My breath was hijacked, optimism instantly atrophied, and tears of recognition erupted in endless supply, as once again, disease eclipsed our world.
In an all too scientific and rehearsed way, she explained that this was a cancer of the myeloid line of blood cells, characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells that accumulate in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells.
The irony that it was Good Friday was not lost on me.
I told her I loved her, and that I was on my way. I hung up the receiver. Head in my hands, I lost it. I fell apart sitting there in the dark office.
I was completely apprehensive about this trip to Ireland. Mom had been in the hospital for about two weeks now enduring the incredibly aggressive clinical trial to attack the leukemia. As bad as it had been watching her endure the chemo and radiation side effects with the breast cancer, it was a walk in the fucking park compared to this.
I would go to visit her, and I would literally have to turn away and will myself not to break down when I saw her. She was as reddish-purple as a plum, bald, swollen, throwing up, her mouth and throat so full of sores that she could not eat even if she wasn’t puking. She would smile and say, “Yeah, I know, I look pretty shitty, right?” She would do anything to wipe the pain from my face and reassure me, but it was horrific.
Somehow, we managed to laugh, which enriched us with intermittent bursts of solace. The nurses in the oncology ward became like family. They loved her, she had a magical optimism and way of keeping everyone laughing in spite of it all. Mom was a fighter, but she was kind and funny as hell, her room may as well have had a sign on it that read “Karen’s Comedy Cancer Club.” She had taken to wearing a rainbow-colored Afro wig instead of a bald head or normal wig. This looked great with her purple skin and hospital gown.
One afternoon I was sitting with her on the hospital bed, telling her that I didn’t think I should go to Ireland, it was no big deal, I would stay with her and I could go another time. Her words, “Are you crazy? You are fucking going and that’s that! Then we will have something new to talk about when you get back.”
At the time, her mother, my grandmother, was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. I held her hand and said, “God mom, I sure hope I get Alzheimer’s before I get cancer so I don’t remember it.” We laughed so long and hard sitting there on that hospital bed. It is my best hospital memory.
August 14th 2001 also happened to be the day before her 56th birthday. After the weird conversation with her in the morning where she admitted to not feeling too good, I left work around 11am to pick up her birthday present before I headed over to see her in the hospital. I was walking around the mall, and had just purchased a necklace for her; it was a delicate gold chain with a tiny golden angel. This was to be her guardian angel while I was away, and I was going to tell her that as I clasped it around her neck before I left. I had just put the necklace in my purse when my phone rang.
It was her doctor. “Tracy, your mother has taken a turn…”
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“I need you to listen to me. I need you drive safely, but get here as fast as you can.”
All of the blood rushed from my head as my feet blindly raced to my car in a panic. I called my dad, hysterically crying, he was on his way and would meet me there as fast as he could. I called my brother who lived in Ocean City, which was about 3 hours away if he hauled ass, and he was on his way in the same blind panic.
It was a blur. I drove about 100 mph, I flew into the parking garage and ran up to her floor, it had taken me about 15 minutes to get there from the time I got the call. I will never forget the image.
Running down the hallway, I had a clear view into her room. The door was open; there were half a dozen doctors and nurses around her in full on emergency mode. I was looking at the bottom of her bed, with doctors all around her, and beyond her figure in the white hospital gown with little maroon diamonds all over it, I saw her bent arms, postured up near her chin which was tilted towards the ceiling. “Clear!” as they placed the paddles on her heart again. They had a pulse, and they let me into the room to see her eyes rolled back in her head, jaw hanging open, neck arched back.
I grabbed her balled up hand, “Mommy, mommy, hold on, I’m here, I’m here…” as I cried hysterically they began rolling her out on the gurney. Her doctor told me quickly, because obviously time was of the essence, that she had a seizure, her heart stopped, they were able to get it going, but that she was in a coma.
I was in shock, literally. I found my dad standing in the hall and threw my arms around him and cried. Through the tears I told him what I knew. He comforted me, but didn’t know what to say. There was nothing to say. I told him to call everyone and to let them know. Then a woman I will never forget let me into a private room, she was about my age, and she told me that she was a grief counselor. Her name was Heather, and she answered all of my questions to the best of her knowledge, and was genuinely kind and compassionate. She knew I was in shock. She asked me if there was anyone I wanted her to call, if there was anything she could do for me. I just sat and cried. I couldn’t breathe. I waited for news of my mother.
At some point, my brother came flying in the room, looking as if he had just run the 3 hour drive. We held on to each other and cried as Heather brought him up to speed. Finally the doctor came in. She explained that mom’s breathing had stopped, that she had a seizure, and her heart stopped. They shocked her back, but in the time she was out, the loss of oxygen to the brain had caused a significant amount of damage, and that she was in a coma.
Would she wake up? Would she be able to talk or walk? Would she be able to breathe on her own? These were all unknowns, but were highly unlikely. Heather walked us down the hall and into mom’s room in the ICU. She had a tube down her throat breathing for her, a heart monitor, a catheter, a direct line into her arm with fluids, another with medication, as she lay there, staring at the ceiling with fixed, blind eyes, fists balled up to her chin.
The look on my brothers face as he saw her killed me, absolutely killed me. He lost it, I lost it, and there is nothing worse. We both went to her bed and held her hands, crying, telling her we loved her and that we knew she was in there and that she could hear us. We kissed her head, we rubbed her arms, and we fell apart.