I had just parked for a meeting in Sarasota, Florida. As I opened the door my phone rang, it was mom. That morning she had sharp pain in her chest and went to get checked out, but all tests were coming back perfect. We talked an hour earlier and she had a clean bill of health and was in the best shape of her adult life. She was waiting for the results of one last test to rule out a blood clot, but that wasn’t likely. I thought she was calling to let me know she was home.
“My cancer is back and it’s bad, really bad.” She said through gasps and tears. I sat in the silence of the parking lot, my left foot on the ground and right foot still inside. The shock was so abrupt I froze, emotionless and motionless except for my hair being tossed by the warm breeze. It seemed like a dream, not real life.
I lifted my foot back inside and shut the door. I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but I do remember my hands shaking as I called in to my meeting to tell them I wouldn’t be joining.
The flood gates opened. Realizing my mom could be gone soon touched a deep place which hadn’t seen the light of day. It was close to an hour drive home and I started that way. I could barely drive and pulled over to call a friend and fellow firefighter who lived nearby. He didn’t answer so I texted him and somehow made it to his driveway.
Just as I parked a fierce Florida torrential downpour hit. The heavens opened and I walked out in middle of it and stumbled towards his house. I looked up to see through the buckets of rain falling like marbles that Randy was coming down his front steps. In the front yard, in the pelting rain we came together in a wet, heavy, heaving, heap. It felt like a scene out of a movie: friendship and love and sorrow in a driving thunderstorm where tears were indistinguishable from rain and coming just as hard. Randy held me while I cried and he held me until I wasn’t crying. We barely talked and didn’t need to. I drove home soaked to the bone and heavy with grief, hurriedly packed a bag and set off on the 6 hour drive north to be with mom.
Early on we mostly believed science and doctors and precedents. What a blessing and a gift and a torment this journey has been. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office seven years ago when my mom asked about how long she had.
“It could be as few as six months and best case is two years. And we can keep you comfortable, you’ll be able to live a fairly normal life,” the doctor said with certainty.
It was quiet in the sterile office that was too small for all five of us. My brother was sitting with his arm around mom. The doctor was on his little wheeled stool while my step dad and I stood together in the corner. The air felt as still and as heavy as my heart. Certain words seemed to hang in the silence… Comfortable… Fairly normal… Months… The afternoon sun fell in through the window as I stared at a shadow on the floor, it felt like my soul was drowning in a shadow of what could have been. What right did this old man in plaid socks have to set a time limit on my mom’s life?
“Ok.” Mom said through tears and sniffles. Her voice cut through the silence and snapped me back from imagining life without her.
We all left the tiny office and the family walked into the elevator. Just as the doors began to shut, I hopped out and went back to find the doctor. I knew him well since he’d been mom’s oncologist for three years, always giving her a clean bill of health until abruptly changing it to a death notice. I shared a few thoughts with him. It probably wasn’t one of my finer moments. My last statement touched on the fact that my mom did not have a countdown timer glued to her forehead. Although part of me believed him and his timer… the rest of me hoped.
Early on I was sad for the future me without a best of all best friends. I was sad for my nieces who will miss out the most loving and fun Grandma, and all her kisses and hugs and treats. I was sad for the rest of the people who leaned so much on her love and care. I was sad for my step dad and worried about how he would continue without her. My heart sunk with the weight of knowing what mom would have to suffer through, physically and mentally. I knew she would be scared for many of the same reasons and more. I spent so much energy in “what if”. I tortured myself imaging worst case scenarios. Often I was so tied up in my head that I missed out on the beauty of what was happening in real life.
And here we are: seven years later and many tears and many thank you’s and I love you’s later too. I sit here today in awe. We had no idea. Mom’s health is pretty much the same as the day that faulty timer was stuck to her forehead. This is beyond imagination. Mom has put on a show of how to live beyond.
She relentlessly lived from her heart and went beyond what everyone thought possible. Chemo has been kicking her butt every three weeks for 7 years straight. She is a superstar at the cancer center. She walks in as normal as can be. Then she comes home, sleeps, lives through pain and fatigue and all the nastiness and within about a week she rises up like she is walking out of a fog. She works her way back to walking 5+ miles a day and living a totally normal life. Then Bam! It’s the third Tuesday again. She gets knocked down, and begins the recovery. Over and over, she’s done this 120 times.
Around the time of her diagnosis was when the love of her life started having the first signs of dementia. She lived through her husband’s confusion and constant misunderstandings and also lived through her confusion with what would happen to him when she was gone. She cared for him when she desperately needed caring for. She worried for him when there was nothing she could do but wait. Then she endured the heartache of him being taken away from her, and then gone in an instant. It’s been 8 months since he passed and the grief still brings her to her knees. And she keeps going.
Mom and I have continued to sink closer and closer. Our views on Life, on death, and everything in between are different now. We’ve had many long talks and walks and many adventures too, all of which could have been the last (and some I really thought would be the last). We’ve splurged on a Broadway show that brought her to tears (and then she broke 2 ribs falling in a New York City subway car, but still road a bike through central park!). We’ve hiked to the middle of a raging river in Jamaica and been pummeled sitting under a waterfall. We’ve trudged to the top of sand dunes in Canada’s Yukon desert, walked along glaciers in Alaska and snorkeled in the Bahamas.
One of the most memorable of the “wow” times for me was when mom flew out to Oregon in the summer of 2019 to Coddiwomple and wander with me in my trailer. On her first day there she tripped at a gas station and broke her face on a curb, leaving her with swelling and a nasty black eye. I thought our adventure was over before we started, but nope! We threw some ice on it and she kept on going. On a whim we drug my Airstream up a steep, winding, and rarely traveled single lane forest road high into the mountains. We found a spot for my trailer that was on the edge of a cliff and overlooked towering firs out to an almost eye to eye view of Mount Hood. When mom got out of the truck and realized we would be living in this beauty she stood there in awe and said “I can’t believe I’m here… I mean, here… and here… I wasn’t supposed to still be alive.”
Me too, Mom. And what a treat to have you here.
What makes me giggle now is: she was always going to still be here… we just didn’t know it. I don’t know if we would have experienced all of what we’ve experienced together had we known we had many more years. What a gift, packaged in an unexpected wrapper.
And here we are…
There are real life heroes among us and I get to call one Mom. I’m guessing today will be a day to celebrate. And yeah, occasionally we remember that every day is.
Cover Photo by Kristy Halvorsen: Mom walking along Saint George Island with a uniquely shaped thunderstorm in the distance.
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