This week will mark the 10th anniversary of my mom’s death. It really was a miracle that she lived as long as she did, considering bilateral breast cancer (one side was actually ‘pre-cancerous’ but required a simple mastectomy, but the other side required a radical mastectomy), metastasis to her right lung, and metastasis to the right side of her brain. Those are ‘just’ the cancer sites…she also had other cancer-related diagnoses including seizures that started well after her cancer treatment and dementia as a result of brain radiation. The dementia was the hardest to watch. On March 13, 2003, she died after becoming septic from a urinary tract infection. She couldn’t verbalize symptoms very well, so dad didn’t know how sick she was until she began to have increased seizures and became unconscious during their winter away in Arizona. She had been ‘fine’ the day before, and had been with him at an art gallery. Mismanagement (neglect) by the emergency room where she had been taken by ambulance (unconscious) took away any chance she may have had
(they sent her home when she needed IV antibiotics- not pills and an elderly husband as her only caregiver more than 2000 miles from home)…but dad and I have to look at it this way: at least she didn’t end up in a facility not knowing anybody, and being impossible to care for at home. She survived 17 years after her last cancer diagnosis… I don’t know many people who have survived the all of the various cancers she had, especially back then. If I remember right, her first breast cancer diagnosis was in 1981. Things have changed a lot.
My mom and I were never all that close. For decades, I knew she loved me, but didn’t have a clue if she actually liked me. It was a hard way to grow up, especially when I was little. As I got older (as an adult) and was able to imagine things from a point of view of someone in her situation (she had two newborn baby boys die within two weeks of their birth about 2 years apart by the time she was about 25 years old), it made more sense that she couldn’t allow herself the luxury of being vulnerable to more loss. She was able to convey warmth to her students during the years she taught 2nd grade and later 4th grade and in the resource room at Rockford Christian Elementary School; they weren’t hers to lose; she could risk more of herself… but I never saw that degree of warmth. I get it now. She wanted me. She loved me. And she was terrified of losing me (confirmed by her mother). It’s heartbreaking to look back at what she went through. As a kid, I didn’t get it. I just felt like she wanted me out of her way. I’m glad I was able to get past that as an adult, and feel compassion towards her. She did the best she could most of the time. I may not understand her reasons for some things, but I think most people do the best with what they are equipped to handle. Add the loss of two newborns before her brain was even done growing, and more makes sense. That in and of itself would change her brain chemistry.
As mom’s dementia progressed, she had fewer and fewer things that she remembered and gave her some degree of pleasure. She watched the same movies over and over again, since she remembered them (and do NOT call her while she was watching them, or she’d hang up on you- something she’d never do in her ‘normal’ years). She loved sweet stuff, which I’m told isn’t how she was when she was younger. I do remember her liking ‘Fifth Avenue’ candy bars when we went grocery shopping when I was a kid. She also was quite willing to take my Halloween candy leftovers (I didn’t like Baby Ruths, peanut butter taffy, or most marshmallow candy). All I had to do was sort it, and give her my rejects- and she loved them. During her dementia years, spice drops (gum drops) and Peeps were favorites. I made sure she had gum drops when she and dad visited me in Texas.
Peeps began making their marshmallow candies for holidays other than Easter, so I’d go to the store the day after holidays and buy mom a bunch of Peeps when they were half-price. They hardly weighed anything, so I’d mail them to her in Illinois from where I was in Texas. She loved getting those ‘care packages’. Dad, however, was not all that amused by having to police them, since she’d eat them all at once if left alone with them. This is the guy who would go all over town in July looking for pumpkin pie since mom thought it was Thanksgiving. With the Peeps, he’d hear “I want some Peeps” multiple times a day until they were gone. She remembered they were there…
Whenever I see Peeps, I think of her and the simple things that made her happy during her last several years. As hard as it was to watch her slip away and become someone who was so unlike the ‘normal’ her, it was also so easy to make her happy. I never felt I could do things ‘good enough’ as a kid- it may sound sappy, but I wanted to do something to make her happy when she had so little of her real self left. For dad, it was hunting for pumpkin pie (and other goodies) during the off-season for whatever she had in her head that she had to have. For me, especially before I moved back home to help dad take care of her, it was gum drops when they visited, and Peeps to mail to her. I don’t like Peeps at all. But they do make me smile when I think of how happy they made her . 🙂