On Valentine’s Day I sat at the bar with my friend Anita with a foreboding sense that tomorrow my whole life would change forever. So, I prepared myself (as much as one can) for whatever lay ahead, sipped my wine, and savored the peace of the moment. The next morning, I begged fate to let me stay in bed. Then Audrey’s text message came in telling me that our friend Kelly was taken off of life support. Kelly was only a few years older than me, and it was her second brain aneurysm a month prior that ultimately killed her. I sat up with a start and uttered the word,” Fuck!” and that’s when the phone rang. It was Dr. Eisenbach, and he needed to talk to my mom. Five minutes later she called me into her room with an expression of stunned terror on her face. She told me that she had Acute Myeloid Leukemia and that she had to get to Duke University Hospital that day. It was Thursday. Mom was in a state of shock. As she waited for her friend to give her a ride up to Durham, she tried to find the strength to fight cancer for a third time. She had already won two battles with breast cancer and now there were no odds in her favor, and she knew it. Mom couldn’t acknowledge me when I said goodbye and that I loved her; she could only walk one step forward towards the backseat of the car. I think she believed that if she said goodbye to me or her faithful dog Duke that it would have been her death sentence. I wasn’t strong enough to watch her drive away, so I turned and went upstairs. Duke sat on the landing for weeks waiting for her return. I went to my room, and I cried and screamed into my pillow. Like a selfish asshole, the only thing I could allow myself to think about was how it wasn’t fair to me to take care of the house, four dogs, and my stepfather who is a diabetic with Alzheimer’s and a functioning alcoholic. That Sunday, we video chatted with mom, and she looked healthier after her blood transfusion. Her spirits were high, but her cough was getting worse. On Monday, she ignored my text messages. On Wednesday, she called, but her cough was so bad that she had difficulty speaking. That was our last conversation. I didn’t want to believe that it was going to be the last time I spoke with her, but deep down in my heart I knew that I needed to tell her how much I loved her and that she didn’t need worry about me and my brother if she had to leave us. Her departing words to me were “I love you.” She even programmed her phone to tell me that she loves me every time I power it up. That evening mom was put into intubation to control her respiration, but we had no idea that she would never wake up again. It had only been six days since her diagnosis. On Friday, I got the call from my stepsister that I needed to get to Durham with my stepfather and that my brother and his wife had better make arrangements to fly in from their home in Europe. When I received that message, I began to shake uncontrollably and my arms went completely numb. I couldn’t accept that we were actually going to lose her. When I saw mom in the Intensive Care Unit she was on a ventilator and her appearance was feverish and pasty. She had no less than twelve tubes going into her arms, and she looked awful, but her toenails were perfectly pedicured and fire engine red. Mom always dressed to the nines; she would have been embarrassed by her appearance. I caressed her swollen hand, and she responded with a quiver. I whispered in her ear, and her eyes opened halfway in her unconscious state. She tried so hard to wake up for me, to see me once more. Mom was always the problem solver and the nurturer, so I had to pretend like I was strong enough to cope with all of this. Most days I feel like I am still pretending. I tried to give her comfort with my words; I even joked about what a pain in the ass her husband could be. At that time, we still had hope that her test results would indicate that she was only fighting an infection, not the leukemia. When the weekend was over, I returned to my life and adopted responsibilities, and then we got mom’s test results. They were not good. Her leukemia had metastasized in her lungs and cranium and nothing could be done to save her. The oncologist said that mom knew she was sick but chose to pass it off as depression and exhaustion. In retrospect, I should have been more insistent that she go to the doctor sooner when she told me about her occasional dizzy spells, loss of appetite, and confusion. One night in late November, I found her on her hands and knees on the kitchen floor trying to pick up nothing. When I asked her if she was alright she replied, ”buz I was try to don know bout why iz has to bazzdid.” I thought she might have been having stroke, but I passed it off because she came to rather quickly, and I knew that she had two glasses of wine and an Ambien that night. Even if she had gone to the doctors the next day, it still wouldn’t have been enough time to save her. From her annual blood test, we now know that she developed leukemia within less than a year. On Saturday, March 3, 2018, I waited for my brother and his wife to arrive and we sat in the calm silence of surrender. I had no choice but to accept my mother’s inevitable death because that afternoon we were taking her off of life support.
In the Intensive Care Unit, I spent time with her holding her hand, caressing her hair, and resting my forehead against hers. I thanked her for being my mom and for always loving and caring for me. I cried a thousand tears and told her how much I loved her and that I would miss her immeasurably. My family gathered around her and we laughed and cried and told wonderful stories about her life and how special she was to each of us. As I sat there, I observed life happening all around us. Everything was in perfect harmony and balance. In that moment of quiet stillness when she took her last breath, I stepped out of my discomfort and achieved a clarity of perception that gave me solace by simply being present and mindful. When it was time to leave, I kissed her tenderly on the forehead and whispered goodbye.