Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Tale of Three Moms

It's hard for me to write dispassionately about 'Motherhood' or try to be creative with the topic at this point in my life, so instead, I'll retell a story about what was foremost in my mind this Mother's Day and explain why it is a sobering topic for me.

Around the holidays, a year and a half ago, Mom was literally fighting for her life... and hanging on by a thread. She had been diagnosed with leukemia in May, fought a losing battle with chemotherapy over the summer, and nothing was helping to stem the advance of the cancer in her blood and bone marrow. With the classification that she fell into, her prognosis at the time of diagnosis was well short of six months.

Then a miracle happened...her doctor was able to convince the insurance company to approve a bone marrow transplant despite her age at the time (63) being beyond their normal range. That was followed closely by a second miracle...she didn't have to wait for a donor match. Her own brother, who lived 4 miles away from her and was still in good health at 65, tested to be a perfect match for donation. Sibling donations have the highest success rate, and we crossed our fingers that Mom could hold out long enough to stabilize for and undergo the god-awful pre-procedure chemo and radiation.

So just before Thanksgiving the year before last, she was given the transplant, and we waited while her body fought both the cancer and the 'invading' new bone marrow cells. That Thanksgiving holiday was filled with worry and hope.

As December began, she started slipping away. Her counts were proceeding 'normally', but she was becoming delirious and eventually unresponsive. An unexpected allergic reaction to her anti-rejection medication sent her into a coma due to fluid buildup in the brain called PRES syndrome. 1700 miles away, I could only wait for news. She was moved to intensive care and the second week of December I received a call needing permission to place her on a ventilator as a respiratory infection set in.

At that point I could wait no longer, and scheduled my flight to South Dakota. I hadn't seen her since August, and barely recognised her; her hair was gone, she was 30 pounds lighter, and she was hooked up to every piece of medical support equipment you can imagine. I walked into her empty house alone that night and the utter silence was the strangest sensation, looming as an omen, as if she was already gone.

They showed me the MRI's of her brain, dark and while areas everywhere...awful looking to even my untutored eye. They started talking about comfort measures and it was universally assumed that she would never go home again, even if she survived, which was looking less and less likely.

I sat by her bed for nearly a week with no response. I'd had the childishly hopeful but irrational thought that once I was there, she'd hear my voice and magically open her eyes, but that only happens in fiction I suppose. I lotioned her feet, tried in vain to keep her bloody tears from drying on, and tried to talk. It was hard to know what to say to someone not speaking back or giving any sign of life---again where the movies and fiction have it wrong. Her hand was warm but dead in mine.

During this time, her only movements were occasional gagging motions, and I asked, begged, pleaded, and finally flat-out demanded they remove the breathing tube. Their response was that she'd met every protocol except one; she had to be responsive before removal.

I was stymied by ICU staff and resp therapists at every turn until one day I finally spoke to the Pulminologist on the phone and reminded him that she's been unresponsive for days before insertion. After securing my permission to reinsert if she went south, he approved the removal, much to the dismay of the resp therapist who'd smugly handed me the phone in the first place, sure that the doc would support her instead of me.

She and the ICU nurse went through the shut-down and pulling of the tube. It was awful watching my mom's body fighting and gagging. But it was finally out.

Then her eyes opened...

After nearly three weeks in a coma, when that tube came out, she just...woke up. The nurse asked if she knew who I was, and she said in a raspy, but clearly disgusted voice, "Of course! That's my daughter." Oh, that's my mama. Give 'em hell, Mom. Later she confessed that she hadn't been able to remember my first name for the first week, which bothered and discouraged her more than anything else.

While she'd been laying there, her body had been accepting the transplant. They moved her back up to oncology the next morning (that was a jolt, coming into her ICU bay and having it be empty!), and I flew home the day after, on Christmas Eve, to be with my girls for the holiday. I was loathe to leave, but I had my own mothering to do.

Only two weeks later, she went home after a total of two months in the hospital. Her mom, my grandma, who was 87, moved out to the farm to spend the rest of the SD winter with her and take care of her 'little girl' during her recovery.

Being a mom doesn't stop, apparently, once your baby is grown. Even when they're in the their sixties and have kids and grandkids of their own.

This Mother's Day, she is 100% donor cells and cancer-free. Her vision is still somewhat affected, probably from the radiation or possibly the PRES, so she can't read like she used to ...a huge blow for the person I inherited my bookishness from. But her hair is finally growing out. And she is back driving again and doing for herself.

Moreover, she's still herself, still Mom, still Mimi to my two girls and my brother's new baby boy we didn't think she'd live to meet (here she is pictured below with my brother and his son, on his first birthday just last month). I had almost, almost given up hope of her still being...her during my vigil last winter.

This Mother's Day, I have the pleasure of planning a trip for her to come visit us here in Oregon this June. It's been three years, and for most of that time I thought she'd never be able to make the trip again. But through what I believe is sheer willpower and stubborness, she is ignoring any lingering souveniers of her battle and actually living her life. We'd had every reason to expect that she could be gone by now, but a few miracles later I have something very real and concrete to be thankful for...my mom's future and all our Mother's Days yet to come.


  1. Devon,

    What a beautiful and uplifting story. I hope you enjoy your mother's visit in June, and I know you're going to savour every moment.



  2. She must be one tough, determined lady. What a moving story.

    Thank you for sharing it.


  3. Thanks Ash! I've actually had the thought her story would make an interesting book, and I've put together a few chapters. Fortunately for us, it's an ongoing story, and definitely has a happy ending. :)

  4. Thanks for commenting Craig. She IS one determined woman, always has been. She's five foot flat, and operates a huge John Deere, lol. We call her the Tiger Prawn...the fiestiest shrimp in the ocean. :)

  5. Sounds as if you've got a bit of the feisty in you too! I'm always jealous of people who have these great family relationships. I'm glad you're smart enough to cherish it.

  6. Hi Kath, I certainly do appreciate my small but great family. :)

    Yes, I had the staff there hopping, they were telling Mom later all about it and saying they knew where I got it from, lol.

  7. This is a beautiful story Devon. you're both very lucky.


  8. Thank you so much for sharing your mother's miracle. It's a truly uplifting story. Most people would not have been as persistent as you were in getting that tube removed. It sounds like the women in your family are truly strong women. I hope I'll still be able to help others when I'm in my 80's like your grandmother helped your mom.

  9. Oh, Michelle!

    This is such a perfect tale for this week's topic! Thank you.

    I remember your sharing some of this in an earlier post, when you were talking about the effects of the coma on your mom's eyes. But I didn't realize that it was your effort (or maybe stubbornness...) that led to her waking from the coma.

    I also love the notion of your grandmother coming to care for your mother. You are so fortunate!

    Once again, thanks for making this a special Mother's Day.


  10. Thank you, Garce. The whole experience was one that completely redefined my view of the world. It's staggering, the number of little things which, had they not turned out perfectly, would have had a dire result.

  11. Hi Eyre, thanks for coming by! Always great to see you.

    Some other family members were concerned that all the work my grandma was doing would tax her own health, but I thought then, and still think, that helping out gave her a new lease on life.

    It must've been so rewarding to be able to be there--to be in the position to do what no one else could really do--nurture her own daughter back to health, at an age where so many are barely able to care for themselves. Indeed, in most cases the roles would be reversed--and she's fond of pointing that out too. :)

    She's still living in her house, on her own and doing everything for herself, 4 miles from Mom.

  12. Hi Lisabet! Yes, that's true, I'd forgotten about the vision post. Mom was just saying on the phone the other day that she'd been to the Neurologist for a new brain scan, and there is some scar tissue in two areas...vision and balance. So the vertigo and trouble focusing will probably never go away, but Mom asserted, "I'm just going to damn well ignore it and learn to live with it."


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