This week I am commemorating with my family the 20th anniversary of saying goodbye to Mom. There was no singular farewell moment. Instead there were weeks of letting go: she let go of life while we let go of her. She died of Acute Myelogenous Leukemia – “bad luck,” according to one oncologist I know well. Mom was 60 at diagnosis and was one month past her 61st birthday when she died.
I received the news of her diagnosis in a phone call from my father on the other side of the country. I hurried to the nearest medical school library where, in the evening hours after work I struggled to find materials that would explain what was happening. Without the Internet or even the help of a librarian it was nearly impossible. In retrospect I can see how little we, her family and friends, knew about her disease, her treatment options or their consequences.
Today I would ask questions, I would look at NCCN treatment guidelines. But back then I made myself most useful through active listening and practical support. I visited Mom after Chemo I. As the only daughter I was chosen to help pick out a wig, help my father prepare simple meals and help my mother manage her lingering side effects. Our moods were still optimistic and we risked the icy sidewalks of Pittsburgh in winter to go out for dinner. By spring she was receiving Chemo II. I took a leave from work and arranged to be with Mom again as she recuperated and celebrated her birthday. I arrived at the hospital just one day after the oncologist gave Mom bad news: the treatment had failed.
There was no movement for empowered patients then; no real notion of advocating for a point of view in dialogue with medical professionals. But when they offered more chemo, Mom said “no, thank you.” I respected the choice Mom made to stop prolonging a life of rapidly declining quality. That didn’t make it easy, but perhaps made it easier to say goodbye.
I am grateful that my family takes end-of-life planning seriously. In less than a month she died peacefully at home. The memorial service was well attended and moving. I think. In truth, my memories of that time are blurry. There was family and food. There were some long nights with little sleep. There was tenderness and there was heartache.
This week we’ll mark the anniversary of our loss memory by sharing a meal, saying Kaddish and telling some stories with Mom in a featured role. Mom on a mule descending the Grand Canyon! Mom taking a prop plane to Key West. My memories include her complete delight at digging in her organic garden and leading songs at Sunday School. We remember her; may her memory be for a blessing.