Two years ago, I sat in a Chili’s inside the Detroit Airport, waiting for an update from my sister, who was at the hospital in Yakima, while my mom was having her second brain surgery. The plan was to go in and remove the metastatic tumor they had spotted on the ultrasound/MRI, with the expectation that things would go like they had after her first surgery, and the removal of the tumor would increase her mobility, decrease her pain, and generally relieve the pressure inside her scull.
My sister had been sending text updates throughout the day, but when I got the text that was sent to both my brother and I, asking when we would be available to talk, I knew that this was different. Something had gone wrong and my sister had the horrible task of bearing the bad news. I left my food and money on the table, grabbed my suitcase, and headed out of there to get to some place quieter where I could hear the news.
Sure enough, when they opened her up, they realized that the mass they had identified as a metastatic breast cancer tumor was not a tumor at all, but rather necrosis—or an accumulation of dead brain cells, a result of the intense rounds of radiation she had undergone. They stitched her back up, knowing that there was nothing they could do—she would not have any relief after this surgery, and her speech, mobility, and overall function would begin to decrease as more brain cells died. They decided not to tell her right away, as she had such high hopes going into the surgery and they didn’t want to crush her spirit, which would need to be strong if she were to heal from such a serious operation.
It had killed me that I was missing this surgery (even though I know all you can do is sit in the waiting room, for some reason it feels so much better when you are THERE). Everything had seemed fine a few weeks prior at my wedding, but they knew even then that something was up and they were waiting for the doctor’s next orders. They had decided not to tell me until after the wedding and honeymoon were over because they didn’t want to dampen the festivities. This work trip had been planned for months, and I didn’t know until the week prior that she would be going in for the surgery. I was only halfway through the trip, with one week spent in Ann Arbor and the second week in Washington, D.C.
Immediately after that phone call, I was boarding my plane for D.C. when my phone rang again. This time it was my boss, calling to see how my first week of training had gone. She could tell something was wrong, and when I told her my mom had gone in for surgery and it hadn’t gone well, she told me that I should come home immediately. I wanted so badly to run off that plane and jump on the next one back to Washington state. But I didn’t. I knew that if I showed up unexpectedly, mom would get suspicious. I also knew that from the first moment of her diagnosis her motto was “we’re not going to let cancer ruin our lives—we don’t want it to ruin yours either.” She had sent me off to live in Ireland a mere three days after that, so I knew she would insist that I finish out one week of training in D.C. I also knew that there was not much I could do—and if I changed my mind later in the week, I could always get a direct flight back from D.C.
As our flight ascended, we hit a storm. I have never flown through anything quite like it—dark clouds, lightning, and plenty of turbulence. But a few minutes later, we had risen above the storm, where we were met with beautiful, soft, fluffy clouds, a gorgeous colored sky and a peacefulness in direct opposition to the storm below. I stared out the window the whole time, tears streaming down my face, as I realized that I had just experienced the perfect metaphor for my mom’s journey. She was going through a storm, and it was going to be tough and dark and ugly. But it would be momentary. And then she would rise above it, and get to spend eternity at peace in heaven.
I made it to D.C. that night, and not until I was checked into my hotel room and snuggled in my bed did I call my husband to tell him what had happened. That seems so weird to me now, but having only been married for three weeks, I was still used to processing things on my own and I wasn’t quite sure what he would think of it all. I told him about my decision to stay for the week of training and he was supportive of whatever I wanted to do. I made it through the week, although I have to say I was quite distracted, and only ended up telling one of my colleagues about what was going on back home. I called the office frequently—my family away from family—who cared more about how I was doing than how the training was going.
At the end of the week my husband picked me up in Seattle and we drove to Yakima to visit my mom on her 57th birthday. By the time we got there they had already moved her into an assisted living facility, as her health had deteriorated fast after surgery and she needed around the clock care. That was the last birthday that we got to spend with her, and even though I don’t remember doing anything special, I am oh-so-thankful that we were able to be there with her.
I’m not sure why I choose to share this now, having never told anyone about it before. I guess maybe it’s part of my new year’s goal to “deal with my grief”…or maybe it’s because this week would be her 59th birthday. All I know is that it still brings tears to my eyes to think about that moment on the airplane—and how true of a metaphor it was. Mom’s storm lasted for another 6 months (which was much longer than the 30-90 days predicted by the doctors) before she got to ascend in peace. It’s a great reminder that life here is only temporary.