Warning: this could be triggery for folks regarding cancer and the recent death of a loved one.
Cancer is no respecter of persons.
We all know this intellectually, have probably heard it many times. There are of course some actions that can make a person more susceptible to cancer, and it’s easier to understand those cases, I think. Even so, some chronic smokers never develop lung or throat cancer, and some lifelong sunbathers never evidence even one tiny tumor. But then sometimes a person who has always been health conscious and responsible about lifestyle choices gets whammied, and it makes no sense. It’s hard to process.
One of my moms is gone. Dead. Whammied by cancer. She will never know whether our unborn child is a boy or a girl, will never hold him or her, will never even see a real photo. At least she did get to see the ultrasound images we got this summer.
Kit died two days ago. She had been in hospice care for five or six weeks, and we all knew the end was coming. Twelve days ago we got a call from Matt’s sister, saying their mother was declining rapidly and it was time to come for a last visit if we were going to do so. Twelve hours later, before dawn on Tuesday, we boarded an airplane.
It was a good visit in so many ways. Hard, exhausting, tearful, but Good. Good for my husband to sit with his mother and visit whenever she was awake and coherent. Good for us to be with the family for some of her last days, to walk that path together physically as well as emotionally. Good for Kit to see Mary being herself in her latest toddler phase, to smile at Mary’s antics and get hugs and kisses from her youngest grandchild. Good to be able to tell her we will take care of each other, and it’s okay for her to let go. Good to tell her we loved her, with runny noses and teary eyes. Good to say goodbye as best we could.
Not knowing how short or long a time she had left, and unable to stay indefinitely because of previous obligations, we flew home on Friday. And then we waited.
We found out about the cancer just over 20 months ago. I have a feeling that Matt and I will always remember it because at almost the exact same time that I was admitted to the hospital here in Denver to deliver our first child, Kit was admitted to the hospital in Syracuse, where they ran the first tests that confirmed that the health concerns she’d been having lately were the result of stage 4 ovarian cancer.
It’s not a nice diagnosis. At stage four, ovarian cancer has a very, very small survival rate. They did abdominal surgery to remove as much cancerous tissue as they could, and as soon as she had recovered enough they began a lengthy chemo treatment. The numbers from her bloodwork improved; eventually she was declared “in remission” and treatments stopped. We found out later that the cancer had never actually been in remission; it was resistant to the type of chemo they used, and the numbers had lied. Increasing pain and discomfort put Kit back into active treatment. The cancer was aggressive and resistant to all the treatments they could try. In early July, they did another surgery; its primary objective was successful, but it also confirmed what the doctors feared but could not verify with external scans—the cancer was still spreading, and had reached her liver. Another round of drugs added to the daily doses, a quick switch to yet another type of chemo. A few weeks later, the numbers showed a significant decline, no improvement. She made the decision to stop chemo and switch to palliative care. The family called in hospice.
Calling hospice changes everything. It is a terrifying relief to let go of the dogged determination to beat this thing and instead accept that the end is inevitably near. It is a monumental paradigm shift, and although it brings relief to the patient and the family, it also brings mourning. And the tension of another sort of waiting entirely.
Through all of this, Kit walked with unwavering optimism. Sometimes we worried that this bordered on denial, but on the whole that outlook served her well. Last winter she was able to come celebrate Mary’s first birthday with us; they had a wonderful time playing with Mary’s cupcake together. She and her husband always enjoyed traveling together, and they did not abandon their plans to spend time in Argentina this spring, though of course it had to be fit between cycles of chemo. Matt’s sister accompanied her when we met them in Florida this summer, for Mary to meet Matt’s grandfather and also to take Mary to the beach for the first time. As recently as two weeks before her death, even after they set up hospice care, she was spending time with family out in their small sailboat at their lake house. She wrung as much life as she could out of the time she had left, despite slowly waning energy and strength.
For nine and a half years I’ve told people truthfully that I felt very blessed and lucky about all of my parents-in-law. Having two mothers-in-law had so much potential to be a wretched disaster, but it never was. Although I know she held regrets about some of her choices earlier in life, they helped form the man I married and the entire family I married into (and trust me, it’s a big one), and it is a good family. Kit got to see all three of her kids grow into stable, caring, productive adults with loving marriages and growing children.
She had a wide and genuinely varied circle of good friends. I honestly never knew what kinds of people to expect when we had a family-plus-friends dinner at her house, except that they would be interesting and, in the end, lovely. And she was always busy, looking forward to the next activity, trip, or challenge even as she absorbed the goodness of whatever she was currently in the middle of.
Even though we didn’t have the sort of relationship that entailed just calling to chat at random times, and even though we saw the world in very different ways sometimes, we kept in touch and she always encouraged me, whether about writing or parenting or loving her son—though seldom in so many words.
Kit was, in truth, one of my moms, and I mourn her loss for my own sake as well as for my husband’s and my children’s sakes.
Saturday, September 13 was Kit’s 60th birthday. Matt’s siblings and their immediate families gathered for a quiet celebration, with a small cake and not much else. Reaching her birthday had been a big landmark goal for most of the summer, but doing so in such a weak state was very bittersweet. But given her love of life and her optimism, it does seem entirely fitting that her last bites of food on this earth were of birthday cake.
Her husband Mark was with her Wednesday when she passed away. Matt’s sister, brother, and sister-in-law had been at their farmhouse for the previous 24 hours or so, helping care for her and making sure her meds kept her from pain and discomfort. We know from several things she said earlier that she probably waited until the three of them left—she didn’t want a big audience gathered around. And not long after her kids got back to their homes in town, she was gone.
Gone, but not really. We carry her in our hearts and our very lives, and, God willing, we’ll see her on the other side.