I had the day circled on the calendar for a while. I knew it was coming. For me, April 23rd would be a milestone of sorts, one I really wasn’t looking forward to, but inevitable nonetheless.
When I got home a year ago last May, I found out that my mother was one of the phone messages on my answering machine at home. Since then, that phone has become the most precious thing in this house. Thieves could come steal my money, televisions, computer, anything. Just leave me this – the phone with its answering machine and the last few spoken words directly to me I have from my mother.
“Hey, Bud, it’s your Mom. Where are you now? Where are you hiding? If you’re available, call me back. Bye bye.”
Twenty-one words. But I hang on them because they are one of my last threads to her. You see, April 23, 2016, was the last day I saw my mother alive.
The cancer diagnosis had caught us all by surprise. Mom had beat it. I put my life on hold and within a week was headed for Arizona. We were praying for a miracle.
Miracles were in short supply last year.
The discussion was to do a different sort of genomic testing, one that could find a better, more targeted chemotherapy. The only problem was that it delayed treatment over a month. A month with aggressive cancer like metastasized triple negative breast cancer is like agreeing to an MMA match and letting the other guy throw a dozen punches at you before you can do anything. It’s going to be over real quick.
Then they went to put a port in for Mom to better administer the meds and while on the table in pre-op, she had a heart attack.
Then we meet with the oncologist, and she tells us the genomic testing we waited for resulted in a single drug that might be effective. “Might” was a 30% chance. When I asked what was plan B if it didn’t work, I got a shrug.
The drugs took their toll, but the cancer did, too. It had metastasized to her brain, liver, and lungs, and soon Mom had issues with personality and memory. The best way I can describe it was like watching the tide roll in and slowly eat away at a beautiful sandcastle you’ve worked on all your life. Mom was that sandcastle. She was disappearing.
We arranged a family trip to Las Vegas, so everyone could see and spend time with her in a place she loved to go. My brother and sister were shocked when they saw how frail she’d gotten. She barely had any energy.
Soon after, we got the verdict. The miracle genomic drug actually made things worse. It appeared to encourage the growth of the tumors. The oncologist looked at my brother and me and shook her head.
After consulting, we decided to go with a hospice in Idaho, right next to where my sister worked. Mom had always said she wanted to live with Suzy toward the end. So, in mid-April, I made arrangements for the cat, crate up the dog, and head north with Mom one last time. She was excited to see my sister, her granddaughter, and great-granddaughter.
I was watching her, trying to memorize every moment with her, knowing my time dwindled down to a week, to less than a day, to just hours as we landed. She slept at my sister’s, I at a guest house. The next morning, my sister picked me up. Mom was in the back seat, wondering where we going.
All of a mile. Not a long enough drive.
I helped her out of the car for the last time, and we walked in. My sister had already made the arrangements, and they took Mom on a tour while I unloaded her luggage. It was taken to her room while I joined them in the guest room.
It was just after breakfast. Inside, I swore. I would have liked to sit down with Mom one last time over a waffle, or maybe a pancake, and joke about things. But it just wasn’t going to happen.
We went to her room. Suzanne discussed with the nurse about bed arrangements while I helped Mom unpack. As we finished I went to put the suitcase in her closet. She stopped me. “No, leave that out. I’ll need it to go home tomorrow.”
I excused myself to step outside. I couldn’t see very well just then. I could hear my sister explain to Mom she would be staying there for a while. Mom got upset, then said she was tired and lay down on the bed.
When I went back in, my sister was in one corner of the room with the head nurse and the hospice legal director. Mom lay on her side, back to them. I stood there, ten feet away. My flight would leave in a little more than two hours. I would have to go soon.
And I was frozen. I couldn’t say anything.
Inside, I was screaming. Even as I write this now, in my head, I’m still screaming. She was slipping away from me, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do.
But somehow I did walk across and sit down next to her. I held her hand. I still said nothing, just passed my last minutes in silence, until Sis tapped her watch to indicate it was time to go.
I looked at Mom, who was asleep. I fought back tears as I leaned down to kiss her on the forehead. “I love you so much, Mommy.”
“I love you, too,” she whispered back. She opened her eyes slightly. “Don’t worry, Donald Gerard. You’ll be all right.” With that, she closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
I backed away slowly, my shoulders shaking from the sobs I was holding in. My sister steered me out of the room.
The flight back to Arizona was a blur. I know I somehow got in late at night and spent the next week getting ready to return home to Florida.
A couple of weeks later, my sister called from the hospice and tried to have my mother chat with me. By then the cancer had progressed so far Mom no longer knew who I was. She thought I was her brother Joseph, who had died a half-century earlier.
We were just marking time for the call. On June 1, it came. Irma Cavaliere Speirs passed quietly in her sleep.
So did I miss much? After all, within two weeks, she wouldn’t have recognized me anyway. I just would have seen more of the sandcastle melt. The truth is, I didn’t. That’s why April 23rd is my milestone. June 1 might be the day she died, but this is the day I lost her forever.