I wrote the first part of what follows over the last week of March, but caring for my mom was taking up most of my time day and night, and I didn't manage to post it.
Last week of March, 2008
My mother, who's in her early eighties, started subscribing to Astounding magazine in the nineteen-forties. Her friend Mimi turned her on to it. Mimi was a physics major at Hunter, where she and my mother went to college, and she grabbed Mom one day and put a copy of the magazine in her hands and said the equivalent of "This is so cool, you have got to check this out." Mom was initially skeptical, but she read the issue and was hooked. Before long she was reading the pulps on the subway to and from school, then later on to and from work. Our apartment was always strewn with the magazines--F&SF, Galaxy, Analog, Asimov's, and many others--and she read every issue from cover to cover.
After getting her degree in English and then deciding she didn't want to be an English teacher after all, Mom taught dance at Arthur Murray's for a while, and then put in several decades at an insurance company, first in the steno pool, then as an attorney's secretary, and for the last twelve of her years there as a paralegal after finishing a night-school program at NYU while she was working full-time and parenting a child and coping with the whimsicalities of life with my father. (They hadn't exactly hit it off the first time they met, but got together after discovering a shared love for A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh.) After she retired from the Equitable, she took a full-time job as parish secretary at our Episcopal church, also serving as a lector and lay minister, and retired from there about twelve years ago, when we moved out of that neighborhood. She'd always been a fantasy reader--Charles Williams, Mervyn Peake, C. S. Lewis, and E. R. Eddison were especially beloved, as was Tolkien--and she loved mystery novels and War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov. She was an English-history buff and an admirer of Elizabeth I. She loved opera and folk music and Gilbert & Sullivan, and had shelves filled with albums and librettos; we had a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera and went to operas there and at the New York State Theatre together for years. She loved Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, Cary Grant and Indiana Jones, Gunga Din and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Partly because of her love of opera and partly because of her love of language, she studied German, Russian, Latin, Italian, and French, and kept a reading understanding of all them as long as she had a dictionary handy; we worked through a teach-yourself-Welsh course together when we were both on an Evangeline Walton kick, and we took Irish Gaelic language classes together. She loved Gormenghast and Majipoor and Middle Earth with all her heart. She loved Kipling's India, and Discworld, and Earthsea; she loved Ellis Peters and Lindsey Davis and Dorothy L. Sayers. She loved E. Nesbit and Diana Wynne Jones and Tove Jansson, she loved His Dark Materials even though it broke her heart, and she loved the Harry Potter series; until she had the last book in her hands she worried that she wouldn't live long enough to get to read the end of the story. She did the Times crossword every day of the week, and all the other crosswords and acrostics she could get her hands on. She kept voluminous diaries and reading journals in a beautiful, meticulous hand.
She hasn't done a crossword or written in her diary or felt like listening to music in a while now. She keeps a Cadfael book by her at all times, and has a pile of Falcos and an Earthsea omnibus close to hand, but she doesn't really read them, just picks them up and looks at them and puts them down and closes her eyes, figuring she'll read when she's not so tired. They're all getting a little ragged from being handled and slept with, the way the things that comfort you tend to do.
She has fairly advanced, metastatic lung cancer and COPD and is increasingly showing symptoms of senile dementia. Throughout the agonizingly protracted diagnostic process (the mass in her lung first showed up on an X-ray on December 3rd, but it's in a tricky spot and two needle biopsies failed to get enough tissue for a diagnosis), she was clear and firm about wanting to fight for as much time as she could get, and she's now three weeks into the light chemotherapy and Avastin treatment proposed by her oncologist. (Without treatment she'd have fewer than six months. If the treatment helps, she might have an eighty percent chance of surviving the year, and could live two years, five years, no one can say for sure.) In February she was hospitalized for two weeks after a fall that may have involved some kind of stroke. While she was in the hospital, a thoracic surgeon did a mediastinoscopy and bronchoscopy that she'd been scheduled to have as an outpatient the day she fell (and which yielded the diagnosis at last), and installed an infuser port. The first couple of weeks she was home, she started eating a bit better and getting stronger, responding well to physical therapy and other home-care-agency support, but the chemo or the disease or her natural decline or a combination started taking a heavy toll, and she's doing rather poorly right now. She's unable to perform any of the basic tasks of daily living by herself. I've become her full-time caregiver, with invaluable help from the RN and home health aides who continue to come three times a week.
The double whammy of cancer and mental decline is a frightening, exhausting experience for her, and heartbreaking and difficult for me to witness and to cope with. Her mother suffered dementia at the end of her life (we cared for her in our house, with the help of a paid daytime nurse, during my teen years), and my mother said to me on numerous occasions thereafter that she had a horror of ending up like that. I fear that her fears are coming to pass, and I don't know if any time she carves out for herself by fighting the cancer will be time she can enjoy. We take each day as it comes and do the best we can. We laugh when we rediscover the grunting noise her big stuffed hedgehog makes when you squeeze it. We sit and watch the early-blooming willow outside her window come into flower.
I believe that good wishes have power, and appreciate all good wishes sent Mom's way.
April 6, 2008
This past Wednesday night, after continuing to decline rather than improve and after a decision to stop chemotherapy and try to regain some quality of life for the time she had left, Mom had severe abdominal pains, and after talking to the on-call RN at the home-care agency I called the paramedics to take her to the emergency room. A CT scan showed an intestinal perforation. She went into surgery at 6am Thursday, where it turned out that the perforation was a rupture; she survived the surgery, but she had become septic, and she went from Recovery into the ICU. It was touch-and-go for a couple of days, but she took a turn for the worse over Friday night. At 6am Saturday we got a call to come to the hospital right away. She died--in my arms, inasmuch as is possible with the tubes and monitors and bed rail and all, and looking into my eyes--at about quarter past seven.
She didn't want a funeral service; she wanted to be cremated and brought home again to be with me, and that's what I've arranged for. Because some people very dear to us have said that they hope for an opportunity to show their respects, there may be a memorial service in a few weeks; I can't make that decision right now. There are many picures I want to share, but they require scanning, and that will have to wait a bit. She contributed to Planned Parenthood, Alzheimer's and macular-degeneration research, various wildlife- and nature-conservation organizations and animal shelters, public television and radio, and the Democratic Party, and she very much wanted the genre magazines to continue publication.
I was privileged to share her life with her for more than half its span, and I grieve past the capacity of words to convey.