At the age of eighteen, when everyone I knew was off enjoying their first year of freedom in college, I found myself caring for my mother who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her prognosis was “so-so”, but she rallied through her treatment like a true champion. In the late summer of 2003, my mother received a clean bill of health!
Feeling as though I had “missed out” on the ceremonial “spreading of thy wings”, I decided I would take it a step further; I spread my wings and flew to Hawaii with a one way ticket, a backpack, and a small amount of savings. With no place to live, I set out on a new adventure; I was going to discover my true self…
What was going to be six months of explorations turned into almost two years of self-discovery; until the unthinkable happened. One August 14th of 2005, I received the phone call that would forever change my life. My dad called to tell me the pain mom had been experiencing in her back was actually breast cancer that had metastasized to her spine. She had approximately three months to live.
After falling to the floor and having a hysterical crying fit, I pulled myself together long enough to drive to my place of employment and quit my job. With puffy eyes and a quivering lip, I tried to explain to my boss (a totally amazing and caring man), that I appreciated every opportunity he had given me. He smiled an empathetic smile and told me he needed to no explanation. (Whew…step one…down.) Next, I drove with both hands glued to my steering wheel to my realtor’s office. The condo I had owned less than a year was going to need to be sold, because I was moving back to California. Tomorrow.
With arrangements to sell my home and ship my dog back to the mainland, I boarded the flight home. Holding back tears, I watched as Maui quickly disappeared into a sea of blue as the plain ascended through the clouds to our cruising altitude of thirty-thousand feet.
As soon as I arrived home it was business time. There were doctors to see, treatments to attend and medical bills to be paid. It was determined that I would live in the family home (uh…my stinky little brother’s room to be exact), and help Dad care for Mom. Do to the severity of her condition (C1 fracture, “moth eaten” spine and pelvis), Mom was going to need full-time care and supervision. Although she was on enough pain medication to tranquilize a horse, she had the mind of a bull, and still thought she was capable of doing everything she had in the past; i.e. drive!
The initial power struggle was devastating to our relationship. My mother was the quintessential “mother”; dinner was on the table every night at 6:30pm, the house was to be cleaned from top to bottom every Friday, and laundry was done on Mondays and Thursdays. Daily trips to the grocery store where usually necessary to put together the three course dinners, as well as weekly Costco runs. She was reluctant to relinquish her “power” to her own daughter.
Needless to say, I didn’t quite clean with the enthusiasm she had, I despised folding laundry and I lacked the ability to be a Three Star Michelin Chef, but I attempted to fill her void.
As with most caregivers, I accompanied my mom to all of her doctor’s appointments and treatments. We opted to include alternative treatments (naturopathic, homeopathic, acupuncture etc.) as well as western modalities into her treatment regime. One day she would be zapped by a zabillion dollar radiation machine; the next day she would be muscle tested by a nice hippy man who would give her homeopathic drops.
Our relationship eventually transitioned into one of trust and camaraderie. I was her number one cheerleader. Many individuals outside of our family-unit did not support her decision to work with alternative modalities, and thus, made Mom question her treatment decisions. After much contemplation, my mom opted to partake in a chemotherapy trial at UCSF in early 2008. (She had surpassed her three month “death date” by over two years!)
Every three weeks I would drive Mom the three and a half hours to San Francisco, where she would have her blood drawn, tests examined and medication manipulated. Once the lead oncologist gave her the thumbs up, we would drive the three and a half hour home; not without stopping at Mel’s Drive In for chocolate milkshakes and open-faced turkey sandwiches smothered in gravy first.
In the fall of 2008, it was becoming apparent that something was not right. I was convinced the cancer had spread to her brain; her short term memory was nonexistent and she was slurring her words. After several tests were performed, it was determined that I was the one losing my mind, not my mom.
After several instances of “foot-in-mouth” disease (mostly on my part), we decided a break would be best for the two of us. Dad had witnessed World War III break out between Mom and I, and in an effort to prevent World War IV, we took separate-but-equal vacations.
Unfortunately for me, my mother’s physical body returned from her vacation, but her mind was gone. The mysterious ailment that I had assumed was a brain tumor was actually a mild case of hypercalcemia. After contracting a urinary tract infection on her vacation, her body was no longer able to keep the hypercalcemia at bay. Thirteen days later she was gone.
Although there was never a final apology for our final mother-daughter spat, I was able to lay in bed next to her as she left this life. At one point, as I whispered “I love you, Mom”, she remembered who I was, moved her hand to my face and said “I love you too, Tor.”
My journey of caring for my mother is now over, but I can’t possibly leave well-enough alone. I choose to re-live all of my experiences through a blog, titled All Things Caregiver. It is with sincere intention that I share my experiences and offer up advice for individuals at any stage of the caregiving process. I am also the author of a soon-to-be released book, titled The Medical Day Planner. This book (slash “planner”) is an organizational guide to help caregivers track and document all vital information pertaining to the caregiving process. Both of these projects are just as much of a healing process for me as they are helpful tools for other caregivers.