She was looking forward to the surgery. After 7 months of various chemotherapy treatments to shrink the large and spreading tumors, especially the one on her liver, this was likely to be the end to nearly a year of tests and procedures on the long, drawn out train ride that is cancer. She could get back to living her life and at 61, she still had lots of life to live!
“Who is?” I asked. Other family members had been ushered out of the hospital room because she said she wanted to speak to me alone.
“EVERYONE! This is a place for mercy killings and they are keeping me to put me out of my misery. But I don’t need to be here any more. They want to kill me,” her voice shook with emotion and fear. I reached for her hand. Her fluid volume had increased and so the strong, slender fingers I was used to seeing were now puffy and soft and cold. I tried to explain, in the simplest terms possible what was happening.
“You had an operation on your liver. Remember?” I asked, hoping things weren’t so bad that she had even forgotten that fact. She nodded yes. “And they removed most of it. The liver dissection was major. They took more than they had anticipated. It’s going to take a while for your body….your remaining liver…..to get strong. There are toxins in your body. I think you are confused with…”
“No!! I’m NOT confused!” She was inconsolable. I tried another approach. One that had nothing to do with logic.
“I know you are scared. I really do. So can you pray? Can you just pray in your heart that you will feel peace? I won’t let anybody hurt you. Just keep praying that you will feel safe and have peace”. This woman, who had given birth to nine children, lost one as an infant, and then valiantly raised the other eight alongside her husband, was scared to death. This woman, whose faith and testimony in God and her religion had seen her through some of life’s most unkind trials, was afraid beyond consolation. This woman, my mother-in-law, was a rock and had been someone I admired and looked up to since I was 17 years old. I wasn’t prepared to see her like this. “I love you…..,” I said as I stood up to leave. My emotions weren’t going to hold up much longer.
“I love you too. More than I think you even know.”
Those were the last words she ever said to me. I left the room, collapsed in tears in my husband’s arms while some other family members worried and wondered what had gone on? I just shook my head and told them she is confused and that I had tried to comfort her. It was overwhelming to see her in that condition.
She improved slightly. Enough to give the surgeon and other physicians hope. We visited several times weekly, looking for improvements. Seeing a smile now and then. The disinfectant “medical” smell didn’t even register when we entered the building any more. The hospital employees in the cafeteria were becoming our friends. She recognized us but rarely spoke. We gave Dad a break now and then. He was steadfast and rarely left her side….even when he was being accused of attempted murder and other untrue imaginings that her poison-filled brain would concoct.
One problem didn’t improve was the fluid retention. Slowly, but very surely, it increased. Eventually, after several weeks, she was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. Her organs were failing. They were going to drain fluid — give her partial liver a chance to regenerate and save her. Unable to speak due to the tube down her throat and mildly sedated for comfort reasons, she occasionally would motion for someone to give her a pen. She had a message and needed to “talk”. Scribbles emerged onto paper. Undecipherable gibberish of partial letters and swirls. Oh, but wait! Words! “How are John Stockton and the Utah Jazz doing?” Really??? Maybe there IS hope. If she’s asking about her favorite NBA team, then surely she’s getting better! My favorite written message during this time was “Love One Another” written clearly and concisely.
Finally….a family meeting requested by the doctors. A conclusion that there was to be no improvement. Phrases like “very little brain function, too much fluid, kidney failure, diminished response”. It was time to say good-bye. And so we did. One by one her children kissed and hugged their mother goodbye. I’ll never forget that one of the ICU nurses told us she had shaved her legs the few tiny hairs on her chin. She wanted her family to see her as beautiful as possible during our last visit. A tearful, heartfelt family prayer was said and the room was filled her many children, their spouses and other close family members to the extent that we spilled out into the hallway. The machines that were keeping alive were switched off once we were ready. But we were never truly ready.
Human bodies are strong. Even when filled with an enormous amount of fluid and failing organs and everything else that was going wrong, dying didn’t come immediately. Her body had given up the fight but perhaps it was her soul that was still forcing her to linger. However, a few hours passed and then so did she.
There is an empty space in the room when the family gathers, even eleven years later. But she is still around. We sense her whispering in our ears from time to time, we hear the sound of her laughter in some of her grandchildren’s voices and we know she loves us and wants us to love each other.