Not the Way You’d Want to Hear About Such News
Social media and technology certainly has changed the way in which we all communicate. It has made life easier in a way, but in another way, it’s a bit dismal, IMO. People aren’t relating face-to-face or voice-to-voice as much anymore. One of the negatives of this became very apparent this morning when I got a message through Facebook from one of my favorite paternal cousins (who loves in Australia) as a result of seeing this status message:
Families are complex and I won’t go into the strange dynamics in my own family, but my sweet cousin did not know that my mom had passed and was shocked and saddened to find out through Facebook. She sent me a lovely message and asked me share what had happened. I assumed she had heard through the grapevine, but at the same time I guess I’m not surprised that she did not hear about it from her dad. The paternal side of the family weren’t exactly fans of my mom or her side of the family for various reasons, some real, some simply rumor and hate-based.
Anyway, I never really expected or thought that I’d be writing a summary of events 5 years later. It’s a bit sad but in a sense slightly cathartic. I’ve written short blog posts on Mother’s day or on her birthday/anniversary of her passing, but I don’t think I’ve actually written about the finer details. This year, I didn’t plan a blog post and thought I’d just do it via Twitter or Facebook, but my cousin’s message and shock at just discovering the news changed that. Like I said, it was a bit hard to relive that, but in a way it’s slightly cathartic, so I suppose I’ll share the detailed story a bit more publicly.
My mom was diagnosed with stage 3 endometrial cancer in August 2003 and she had emergency surgery to remove a tumor the size of a basketball from her uterus. She initially thought her symptoms were due to benign fibroids that she had for most of her life, but she later also ignored some symptoms, probably due to fear of the truth. (Lesson Ladies! Don’t ignore your suspicions.) I didn’t find out about her illness until 2 days before her scheduled emergency surgery because she made my aunt Katy (her younger sister) promise that she would not tell me or my sister about it because my mom didn’t want to interrupt our lives and have us worry. My mom probably wouldn’t even have told my aunt had she not needed someone to take her to the hospital. (My sister was in San Francisco at the time and I was still a relative newlywed (May 2001) living in South Orange County and working in downtown Los Angeles in a public interest law firm and in the process of looking for a new house.)
My aunt disagreed with my mom, but my mom emotionally blackmailed her, saying that if Katy told us, my mom would not allow Aunt Katy to see her. So, my aunt circumvented her promise by telling their older brother (who I think was kept from knowing initially as well), who told his children, and then one of my cousins called and told me. It’s like a very un-fun version of the telephone game. I found out at work, tried unsuccessfully to keep my composure, but somehow managed to tell my boss the bad news. That evening, hubby found me last-minute airline tickets and I flew home to Houston in time to see her before she was to go into surgery. My mom was very surprised to see me and upset with my aunt for letting the cat out of the bag, but I knew that she was secretly relieved (and she later told me to0) that I was able to make it out there.
I don’t think finding out news like this can be anything but shocking. However, just as shocking and puzzling was the illness itself. She did not meet any of the risk factors for endometrial/ uterine cancer….She was not overweight, ate very healthy, mostly macrobiotic foods, was a vegetarian for 20 years and there was no family history or other potential causes. I maybe spent about a day wondering the every unanswered “why” question, but decided that it really wasn’t worth my time or energy to think about the whys of it all. It’s part of life. We all have trials and tribulations to endure. This was ours. It was bad, but it still could have been much worse.
While still working full-time jobs, my sister and I took turns flying back and forth from California to Houston to take care of our mom post-surgery and throughout her radiation and chemotherapy treatments. (I had racked up lots of frequent flyer miles!) My mom didn’t have insurance so we tried to get her Medicaid, but her type of cancer didn’t qualify and she had to be sick for 2 years before qualifying. Deep down I knew the chances were slim for her to have to wait and survive that long, but it’s not something one really thinks or want to dwell upon at the time. Luckily, she lived in a county where there’s a good public indigent program and the team of doctors at the public hospital and the hospice team were wonderful.
My mom’s initial chemo treatment was an aggressive one. The drug, if leaks out of the veins can corrode skin and organs. This is what gets pumped into the body to kill the cancer. After several months of chemo, mom decided that she couldn’t take it anymore and needed a break. A very educated friend of hers was also going through her own battle with breast cancer and told my mom about her pursuit of alternative routes of care. While my sister thought a self-proclaimed naturepath “doctor” was a total fraud (I checked up on him and he had a PhD in Physics, but is not a M.D., though his “patients” thought he was), we supported my mom’s desire to go this route. It was her body and her decision; we just did our best to support it and to try to get her to tell her oncologist the supplements she was taking. I flew her to my house, since the quack lives 20 min. away, and my sister and I sat there, listened and made faces at each other while he spouted things to my mom and her friend about things that seem medically sound on the surface, and he made it sound like he knew what he was talking about as if he were a physician. But if you actually listen and know a little bit about medicine, what he said/claimed is just a giant pile of SHIT with lots of contradictory medical info, even if you strip away his stupid claims.
Nonetheless, my sister and I kept our dissent to ourselves and I paid for the supplements that the quack “prescribed” her, because I think at this point, having hope for a cancer patient at this late stage in life is just as important as any treatment. I do think that my mom did suspect that he was stretching the truth, but she needed to try something else,whether she really believed his claims or not. (I later found out that some folks were filing a suit against the quack and the quack was trying to get support from his patients. He got none from me. He basically was claiming that he had cured patients of Epstein-Barr, Lupus, stomach cancer, among other things. What a fucking fraud! )
A few months and $2k+ later, my mom later decided that the treatment that the quack was recommending was also quite taxing and toxic and she couldn’t keep up with the regimen, so she stopped it. She decided to try traditional chemotherapy again, but asked the doctor for something that was not as strong as her first attempts at chemo. She did this for a little while, but it was unsuccessful and she really could not handle the drugs. A little thereafter, she was confirmed terminal, with secondary lung cancer, since the cancer had spread all over her body, and hospice care was set up. My mom was a simple person – she didn’t want any fanfare and wanted to die quietly and peacefully in her little townhouse.
I’ll never forget the sight and image of my mom towards those last few months. We weren’t sure how she hung on for so long…all the folks on the hospice team thought that she would have passed way before she actually did. Her pulse and blood pressure were almost nonexistent, and in such cases, patients would go comatose and die. That never happened to my mom. She was lucid and clear pretty much to the every end, albeit very very weak and lacking energy to talk/think. My mom was never a heavy person, she was about 5’1″ and probably around 110-115lbs when she was healthy. I don’t know how much she weighed in the end (70lbs?), but she literally had wasted away so much that she looked like one of those ice mummies. It’s really not the last sight or memory you want of a loved one. I could see and feel every bone on her body. I could see the well-defined space between the radius and ulna of her forearm. The only part of her body where you could not see a defined detail of bone was where her tumors had grown so large that she actually had a bit of a belly, and her misshapened left leg. The tumors blocked blood flow to her legs so she also had a very swollen left leg from the edema.
My Mean Grandmother
While my mom was dying, my paternal grandfather “ah-gong” was also ill, especially since he was already in his 90s. My dad asked my sister and I to visit our grandparents in Taipei, Taiwan. I visited them about 1-2 times in Taiwan while my mom was sick and also went to ah-gong’s funeral. On once visit, my grandmother “ah-ma”, had pulled me aside to ask me about my sick mother. Ah-ma never really liked my mom and her side of the family for various reasons and her dislike was confirmed when my parents divorced. I thought that ah-ma would just ask me about it and be done with it. I didn’t expect any great words of wisdom. I was shocked in disbelief when ah-ma basically said “You know, your mom is sick because she and her family are bad people.” Her message to me basically was that my mom deserved to be on her deathbed.
I was very hurt by what ah-ma said, but at the time, I chose not to talk back to her about it. I just left the room. I also chose not to tell my dad or sister about it at the time. My dad was worried about us, ah-gong, ah-ma and the relationships with the rest of the family. I didn’t tell my stepmom right away either, because she wouldn’t have put up and would have told my grandmother off. The reason I decided not to say anything is because what ah-ma said confirmed to me what I had suspected all along…that my grandmother was not right in her head. She probably never was, and my dad concurs. I’m not a mental health professional by any means, but having worked and specialized in mental health advocacy and knowing her history of problems with all her interpersonal relationships, I think I can recognize these types of things moreso than other folks. I suspected that my grandmother may have had some sort of personality disorder, probably along the lines of borderline personality disorder or narcissist personality disorder. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure that something was not right.
I mean, seriously, who in their right mind, would tell their granddaughter that her mother deserved to be dying and wasting away from cancer? Most people I know would not even think that or say that to their enemies. Not that she still had the right to say that to me in any situation, but I’ve never been disrespectful to her, nor had I ever talked back to her. Thus, while what she said hurt me, I know that there really must have been something wrong with her mental status, so it did not bother me as much. Now if her personality was more stable and more like ah-gong’s and she said that, then that’d be a different story. A little background about my grandmother: she was rather caustic sometimes and burned lots of bridges. Ah-ma was at times a spiteful person and perseverated on things and people that wronged her for years (sometimes they were tiny tiny insignificant issues that you and I would have forgotten). She even had a little notebook where she noted people’s infractions against her. Distance kept us from being close, but she may have burned our bridge earlier if we were in fact close. Several of my grandmother’s grandchildren were not on speaking terms with her as were 1-2 of my uncles. Some of my cousins did not even go to her funeral, even though they lived in Taipei as well.
I went back to Taipei for ah-ma’s funeral to pay my respects. What she said to me will always resonate a bit – I can’t lie about that, but I’ve made my peace with it. I just hope that the other family members she hurt made their own peace and that she likewise, did as well. She died unexpectedly after ah-gong died. My sister and I lost ah-gong, mom and then ah-ma within a span of 9 months. Needless to say, it sucked big time. I’m not sure whether I believe in heaven, hell and reincarnation, but whatever there is, wherever they are, I wish them all the best and I will always miss them.