The most difficult story I’ve ever told
This is a story I wrote for The Metropolitan in 2006. I have re-worked it some, as I was unhappy with some of the copy edits after final publication.
Cancer: a story of one.
Francine Yvonne Barnum was diagnosed with colon cancer on Dec. 17, 2002. She endured surgery and months of chemo and recovered, but the cancer had metastasized to her liver and was discovered the following November. In February 2005 the cancer was determined to be terminal. She was given less than a year to live. She was my mother.
We did everything we could to help her. I quit my job and made special arrangements for my daughters, who she had always taken care of, so I could stay in school and Mom would be able to rest. She said my then 4-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, was her daily blood-pressure medication and that just watching her play made her feel better.
On Aug. 28, Mom collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room. After the doctors stabilized her, she was admitted to the hospital for dehydration. It was strange visiting her there. It seemed every time I took her to the emergency room, three or four times during the summer of 2005, her room moved closer and closer to the nurses’ station and farther away from the elevators and the exits. We had a meeting with her doctors and they decided to place her in hospice care. She would no longer receive active treatment for her cancer; rather, a hospice team would visit her at home. Their only goal was to manage her pain. She also signed a “do not resuscitate” order, which was posted on the front door of her house like an evil warning to visitors. It all meant that there was nothing left to do to save my mom.
Every day I went to her home to help her, to hook up her IV so she wouldn’t become dehydrated again, and to bring different foods to see if there was something she could eat. She had developed a blockage in her intestine, an effect of the cancer that prevented her from eating anything with fiber. Gabrielle and I spent a lot of time wandering through grocery stores trying to find things she might be able to eat. It didn’t help that nothing tasted good because the chemotherapy and the medications had destroyed her taste buds. On one trip, Gabrielle happened upon some grape-flavored Elmo applesauce and decided it was worth a shot. Whether Mom ate it because it worked or because she desperately wanted Gabrielle to feel better I’ll never know, but because her grandchildren meant the world to her, my guess is the latter. Even on her worst days she did everything she could to be with them, talk to them and spend time with them, but even Gabrielle knew that something was very wrong with her grandma and tried to think up ways to help her.
The reality of dealing with a loved one who has a terminal illness is unfathomable. My family was “prepared” for this. We all knew Mom was going to die. It was inevitable. We had even been given a deadline. But to say that you can prepare yourself for the loss of your mother is like saying you can prepare your home for a tsunami. Stay close to it, hold on and live through it? Not likely.
On Oct. 7, 2005, I dropped Gabe off at preschool and went straight to Mom’s as usual. The first thing to hit me as a opened the front door was a horrible smell. If death has a smell, this was it. Mom had me call her hospice nurse, I could tell she was scared. When the nurse arrived, she told me that Mom was bleeding out, the smell was from her intestines digesting the blood. The nurse held my mom’s hand and recommended we call for a transport to take my mom to the hospice.
The first thing to run through my mind was that it was only October and she had until February. We still had one more Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, maybe one more of my birthday’s. This wasn’t right, she couldn’t be going to the hospice already. This was wrong and somebody had made a terrible mistake.
The transport team carried her down the front stairs in one of her dining room chairs and moved her to the gurney. I followed them out then stood by Mom. She was exhausted from being moved so that they stopped to let her catch her breath. She leaned against me, and I put my arm around her. She said she “I’m going to be all right, everything is going to be all right.”
I said “I know,” even though I knew it was a lie. I said I would talk to her later, then she lay down as they put her in the ambulance and drove away. She never spoke to me again.
The next morning when we arrived at the hospice, her face was tight and her entire body tense. The one time she came around she seemed to be begging for help, but the words just wouldn’t come out. Her expression was excruciating. I straightened her head on the pillow and I lied again. I told her it was OK. I told her we were going to be OK. She never regained consciousness.
I went home that evening to pick up some things. As soon as I walked through my front door the phone rang; it was my sister. She said I needed to get back, she said there was this sound and the nurses said I should hurry. I left immediately, but by the time I reached the hospice she was already gone. I screamed, “No, Momma, no,” over and over again. But she couldn’t hear me.
Post Script: Life is different now. The feelings of abandonment and extreme loneliness have subsided. On this last trip to California two things happened; the watch I took from her wrist in the hospice and have worn every day since stopped working, and I realized I have finally forgotten what death smells like. I miss her every day, but there are certain days that are more difficult, Mother’s day, July 6 (her birthday), Christmas, my birthday, and October 8.
To see the original Met page click here: met101206p1023k
My friend and colleague Mr. Joe Nguyen did the layout (and the intro as well I believe.)