Singing Birds and Winter Lights – these are just two of the many things that remind me of Mum.
She loved the sound of singing birds and the sparkle of lights and every time I hear birdsong or see the winter lights in the city trees I think of Mum. I have many, many happy memories or her and our family; but unfortunately, there are the sad memories too. The smell of cigarette smoke and people smoking are particularly hard for me, as they bring back the reality of a life taken needlessly – if only she had quit smoking.
It was on a Friday in June 2005 when I received a phone call from my Dad, telling me my Mum was in the ICU with terminal lung cancer. The doctors did not expect her to last more than 3-4 days.
Time stood still. I had no idea that she was sick. When I’d last seen her four months earlier she seemed perfectly fine. Now we were being told we only had a few hours left with her. At that time my parents were living 3500 miles away in Cyprus, almost 21 hours travel time. I went into a frantic rush and within a day, began one of the longest journeys of my life, hoping with all my heart that I would get there in time.
I arrived to find my Mum in the ICU. She looked terrible; breathing through an oxygen mask, pumps with tubes everywhere. Over the next week she improved enough to be moved out of the ICU, and her diagnosis was changed to Leukemia, Emphysema, and Lymphoma. As a long time heavy smoker, her condition was blamed on this awful habit. She immediately began a course of IV chemotherapy.
I was extremely lucky and blessed to be able to stay with my parents during this time. My employer allowed me to work remotely from Cyprus and my husband was extremely supportive while remaining in the US. I spent 4-5 hours at the hospital every day, enjoying my Mum’s company with many long chats and reminiscences. It was a strangely pleasant time with lots of laughter. Her condition appeared to be moving into remission and the doctors were pleased.
On the day following her fifth course of chemotherapy, my dad and I arrived at the hospital and immediately noticed that something was terribly, terribly wrong. Mum was distant, unresponsive, her demeanor was different. She had a blank stare. The doctors came, conferred and whisked her off for a brain scan. The worst of our fears had come true – Mum had suffered a massive stroke. For the second time, time seemed to grind to a halt for me. I could hear the doctors talking, but it was like they were on TV or something, not real at all.
Realization set in. Mum had suffered an irreversible stroke. She was not likely to improve at all. Her chemo could not continue. Her condition would worsen again; there was nothing the doctors could do for her.
Mum never wanted to live like this; she had said it many times after caring for my stroke stricken Grandmother. She was now totally helpless, completely dependant on others.
Our daily visits continued but they were no longer chatty. They were long and for the most part silent. She was still Mum, but she was different. Her eyes remained sharp and watchful but the rest of her was dull and lifeless. The nurses told us that she was most likely fully aware of what had happened to her even though she was unable to communicate this lucidly. Her eyes told me this was true.
Yet one of the things that I remember most strongly about this time was her hair. Mum had beautiful, thick, blonde, wavy hair. The chemo ravaged her mane. It was ok for a while then all of a sudden it started falling out in big clumps. The nurses would take it away before we arrived in the morning, but told us how very upset the loss made Mum. Dad and I brought her hats to wear but they made her angry and upset and she refused to wear them.
Dad talked to her hairdresser and he said he would make her a wig but she refused to see him. She seemed more upset over the loss of her hair than she was over her terminal condition. This was most disconcerting for Dad and me. It took a while for us to digest this fact. The doctors were telling us she only had a few weeks of life left, yet all that seemed to matter to her was her hair. She’d lost about 90% of the hair on her head but 100% of the rest of her hair – eye lashes, eye-brows, arm hair etc. I think that that was the most shocking and striking thing for us. We are used to seeing bald people but not people without eyebrows, eyelashes etc. The hospital that my Mum was in did not have any kind of cancer care program that offered support in the hair loss or makeup department so we just had to accept it. We had no idea that there were options available to make this loss less traumatic for all involved. It never occurred to us to put makeup on her to replace her eyebrows etc. And though we did our best to try to see things from Mum’s point of view – it was very difficult for us to understand why hair mattered so much to her.
How I wish I’d had Beauty Pearls for Chemo Girls to refer to during those days. I would have understood how important Mum’s appearance was to her, and how badly she wanted to retain control of at least one aspect of her life. It would have made things so much easier for my Dad, for me and most importantly, for Mum.
She passed away seven months after her original diagnosis, five months after her massive debilitating stroke. I will always be grateful for the hours we were able to spend chatting during those initial two months, and I remember that time as a priceless gift I will always treasure.
And while she lost her life and is almost five years gone, the things she loved remain with me, and in that way, so does she. I hear her in the singing birds, I see her in the twinkling lights, and I love her as much today as I ever did.
She is always with me.