictures, and she’s trying to give me a lifetime’s worth of motherly advice in a Reader’s Digest sort of version. Today we talked about my future wedding, her advice for throwing an economical yet elegant reception, tomorrow she’s going to attempt to teach me how to make chicken catchatori and canolis. I know that it will give her comfort and closure to teach me these things, as it will give me comfort to hear them.

I’ve given my mother a lot of gray hairs, and caused her a lot of worry. She hasn’t been perfect either. We have spent years of our lives yelling at each other, and even longer not talking to each other at all. I had always held some resentment towards her for not being able to give me a happier childhood. There have been many times where I have run away, I’ve moved out in an angry outburst, there have been many times where I thought that I didn’t need her, that I could let her go. But now that I’m staring at that as a reality, staring at a life without her, I realize that I would not choose it. I did need her, and I do.

I have thought about the should haves, the could haves, and the what ifs, as I’m sure my mother has. I regret the hurtful things that I’ve said over the years, and have attempted to barter with some sort of higher power for more time with her, time that I think will remedy our relationship, to make everything right.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to focus on happier memories; otherwise the guilt associated with all of the could haves will swamp me. I need to think of how my mother would always wear this horrific pin that I made for her in kindergarten whenever she’d go out for a fancy dinner. I giggle to think of my mother’s gorgeous cocktail dresses, or suit jackets with this pin made of puzzle pieces and puffy paint on the lapel. She knew that if she didn’t wear it, that it would hurt my feelings-- so she pretended to love it.

No one has had a perfect childhood, and yet everyone’s childhood is filled with perfect moments. I need to focus on those moments, because when she’s gone that’s all I’ll have. I need to think of her in a place that isn’t sad.