Sunday, January 18, 2009

Looking Back

To put it lightly, it was a long journey with my mom's cancer....

In April 2007, we noticed she was sleeping a lot. On Easter, she fell asleep at the kitchen table. On April 12, she fell asleep in her office at work. The next day, Friday the 13th, she woke up and wasn't making sense... she didn't know what year it was or who the president was. She was taken to the neuroscience intensive care unit at Lehigh Valley Hospital Cedar Crest.

That night, I was out at McFadden's with my roommates. My dad kept calling me, and I kept ignorning his call. I wasn't going to answer while we were in a bar... there was no way he could hear me. Finally, I realized something may be wrong... I went outside, and he told me what happened.

We made a very emotional subway ride back to La Salle, where I remember running from the subway station back to my townhouse.

The next day she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. They operated on her on Thursday, and they removed 80-90% of the tumor.

During my finals week, I got the call that the tumor was cancerous. I had made a conscious decision that I wouldn't look up anything about glioblastoma multiforme (GBM)... I know that sounds stupid, but I was scared to find out what we were up against. Despite only having brain surgery 3 weeks before, she attended my college graduation ceremony.

After the surgery, Mom was doing pretty well. She certainly wasn't the Mom I grew up with personality-wise... those of you who knew my mom knew she was very bubbly and friendly. She wasn't mean or anything... I think she was just a diluted version of herself. Still, she was eating well, walking, sleeping, even driving to her own radiation appointments!

In July 2007 while reading health news releases at work, I accidentally stumbled upon information on my mom's cancer and read people with GBM have less than a 1% chance of survival. I think I went into the bathroom at work and hyperventilated.

I didn't tell anyone about what I read. I felt like saying it would make it come true. Instead, I kept what I knew to myself and cried on my long commute to and from work for weeks.

In August 2007, my family went on a vacation to Ocean City, MD. I couldn't go because I didn't have any vacation days yet. One day at work, my dad called and said my mom's brain was bleeding and they were flying her from OCMD to LVH-Cedar Crest. I had to leave right away because I would get there before they would.

I remember crying in the ER's waiting room alone, until a priest came up to talk to me. It was all very surreal.

After the brain hemorrage, we noticed some changes in Mom. She wasn't talking nearly as much... she stopped asking questions and bringing up conversations. She was also starting to lose the ability to go to the bathroom on her own. She was slow-moving, and usually my sister, dad and I all had to help her take a shower. We had a chair lift installed on the steps so she could get up to take a shower.

That fall was rough for me. On top of keeping my secret about Mom (which of course, other people knew... it was only a secret to me), I was commuting over an hour to work using a car that had broke down on the turnpike 3 times for me. I was searching for an apartment with Ter and Gilmore while going through what every college kid who moves home goes through. Because of this and Mom's situation, my dad and I fought a lot. I had to "mommysit" a lot, and also help drive Brandon places. Also during this time, I got into a relationship with someone who I was not compatible with whatsoever. I don't know why I didn't realize this at the time... maybe I did, but I just needed a distraction to get my mind off of Mom.

In December 2007, Mom had blood clots in her leg. She got out of the hospital two days before Christmas Eve, but she still insisted on going to Christmas Eve service. I remember her mouthing along with the songs.

After that, things started going downhill. She really had hard times walking, and I think soon after the new year, she never went upstairs again. She was very quiet and always kept her head bowed. Still, she would always give her kids a "hi, honey" when we got home. And she still had a sense of humor... if someone said something funny, she's laugh her precious, distinctive laugh.

Things were getting bad for me personally, but thankfully, right after my ex and I broke up, I moved to Philadelphia in March 2008. Things got dramatically better for me. I loved living with friends again, and it was nice not having to drive forever to get to work. I still went home on the weekends to see Mom. Part of me felt really guilty for moving out... but I know it was what my mom would have wanted. Plus, I was going insane living at home.

By the summer, Mom was pretty much solely in a wheelchair and didn't spend too much time outside her bed. She was saying very few words. In August 2008, she went into the hospital three times, once because she had an infection in her stent and twice because she had a vasovagal attack. Also over the summer, we found out that the tumor had grown for the first time since the surgery.

On September 17, 2008, the doctors said that the oral chemo she had been taking for a year wasn't going to do any good anymore. They gave my mom 2 weeks to 2 months left to live. Soon after this diagnosis, I heard my mom say my name for the last time.

The next couple of months was like living on pins and needles. I never knew when I was going to get the call or when things were going to happen. I was so torn... despite the fact that she had pretty much no quality of life left, I didn't want to lose my mom. I'd never been so afraid. But I kept thinking about how I knew she wouldn't have wanted to live how she was living.

On top of this, there was other family drama going on at the same time. This issue upset me very much (it still does) and at times occupied my thoughts when I should have been thinking about Mom and preparing myself for her passing. She should have always been most important in my mind and should have always been the focus, and for that I am truly sorry.

It was sad to celebrate her birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas, knowing it would be her last. Despite the fact that she said maybe one or two words a day, couldn't get out of bed and slept all the time, she was still eating normally, which was one of the qualifying issues for hospice. Besides are almost round-the-clock nursing assistants who were there to take care of her, a hospice nurse starting coming in and allowed the nursing assistants to give her morphine for her pain.

On Jan. 5 while on my way to work, my sister texted me and said Mom was going to hospice. I rerouted and went home. Emily and I got to the hospice before lunch. Mom was restless and was having tremors. Emily and I sat and held her hand... she was given medicine and calmed down a bit, although her breathing was labored.

We were told if she stabilized in the next 6-8 hours, she could possibly make it a few days. So by 8 p.m., my siblings and I decided to go home to go to sleep... especially because my brother had a bad stomachache. Barely 15 minutes after we got home, we got the call that her system was starting to shut down... and if we wanted to be there when she passed, we better get back.

Emily and I decided to go back, but Brandon still didn't feel well, so he wanted to stay at home (though he did get to speak to Mom on the phone before she passed). I ran upstairs to change and was shaking when I picked out a green Aero sweatshirt of Em's and some of her jeans.

Right before we left, my brother puked... all over the place. We couldn't go before we (and when I say we, I mean my sister and my Uncle Whitey, haha) cleaned it all up.

We finally left and got back to the hospice. Walking through the small parking lot, I saw my Uncle Roy (Mom's brother) and my Aunt Lori in the lobby. I had a bad feeling in my stomach.

I'm pretty sure I will always be able to picture this moment vividly: a nurse came to get Emily and I, and, holding a small candle with a quote from Mark Twain on it, led us into my mom's room.

She had already passed. We were too late.

I had always wanted to be with my mom when she died... she was with her mom, my MomMom, when she passed. I was so upset that we went home and I missed it. But now I think maybe it wasn't meant to be. If Brandon hadn't gotten sick and delayed us from going, we would have been there in time. And maybe we just weren't supposed to be.... she was stable for so many hours and as soon as we left, she started to decline. My Aunt Lori thought Mom was waiting until we left to pass.

The week after she passed was crazy emotional, for many reasons. I was exhausted from everything and I just wanted to get back to Philly... back to my escape, I guess. The services were beautiful, and thank you so much to everyone who attended. I loved hearing stories about my mom and people telling me how wonderful she was and how they'll always remember her great smile.

I feel very strange now... like I don't know how to feel. I am so glad she isn't suffering anymore, and I know MomMom, Nanny, Nicole and Jen all welcomed her into Heaven. But sometimes I still can't believe this all happened... like it's some horrible nightmare and some day I am going to wake up and things will go back to the way she used to be. In almost all of my dreams about her, Mom is healthy... and that freaks me out.

Part of me feels normal, because I am back to my normal routine in a place where I feel loved and comfortable. I also feel like I've been grieving for her for a year and half now. But then I'll see or hear something that reminds me of Mom, and it will all hit me.

I know I may feel differently in the upcoming months. I may have a breakdown or I may be fine... I don't know what's going to happen, and that really scares me. But I'm trying to just take everything one day at a time.

One thing I know though... I will always, always love her and miss her. I do feel cheated out of a mom... why do some people get to have their parents until they themselves are in their old age, while others lose them when they're 13, like my brother? It's just not fair, but I guess life isn't fair. I'll never understand why this happened, but it has happened, and I have accepted that.

I want to try and move on and live my life... because she gave me this life to live, and to live it to the fullest. And I know she is always with me.... I was a part of her and she is a part of me.... and death can't separate us that way. I won't be afraid to die because I know she will be the first person to greet me into Heaven... and that gives me some peace thinking about that.

Whoa... OK, this was a lot, I know. Sorry for rambling. But I had to get this out now, to record how I'm feeling right now. I hope to one day write a book about my experience, or compile essays from people who have lost their parents to cancer.

One more thing... THANK YOU SO MUCH for being such wonderful friends. I seriously wouldn't be able to function if I didn't have you all supporting me. I love you all.... and I'm here for you in a heartbeat if you ever need me, just like you were there for me!!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An Extraordinary Mom

I am planning on blogging about my whole experience with my mom's illness and death sometime within the next few weeks, but I don't have the energy to do it now. I did want to share what I wrote for her memorial service, and what my sister so beautifully read, so here it is.

I'm trying to get back to you all personally, but I just wanted to say thank you so much for the beautiful support -- everyone who wrote on my wall or sent me a message, wrote on my mom's guestbook, came to the services or sent me cards. One thing that is keeping me going right now is knowing I have so many wonderful friends and family members who are there for me. Thank you so much.


How do I pay tribute to the person I loved the most? How do I describe someone whose life was so woven wth mine? How can I talk about such a wonderful mother who was also my best friend?

I can tell you her favorite color was purple, she loved the movie Remember the Titans and she was a lifelong General Hospital watcher. She was one of the only people I know who hated the beach—she wasn’t a big fan of sand. She had a sweet tooth and she loved listening to oldies music and current pop music, including boy bands. And who can forget her infamous holiday sweaters and earrings?

But I believe what I’ll always remember about my mom is the kind of person she was. She was a joyful woman who loved others wholeheartedly. My mother was definetly a people person and she loved chatting for hours to her closest friends. She preferred a night in talking around our kitchen table with her girlfriends to a night out.

She was vibrant and lively, and had the spirit of a younger woman but the maturity and wisdom for someone her age. When I was in high school, I used to tease her that she was a 16-year-old trapped in a 40something’s body, because she enjoyed working at a high school just as much as I liked being a student there. She loved working in schools and being with students, and who had more Northampton spirit than my mom did? She owned more black and orange than any other person I know, besides maybe my sister.

I’ll always remember the sound of my mom’s laugh. It was a distinctive, cute little giggle that earned her, along with Robin Schultz, the nicknames of Betty and Wilma. And I’ll always remember the warmth and strength of her hugs. No matter what I was going through, a hug from Mom always made things better.

I’ve never heard anyone say an unkind word about my mom, but what negative thing is there to say about her? She was nothing but sweet to everyone around her. She would bend over backwards for anyone, but there are three specific people she would go to the ends of the earth for: her kids.

So many people have told me, “Roma’s kids were her life.” And being one of her kids, of course I already knew that. Any time any of us were sick or had an injury, she wouldn’t leave our side and helped us to feel better. She was the first to suit up and go to battle for us if we needed a defender. And I can’t imagine how many miles she’s put on all her vehicles driving us to and from friends’ houses, shopping malls and sports fields.

She supported us in all our endeavors. She wouldn’t miss even one of Emily’s games. She was most definetly Em’s biggest fan, which is a hard title to hold, considering Emily played sports year-round. She got so into what Emily was doing that she held office as the president of the field hockey and basketball booster clubs.

No matter how stupid Emily and I thought it was, she bought Brandon every Pokemon nicknack imaginable. I know she would be supportive of his recent love of video making and would watch all of his videos with pride.

When I became a Backstreet Boys fanatic in 8th grade, Mom bought me everything BSB – hats, T-shirts, etc. She fell in love with their music as well, and every Friday on the way to school would be “Backstreet Friday” and we’d pop a BSB CD in and sing along.

When I was in elementary school and decided I wanted to be a writer, Mom steered me in the right direction. She read all my stories and became my editor as well. No one was more proud of me than she was. Without my mom’s encouragement and support, I’m not sure if I’d be a journalist today.

I’m lucky to be able to say my mom was more than just a mother to me – she was my best friend, too. No one knew more about me than she did, and I would confide in her about everything – school, crushes, my fears. Even throughout college, she would be my sounding board when I had to make big decisions… and she would even answer the phone when I’d call for the fifth time with a laundry question. She could always calm me down and consol me over a break-up, a bad grade or a fight with a friend.

We were so in tune with each other that, even though I haven’t been able to go to her for advice in almost two years, I feel that in most situations, I’d already know what she would have told me to do. There have even been times when I’d be driving in the car and hear a song and think, “Mom really likes this song.” Then I would realize it came out after she got sick and she never even heard it – I just knew so well what she liked.

The biggest compliment I’ve ever received is when people tell me they see a lot of qualities of my mother in me. Mom once said she thought all three of her kids were very loving and caring people – and that’s because you raised us to be that way, Mom. We learned how to be good people by looking at you and your interactions with others. You set an amazing example.

I know time will help us all heal from the pain of losing such a wonderful woman, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to listen to certain songs without crying and thinking of her, or if I’ll be able to see a Ford Escape while driving and not feel a flicker of hope and excitement that it’s my mom I’m passing on the road.

I may never understand why she had to be taken away from us at such a young age, but I do know I’d much rather have 23 years of an extraordinary mother than a lifetime of a mediocre mom.

Mom, thank you so much for all you’ve done for me and for loving me so much. I promise I’ll remember what you’ve taught me and I’ll live my life in a way that would make you proud. I love you forever, and thanks for being extraordinary. Rest in peace.