It's not often that you receive the opportunity to append your words onto someone else's masterpiece. To be honest... in this moment, I wish I didn't have the opportunity at all, because it means that I'm writing what will inevitably be the final chapter. Nonetheless, I'm writing today to honor my mom, to provide closure, and perhaps inspiration for anyone that could be facing this horrible, horrible disease.
On Monday, June 20th, 2011, my mother, Susan Kirkegaard lost her 14 month battle with cancer.
I remember it as clear as day, I was in the hospital with my wife after the birth of our first child, a son, Rex. Mom had just gotten to the hospital to meet her grandson and said to me (as only my mom could) "Chris, I feel like shit!" A few days later, she was diagnosed with Pneumonia, and after a chest scan, an area of concern was noticed.
It took me awhile to be able to say it. I knew that it was true, but it was tough to wrap my head around. I didn't want to admit it. A few days later, I remember standing in the bathroom, looking in the mirror and making myself say it out loud: "Mom has cancer" - and at that moment, it was real...and I knew we had to rally behind her to fight this.
We had a DBC (Day Before Chemo) Party not too long after - giving her a chance to enjoy life a bit before all of the treatments began. We ate, we laughed, and we enjoyed each other, and for that day we remained (intentionally) blissfully unaware of the journey she was about to embark upon.
The next few months were filled with endless doctor visits, chemo treatments and radiation appointments. She had good days, and not so good days, but she didn't care. Never once was she ready to throw in the towel. She was determined to beat this disease. She suffered the usual cancer patient plights - she lost her hair, she was nauseous, and she was always tired, but she fought. She fought and fought and fought some more. "Losing" was not an option.
Around the holidays, it happened. Mom had completed her treatments and had a scan that came back negative. "No Disease Detected" was the best three word phrase I had ever heard. She beat it. She was clear. and I cried. alot. She got to spend some serious quality time with Rex, and he loved every second of it. Life was back to the way it was supposed to be.
Because she had small cell cancer, it was strongly suggested that she have some mild brain radiation done as a preventative measure, to keep the cancer from trying to move up there. She spent some time on the fence, and finally agreed, saying "well, I'd rather it be preventative, than them having to nuke off half my brain... you know?" - but she was scared nonetheless (and rightfully so).
She survived the dreaded radiation mask, and the short term memory loss to find her self feeling crummy again. I've realized that it's tough when you have cancer, to know why you feel crummy. They're pumping your body full of stuff that is more or less poison, zapping you with microwaves, and poking and prodding you at every chance they get.. all of which are reason enough for you to feel crummy, but the combo of all of them together - oof.
A couple of months ago, Mom began having trouble walking - which the doctors attributed to after effects of the brain radiation. The condition worsened, to the point where we had to move her bedroom down to the first level of the house, and even moving from one room to another was a challenge for her.
She eventually had another scan, and my worst nightmare had come true. It was back. Mom had several tumors that were pushing on her spine and making it impossible for her to walk. I was mad at everything. I was sad. I was depressed. I shut down. why her? why should she have to fight this again? Her response? "Here we go again. Cancer, you picked the wrong bitch!" unbelievable....somehow, she was ready to go, again.
Her condition eventually lead to a 5 week hospital stay where she was attempting rehab to learn to walk again.. but she just couldn't quite gain feeling back in her legs enough to do it. We visited as often as we could. We should have visited more. Seeing her like that was tough. I was so mad that she had to go through this. Every car trip home after visiting I fought back the tears. I wanted to help her in some way, but there was nothing I could do.
She was eventually discharged to go home, and moved into a hospital bed in the dining room. The house was filled to the brim with medical equipment. The same room that we had held her "Day Before Chemo" party in, had now become a startling visual reminder of mom's condition. She was struggling, and I could tell... she just wasn't quite "herself" anymore, mentally. She was always tired and she was confused a lot. I thought maybe it was the medication - but looking back, I think maybe it was an indication of how she was doing overall.
My Grandma and I have both always had a "gift" of having absurdly keen instincts and just always knowing when something was "going on". On Wednesday, June 15th I was doing some touchup painting on my deck outside and I started to feel ill. I felt weird. I felt strange. Something wasn't right. I went inside to get a drink and I realized I had 8 missed calls from my Grandma. Mom was back in the hospital, and it was serious. I immediately headed north to Watertown to see her.
The latest round of chemo had taken it's toll on her body. It destroyed all of her platelets and white blood cells, leaving her body extremely weak, prone to bleeding, and very susceptible to infection. I spent the next 5 days in and around Watertown, balancing being with Mom and being with my Grandma. We knew it was serious, and that this would be an extremely difficult battle. She got transfusion after transfusion, IV after IV, and probably 10 gallons of antibiotics. Her condition was stagnant, some levels were increasing, some were not. She had lost her appetite, and spent a large majority of the days sleeping. I was scared out of my mind. We spent Sunday (Father's Day) together, and I brought Rex up to see her. He's just getting a handle on talking, but he managed to sputter out "GEEEEE! SUE!!!" (G for Grandma) she smiled in her sleep and said "I love Rex!"
That night, things changed. She began refusing her medications and becoming difficult for the nurses. Not too long after I arrived Monday morning, she had a very lucid moment... the kind of clarity I hadn't seen in her in months. She asked for our permission to go. She told us couldn't fight anymore, she was exhausted from suffering for so long, and she said it was her time to go.
I was heartbroken and devastated, but I completely understood. I told her I loved her and that if it was her time, she should go. She was worried about letting us down, but we gave her permission - we ensured her we'd watch out for each other, and that we'd always remember her. We exchanged I love you's. She was at peace with the words she was speaking and hearing. She also asked to go home, which she was granted late in the afternoon, and she peacefully passed at home that evening.
It's been a little over a week since she left us, and it's still not quite real yet. I suspect it may never be. But, it takes an exceptionally strong person to fight for so long, sacrificing everything she knows, just to keep fighting... and an even stronger person to know when to say "when". I think I'm able to write this today because I know she was peace with everything... and also that I got the chance to say goodbye, and tell her everything I wanted her to know. If I've learned anything from all of this, it's that life is so very, very short - never take even a moment for granted.
Mom's journey provided us with the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people that helped her every second of every day of the way. Without all of you, her fight would have been so very different - she constantly ranted and raved about how nice the hospital staff were, and how they were all looking out for her. Her long time companion/boyfriend/best friend in the world, Larry, literally spent just about every minute minute of every day of the last 6 months with her - something I'll never be able to thank him enough for. My wife, Jenny, has been my rock. Mom loved her like her own daughter. They always connected on a level I could never quite understand, but definitely appreciated. Grandma focused on driving Mom just enough crazy to keep her ready to fight this wretched disease.
And Rex.. well, he was probably the biggest inspiration of all, and he unknowingly granted her last wish - to hear him say her name. Knowing Mom, it was so she could know that he knew who she was - but trust me when I tell you that I'll never let him never forget her...... and how could he? Despite fighting for her life since he was born, she managed to fill our house with some of the most amazing hand-made blankets, toys and clothes for him that anyone has ever seen. The power of a Grandma knows no bounds.
I will end this post here with a phrase that became Mom's motto as she fought through each and every stage of this disease - and I promise, Mom, that we always will love you and remember you - and that we will always "Keep Calm, and Carry On"