The most difficult story I’ve ever told

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

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.

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

Francine Yvonne Barnum

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.

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

Every morning when we left for school Mom would sit on her stoop and listen as her granddaughters relived important moments in their history with her. There was always time for one more story, one more hug, and one more kiss. Even if we were just a bit late getting to school

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.

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

The familiar scene in front of Mom’s house began to change

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.

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

Dad talks to the paramedics after they put Momma in the back of the ambulance for transport to St. Joseph’€™s Hospital after she collapsed from dehydration. This was her first ride in an ambulance, but she didn’€™t remember any of it, in fact she didn’€™t remember the entire weekend, and first days in the hospital. When she was released she was admitted into Denver Hospice home care. She would not be returning to the hospital for any treatment.

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.

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

The transport team carries mom to the gurney at the base of the stairs.

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.

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

When Auberry Lee came to visit Grandma at the hospice. I had to tell her that this would be the last time she would see her. Unlike Gabrielle who could not look at her Grandma, but was constantly holding onto her, Auberry couldn’t take her eyes off of her but was afraid to touch her.

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.

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

Mom kept needing to be shifted. She did it to my sister, and to me at one point. She would wake up and was unable to communicate, I’m really not even sure she was conscious. She would become tense from her head to her toes, and she would groan. We tried to keep her comfortable as best we could.

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.

©2005 Jenn LeBlanc

Mom passed away October 8, 2005. The next day I brought my daughters to her house to tell them she was gone. In my life I have never done anything so difficult, and never will again. It rained, and Momma’s stoop was empty.

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.)

9 Responses to “The most difficult story I’ve ever told”
  1. Debra says:

    This iss a great blog


  2. Pamela clare says:

    Oh, Jenn! I am so sorry for your loss. I can’t say what I know what it’s like, but I’m sure it never really gets easier. You just get used to living with it. What a beautiful tribute and way to remember her for the rest of us who never met her. (((Hugs)))


  3. Hospice is wonderful and hard at the same time (we did it with my grandfather)! What a beautiful tribute to your mom and your love for her. Those things never fade and the memories last forever. Big ((((((((( HUGS )))))))))))) and love!


  4. Candace says:

    The first thing that came to mind is how great it is that you took pictures. Then I realized who I was saying that to and of course you took pictures. I’m glad you did that because, as you know, pictures often tell a story that words can’t quite convey. How very brave of you. I’m going to echo Syd – I wish I could hug you (of course that would require a ladder, but we could swing that). Big, big hugs and you have my admiration.


  5. Syd Gill says:

    There is so much I want to say but I can’t find the words right now. I wish I could just hug you. A sweet little girl once said that everyone once in a while you gotta let your eyes wash and mine are washing for you right now. For the heartbreak, the opportunities lost, the time you wish you had with her. I understand. And I wish I could call my mom and ask her about asparagus too. *giant hugs*


  6. Jenn, Thank you so much for sharing your story. You literally brought me to tears. I admire the strength that you had to be the rock of support for your mother as she went through those dark times.


  7. Shannon says:

    This is absolutely an amazing story. It is never easy to have to go through losing a parent and I honestly have admitted it is something that I am terrified of having to do one day. Thank you for opening your heart to a painful time and sharing with all of us


  8. Shelly says:

    What a beautiful rememberance…


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