It was apparent that night, the night of her last chemo treatment, that we would need to take her to the hospital the next morning. We wheeled her right to her room and checked in from there. The doctor on call had reviewed her most recent imaging by the time we arrived. She explained that at first blush it was clear that the cancerous lesions had spread to her lungs and her lower bowel - essentially shutting down her digestive tract.
Somehow this was news to us. She, the doc, ordered new imaging and the insertion of an NG tube (Nasal-Gastric) - a 1/2" plastic tube inserted through the nostril and swallowed until it safely turns the corner into the esophagus and is pushed by the nursing assistants into the stomach opening in order to pump any blocked bile from her stomach and out through her nose. Let me make this clear... in my mother's case this tube is not used as a feeding tube, bur rather a tube to remove any food and liquid she consumes, essentially emptying her stomach.
Little did we know, this tube would become a permanent fixture. Even though the tube provided some instant relief from her hard, distended stomach, its discomfort would only increase over the coming weeks. We tracked down Dr. Pan who informed us that the day of our dreading had come. Any further treatment would only cause more harm. There was nothing more we could do. It was on this day my mother officially lost her battle with cancer.
Days, maybe weeks, not months.
And the tube?
It'll have to stay in. At this point, it's giving her more relief than she'll have without it. If we take it out, she will have to cease all intake and her only intake from now on will have to be fluid. But, her consumption is only palliative as it will promptly be pumped out of her stomach.
My chest tightened. It kept tightening. The wind was knocked out of me and was constricting with each passing moment. I was the white mouse coiled in the boa, breathing deeply only to find my air cut off by the ever-tightening serpentine realities of a losing battle. Dizzy. Panic. I found a dead end hallway. I kicked the walls. I sat on the jutting ledge of the emergency exit and heaved breaths, rose and sat again. No. No, this isn't right. This can't be right.
I saw my step-father approach. I watched the truth of the moment clutch his very being. Every nerve and capillary engaged in the fact of her immanent death. He imploded and crumbled like the razing of a skyscraper, all 6'5 of him cracked and fell and his skin surged with the reddening of his skin as his blood, his love gave out.
I called my brother. Joshua, it's time. You need to come out here. Get on a flight as soon as you can. I don't remember what else was said. I only know that he understood.
Did she understand? Did my mother know what all this meant? If she did, you couldn't see it on her face. In fact, her strength seemed so sure that I don't know what she believed at that moment. Dr. Pan came in to see her and asked as one might: How are you feeling? Great, was her response. With enthusiasm and a smile no less. He was visibly taken aback by her response. Always so positive, he said incredulously.
She was so strong that I reached for her for comfort. I fell onto her stomach with a heavy head and wept. Hard. Harder than I had in all this fight. Harder than I have in my days of heavy weeping. I poured it all onto her, because she was my mother. Who else could comfort me at this time. And so she did.
I felt, and can still feel, her hands in my hair. Stroking and holding me as she always had. I cried harder. She held me closer. Pressed me into her cancerous womb. Pressed me into the place of my beginning. The place of her ending. And I was greedy for it. Greedy for a consolation that would only be mine for days, maybe weeks, not months. I gave it all to her. I took it all from her.
Family started arriving. I heard my aunts before I saw them. The clop, clop, clop of a confident, determined woman walking heavily on a linoleum floor with heels toward the open wound of her beloved. I ran to the sound. I fell into the embrace. My knees gave out and my head nestled deeply into her neck.
You don't need to be strong anymore babygirl. You did everything you could. You did so good. Then she joined me in my desperate girlish grief. She breathed with me and lost her breath with me. This would be the first of many pressure releases we would expel together, my Tia and I.
When my cousins arrived, it was: Let's get out of here. You need to eat. We'll stop by the liquor store. So, we all piled into the van and before long there was Jameson & cheeseburgers. If you've never had the experience of being exactly who you are with people who know exactly who you are and you're held safely in their knowing and free to be exactly what you need to be at the hardest moment of you're life - then I wish that for you.
To start a fight and watch them finish it.
To be inappropriately funny.
To be caught as you collapse.
To get drunk and lose your mind.
To be distracted.
To face the fire with a family.
If you are alone, I ache for you. If you can, begin to build a family now, before it's too late. No one should have to endure such loss without another empathetic soul.
We piled into the hospital room. No one dared approach with: only 2 at a time, please. Wine was opened. Dinner was passed around. We were 10, 11, 12 maybe. We huddled around our mother, sister, aunt, wife, friend. We circled her as if to thwart her death for at least that moment. We brought life to her bedside. We joined our fires, considerable individually, and unconquerable united... or so we once believed.