Tomorrow will be the twenty-year anniversary of my mother’s death. Breast cancer metastasis. Hers was the second in a three-part string of family cancer deaths, the oldest to go (my dad’s younger sister died not very many years before).
My dad had only just retired from his position as a Geography professor just a few years earlier, and had been teaching classes at the local community college, primarily for the enjoyment of it, and because he’d been asked. The two of them were going to write a textbook together, a long-discussed and long-delayed project. Hydrology of California? Something in the field of physical geography. He had met my mom when they were both graduate students in Geography, and hydrology was her area of concentration. She helped draw the maps for his doctoral dissertation, later helped him craft syllabi, grade papers, and, when he was away, guest-taught his classes. She was always a hit.
We had no idea she was dying of cancer when she was dying. She had broken a bone in April, and the doctors then did not check that her cancer had metastasized, even though she had undergone a double mastectomy and had numerous lymph nodes removed. None of us knew enough about cancer at the time to insist that this, the very most obvious of concerns, be ruled out.
So she spent most of the subsequent five months of her life in a convalescent hospital, watching room mate after room mate shuffle in and out, being ostensibly rehabilitated from this bone break that would not really heal. All this within three years of her mastectomies and chemotherapy.
Every day, my dad would go and be with her for her meals, and for many hours in between. Whatever she wouldn’t finish on the plate, he would dutifully polish off. Partly because he professed a love for institutional food, party because he was taught always to finish his plate, and there hers was, woefully unfinished. So no one at the convalescent hospital knew how limited and waning her appetite truly was. Though had they known, I’m not sure what they would have done.
I was living in Minnesota at the time, my sister in Norway. We went as best we could by our dad’s reports on her condition, and hers. We were busy; we presumed all was well; we worried from time to time, but they each of us assured us there was nothing to worry about, as was their way. During a visit I made at the beginning of the summer, I felt an inchoate fear that something was very wrong, but I couldn’t say what. My sister was visiting later in the summer, and one day found her in a condition betraying the neglect of the convalescent hospital. She promptly brought her home to be cared for by us, for however long was necessary, by us or whomever we could bring to us.
For years and years, I found the discrepancy between the generosity and love that defined the previous seventy years of her life and the these last six months of it nearly impossible to reconcile.
Thus, at home and at long last, began the last chapter of our mother’s life, during which her decline was precipitous. We brought her in for testing to explain an inexplicable loss for words (a lifelong inveterate reader, an avid crossword puzzler), and the neurologist couldn’t explain her word confusion with a stroke. Then he looked back at her April bone break X-rays, and saw lesions all over them. “Like a sponge,” he said.
She slipped into a coma just as we were discovering that it was a metastasis, that she was leaving, that it would be days, not weeks. Ten days later she died, at home, me at her left side, my sister at her right, and Dad at her feet.
These past twenty years have brought a very different landscape than my dad would have imagined. Initially, he saw a good deal of international travel, something he knew he’d have never done with my mother: Malta, China, Australia, Morocco, continental Europe; Norway many times over, to see my sister, or launch a tour from her doorstep. He took a road trip or two with me across the continental US, one of which (the east-west one) began in New York City the day after Gay Pride, another of which (the west-east one) featured my then-fresh sweetie, abiding patiently in the back seat as he detoured (and detoured, and detoured) to take in priceless sights such as for instance Montana’s deepest copper mine. He began to tire of travel, though, eventually saying that it simply wasn’t as fun as he’d expected. Primarily because most often and of necessity, it was solo. His heart, it turned out, was more with people than with place.
He saw several grandchildren enter his life, and one leave it.
Particularly following his first grandson’s death, he has come to be acutely grateful for his good fortune. The speech he gave at his ninetieth birthday feast consisted primarily of an anecdote from his WWII navy service, dramatic illustration of the luck that has followed him life-long. He has charmed everyone who has lived with him in the retirement community he’s called home for around the past decade, from dining hall companions to reading group chums to nursing care attendants. Hell, he has charmed most everyone he’s met. Today, sitting with him, one of his oldest friends, a virtual family member, said to his attendant and me, “He has been the most popular person in every group I’ve seen him in.” She’s seen him in groups since the early 1950s. I don’t doubt her.
The older he’s gotten, the more he has come to believe that the answer to most questions – asked and unasked – is love. Apart entirely from the natural degradations of the years, he has been capable of cantankerousness, of pettiness, even of dull-wittedness, or a willful forgetfulness. He has exacerbated conflicts and allowed some – even those which called for an ethical stand from him – to persevere. His desire to do good, however, has been unflagging.
“Service to mankind, Tom, that’s the thing; service to mankind.” These words of his father’s are among many he has long used as a guide, and pass along.
So here we are. A soft diet, no more solid foods (which he can’t manage safely anymore); an oxygen tank dealing him a continuous low flow, supplement to his tired, wet lungs; round-the-clock attendant care, for those wee morning hours when he may get up, out of habit, and head to the bathroom, there to forget. Or tumble en route. Each has happened.
Words are beginning to detach from their denotative or connotative meanings, and simply flutter around him, like butterflies, or moths. Tones of voice matter; smiles, laughter have meaning. But actual statements of fact: less and less so. When his sense of humor surfaces, which it still does, we who love him are shot through for a moment with the relief of recognition. We are fortunate; he is here, now.