Happy Mother's Day
"It's the bad one. Grade 4 Glioblastoma."
There's absolutely nothing that can prepare you for the words, "Grade
4 Glioblastoma." I can remember exactly where I was when my otherwise healthy 55-year-old mother called to tell me her diagnosis. I was on a job in Los Angeles, but I have no recollection of how I made my way back home to Portland to be with my mom and family. It all just went foggy. I remember crying so hard I couldn't compose myself. Good people comforted me but they had no idea why. They hadn't been in the hospital room a month earlier when the doctors were explaining all the things the shadowy markings on the CAT scan might be. The best hope was simply damage from a stroke. The more realistic possibility was that it wasn't a stroke at all, but that the shadowy mark might be a brain tumor that had caused a seizure. When you're in the room with the doctor you can pretty much sense what he thinks it is. He doesn't have to say anything to tell you. So you hope that if it's a tumor it's the best kind of tumor—the grade 1 variety that buys you the most time and gives you the most hope.
It was just before Christmas when my mom's world went black. She was vacuuming her living room preparing for the weekly Sunday night family dinner. She later journaled: “The next thing I knew I was surrounded by handsome young men—some firefighters and the others from the ambulance company. First they gave me oxygen. Then I answered some questions to their satisfaction before they carried me by grabbing under my arms and knees. Out the front door we went to put me on the stretcher. The rug looked so freshly clean, they said, that they didn’t want to bring the wheeling bed into the house. The scented candle in the dining room must have overshadowed the odor left from the dog pee episode the prior day. They asked if everything in the kitchen was turned off, but everyone missed the candle. Ronnie found it burning later when he stopped by, and, since there was no sign of human life in the place, he blew it out and wondered where we were.”
Doctors gave her the option of a more conclusive biopsy, but she decided she'd rather wait til after the holidays just in case the news would dampen her favorite time of year. So in January I received her call. I guess the room spun around a bit. Or maybe it felt like when you’re on a plane descending through thick cloud cover. There was a sense of weightlessness. Helplessness. Nothingness. That feeling lasted until I found myself stuck three feet from the arrival gate in Portland, as freezing rain had locked everything up. I sat there for what seemed an eternity. All I could think was that as soon as I stepped off the plane, nothing would be the same again.
A few days later I accompanied my mom to the hospital that bared the name where we’d both been born. We sat there and listened to the brain surgeon tell us straight up what we were looking at. I wanted to punch him in the face for his bluntness, but I would later learn to appreciate him for it.
"You've got 3 to 18 months, Pam. We're going to operate immediately to relieve some pressure and buy you as much time as possible. But there won't be any miracles here."
Nor would there be any answers to our questions: How did this happen? Where did this come from? All he could really say was that the brain is very complicated.
Again, she journaled: “I am fully aware that this thing that intruded my brain in November has dramatically numbered my days. I have been in a process of letting go since December. Letting go is not the same as giving up. I am not giving up life. I am working to make each day I have a good one. But I am not trying to lengthen the number of those days. Now is my time. I have come into my own. Don’t let me forget how it feels to be kind, to be thankful, to be wise and to share the wisdom. Let the small miracles come. Let’s use every bit of time to the advantage of those I love.”
At the time of my mother's operation, my wife was three months pregnant and now all I wanted was my mom to be around long enough to hold the baby. Maybe, I thought, she could hand down some of her greatness. He was born in late June. She died three months later, having successfully passed the torch. A small miracle, indeed.
I ran into her surgeon a few months on. I thanked him for his brutal honesty in the room that day. In a strange way, he had given us the gift of life. His timeline made us cherish everyday together. My divorced parents remarried each other. They invited everyone they’d befriended throughout life. It was a party to end all parties. My mom wanted to celebrate everyone and everything while she still could. She tied up all loose ends. She made peace with those it might have been in question with. Everyday became sort of a living wake. Facing death, her goal was to die well, and that she did. But I'll never forget that phone call, and those goddamned words.