_Those Calvary Moments: When Time Stood Still
A Caregiver's Trek through Insanity
In June of 2000, the call center where I had been employed for nine years announced that they would be closing their doors by the end of the year. The company began gradually rerouting the calls to an alternate center across the country in an attempt to make the transition as seamless as possible for their customers. I was advised that my last day of work would be on October 15, 2000 and the dangling carrot of a severance package kept me there until the bitter end.
After the initial reeling, I rallied back to accept the inevitable and decided that it would be an ideal time to go back to school. The world of graphic design was calling to me. I submitted a computer painting to a local foundation and was awarded a scholarship. The excitement over a future which seemed bright, challenging and promising mounted.
In August of 2000, my mother began experiencing excruciating daily headaches. Believing they were migraines, she attempted to treat them with over the counter remedies for quite some time. As the headaches grew in frequency and intensity, the relentless pain demanded that she see her primary care doctor, who, in turn, referred her to an Otolaryngologist to rule out possible sinus issues. I was with her when the words were spoken, when our world grew silent, still and gray. "The MRI... a mass... a tumor... in your brain..."
"Painting" the following pictorial series
on my iMac with Appleworks paint program
helped me through the cancer care-giving journey with my mom.
Another specialist, a Neurosurgeon, offered some hope as he set the October surgical date. ”The tumor may actually be benign." My siblings flew in from various parts of the country to join me and my adult children in the surgical waiting room. Intoxicated with optimism, we laughed and joked, eager to hear what each had been doing since the last time we were all together.
After some considerable time, the Neurosurgeon brought sobering, somber news. We sat in stunned disbelieving silence as he relayed the information that the tumor had been successfully removed but it was actually a secondary site - a metastasized tumor. He gave us the new diagnosis: "Your mother has small cell lung cancer. There is a long road ahead of her."
The divine timing of the layoff and my mother's considerable medical needs could not be ignored when the family caucus convened. I wrenched the desire to pursue my personal dreams of school and a recently rekindled relationship to a wonderful man from the depths of my soul and reluctantly, despairingly accepted my appointed role as my mother's care-giver.
Two years before her diagnosis, my younger brother, her eldest son, attempted to end his life in the cold, lonely womb of a cement culvert. Falsely fortified with liquid courage from a bottle of Jack Daniels, he took with him a mayonnaise jar of gasoline and a book of matches to permanently eradicate the searing emotional pain of alcoholism and severe mental illness. Two men saw the smoke from what they assumed was a brush fire and called 911. My brother was rushed to the burn unit at a local hospital, placed in a drug induced coma and put on life support. A partial fingerprint lifted from his charred hand and a former police record provided the avenue for law enforcement to identify him and in turn locate my mother.
After reaching the anguishing decision to remove life support, my mother and I said our final goodbyes to him on October 5, 1998. (1) He passed quickly and peacefully according to the compassionate nurse who stayed with him when our fragile emotions persuaded us that we could not.
After my brother's death, my mother’s understandable inability to emotionally reconcile our decision to remove life support clashed with my equally understandable unwillingness to revisit and defend that decision time and time again. As a result, our relationship had eroded significantly. Now, fully convinced that the journey before us was divinely ordained, my mother and I set out hopefully, seeking restoration. She sought physical health and I sought to fill the chasm in our relationship.
My preconceived agenda of long meaningful conversations to right our painful past was thwarted when auditory tests confirmed that hearing aids would not be effective in helping with her damaged hearing. Ototoxicity, a rare, devastating side effect of the drug Cisplatin had followed her very first chemotherapy treatment.
My mother was suddenly plunged into a world of distorted, desolate silence and I fell into the whirling cesspool of resentment, fear and self-pity. Soon an all-consuming burning guilt joined the dark forces and the small voice of reason was silenced in the thunderous avalanche of racing thoughts and powerful, frightening emotions. Free-falling: I never knew which thoughts to cling to as I lost the ability to differentiate the strong, steadfast branches of truth from the brittle twigs of lies and deceit.
Fear and paranoia seized me.
Faith abandoned me.
Recovery from insanity is a slow, painful, arduous process. Trudging the long snaking path through menacing shadows of despair, valleys of depression and mountains of fear, the trek was made all the more lonely in the knowledge that no other person could truly sidle up next to me to safely guide me through the internal emotional abyss. This despondency was mine to overcome. The perception that I would be completely consumed by the darkness loomed large in light of my brother’s long unsuccessful battle with mental illness.
Following a short inpatient stay in the locked psychiatric ward at a local hospital, I began the narrow, laborious passage from darkness to light armed with several tricyclic and psychotropic medications. The steadfast support of my fiancé, friends and family encouraged my flagging spirit and I emerged from the great emotional divide relatively unscathed and remarkably transformed.
Completion of the divinely appointed care-giving assignment became personally paramount after my release from the hospital. Now realizing that the care-giving burden was far too heavy to carry alone, I began reaching out more. I enrolled in a caregiver's support group where I met others who shared similar emotions and had overcome similar challenges.
Resentment, fear and self-pity periodically threatened to align and close in, but the powerful prayer "Thy will, not mine, be done" whispered fervently, reverently and repeatedly held them at bay. With prayer came renewed strength and faith. I found the confidence and acceptance to embrace my altered life - one day at a time. Slowly, I began treasuring the time that my mother and I had together. Now. Just as it was without expectations of how I thought it should be.
It was in February, the second month of the second year in the new millennium and just two days before my mother lapsed into her death coma, when the miracle happened. As I lay on her double bed in her bedroom staring blankly at the ceiling, my mother's voice rose feebly, anguished from the rented hospital bed next to me.
"I feel like I want to cry.”
The world was still, utterly silent. It seemed that the heavens had bowed down to listen.
"Mom, you can cry if you want to. It’s okay for you to cry.”
She appeared genuinely surprised by my response.
“No one has ever told me that it's okay to cry.”
She cried then.
Tears spilled over the loss of her husband, my father. And over the irony that the same type of cancer that had taken him from us sixteen years earlier had returned to her house sixteen months ago with the intention of stealing her away this time.
She mourned the loss of her middle child, her eldest son. She shed searing, bitter tears over the heart-wrenching fact that he chose to end the life that she had birthed. She bewailed the cruel notion that the decision to turn off life support had somehow made her an accomplice in his death.
She languished over having to leave her four surviving children, her five grandchildren (2) and her first great-grandchild, (3) my grandson, who had come into this world just two months before cancer came into hers.
She wept through the vacillation of wanting to stay coupled with the struggle of actually staying and the fearful considerations of all that might be required of her in the process of the final leaving.
We wept, together:
Divine tears bringing restoration to her parched soul and filling the chasm in our relationship.
God had erected the bridge of reconciliation and restoration when He allowed her to hear me give her the permission to cry.
One final note: Another unexpected blessing rose from my brief brush with insanity.
I had experienced years of recovery from alcoholism myself and had long entertained the condemning judgment that my brother not only could have, but should have, thought and acted differently. Since I had been thoroughly incapable of reeling in my thoughts and completely powerless to change them, I realized that this had also been true for him. This gift of compassion could have only come through the actual experience of being rendered totally incapacitated. I was free to forgive the consuming chaos of the last decade of his life and his subsequent decision to still the tormenting, clamoring insanity once and for all.
(1) October 5, 1990 was the day I made the decision to get sober. My brother’s passing on my eighth sober anniversary has forever made that anniversary bittersweet.
(2) My brother, her youngest son, had two daughters following her death for a current total of seven grandchildren.
(3) My oldest son, her first born grandson, had another child following her death so there are now two great-grandsons.