Without sugar coating it or pretending her situation was something it wasn't, I let her know that she looked amazing and much like herself (because she did).
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My mother was the type of person who would look you in the eye, with a straight face, and explain how vegetarians were missing out on critical nutrients that prevent one from being fundamentally unhealthy and crazy (which could only be found in steak and pork products, naturally). Having spent most of her adult life without suffering from so much as a head cold, she was convinced that the secret to health and longevity came down to adequate iron intake and avoiding doctors like the plague.
Not precisely prone to quackery but not exactly immune to it either, my mother would send me Flintstones chewable vitamins well into my college years. In my last Spring break vacation she even tried – again – to trick me into eating liver: “no, really, it’s normal steak, don’t you see I fried it up with green peppers and onions?” I loved her dearly; my mother was hard as a rock and nothing was going to break her. Or so I thought.
How to Navigate a Stage Four Cancer Diagnosis
For the record, there’s never a good time to get a call informing you that the hairline fracture in your mother’s hip was not osteoporosis induced by menopause, which we all thought. After all, the woman drank beer and Pepsi like ordinary people drink milk and water. No, it wasn’t osteoporosis, it was metastatic cancer.
This sucked. More for her; than me. That said, I couldn’t help think how my mother’s diagnosis impacted my life. I had just closed up shop in NYC and was about to realize my lifelong dream of moving to California. The timing sucked. It felt like a massive pile of horse shit had been shoveled into your life by the hands of fate.
“We don't lie to protect the other person. We lie to protect ourselves from the consequences. We lie because we don't want to deal with our own feelings. We lie because we don't want things to change.”
Elisa Marie Hopkins
My Mother has Terminal Cancer
My mother was given “about twelve seconds to live” ( her words, not mine). So, she was admitted to a nursing home, and I decided to keep my dream of a new job and apartment in L.A. alive. But the dream quickly became a nightmare with never-ending frequent red-eye flights between the coasts.
Admonished not to waste her time (or expensive medical resources, presumably) on treatment, she decided to sign up for all the chemo, if for no other reason than to spite the doctors and gathering buzzards (as she saw them) that had begun to circle around her not quite dead yet corpse. As it turns out, she had a bit more than twelve seconds left to live.
Telling Benevolent Lies and Selfish Truths
My first trip back after her diagnosis was emotional. I packed up her apartment that she had left in a rush for the emergency room a few months earlier, not realizing that it was the last time she’d ever sleep in her own bed. I was scared of visiting my mother in the nursing home; a woman who had never even had the flu in my lifetime. But, after a lot of deep breathing into a paper bag, and bingeing on the video for Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” for hours on end through a haze of Malbec, I soldiered on and went to see her with a duffel bag full or her favorite yoga pants and makeup.
When to Tell the Truth
Without sugar coating it or pretending her situation was something it wasn’t, I let her know that she looked amazing and much like herself (because she did). The hip surgery had gone well, and her therapists were excited about the progress she was making in physical therapy. The cancer situation (it was a situation) was still a big question mark. She was relatively young and otherwise healthy and came from a long line of ox-like people who lived to the age of 97, all on a steady diet of little more than lard and cheap grain alcohol. Hope was not exactly an irrational thing, even if it was just the last frayed edge of an already disintegrated thread in my mind.
She asked my opinion on her treatment options, and I (perhaps selfishly) told her that she should take every option available and attack cancer, just like she did the perverts that used to cat call us on the street when I was growing up. She decided to take my advice. Every day she continued to wear her trademark red lipstick. She only stopped dyeing her hair red when there was no more hair to color.
She told me about fighting with her friends and relatives about her decision to keep seeking traditional treatment over palliative care, and their “special teas from healers.” This made me angry. Really angry. I told her she was absolutely right. Who were they to push their cancer view on her? Who were these “dumb bitches.” They weren’t doctors. I was on my “team mother,” and I told her, I fully supported her decision to choose her own care, either way.
When to Lie
Shortly after she was diagnosed, in a very unemotional way and quite earnestly, my mother told me of the overwhelming sadness she felt knowing she was going to die very soon. I kept my composure, but inside my heart was imploding in pain. I told her she shouldn’t lose hope because miracles happened every day and there was no reason to believe that she couldn’t get better. For me, the thought of her suffering through an endless feedback loop of regrets over the life she had and hadn’t lived, and all the time she had “wasted” as she put it, was a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
My mother died a little over three years after her initial diagnosis, the week before Christmas of course, because that’s how she rolled. She cracked jokes and dropped snide one-liners until the end. Although the end was unspeakably painful, she held on and stayed strong until her body finally gave out.
Even though a few years have now passed since she died, I still wonder if the biggest lie I have ever told was convincing myself I had encouraged her to fight and hang on as long as she did, for herself, not for me.