When I first arrived at work, I called my mom in the hospital, like I did every morning.
On this particular morning however, she sounded extremely tired, confused, and even admitted to not feeling very good. Chemo will do that. She sort of dropped the phone/hung up after I told her I loved her, and that I would be over on my lunch break to visit before my trip. I was already hesitant about the trip, but we had booked it five months ago, before she was hit with the diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, and she was insistent that I go.
This was the day before my boyfriend and I were to fly to Ireland for the wedding of our close friends. There were about twenty of us going over for a week. It was August 14, 2001 when I got the call.
Mom was originally diagnosed with breast cancer five years prior, in 1996 when I was twenty-five. I was living in Maryland, putting my college education to work waiting tables. My entire world capsized when she gave me the news. Subsequently, 2 months later, my best friend Judy, was also diagnosed with the same thing. I started popping Prozac like tic-tac’s that month.
Mom had a degree from Gettysburg, English major, psych minor, but that did not pay the bills after my father left her with two young children in 1978. While working shitty jobs, trying to keep clothes on our backs and a roof over our heads, she somehow managed to put herself through an additional two years of college to earn her business degree. In 1984 she began working for First Financial Group, and within a few years, she started her own subsidiary of the company, Equity Benefit Consultants. She climbed the corporate ladder with tenacity, and in the span of about 10 years, she now held the title of President and CEO.
At the time of her initial diagnosis, I had little first hand experience with cancer. My father’s mother died of it when I was only about four. Once when I was staying with them in New Jersey, I came in one morning and climbed in bed with them to watch cartoons. I noticed my grandmother’s hair all over her pillow and I remember being somewhat fascinated by it. When I asked her why it was there, she told me that it was because of the medicine she had to take. She died a few months later. Strangely, I remember her very clearly, particularly her red purse that always contained sticks of Wrigley’s gum for me.
My mother’s father died of cancer when I was 16. My grandfather and I had been very close, and I loved him dearly. He had colon cancer, which spread to his brain. It was heartbreaking and utterly confusing to watch. Here was a man who was seemingly made of stone, a transplanted New Yorker and WWII veteran, always full of humor, love and moxie. Whenever we saw him, within seconds he would point to his stomach, and say, “Go ahead! Hit me! Right here, as hard as you can! Feel that? It’s like a rock!” And then he would lift his pant leg and pound on his bulging calf muscle, “See! Look at that! Like a rock! Feel that! Go ahead! Hit it!”
Suddenly, the man who was always so loving, funny and caring, was spewing obscenities at my grandmother in front of the entire family across the Easter dinner table. She tried to smile and brush it off and pretend like this was all normal, that he was joking or something, but being the oldest of five younger cousins and my brother sitting there, I knew it was anything but a joke. There were many tears as our parents later tried to explain to us what was happening.
Not long after that incident, my mom came into my bedroom one morning, sat on the side of my bed with tear-stained eyes, and gently told me that grandpa had died. I sat in my room and cried, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “In The Evening” over and over. That was the extent of my experience.
They had found a lump in my mother’s breast, biopsied it, and determined it to be malignant. Within a few discombobulated days, she had a partial mastectomy, and began an aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and radiation. This became the center of my universe. She had never remarried, and I was taking her to and from the hospital for chemo, and staying with her at her house to take care of her on many occasions. There was the nausea, the vomiting, the diarrhea, the oxygen tanks, and the horrible mouth sores.
Her white blood cell counts were not coming back, so on the recommendation of her doctor, she decided to endure a new treatment which was having much success at the time, stem cell transplant. The high doses of chemotherapy and radiation used to treat some cancers can severely damage or destroy bone marrow. A transplant replaces the stem cells that the treatment destroyed. Basically, they would just about kill her dead with chemo, then inject healthy stem cells into the marrow of her hipbone from a matching donor.
She was in the hospital for a while, sick, bald, throwing up, mouth sores, edema, you name it. It was excruciating to watch, but there was nothing more my mom hated than being looked upon with pity. She would make me come with lists of jokes and funny stories to tell her. You would have thought it was a comedy club in her hospital room. We would have all the nurses laughing, and mom being mom, laughed her way through the painfully grueling months of treatments, with her unyielding attitude of “fuck this cancer, watch, I’m going to kick it’s ass.” With incredible strength and fierce determination, that she did, all the way into remission.
After five years without recurrence, she was considered in full remission, and in January of 2001, we popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
On a typical hectic Friday at work, it was about 20 minutes till quit time, I was doing a final press check with a client when I was paged over the intercom that I had a call. It went into one of the offices that had been vacated early in lieu of happy hour and picked up the phone. It was mom, and she asked what I was doing after work? Duh, I was going to happy hour like every Friday, which would continue until birds chirped. She asked if I could come over for a while, and all of the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I asked her tentatively what was wrong? She said nothing, in such an overly casual way that I knew it was terrible. “Mom, seriously, you have to tell me, what’s wrong?”
She asked if I was alone, and if I was sitting down. Fuck.
She had gone to the doctor a few days prior because her ankles got all weird and swollen, so he ran some blood work on her. She told me that the results came back, and that she had something called Stage 4 Acute Myeloid Leukemia.