Warning: this is a bummer kind of post. If you don't want to get teary on Christmas Eve, please feel free to skip it.
I just realized that it was exactly thirty-two years ago today that we got the phone call from my dad: Mom had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had been losing weight all fall but had refused to go to the doctor to find out why until the cancer had spread so far that her bowels were blocked. (She was definitely old school about her health. No doctor until she was at death's door.)
She was admitted to the local hospital with a prognosis of only a few weeks to live. She refused to consider chemo, probably because she was afraid of the nausea and other side effects. Smokey and I bullied her into trying it. The odds the docs had given us were that chemo had a one in four chance of curing her: definitely gambling odds worth trying, we thought. My dad chimed in to agree with us, but after being married to her for 40+ years, I know he was a bit afraid of her. She was the poster child for stubborn.
The chemo worked, although it was not an easy battle. Mom and Dad lived outside a small town in northern Minnesota, the hospital there was not equipped to administer the treatment, and so she had to be transfered to a larger hospital in Fargo. (You can deduce how remote they were if the nearest hospital of any size was in Fargo, North Dakota.) Whereas the staff in the local hospital was caring and familiar — she had taught more than one of them in school, and her primary nurse had been a high school classmate of mine — the staff at the Fargo hospital were all strangers, professional and remote. Plus, after the arguments and turmoil and ambulance rush to get her to Fargo, the treatment did not start immediately, and she wondered aloud about the letdown. After a few days in the Fargo hospital, she rebelled and demanded to be released.
This is when the first amazing thing happened. Her doctor at home sought and received special permission from the powers that be to administer the chemo in the local hospital. Mom was put through the usual chemo regimen of the time, but she was able to stay at home between treatments. Home is always better than in hospital. She had the nausea and lost all her hair and her hearing was slightly impaired, but in late January or early February it was clear that she was in remission.
We had been making the four-hour drive every weekend to see them. We didn't have kids yet and we both worked full time. It was a stressful time; I think I gained ten pounds. When I figured out that we could bring our laundry along and do it at their house instead of trying to fit it in after work, that made a big difference. Now that Mom was in remission, we thought our lives could relax a little.
But calm had not yet returned. My dad had complained about back pain a few times during the six weeks or so between her diagnosis and remission. Once it was clear she had turned the corner he went to see their doctor himself.
Cancer, possibly pancreatic, that had metasticized.
My boss had agreed to let me postpone any work travel while Mom was in the hospital and sick, but once she went into remission I started scheduling my trips. I was interviewing a brokerage branch office manager in Fort Worth as part of an audit when I got the call from Smokey. Just to show how unaware I was, my immediate reaction was happiness to hear his voice. He had to remind me that he wouldn't be calling me in the middle of the day in Texas unless he had terrible news.
I was able to drive straight from the branch office audit to the airport and fly home that same day because the branch office staff and the staff at the main office in Dallas all helped. While I drove to the airport, they changed my plane reservation, repacked my stuff in my Dallas hotel room, and sent it back to Minneapolis with the president of the company, who happened to be in Dallas, too.
We drove to northern MN the next morning, a Friday, to see Dad in the hospital. He was lucid and not in pain, and we were able to chat with him. As I remember, the conversation turned to the counties in Minnesota — as it does — and he was able to name all 87 of them.
We stayed the weekend and into the next week. Monday evening we were having dinner with my best friend from high school when we got a call from the hospital to come at once. When we got there we found that Dad had died. It was only four days after learning of his diagnosis. We eventually found out that it was oat cell cancer that had started in his lung; he had been a life-long smoker until just a few years before, when he had been diagnosed with emphysema and his doc told him to give it up.
We stayed until the funeral. Mom had a rueful chuckle thinking that when local friends heard that Dad had died of cancer, their immediate reaction would be to think that the teller had it wrong — she was the one with cancer. She was feeling well enough by then to be on her own at home, although we continued to visit nearly every weekend.
Her remission lasted about a year and a half, long enough to witness me being pregnant with Elder Son but not long enough to meet him. Her condition began to decline seriously in autumn, 1984. By November the local nuns were giving her hospice care at her apartment, and on December 1 I got the call that she had died. She had had the nun on duty call me a few days earlier so she could try to talk to me but she was in too much pain to be intelligible. That was the night that I cried because knew she was gone. We had to make the decision whether to drive to see her one more time, but I was already a week overdue. In making the choice not to drive there and risk going in to labor on the road — I had had a hard time getting pregnant and a hard time staying that way — I knew she would have understood.
Elder Son was born exactly 24 hours later.