Category Archives: Brain Cancer is a Bitch

In September of 2008 my beautiful, vibrant, independent mother was diagnosed out of the blue with a brain tumor. For eleven months my sister and I cared for her, fought for her, laughed with her and cried for her. We learned scary things about the state of healthcare (hint: no one is looking out for you but you), and got pissed off and frustrated a lot. We also learned a lot about ourselves. In these posts I documented some of the steps along the way. On August 6th of 2009, mom passed away, just short of her 65th birthday. Love your people every day, and never forget to tell them you do.

Tell Me A Secret

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We all have secrets. Some of us keep secrets from our spouses – the fact that your credit card balances aren’t quite as low as you claimed, or maybe the fact that you were engaged to someone else before you met them. But what about secrets that would be appreciated, or even cherished, by someone else… but you decide to keep them to yourself. Have you ever been selfish with a memory?

As my husband has been receiving updates from his step-mother and watching his father suffer what is probably his last battle with a lifetime habit of cigarette-smoking, we have talked about his feelings and how I can support him through the child’s journey he’ll be taking as his dad goes through treatment. One evening we reflected on my mom’s cancer battle, and he suddenly said “There’s something I haven’t told you before.” Obviously, in other circumstances, I might worry about this statement, but in context I simply wondered what he could be referring to.

His tears welled up a little as he confided a secret he’s kept for over 3 years. The night before mom died, as my siblings and I wrapped up an evening spent laughing (loudly) and telling stories in her hospice room, we each said our good-nights to her and headed out the door. Rick was the last to bend over her and give her a kiss, and he told her he loved her. She was heavily medicated to relieve the seizures she was experiencing due to her brain tumor, and had not been responsive or able to communicate for a couple of days. We were hopeful that she was able to hear us, but unfortunately we didn’t get to hear what she may have wanted to say to us. But when my husband said goodbye, she responded to him. He doesn’t recall recognizing any words, but she mumbled. She recognized that he was communicating with her, and she let him know.

Mom was probably the closest thing to a real mother that my husband had, but they had only a short time together – almost exactly 6 years. She was never one to mince words, nor did she hold back when heaping praise. She took Rick in when he moved here, unemployed and broke, from Colorado to marry her daughter and be her grand-daughters’ step-dad. They had so much in common it was kind of funny. I used to joke that he married me for her. 🙂

We left my youngest brother with mom that night to spend the night in the room with her, and around 6 a.m. he let the rest of us know that she had died in the night. I suppose I could be upset that my husband never told me about that night. Some people would be, I’m sure. I mean, she was my mother, afterall. I certainly would have enjoyed knowing that she recognized him. But, I know she thought he was pretty great, and I’m so pleased that her effort to say something to him at least confirms that she knew we were there. I hope that she heard our laughter and knew that she had done her job in this lifetime… she raised four children who will care for each other and be there for each other in her absence. She taught us how to remain positive and move forward through difficult times with determination.

I think it’s better that she didn’t respond to me, because I probably would have wanted to make her say something… I would have asked the doctors if perhaps she wasn’t ready to go. I would have hung on, even when it was obvious there was no point. It was time to let go. She said what she needed to say to the person who needed to hear it. I’m glad he has that special memory… but I’m also glad he finally told me about it.

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The After Times

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The After Times

When my mother died I was devastated for myself. I lost a business partner, a confidant, and the biggest cheerleader for me… for everything I did in my life… that I would ever have. I lost the person I went to with any frustration or life-question. I lost my best “girlfriend”… the person I went to when my spouse drove me nuts, when my children left me speechless, when I had a life-decision to make and wasn’t sure which road to take.

I have a wonderful husband who has picked up the slack in some areas. I have had to learn to go to him when I am frustrated or confused, and he does a great job, but he doesn’t fill the entire void. My sister covers a lot of ground in other areas, because she has become my road-trip partner and let me rant to her when I am going nuts at home and just need to feel sorry for myself.

But the biggest source of sadness I have is actually not about me. It’s about her. My sister. She was, in many ways, an only child from late elementary school through college. Even though my mom remarried, they were kind of a dynamic duo. Mom was able to share many experiences with my sister that she couldn’t with her older kids. When mom died, one of my first feelings of sadness was for the many, many experiences that my sister was still going to have that our mom wouldn’t share with her. My brothers and I had had weddings, children, career successes, and hobby successes that my sister had only started to set goals for when she died… I hated that my sister would not have our mother here to share these things as I and my brothers did.

Last week, my sister lost one of her close childhood friends to an untimely death. Mom knew the young man’s family (I say “young man”… he was 31, so I guess he was actually a Man) so her number should have been the first my sister called. They could have shared a common history as they discussed the news. They would have been able to remember some great moments together. Mom would have offered to go with my sister to Dallas for the funeral. Instead, I got the phone call. I am sympathetic, of course. I even cried as my sister told me what she knew about what happened. I remember her friend, and met him once or twice, but it’s not the same. Not even close.

I knew when mom died that I would be taking mom’s place for my sister in many ways. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy when it has to happen. I am happy to do it, of course! But I hate with every cell of my body that I have to.

Some things get easier with time, but I don’t think this will. Ever.

Stuff that I love

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There are a lot of things I love. Some things I don’t love so much, and interestingly – those are listed in BIG LETTERS in my tag cloud over there —->  Guess we don’t always write about what we love. Sometimes a blog gets populated by a whole lot of stuff that pisses us off.

But in the case of CANCER, the thing I love so little that I might actually use four-letter words when I refer to it in conversation, that thing has actually brought a wonderful thing along… a really strong relationship with my sister. Don’t worry, this isn’t going down the two-hankie-blog-post path. I’m just saying… I mean, get over it. Just briefly: our mom was diagnosed with brain cancer in September 2008 and passed away in August 2009. In those 11 months my sister and I developed a bond that can only be understood fully by other people who have shared in the work of caring for a dying loved-one and then spent another year and a half figuring out what to do with all their stuff including a house that was built by their grandfather and which ended up in foreclosure. And also including three beloved cats. Yeah… THAT kind of bond. I have a tattoo to prove it.

So, back to the stuff I love… one of those things would be Dave Matthews Band. Another, understandably, is my sister. Another is road trips. And finally, another (the actual list, which includes this photo of my brothers, would be ridiculously long…) is junking/thrifting/scrounging/treasure-hunting. This week the stars are aligning just as they do in super-cool documentaries about the Mayan Calendar and the future of the Universe and things like that, and my sister and I are taking a road trip to see Dave Matthews Band at one of their summer Caravan festivals – as well as a crapload of other awesome bands. On our way, we are certain to be lured to the roadside by junky buildings overflowing with stuff other people would throw in a dumpster or on a burn pile. And we

CAN

HARDLY

WAIT!!!

Okay, I’m not skilled on WordPress and can’t make that centered text look as intense as the waiting actually feels.

The aforementioned sister has been putting together a mix tape (shut up – if I want to call it a mix tape I will!!!) of a bunch of the bands we’ll see over the three day festival. We have been doing stupid little wiggly dances for at least the last two weeks every time we are together and one of us mentions the trip … we have saved our pennies and are making lists of the things we need to take and have a cheap ass hotel room in the ghetto reserved in our name. The countdown is on and this time tomorrow we’ll be lying in our beds unable to go to sleep.

We will be posting pics. We will be slapping on the sunscreen and using our refillable water bottles. We will also be eating cheap food in Chicago that quite possibly will taste better than anything we’ve ever eaten in our LIVES simply because we’re on a road trip.

And that, my friends, will be something to love.

The end of an era.

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In 1966 my grandfather built a house on some property that my grandmother inherited. My mother had already married and moved away, but my siblings and I spent most Christmases and weeks every summer there.  We explored the woods, climbed on limestone bluffs full of fossils, picked blackberries, helped plant the vegetable garden, harvested the produce, learned to paint with my grandmother, rode in the back of grandpa’s pick up to feed the cattle, gathered eggs, fished in the river, roasted marshmallows in the fireplace… so many of our favorite, formative memories and experiences were created there.

On the eve of the property being sold on the courthouse steps to the highest bidder, I thought I’d put down a few of my favorite memories…

My grandmother was an artist. She took lessons from one of the leading tole-paint artists in the 1970s and sold her beautiful items at craft fairs throughout the Ozarks for years.  She had a room in the house dedicated to her painting. It was a delightful room full of paint, brushes, bookshelves full of books, and had a large bay window. I loved to watch grandma paint, and have a few things that she let me paint alongside her. One day she invited my brother and I to gather flat river rocks from the gravel driveway and let us paint little faces on them. I was impressed and a little jealous that my brother’s rock faces had better eyes than mine did. No wonder he went on to be a brilliant illustrator.

Walking through the woods in the spring looking for fern fiddleheads and wild violets.

During the summers before central air was installed it was seriously warm at night upstairs where the bedrooms were located. A box fan was placed at each end of the hallway outside the bedroom doors and the windows were opened to allow air to circulate through the house. The fans created a hum that harmonized perfectly with the raucous noise of the cicadas that started up at sundown each evening.  I will always enjoy the sound of tree frogs and cicadas at night – it’s not just a memory but a sensory feeling of peace and security that settles within me when I hear those noises. It’s a sign, to me, that all is right with the world.

Christmases at the farm, when we were there before the 25th, involved scouting out the perfect tree. Very often, grandpa had already located a contender and we would trek with him through the woods or ride in the back of his pick up to the bottom pastures to offer our approval and beg him to let us help with the sawing (the answer was always – appropriately – no). Cedar trees often grow along fence lines on farms in the south, and the aroma of fresh-cut cedar will always be a favorite of mine.

Fresh tomatoes, still warm from the vine, sprinkled with sugar. Mmmmmm….

Another scent that stays with me is a combination: fresh sawdust and cigarette smoke. My grandpa was a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. Along with all the other GIs, he was provided with free cigarettes on a regular basis. I’m not sure what the reasoning behind that was, but the result was that he started smoking. I don’t actually remember seeing him smoking often, but I know he did while worked in his woodworking shop on the farm. When I went to see him in the shop there was always a specific smell that permeated the air. It was also in his shirt when I hugged him goodnight. It doesn’t sound like a smell that would be pleasant, but I love it.

Helping grandma hang clothes on the line outside the pump house/laundry room.

My grandmother made fantastic home-cooked meals that included a huge selection of vegetables from the garden, canned tomatoes, and beef that was probably raised on the farm. Whenever she made pie crust she cut the scraps of pastry into little strips and sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon. The pies were wonderful, but the little strips of baked pasty were perfect.

Grandma used to put on rubber boots at dusk and beat the bushes around the patio with a hoe to chase out the copperhead snakes so she could mangle them.

Helping grandma hang clothes on the line outside the pump house/laundry room.

It’s ironic, I think, that on the day that the property will leave our family the trees are bright green from the recent rain, the iris are blooming and the woods smell fresh and musky. It’s one of my favorite times of year there, and every spring I’ll wish I could go back.

Boxes

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I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have a lot of boxes to go through, because I do. Well, maybe not a LOT, but let’s say more than 3… less than 12. But the boxes I’m going through this week belong to my grandmother, and the stuff in them belonged to her family, the Wilsons of Habberton, Arkansas. There are documents of land ownership, death certificates, wedding notices, obituaries, photos, books, a TON of postcards – most from the early part of the 20th century.

When my mom became sick in 2008 my aunt came up from Texas to gather their mom and transplanted her to a nursing facility near her (mom had been her caregiver before that time). These boxes were left behind in mom’s care, but now that she’s gone I need to get them to my aunt. But before they go… I’m making sure I look at it all. My hubby and I enjoy geneology, and he has done a lot of research on our family trees and such. Many of the pieces of ephemera in the boxes would be great things to attach to some of my ancestors’ records online, so I’ve been scanning like crazy.

One of my favorite finds was a pile of folders full of my grandmother’s writing. She wanted to be a writer, and sent things off to different contests and even had a professional writer critiquing her work at one point. It was something that she didn’t find time to make a career out of, what with raising five kids, managing a household, raising and putting up a huge garden each year, helping with the livestock… you get the drift. I hope that eventually I can have those things to put in my own keepsake box – since I’m the one in the family with a degree in creative writing. My aunt pulled aside my grandmother’s wedding dress and such because her daughter has a degree in fashion design, so it seems only fair…

So, a box at a time all of this stuff will be put in the mail to Texas, and I’ll start going through my own boxes. I doubt there are as many things in mine that my descendants will be interested in keeping, so I plan to be weeding out some stuff.

What things are you keeping in your “treasure” box(es)?

Hard, but not impossible.

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Having now celebrated two Christmases without my mother I am convinced that, contrary to what well-intentioned people have told me, it will never get any easier. 2009 was very difficult because I spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas that year away from home and my family and the traditions that are comfortable for me, but this most recent holiday season I got to spend both of those days with my siblings and it was still hard. Not sobbing-in-bed-for-hours hard… there was no crying or reminiscing aside from a comment at Thanksgiving about the day also being her birthday… the difficulty was less intrusive, but just as painful.

One particularly tough moment came at a craft fair my sister and I were selling at in October. As I was browsing the other booths I discovered something that would have been a perfect gift for my Mom and was hit by the stunning realization that I would never buy her another gift. My mother was a joy to buy for. She and I had similar taste in many things – decor, clothing, hobbies. Perhaps that’s why I now have so much of her stuff in my garage? I felt I knew her so well that when I found The Perfect Gift it was a thrill just to anticipate her opening it, let alone seeing her reaction post-reveal.

Another wrinkle this year was the grand-baby in our house. She looks so much like my mother did as a baby – she has her chin and her smile and her red hair!! – and I know Mom would have loved to have a new baby to buy for. I hope I can measure up to Mom’s stellar Nana talents as I learn to be a Nonnie for my little one.

But being with my brothers at Thanksgiving and my sister for Christmas helped somewhat as we move forward “sans mere”. I’m confident we will make new traditions as we learn to share our own homes with each other instead of relying on mom to always be the hub of our family wheel.

Losing a parent in 2009, and gaining a grandchild in 2010 kind of trumped any list of goals I made those years. I’ll give 2011 some thought and get back to you on that.

Until then – I’ll share my mantra for the new year:

Do or do not… there is no try.   — Yoda

Self-Important Bitches

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You know, I consider myself a fairly progressive, independent woman. I have worked full-time since I was 18. I have seen to the raising of two fantastic young women who think for themselves and don’t hesitate to state their opinions. I support people and causes in my community that champion the under-served or overlooked. But I also laugh a lot. I enjoy doing things that are not challenging to my heart or head at times… reading fiction, watching Bravo, baking, shoe shopping… you get my drift.

I read something today that has made me so angry, and defensive of all other women like myself, that I had to respond to it. I was going to leave a comment on the original article, but for some reason AOL.com wouldn’t let me set up an account. Whatever, it’s probably for the best since what I wanted to say might have been censored anyway… so instead, I’ll share it here for your enjoyment. Go read the original piece and come back here to tell me if I’m wrong. I don’t think I am.

 

Dear Donna,

Surely you don’t think you are speaking for everyone who has ever been touched by breast cancer?  Do you truly feel that anyone who has watched a friend or family member suffer through or die (of breast or any cancer for that matter) would expend the energy to be insulted by a trivial game created to raise awareness of the disease? If you do, I think you’re missing the point entirely.

My aunt, who dealt with the disease twice and had a double mastectomy, was one of the people who sent the Facebook meme about purses to me. And she sent the bra color one last year as well.  SHE would be insulted if she thought she was being accused of overlooking the serious, deadly, sobering side of breast cancer.  I know for a fact that she is available for her friends and neighbors when they need her and she is one of the loudest and most courageous of organizers when there is a need for change in her community. And she is the furthest thing from “coy”.  In fact, she probably burned her bras in the 60s and 70s.

I work for a cancer support organization that employs social workers who work with people who are struggling through the treatment process of cancer every day.  Many of our patients die, or have life-altering side-effects of their disease and treatments.  I’m fairly sure that my aunt, my co-workers who have updated their Facebook statuses, and all the nurses we work with at our local oncology clinic who also have updated Facebook would join me to say you are full of shit.  A few of them might be “coy”, but certainly not all of them.

Cancer awareness is vital, even if it’s spread with a smile, and this “campaign” (for lack of a better word) IS creating awareness. My husband asked me about it; a friend recently told me her daughter and her friends discussed breast cancer self-exams because of it.  Whether you like it or not, it’s doing exactly what it was meant to do, raise awareness.  It’s not a fundraiser or a way to eradicate the disease and it was never advertised to be those things.

Maybe you don’t realize it, but your brand of commentary is not only off-putting, it’s demeaning to women.  But that’s because you are completely out of touch with the majority of female society living in 2010.  As you spew this Feminist rhetoric to the internet masses (um… if they pry themselves from the computer how could they read your swill?) you are refusing to recognize that there are a crapload of those very women you are deriding out there making a difference in their communities, driving awareness for important issues, caring for their friends, leading home tours and organizing “Pink Trash Balls” AND doing it in heels and lipstick.  Oh, and they publicize their causes and fundraising events on Facebook, because that’s where people are going to see their message.

Calm down, have a martini, and watch a little t.v. You need to relax. We’ll take over from here and do what we’ve been doing all along… only we’ll do it because we’re passionate about it and it needs to be done, not because it’s what the Feminist Zealots told us to do.

Sincerely and with a smile,

Laurie