The plan seemed simple enough: to organize a birthday party for a hundred year-old woman at the farm that was started by her great-great grandparents and schedule it for August instead of September so more of the 100 invited guests can attend. What could possibly go wrong?
When we arrived at the farm on the Wednesday before Sunday’s party, Ginny was in good form. Good enough to be interviewed by the local Times Herald and toss out a few quotes. It was also Tara’s birthday and mom enjoyed the bbq chicken dinner and the decadent chocolate birthday cake. Little did we know that would be her last lucid day.
On Thursday she went into decline. She slept the whole afternoon, and didn’t eat, so we put her back in her bed. She was awake for a while that night and we spoke about the party. I pointed out, “two more sleeps to go, mom.” She was very excited about seeing her friends and family. It was then that I fed her two corners of her uneaten egg sandwich and a slight piece of the chocolate cake. She said the cake was delicious. It was the last thing she ate. Later, I was told that that cake could have asphyxiated her. Oh great.
By the next day, Friday, it became clear she would never get out of that bed again. She was done with solid or even liquid food. According to the Hospice nurses and her caregivers, Ginny’s body was shutting down.
At this point, our closest family and friends had begun to descend upon the farm. That night they all went to the Stone Lodge for dinner, except Billy and me and not just because of the constant abdominal pain I had brought with me. One of her kids had to be here. Just. In. Case.
On Saturday it became apparent that this birthday party would not go to plan. Our idea of sequestering her at a quiet corner of the house and allowing people to come and sit with her ten minutes at a time – that was nixed. Instead, her bedroom would hold court for her.
So I cleaned the room and brought in two extra chairs for guests to sit. The caregivers brought in the Layze-Boy so they could sleep next to her at night. And then, in the early evening, Juli arrived from Vienna and managed to stick her face in front of mom during a rare moment when her eyes were open. With that, Ginny knew all of her kids were finally there under one roof.
Sunday arrived and brought with it some gorgeous summer weather: sunny with puffy clouds, not too warm, not too windy. Just perfect.
Guests arrived on time and were greeted by Tara, who encouraged relatives to fill in the family tree we’d enlarged. Soon, we were escorting people into mom’s bedroom to say their hellos and good-byes, but only one person had the satisfaction of getting her to open her eyes.
Pumped with pain meds, I was able to mingle with our guests. And with mom safely out of hearing range, and with the number of cancer survivors in the crowd, I was able to speak freely about my cancer. Hearing their stories, I was surprised at how much this disease runs in our family, even among the youngest members.
Later on, it became all about mom. I was all over the place between the backyard, her room, the breezeway – where people waited to see her – and the kitchen where I sat slumped in a wicker chair trying to catch my breath. The caregivers were all there, as was their boss, Patricia. Not to work, but to party. But mom’s condition kept them more involved with her care than expected.
Then the hospice nurse arrived. She evaluated mom and helped make her comfortable, which is all you can do at this point. After keeping the party guests waiting a long time to see mom, the nurse called us, Ginnys kids, into the sunroom for a talk.
The time is coming, she said. Maybe tonight, but definitely this week. She’s mentally checked out, her body is shutting down, and her secretions have worsened. These were the words I tried to focus on while fending off the sounds of children playing and men laughing outside the window behind me. The juxtaposition was killing me. To think: My mother’s birthday might end up being her death day.
Well, it wasn’t. Not that night nor Monday. Monday morning found me nauseous all day, unable to find my As Needed proscription meds. Now I know how much wretching will drive my nieces running screaming downstairs.
By Tuesday almost everyone had gone home and on that morning Bill read all of mom’s birthday cards and described her numerous gifts to her. Someone gave her a hundred dollar bill; one dollar for each year of her life!
We started telling mom she could move on now, that we’ll all be fine, that dad and Cynthia are waiting for her. Just go. We played her music, including Sinead O’Connor singing Danny Boy. We sat with her all day and finally later, as we took a meal break at the dining table, the caregiver Jane came from mom’s room and said, “I think the time is coming. Her breathing is really flat.”
We sat by her side and coaxed her to go, and to take these 50 Hail Marys with her, as well a few Our Fathers. With more music and more talking we watched her chest rise and fall against the sound of her hated secretions, and we waited – breathless ourselves – until finally we saw her chest rise no more. Her breath had stopped and her pulse was non-existent. Virginia Kane had left the house.
This was the second parent I have watched die. Ginny went more a bit more peacefully than dad, who thrashed a little on his way out. You might expect to see or feel something as a person is transitioning, a surprise breeze from nowhere, a glowing light, a strong vibration. We got none of that from either Bob or Ginny. She just went peacefully and quietly as if she were on a magic carpet to heaven.
The next morning I had a hard time getting up. The hard mattress was doing a number on my back and the abdominal pain was killing me. Plus, my mom was dead. I could hear my siblings and hubby talking downstairs but could not keep my eyes open long enough to participate in their conversations. Mom’s body had been taken that morning and her air mattress beckoned to me. I thought, here’s nothing wrong with sleeping on the bed your mother died on the night before, right? So I went into moms room and laid on her bed for many hours, alternating between REM and a light doze, staring out the windows of her room, the windows through which she heard happy birthday sung to her by her party guests. Mom is gone. Never coming back. Upside being, she died not knowing about my cancer.
But then again, now that she exists on the spiritual plane, won’t she hear us talking about it? If she learned about it in the after life, would she be pissed that she wasn’t informed when she was alive? She could have been praying for me all this time! Or will she understand the reasons for my secrecy and promise to work with Saint Anthony to help me? I don’t know yet as she still hasn’t given me a sign.
Ginny did give us – Tara, Bill, Juli and me – a sign a few nights later, as we sat in the sunroom, working on our Thank You/ Funeral Announcement list and talking about our cousin Brian, who came to the party from Pennsylvania with his nieces Ashly and Shana. He had expressed how much he wanted to learn about his dad, my uncle, Norbert Watson. So, as we were talking about him, Tara walked back into the sunroom holding a handsome wooden box. Inside were stuffed at least a hundred air mail letters from Norb to my grandmother from the ritziest hotels around the world during the 50s. Norb loved boats and he worked with the merchant marines before attending Annapolis. He worked on ships and saw the world all before Brian and his sister Suzanne were even born! And just as we were talking about him, Tara happened to open the same upstairs closet she had opened the day before and this box suddenly jumped to the front of the shelf like an over-enthusiastic student screaming, “pick me!”
We like think mom had something to do with it.
The time leading to the funeral, a whole 10 days, were the slowest in my memory. Nothing to do, no one visiting us, we were bored and exhausted at the same time. So I focused on my pain. It had gotten so bad by the weekend, we actually drove over to Sarnia, Ontario, across the bridge from Port Huron, for some good ol’ fashioned Canadian heath care. Because we could. They gave me a CT Scan and determined the pain was either constipation backing up my system and moving my organs around. Either that or the tumors are growing fast. By then it had been 3 weeks since my last chemo treatment so that last possibility was scary. So I did everything I could to relieve the constipation, but it didn’t help. When I had another CT Scan in Vancouver, my oncologist admitted it: the tumors were growing.
Anyway back in Michigan, I could not make it to mom’s viewing, stuck in bed as I was that day. Next morning I was given til’ 10:30 to sleep before the 11am mass at St Mary’s. Tara dressed me and Bill propped me up as we made our way to the church. When I saw mom in her casket, I got pretty emotional, though I thought the undertaker’s had done a really good job. We didn’t process down the aisle with my family, having alread nabbed a front row pew already. As you know about a Catholic mass, its all up, down, up, down, and …kneel, but I got to sit for most of the service, cuz… ya know.
The bagpiper kept up the Irishness all the way back down the aisle and out the door as he followed the casket to the hearse. Bill and I slipped out to the Lincoln where I laid in the backseat and he parked near the exit. So when it was time to follow the hearse to the cemetery we were right behind mom all the way.
The graveside ceremony was lovely, but I cut out asap so I could get home and back into bed. I skipped the lunch at my brother’s golf club and slept until Bill, Tara, Brian and baby Soren came home. Little Soren did so well throughout the ceremonies.
That Friday night of the funeral happened to fall on the birthdays of both Bill and my niece Julia. Just like eleven years ago when Dad’s funeral landed on Anne’s birthday. So of course there had to be a double party for them at Anne’s beachfront house, just north of the port of Sanilac. The couch facing the lake became all mine. Anne and Katherine ordered up splendid BBQ from a place on Hwy 25 and David brought Vivue Cliquot champagne. I knew I shouldn’t, but I just couldn’t resist a glass or two. Hey, if it feels medicinal it must be, right?
With incredible timing, our friends Maureen and Kevin from Sonoma County dropped in on our second to last day at the farm, on their cross-country drive to New York. They kindly gave us a ride to the airport on Tuesday and I was able to sleep on the bench in their step van. Tell ya, I was never so glad (never am) to leave Michigan. This time, I was yearning for my own perfect mattress and my pillows and our cats and our friends and all our stuff and maybe even a little street noise to remind me the world is alive. Just home.
Looking back, this trip was a “vacation” like none other. From sitting around yakking with my nuke family, to experiencing the rush of putting on a really great party, to being with mom at her big finale, to witnessing the grief among family and friends and hearing so many kind words about mom, to dealing with my own debilitation – it was a crazy mix of experiences and emotions and I’m still trying to sort it out.
Also, I don’t expect be traveling much more, though it is sure nice to get the wheelchair and pre-board service at the airport. Flying is just too hard.
This was long, but thanks for reading. Posting is very therapeutic for me.
Update: The hated pain has abated, weeks after returning home. I’ve started a new chemo program and I am now convinced that chemo will be in my life forever. I feel much better now than in July when I was taking a break from chemo. For a while in early September, I was in such pain I thought this was the beginning of the end for me, that this is what decline felt like. But after a couple of chemo treatments, I feel better and I think I can maintain this regimine.