Cancer Weeds: Cancer

By Spider on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - 11:27 am:

    My mother died two weeks ago. Her endometrial cancer had spread to her lungs, brain, spine, and shoulder, but it was the brain metastases that killed her.

    She hadn't expected to die when she did. She had had radiation therapy on her brain at the end of October/beginning of November that left her so weak she couldn't walk, and although her doctors had told her she would get weaker before she got better -- that's just the nature of radiation therapy -- she never did.

    When I spoke to her on the phone early on during the week of November 13, she sounded tired but generally fine. Tuesday and Wednesday, when I spoke with her she sounded perpetually out of breath. Thursday she sounded almost incoherent, like an Alzheimer's patient. On Friday when I called, her friend answered the phone and said she had been in pain all day and shouldn't be bothered. When I flew into Boston on Saturday and saw her in person, she was so weak she could no longer talk. She could shake her head for yes and no, but if she tried to speak she would mostly mumble incomprehensibly.

    She had brief moments of lucidity in the following three days. She recognized everyone who came to see her and tried to say "thank you" to them as they left. At one point she told one of her friends, "Have a good evening." Her apartment was packed with people -- I, my father, my brother and his girlfriend, my aunt and uncle, my mother's three closest friends, plus other friends, neighbors, and acquaintances....all sitting around the floor in her two-room apartment, keeping vigil. My mother was friendly to everyone; when one of her friends told her mailman she was dying, the mailman started to cry; when her old chemo nurse heard my mother was dying, she offered to come by after her shift and cook her dinner.

    By Monday around noon it became apparent that she would soon no longer be able to swallow her medication, so I switched her over to the oral morphine (you take a syringe and squirt it into the patient's gumline, where it is absorbed without swallowing -- ideally, it's administered under the tongue, but my mother's jaw was clamped shut), and after that she was basically unconscious.

    When I flew into Boston on Saturday, there was a piece of me that still had hope that she would recover her strength, but I mostly understood that she was dying because of how quickly she was deteriorating. When I reached her bedside and heard how incomprehensible her speech was, I broke down. The next three days were the worst days of my life. I had no idea that it was possible to hurt that much. I thought my experiences with depression and anxiety would have prepared me for feeling pain, but this was so far beyond anything I had ever experienced. My mother was dying. The worst part was being torn between wishing this would all be over as soon as possible, so she and I wouldn't have to suffer anymore, and not wanting this to be over, because then she would be gone.

    I didn't sleep for three nights. At night, I took turns watching over her with my dad, but I didn't feel comfortable unless I was next to her holding her hand. At times I couldn't help it and broke down crying with my face in her shoulder, and although she couldn't speak, she squeezed my hand and tilted her head to rest against mine. I felt terrible about that because I didn't want her to worry about me, but I couldn't stop myself.

    On Monday night around 10:45, she began to suffer breakthrough pain. She moaned with every breath, moaned with such effort that she would jerk her body in order to get the sound out, and the bed shook from the effort. I gave her morphine according to her schedule, but the schedule was itself irregular because three different hospice nurses had told me three different things about how much to give her and how often. I had to call the hospice twice that night to ask if I could give her more, and it came to me that no one really knew what to do and it didn't matter how much I gave her and how often.

    At some point the meds kicked in, she stopped moaning, and she fell asleep. Her breathing was regular but a new hiccup began, where she would inhale and then inhale again before exhaling. Around 2:30 am or so, I heard a crackling noise coming from her area and I thought it was condensation forming in her oxygen tube. When I removed the tube from her nose to clear it out, I realized it was coming from her mouth, her breath, and I realized that this was the death rattle the nurses had told me about.

    I got very upset and my father told me to go lie down on the couch in the living room (on the opposite side of the wall where her bed was in her bedroom -- a very small apartment). I laid down on the couch and cried. I cried for a few minutes and suddenly stopped without willing myself to. It was like a switch had been flicked off. I just lay there in the dark, very still, and I became aware of seeing green colors against the dark background of the room. At this point, I had not slept for three nights so I knew my eyes were playing tricks with me, but I continued to lay there quietly and watch the colors swirl around the room.

    Then my father stepped into the living room and although he didn't say anything, I knew. I ran into her bedroom, and she had stopped breathing. My father said she hadn't choked or struggled -- she had just stopped breathing. She died at 3:15 in the morning, on November 22.

    Her biggest fear in life was being abandoned. My two biggest fears for her death were that she would die alone and that she would die in pain or terror. None of those fears came true. She had an apartment full of her friends and family in the last few days of her life, and at the moment of her death, my father had been by her side with me in the next room, and she had died peacefully. This was the best possible death she could have had. I like to think that the strange stillness that came over me as I lay on the couch was somehow connected with her death, as if she were passing over me and telling me not to be afraid.

By moonit on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - 02:54 pm:

    Oh Spider, I am so so so very sorry for your loss.

By Spider on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - 05:51 pm:

    Thank you.

    I have had three dreams in the past two weeks in which she is alive but still dying, and I go through this all over again, crying, telling her I don't want her to die, and on and on. I had told her I wanted her to visit me in my dreams, but this is not what I meant.

    Maybe I dream about this because one thing I did not say to her in the last days was, "I don't want you to die." I didn't want to upset her. I didn't want to acknowledge in words out loud that she was dying. I told her over and over again that I loved her, but I never said that I didn't want her to die or didn't want her to leave me.

    I'm grateful that I got to spend those last days with her. I had envisioned getting the call that she had passed away while I was at work, or in my own house, and how I would react. I didn't imagine being there at the time. At any rate, nothing could have prepared me for the horror of those days. And she died peacefully -- I can't imagine what it would be like to have witnessed her choking for air and panicking, suffering more than she was already suffering.

By sarah on Thursday, December 8, 2011 - 12:46 am:

    that is the saddest, most painful thing i've read for as long as i can remember.

    i am sorry for your loss, spider.

By Dr Pepper on Thursday, December 8, 2011 - 12:53 am:


By semillama on Thursday, December 8, 2011 - 11:11 am:

    I'm sorry for your loss, Spider. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. That was eloquent and moving.

By platypus on Thursday, December 8, 2011 - 12:24 pm:

    Oh, Spider. I am so sorry for your loss, and so glad
    that you were able to be with her at the end to make
    sure she was surrounded by people who loved and
    cared for her.

    Cancer is such an asshole.

By Spider on Thursday, December 8, 2011 - 02:55 pm:

    Thanks, all of you. This feels good to write out.

    In one sense, she's lucky that she died so quickly -- a lot of people with cancer are in agony for months and months and have to have colostomy bags and tubes in the lungs to drain their fluid or have open festering wounds and are in unendurable pain the entire time... And yet she didn't die so quickly that it was a complete shock to all of the rest of us -- we had some time to come to peace with what was happening and to tell her we love her. That's some comfort, I guess.

    The other great thing was that she was herself up to the moment she lost conciousness -- her personality was intact, and she was very sweet and gracious to all of us. I know I've posted about the problems I had with her, and no one is perfect, but she really was a very warm, gracious person the majority of the time. Some of her close friends were people she had met on the subway or other random places -- she would talk to anyone without fear. One time we were in Whole Foods together and she disappeared for a while, and I had to wander all around the store to find her. Turns out she was talking to some woman about having cancer -- the conversation lasted about 20 minutes and ended with them hugging before going on their way. I could never be like that...way too introverted and wary of strangers. But that was very typical of the way she lived. She said that she had been cripplingly shy when she was a child, but I think that had been due to the abuse she had received from her own mother. She continued to have poor self-esteem for the rest of her life, but she became much more outgoing as an adult. (She also had a beautiful speaking [and singing] voice. That was one of the things that was so painful to me as I sat with her in the last days -- that I would never hear her voice again. I had stupidly gotten rid of all the voicemails on my phone in the weeks before she died, so I don't even have a recording of it.)

    I was so, so glad my father was with her when she died. One of her friends told me that a few weeks ago, she had said to them that she was really sorry she had hurt my father when she left him -- this was the first time I had heard of her acknowledging her responsibility in their divorce. I know she regretted her decision because she would often say, "Well, maybe we'll get back together someday..." and I would always answer, "I think he's too hurt for that to happen." My father had refused to visit her in Boston for the entire 11 years she was there, until I begged him to come up on the Sunday before she died. I know that seeing him by her bedside meant an enormous amount to her, and maybe to him too, and maybe this gave them closure.

    I have two pictures of her that I want to scan tomorrow and I'll post them here.

By Daniel on Thursday, December 8, 2011 - 07:38 pm:

    So sorry for your loss, Spider, and though difficult, what an important thing to share with your mother, and with us. Tell us how you are doing now? Need anything?

By Dougie on Friday, December 9, 2011 - 10:26 am:

    I'm so sorry for you loss, Spider.

By Daniel on Friday, December 9, 2011 - 10:47 am:

    keeping you in my prayers.

By J on Friday, December 9, 2011 - 02:13 pm:

    I'm so sorry hon,I wish I could give you a big hug.

By droopy on Monday, December 12, 2011 - 06:23 pm:

    Very sad to hear about this, Spider. All the best

By kazu on Tuesday, December 13, 2011 - 09:01 am:

    I'm sorry for your loss Spider. Much love to you.

By Daniel on Tuesday, December 13, 2011 - 11:04 pm:

    Droopy, is that you? really, now, where the hell have you been? really been missing you.

By Spider on Wednesday, December 14, 2011 - 10:20 am:

    Thanks for your good wishes, everybody. They mean a lot.

    Hi, Droopy. :)

    I found another picture of my mom circa 1978 I want to scan, because my dad is standing next to her and he looks even more bear-like than I remember him ever being and you should see that. She's also standing next to her own father in this picture -- when she was dying, I was really struck by how much she resembled her father, not the least because they were both bald at that point. Her bone structure and the physical gestures she made were just like his.

    My grandfather is still alive, by the way. He's 101 1/2 years old.

By la on Wednesday, December 14, 2011 - 09:43 pm:

    Oh, Spider, so sorry to hear about your mom.

By Dr Pepper on Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 01:04 am:

    Droopy! Long time no hear from you! You alright? What happened to you? You had me worried!

By Dr Pepper on Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 01:07 am:

    I talked to my counselor today, telling her that I have personalty problem, she is going to help me after telling her about my year of emotional issues... she is going to referring me to a specialist soon.. :-)

By Spider on Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 11:05 am:

    Thanks, la, and glad to hear you're getting help, Dr. Pepper.

    Here are some pictures. The one with my dad's amazing beard didn't scan well, so I'll have to redo it, but here are the others.

    These two were taken in June of 1971, in Spain, before my parents were married. My dad was 27 and my mom was 23. I love the second one -- I think it looks like an album cover. (Also, that coat is gorgeous and I wish I had it.)

    This is of my mom at the Grand Canyon, in April of 1972. She was 24.

    This is my favorite picture of my mom, taken some time in the late '80s or early '90s (she would be in her late 30s or early 40s). This was taken at her friend Rose's house (Rose was like my surrogate grandmother), and she's smiling at Rose off-screen. She's the one in the middle, obviously (the other women are friends).

    Bonus picture of my dad at his first communion that I found while looking through these old photo albums. He was 7 and super cute. :)

    I also have pictures of her that I took moments after she died. My dad and I were a little crazy at the moment and thought it would be a good idea to take a picture of her in her bed. Now I don't know what we were thinking and I haven't uploaded them because I can't bear the thought of looking at them. I will say that she looked beautiful even as she was dying, and even after. She had lost all her hair but otherwise looked healthy in her face -- she had great color to her skin, which was as smooth and glowing as ever. She was 64 but had very few lines on her face, mostly a softening of her jawline. The skin on her limbs was dry and thin like paper, but the skin on her face was beautiful.

By droopy on Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 01:53 pm:

    Liked the pictures especially the early ones of
    your mother. Something about those old,
    faded color pictures that seem so long ago but
    don't have that "historical" feel of a black and
    They reminded me that my father had given me (by
    of my sister) a book of old photos from the 70's:
    my long-dead grandparents, young-looking parents,
    the home I vaguely remember, me in 1976 with a
    bowl haircut and plaid pants. bittersweet
    memories. I remember wearing a turtleneck sweater
    to my first communion, because i didn't have a tie
    and the nuns said they'd forgive me if I wore a
    turtleneck. I'm glad there isn't a picture of it.

    Hi to everyone who remembers me at all.

By J on Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 02:47 pm:

    I love the one with her friends,such a beautiful radiant smile.What a lovely lady.
    Droopy,how could anyone forget you? You have been sorely missed.

By Dr Pepper on Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 11:55 pm:

    Thanks Spider.

By la on Saturday, December 17, 2011 - 01:27 am:

    Oooop! Droop!

    And echoing Droopy's comment about the colors. I have a few pictures of my parents in the 70s and they're just beautiful. Fujichrom & kodachrome processing couldn't compare when parts of the process were still analog a few years ago, and of course digital doesn't capture light quite the same way.

By platypus on Saturday, December 17, 2011 - 04:44 pm:

    Hi droop! I have missed you.

    Spider, I love those photos, especially of your
    mother so young in the 1970s. There is a strange
    quality to images of our parents at that age, not
    just one of vintage film, but...something else.

By heather on Sunday, December 18, 2011 - 07:55 pm:

    Wait what!?

    Droop is here?

    Deepest condolences spider. Sorry to be so late.

By Dr Pepper on Sunday, December 18, 2011 - 08:17 pm:

    Yeah, Droop was here, in just case, you missed your bus :-)

By wisper on Monday, December 19, 2011 - 08:48 am:


By sarah on Monday, December 19, 2011 - 11:03 pm:

    thank you so much for sharing all of this with us.
    i love the photo of your mom in the big coat. she
    was so lovely.

    senor's mom passed away very suddenly early
    saturday morning. in a week we'll be flying to
    pittsburgh to bury her next to her mother, father,
    and oldest brother, which is what she wanted.

    we don't know how she died. senor ordered a
    toxicology report, the results of which we won't
    have for four to six weeks. based on the police
    report and talking to the medical examiner, there
    is no reason to suspect suicide or trauma of
    any sort. the only thing we know about her death
    is that she was found in her room on the floor,

    mostly for senor's sake and for the sake of his
    family i am so relieved it doesn't appear to be
    suicide. unfortunately she died completely alone,
    lonely, confused, and without a cent to her name.

    the two good things to come out of this are that
    senor went today and got a prescription for an
    antidepressant (if he stays on it, i can only
    imagine how much our lives are going to change),
    and also that his mother longer is suffering. she
    suffered a great deal most of her adult life with
    increasingly severe and debilitating mental
    illness, so we like to think that her mind is now
    still and at peace. that's what i've been saying
    to reassure Dave, because all of this has been and
    will continue to be really hard on him.

    as senor said to me... he has been carrying her up
    a mountain for 30 years now. he can finally set
    down this tremendous load. but who knows how
    long it will take him to let go of his own
    lifetime of suffering.

By Dr Pepper on Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - 12:38 am:

    Sorry about that Sarah, I won't be taking anti-depressant or anxiety pills, but looking forward to see a different doctor, not the primary one.

By Spider on Thursday, December 22, 2011 - 11:38 am:

    How terrible, Sarah, I'm so sorry. I'll keep you and Dave in my thoughts. Does he have a therapist?

By Spider on Sunday, December 25, 2011 - 03:19 am:

    My grandfather died tonight. He was 101 years old.

By blindswine on Sunday, December 25, 2011 - 08:49 am:

    when my dad found out he had ALS, he just wanted me to read this late 50's translation of beowulf to him and listen to "no tears" by roberta flack. we'd crack up over the vernacular-- beowulf's gear would be described as "tricked out", his demeanor "hopped up"-- and grendel was "wicked evil". he loved that shit to no end. we got the bad news christmas eve 2006 and he was gone halloween 2007.\

    i hope you find strength and serenity in your memories and in their substance. we'll all have to pass through the stinging threshold of death-- there's so much to learn from the lives of those who've gone before. here's to holding on to the past so we can be better people in the future.

    much love.

By Daniel on Sunday, December 25, 2011 - 04:56 pm:

    John gardener's grendel.... Beowulf told from pov of
    Grendel. Delightful. Read me Annotated Lolita when I am

By platypus on Sunday, December 25, 2011 - 10:46 pm:

    Love to you and the fam, Spider. I hope your
    grandfather had a good run.

By sarah on Monday, December 26, 2011 - 12:44 am:

    i need someone safe i can run to for a little
    while til things cool off a good bit. someone who
    will let me cook eggs for breakfast, walk out
    momentarily in the cold underdressed, then have
    nothing else to do but fuck away the rest of the
    day playing card games and dirnkng well drinks and

    all you need is love.
    all you need it love.
    all you need is love, love.
    love is all you need.

By la on Monday, December 26, 2011 - 02:47 am:

    sarah: come to portland! that sounds like my house.

    for extras, there's a cowkitty in the house and a tribe of black kitties in the backyard.


    and i'm sorry to hear about your grandfather, spider. so much lately.

    my grandma died in june. she was the last of my grandparents. i feel so lucky to have had grandparents so long; my sister and i were the youngest grandchildren on both sides.

By Dr Pepper on Monday, December 26, 2011 - 01:03 pm:

    la I have a distance cousin whom I never met, he lives in Portland.

By la on Monday, December 26, 2011 - 01:17 pm:

    everybody's got a cousin in Portland. even me.

By Dr Pepper on Monday, December 26, 2011 - 08:26 pm:


By sarah on Wednesday, December 28, 2011 - 09:14 pm:

    i have absolutely no recollection of writing that. though it does
    sound like something i'd say.

    the funeral home had a big gold tin with their business label
    on top. inside were repackaged chips ahoy.

    senor's uncle gave a very long and eloquent eulogy which
    snapped me out of a not terribly latent disdain for clinically
    psychotic mothers.

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