Cancer is nasty. It is an insidious, life-sucking, mentally challenging and exhausting disease that tests a family in ways they never dreamed possible. It tires you, and angers you, frightens you and saddens you.
How do I know this? Our family was recently blind-sided by a diagnosis that will take our mother from us far too soon. A woman who bowled weekly, golfed often, volunteered regularly, met with her friends, completed crossword puzzles and Sudoku challenges daily, walked outside or on her treadmill and never failed to cheer on her Jets, was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma (GBM), a very aggressive form of brain cancer.
How blindsided were we? On December 25th, she was up giggling and partying with her grandchildren, sipping on a beer while they threw jokes back and forth and kept the rest of us up until the wee hours of the morning. Their laughter was ringing through the house, and she was loving every minute of it. One week later, she was not able to walk without assistance, and one week after that, we are transporting her from bed to chair with a wheelchair. This vibrant woman has been given a life sentence of two months to a year, but as she has opted out of radiation therapy, a decision that we have to respect, the likelihood is that we will have less time than more. So, yes, I despise this disease.
The upside is that Mom is handling this diagnosis with her usual dose of humor, straightforwardness and class and continues to pass on life lessons even in the midst of this chaos.
Mom is a joke-teller, something that runs in her family. How she remembers all of the details is beyond me, but remember them she does. In her world, there isn’t anything that a good joke can’t make better, especially when she can’t get through the punchline because the joke is just too funny. As such, we laugh often and freely, even in the strangest of places or times. Case in point. Her first round of hospitalization ended up at the Health Science Centre, a teaching hospital with any number of medical students coming in and out of her room to discuss her prognosis. The first-year medical student assigned to her case had just finished her first rounds on a maternity ward, where she experienced life and all the joys that come with it. Then, her next term on a mid-level ICU involved telling people that they weren’t likely to see their next Christmas. So, she was a tad emotional and spent some time sobbing in Mom’s room because the experience was just so overwhelming for her. A little ironic that the caregiver was then cared for by the patient, but this is our life. Mom’s response was to pat her side of the bed, have the medical student sit down beside her and proceed to tell her a rather racy joke. We howled, the medical student included, in part because she was so shocked that these words would be coming from Mom’s mouth. With the laughter, her tears disappeared. She was then able to listen to Mom explain that sometimes, it’s okay to let the tears fall. And the dying part, well…that’s just a part of life, as much as it may suck, it isn’t something to be feared (although she did make the med student promise that she’d come up with a nice bevy of pain-relieving meds upon request). And once she dried her eyes, the student was able to carry on with the rest of her shift with much more self-confidence.
Mom’s Lesson: There is no shame in crying…sometimes, it is what you need to feel better. And it’s okay to laugh…even when you are pissed off at something beyond your control, sad, afraid or embarrassed. A good belly laugh makes it easier to deal with the hard stuff.
Mom is also a very spiritual person. This is in part because of her close to 80 years of living life as a practicing Catholic, although I think that her faith goes deeper than her once weekly visits to church. As such, she doesn’t see death as a horrid event, but rather a beginning to something wonderful…in her words, her reward for a life that by all accounts is deserving of a big one! I won’t know whether she is right or not until my day comes, but I do know that she isn’t afraid to die, and because of her attitude, she is making it infinitely easier for those around her to process her diagnosis. The only caveat to this is that she is asking for whatever fabulous cocktail the medical profession has available to ensure that her journey over to the other side is as pain free as humanly possible. In the meantime, she is relishing in the company of friends and family, as she remembers their experiences together, the good, the bad and the hilarious. And based on the steady flow of people coming to see her, the reactions of these people to her diagnosis and the support that she is receiving, I would say that she has lived a life worthy of some major fanfare on the other side.
Mom’s Lesson: Have faith. Believe. And for as long as you are still able to breathe in oxygen, do your best to live your life and share your joy with those that you love. Those memories and that laughter will make your exit from this Earth a little easier for those that you leave behind.
Through all this, I know that with the time that we have left, we will enjoy Mom’s jokes, we will laugh with her and we will continue to believe that her impact on her family and friends will carry on in one way or another long past that moment when she takes her last breath. But most of all, I have faith that some day, somewhere, somebody is going to find a cure for this disease. This faith is a gift from my mother and very likely, my best lesson.