I’ve realized over the years that there are certain defining moments in life. Much like a movie real, they play out in our minds forever. For me, these moments include the day my husband proposed, the day I got married, holding my children for the first time, walking into my first recovery meeting and the day I found out my mom had pancreatic cancer.
I was 27. My husband and I had been married less than a year and I had just started my second year in my dream job at a local university. Things were finally starting to fall into place and I was looking forward to the future. It was September, the trees were turning and the students were back on campus. It was always my favorite time of year with first year students finding their way and returning students rehashing their summer with old friends. There was a buzz and excitement in the air.
Despite the excitement on campus, I was worried. My mom, who lived in Northern California, had gone in for gall bladder surgery two weeks prior and had suffered some complications. In fact, the small hospital where she lived wasn’t sure what was wrong. At first, they thought she had an abscess on her liver but weren’t positive so had her transferred to a larger hospital in San Francisco. We were all in the dark, wondering what was going on.
It was sometime in the afternoon and I was sitting at my desk, trying to keep busy while anticipating a phone call from my mom. When she finally called, I immediately knew that something was wrong. I don’t remember exactly what she said during that call. All I remember is her saying something about pancreatic cancer and my stomach turning. I had no idea what pancreatic cancer was or even where the pancreas was located; I just knew it was bad. To this day, I have no idea why, but an image of Michael Landon (the dad from Little House on the Prairie) flashed through my mind. In that moment, I briefly remembered he had died of pancreatic cancer and it had been quick. He was the only person up until that point who I associated pancreatic cancer with and it gave me little hope.
The rest of that day is a blur. Again, I have flashes of memories – crying, my husband picking me up from work, throwing clothes in a suitcase and then driving through the night to San Francisco where my mom was in the hospital. It’s hard to describe the despair I was feeling. So many questions were running through my mind; disbelief that we were now “that” family experiencing the big “C” word. I think back now to how naïve I was. Despite my mom having symptoms, which I now know are common with pancreatic cancer, I never once thought she could have cancer. Or, more likely, I never wanted to believe she could have cancer.
Seeing her for the first time since we had found out she had cancer was heartbreaking. At 56, my mom was a vivacious and healthy woman. Sure, she had her struggles, but she was one of those people who truly lived life. She had the most wonderful smile and laugh; people were drawn to her. And, as her only child, we were incredibly close. We had a connection that few mother and daughters have with each other; I knew it then and I know it now. But, that wasn’t the woman I saw when I walked into that hospital room. She was tired and weak and I could tell she knew the future didn’t look good.
Once her oncologist confirmed that she did in fact have stage 4 pancreatic cancer, I immediately kicked into survival mode. It’s interesting how people react differently in traumatic situations. For me, I had to know the facts. How long did she have? What were our next steps? What clinical trials were available? Where could she get the best treatment? But you know what my mom wanted? All she wanted to do was go home. And, that’s what we did. We went home and started the long, agonizing journey of terminal illness.
You always hear people talk about a “new normal” after traumatic experiences and that’s how it was for us. Once we came home, nothing was ever the same again. Sure, we tried, but there was always a heavy cloud hanging over us – the reality that my mom only had a year at the most to live.
My stepdad and I were her primary caregivers and after a lot of thought and consideration, I made the decision to quit my job so I could spend as much time with my mom as possible. Despite being recently married, my husband and I spent little time together that first year of marriage. My time and energy became devoted to my mom. Our “new normal” involved countless doctor appointments, chemo treatments and the dreaded aftermath and waiting anxiously for her next cancer marker results. We bought books on juicing and special cooking for cancer patients; and inspirational books that I hoped would boost her spirits and give her hope. Most of all, we just kept living despite the hopelessness we all felt.
While there were many days when my mom didn’t feel good, she had a number of days, especially during the first few months, when she felt well enough to get out. I loved those days because things would almost seem “normal” again. We would go shopping or to the farmer’s market and she would smile and laugh, and for that short instance everything felt like it was going to be okay. But, it wouldn’t be long before we would be hit with our reality again; the reality that we weren’t like those other mother and daughters walking around because they were living and we were dying. There were many days when I didn’t know whether to cry or scream at the top of my lungs because I was so angry – angry at a God that would do this to us.
I didn’t pray a lot back then. I believed in God, but I couldn’t see how a God who loved me could put me through so much pain. In comparison, my mom had a peace about her that I couldn’t understand. It’s not that she didn’t want to fight; she did, but she also wanted to enjoy the time she had left being at home with the people she loved. She didn’t want to spend her time traveling from place to place, participating in clinical trials that may or may not give her more time. At first, I felt like she was giving up, but in time, I came to realize that what mattered most to her in dying is what had always mattered most to her in living; being at home surrounded by her family, friends, animals and beautiful flowers.
Seven months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my mom died peacefully at home surrounded by those who loved her most. As I held her hand and watched her take her last breath, I experienced a peace I had never known. At the time, I was five months pregnant with my daughter who would’ve been her first grandchild. People talk about coincidences, but I believe coincidences are simply God’s way of showing Himself to us on earth. Days before my mom died, she felt my daughter kick inside of me for the first time, which despite all the pain we had been through, gave us all a sign that it would be okay; life would go on despite the pain and grief.
It’s been over 10 years since my mom died, yet a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of her or wish for one of her hugs. I see her all around me in my children’s smiles and laughter, in my garden and flowers, in something funny I read or hear or in a restaurant I know she would love. I could focus on the sadness of those last seven months we spent together, but instead I choose to focus on the gift I was given of living and learning from her during those months. She taught me what it means to face the unimaginable with strength, grace and dignity. She taught me to follow my heart, despite what others may want or feel is best for me. She taught me that despite pain and sadness, we can always find joy in the little things. Most of all, she taught me that a mother’s love continues on long after she is gone from this world.