My mom surrendered in September 2014 to the metastasized breast cancer that had reached through her body: her bones, her brain.
You didn’t know her. Until the cancer journey, I didn’t really know her either. It was complicated with my mom — she left a lasting, sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful mark.
I don’t know where ‘it’ started, but in July 2013, my mom had a crisis. It had been a long time since one like this; something I was happy to have forgotten how to respond to. Our relationship at that point had a pretty simple rhythm after decades of uncertainty. We held a safe distance by phone, one state to the other, where we could just be mother and daughter. I helped her, but it wasn’t that same flash response that had influenced so much of my path with her.
It would be different this time though.
She had made it in from a crisis shelter and was afraid of surgery. The doctor from the hospital called: she broke her hip, how soon can you get here? Tomorrow.
And that’s how it began.
An unexplained hip fracture, a very successful surgery, and a fantastic recovery despite some harrowing emotional moments. I wrote a blog about it and thought, wow, who knew a broken hip could bring us together like this. I was hopeful, despite the challenges, and she inspired me. You can read that first post and you might understand better.
But it wasn’t just a broken hip, that’s the thing … and everything really changed.
Her health took another turn, only this time she wasn’t in a shelter, or the apartment she had abandoned when all this began — she was in a rehab/nursing home. I had visited, kept pictures of her progression and then the decline. She and I were both asking a lot of questions about what was going on with her health. She was clearly in a lot of pain at times, but with the hip surgery, no one was listening to her explain the type of pain.
You see, my mom had this history: ‘mental illness’ — and it easily permeated everything people saw in her; especially doctors — it often made them not listen to her.
The minute someone read her chart, they would see this label for her struggle. And the pain? Sometimes the response was: she just needs to toughen up and get through physical therapy. We’ll give her more pain meds, that should help. I would struggle with these options because of my mother’s history; often pain meds only magnify confusion in patients, and sometimes depression. There were no answers coming. ‘We’re not entirely sure what’s going on.’ I heard that one a lot.
No one seemed to be able to recognize that on top of the pain, her endocrine system was failing, slowly drifting instead of healing. She nearly died at that point.
The hospital team found the tumor — it was unmistakable when they diagnosed it, and it had spread extensively.
She had been in pain because she had cancer.
Once they stabilized her endocrine system and she was starting to feel better, they told her.
She made a clear decision: no surgery, no chemo, no radiation. We had conversations.
I had to be sure she knew what was happening and what not intervening could mean. Her response was determination. She would live with cancer and we would not be talking about it. The doctors started her on hormone therapy and gave her anywhere from one month to ‘many months’ and said repeatedly that I should ‘be prepared’ for her loss. That without surgery, there was nothing they could do.
Only one doctor said ‘no one really knows.’
My mom would go on to live 10 months.
There’s a story in those 10 months, but my purpose for this story, my getting to know who my mom really was happened in the end, especially the last four days.
She had kept the pain at bay. Not that she wasn’t in pain. Sometimes very much so. But she had recovered at the end of 2013 enough to move into assisted living, and was walking with only a cane assisting. The staff really liked her, she socialized so much more than she had in decades. People seemed to care about her. That wasn’t new, but given her history, no one was focused on the mental health or necessarily the cancer, and she preferred it that way. She liked her independence. She wanted to make her own decisions. And she was not giving cancer any of her power. I could ask how she was doing, but she refused to talk cancer. One person even thought the cancer was in remission.
She was tough like that, until she simply couldn’t be.
Her last year was hard sometimes, really freeing at times too. But you’d have to understand, really understand, cancer was nothing compared to some of my mom’s struggles in life. This at least was tangible (the body), it had a name that made people care, and even though I knew I would lose her, it did feel that she was coming alive in a way she hadn’t since I was a child. I didn’t spend my time with her mourning; I opened up my heart even more and just go to know her and tried to listen to what she needed/wanted out of her life. As simple as that life was; it was her life. I felt more like a friend at times than her daughter, and it helped us both.
I don’t think you know how close you can feel with someone though than in the moment when they decide they are ready to die. That moment happened with my mom.
We were on the way to the hospital. This time by ambulance.
Her pain had become unbearable. It was the beginning of the last days of her life and there, with this total stranger, my mom says to me, ‘thank you for letting me die.’ I knew what she meant: she could count on me to let her go. She was done fighting.
The pain had crossed a threshold.
The doctors had showed me the MRIs just weeks before at our last ER visit. It was clear the cancer would not be stopped. I had been having those horrible talks: the different ways this could go … talks she couldn’t have.
How much did she understand what was happening? All that seemed to matter was that it was happening. You have to come to some pretty deep acceptance on the spot to show up as that person you must be for someone who is dying.
I had not come for this visit to watch my mother die, and suddenly there it was: all I could do was capture the last moments and memories, make her laugh, forgive her few moments of anger, and trust that it would go quickly. And it did, in a way.
But it was still so painful, for her and for me. But would I have made it something else, if I could rewrite it? Is there a better way to die from cancer? I don’t think so. It’s a path that my mom chose wisely. She did not spend her last year fighting with chemo and surgeries; which would have been so exhaustive given she was Stage 4.
She fought with her mind, and her desire to live. And she did live.
People remember her with that strength and beauty that was such a core of who she was, despite everything that had happened to her in her life.
My mom was on one medication to manage her mental health, the smallest of doses. She was her own woman, on the inside. No, she could not do everything she wanted. I did have to play that guardian role sometimes, for her safety. But I did not take over her life, her decisions, or ever keep her from choosing what should wanted for her own body.
I was her advocate though, ’til the end. And I have these wonderful last pictures with her and my cousin in the hospital bed. The friend side, the daughter.
She was so tough and funny. Moments that would probably only mean something special to me or someone who loved her.
And then suddenly there were these quiet seizures and her body just started letting go. In one moment I held her head in my hands and thought oh god, she’s going to die right here like this.
But she didn’t.
It was ‘tomorrow.’
And it was quiet. Within hours of finally winning the battle over hospice care.
She wasn’t able to speak anymore, but I could feel her still there. I said a prayer for her gentle release and told her she was one of the bravest people I’d ever known.
I sat down to finally eat something, looked up, and she was gone.
That’s how it was. Just like that. Her struggle was over.
And so was mine. All the years since her breakdown, when I was just a child. The past that loomed over us in so many ways that seemed we’d never forget, or heal from, or whatever it is a mother and daughter search for after so much loss, so much grief.
We had found something after it all, some kind of trust, something of beauty.
At one point she said to me, ‘Heather, it’s okay. If this is what it’s going to be, I don’t want to do it.’
The pain. She was talking about the pain. She wanted her life. She didn’t want to try to live in that pain.
There’s so much to my mom’s story.
You know … she was a great cook as one of her closest friends reminded me. (I really remember that.) She loved the ocean. We used to spend what seemed to be endless hours along the shores of the Pacific. She was a hang glider. Loved Baja. Her laugh was impossible to forget, and she had a great smile.
And when she was mad, oh, you knew about it. One nurse had to force her hand to get an IV back in her and afterwards made a kind natured remark like, ‘okay, I’m done now’ and my mom’s response was, ‘okay, well I hate you for that.’ The nurse and I got it; she had hurt enough.
She could be so sharp tongued in the most impossible situations, so honest in every situation and her wisdom was not lost on many who crossed her path.
And even though you didn’t know her, I can say I feel I really did. Cancer helped me see who she was capable of being, and she inspired me. She inspired a lot of people. She was as tender as she was tough. It only took seeing her for who she really was.
A doctor handed me a paper and it said, ‘history of breast cancer.’ The first medical document I can remember that didn’t say, ‘history of …’ you know …
I was grateful that she could finally be free of that stigma in her life once and for all. Maybe I could be free of it too; seems it’s never okay to have a parent with mental illness; but maybe it’s harder for people to understand how you could ever find friendship with them after all that happened. Forgiveness and acceptance, the rest just heals from there.
She was a survivor, no matter what ‘cancer’ had to say about it. And she was more than the sum of any diagnosis.
She was my mother.
She was Stella.
And she died at the age of 61 …
from breast cancer.