Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mom...

My mom, Sandy, was born in the same bed her mother and grandmother had been born in, and she was raised on the same farm that had fed and sheltered all the generations of our family as far back as our written history in this country records...back to our Cherokee fore-mothers and Gaelic ancestors. She was the 3rd of 6 children, and lived in her head quite a bit more than the others. She loved books for as long as she could remember, and read across genres with great curiosity. She was kind-hearted and had gentle hands, and longed to heal the broken things she saw in the world around her, both human and animal.

She was a healthy, happy, and homeschooled child who grew into a quiet, intelligent and interested young woman who decided to become a nurse. Her life changed dramatically on this day 37 years ago, on her 17th birthday. She was home after her first semester away at college, trying to recover from what everyone assumed was a lingering strep infection and exhaustion from a busy term, when she collapsed and was taken to the emergency room in the adjoining county. That day she found out that she had Hodgkin's disease, which is a type of lymphatic cancer. Today, Hodgkin's has a nearly 95% cure rate, but in 1971 (and especially in rural Appalachia) she was given a less than 10% chance of survival, due to the pervasive nature of the cancer in her system.

The oncologists told her that her death was imminent, and that they were going to give her a month to "get herself together" before doing an all-out assault on the cancer in a last-ditch effort at remission. She went home and shaved her head and then got married to my father. He was the boy next door. They'd known each other all of her life and had been dating for a year. He told her that he'd marry her for 6 weeks or 60 years, no matter how hard things might get, and he lived up to that promise even when nobody around her would have faulted him for giving up.

They told her she wouldn't survive the radiation, but she did. They told her the treatments made her barren, and that she would never survive to parent, so she gave birth twice and raised three motherless children into adulthood. She went into remission early in treatment and was declared "cured" on her 21st birthday.

Chemo and radiation had left her lungs and bones weak, and she was sick throughout much of my early childhood. She frequently taught our little crowd of kids from her bed. When she was well, we followed my father's ministry to the deep, dark, and horrible corners of the world. She brought the light with her. Her laugh was infectious and her voice in song would silence a room full of chattering people.

When she was 32, she got cancer in her left breast. There was more chemo, more radiation, and a partial mastectomy. I rubbed her aching feet as she prayed to live, and held her trembling head as she begged to die. Her chest wall was fragile from previous harsh radiation, and this second set was brutal and bordered on illegal. She literally reached the legal limits for lifetime exposure to radiation, and then got a bit more before the authorities caught on to the plan.

She survived again. Three times in her early thirties, we sat vigil at her bedside when they told us she would not survive the night. Each time, as morning dawned and she still breathed, she would look us in the eyes and say, "~I~ will tell you when I'm leaving, and today is not that day."

That was her mantra for the rest of her 30's and her early 40's. "Today is not the day I die." That was frequently followed by, "and I will rejoice and be glad in it". The second was her favorite line from a frequently sung hymn. When she couldn't walk or care for herself, and when her voice was so burned from chemicals that she could no longer sing and was barely able to whisper, she'd sign "REJOICE" to each of us as she sent us out the door to our lives. We sang for her. We lived big and open lives because she needed that for us. We rejoiced when most of us would rather have been weeping.

Her mid-40's brought uterine cancer, a 3 valve heart bypass, and the loss of her second breast. She was bed-ridden completely by 47, except for one miraculous year in 2003, where she had a completely stunning recovery and managed to travel the country, see Disney World with her grandchildren, and make good on lots of plans that had been on hold for decades.

In 2004, her cancer returned (metasticized breast cancer)in her head. She battled it via surgery and injected chemo, since she could no longer tolerate radiation. She won that battle, even though nobody expected it, but it was a very shallow victory since it left her entirely bedridden again and unable to care for herself. It took her freedom, but it did not take her faith or her sense of humor.

Throughout that period, and right up until November of 2006, she ended every conversation with, "I love you, and I'll let you know when I'm ready to go." In November of 2006, she started ending conversations with, "I'm so tired, and I love you so very much." We found out in December that the unthinkable had happened. After 25 years, her ORIGINAL cancer had returned. She had Hodgkin's lymphoma through her entire lymphatic system. Doctors told her to fight it. They told her that Hodgkin's is the most curable cancer on the roster. They told her she could fight again, and maybe win. It would be hard, it might be useless, but she COULD fight.

For the first time in her life, she said no. In her journal she wrote, "Life is a journey, and sometimes the road take you right back to where you started out walking. Hodgkin's disease formed the life I lived. It was the fire that forged my strength and my soul, and now it's the fire that lifts my ashes into the wind. Cancer isn't winning, because I am walking away from the game."

She told me she wouldn't die before Christmas. She didn't. She promised my father she would not ruin January, because it was his favorite month. February is the month for big changes in our family. Half of us have birthday then, and all of our closest relatives have died in that short but busy month. My mother last spoke to me at 8pm on the 31st of January. I was in Florida, and she was hospitalized for a routine procedure to ease reflux pain. During our last conversation, she told me to not let my emotions ruin my children's vacation, to kiss them all and tell them that she loved them, and to make sure that my Dad was not alone in February. When I protested and pleaded, she ended our conversation with the word I had feared for my entire life. "I'm ready to go, and now I've kept my promise to let you know. I'm tired and this isn't fun any more, and I've got bigger things to do that this body isn't made to handle. I love you. Get some rest."

She kept her promises. Always. She died on February 1, 2007. We didn't tell the children until we returned home. My Mama came home to the home she'd been born in, and she rested there until she was buried a few yards away under the dogwood she'd had planted for that very purpose when she was 17. I kept my promise and stayed in Kentucky until mid-March. It's what she taught me, and it's what I'll teach my children. I'll teach them that life isn't always fair, and it sometimes hurts even if you're doing the best you can to do what is right. I'll teach them to laugh, to sing, to keep their promises, and to REJOICE. And, most importantly, I'll love them just as much as my mother loved me.


Thanks for reading, if anyone actually made it to the bottom.

4 comments:

Piseco said...

Thank you for sharing your Mama's story... some parts of it I knew, but I hadn't heard it as one cohesive story before. What a sweet and loving way to remember her on her birthday. ((((hugs))))

Anonymous said...

Wow, Leigh. This is an incredibly beautiful tribute, and your mama would surely be proud. I wish I could have met her. I hope that writing it all down helped you feel close to her on her birthday, and gave you a reason to smile through the tears.

Love you,
Paula

tara said...

Oh, Leigh. I'm crying. Your loss saddens me.

This piece of writing is something I'm going to come back to more than once. The way you've captured your mother's life is amazing. But you've captured a whole lot of other truths about life - truths that I'm still learning.

Thank you for sharing this.

Heather said...

What a beautiful post about your mom. I'll try to think of her on the days that being a mom seems rough and remember that it could be so much more difficult.