The Growth of a Sunflower

July 4, 2011
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There are five stages of grieving. First, denial sets upon the body, fooling the mind that nothing has changed. That the fire in the fireplace still burns with warmth and the Christmas tree still presents the same holiday bonding familiarity. The feeling that we can all wake up on Christmas morning and have breakfast and open gifts that we can’t afford, but in reality nothing is the same, something meaningful has been lost along the way. The fall from denial is hard, and cold. It creates rage and rationale to be upset and bitter. Anger creates reasons to be hard on the person who brought upon the grieving. It makes you unstable and glum, hostile and ludicrous. Anger is the second stage of grieving, this part made me hurt the one’s I loved the most. After anger you have no choice but to bargain for the happiness you once felt. You become desperate and numb at this time, willing to give up anything to bring whatever you lost back. With this not possible you go into depression, which is the fourth stage of grieving. No telling how long this stage will last, and no telling what someone will do during this stage. There is a sense that you become lost and alone, that nobody is there to tell you that it is okay because the person that did once is now gone. After the sadness is gone, you start to notice acceptance, this is an opening door and although you still might still miss the one you love, the thoughts are optimistic and lucid. My father is in fraught with the depression phase, while my brother still fights with anger. I am still struggling with my own identity and bouncing back to each stage as if they don’t exist. As I thrash about internally, my mother will look down upon us all from heaven, relieved that after eleven years, seven in stage four and three in stage three, breast cancer has no say on where she goes to rest.
We waited for an hour in the oncology office, my father, two cousins and I all there to support my mother. We ate jolly ranchers that were probably about three years old from a tray on the counter, and talked casually as the doctor made his way into the crowded room. The doctor had a scan report and sat down at his computer, typing aggressively and then slowly turned to us. “Your scans were not good, Kate” He explained, “It is now in your bones, liver and lungs.” My mom became stern and solemn, and I thought to myself how she felt at that very moment. Although she didn’t know it at the time, this was my mother’s last oncology appointment after eleven years. As if it were her fault, the disappointment I saw in her eyes was overwhelming. She first looked down, thinking about what she really wanted to do, give up, and be out of pain. Then she looked up, and then took a look at the love in the room, she glanced at my two beautiful cousins, she looked at my father and then lastly, she looked at me and her eyes began to gather with tears. She puller herself together and turned to the doctor, “what do I have to do?” She asked. He looked at his computer and told her that she had one chemotherapy left that she could try; afterwards it would just be experimental treatment. She had a sense nervousness when she spoke, “So, if I don’t respond to this treatment, I’m not doomed right?” she asked, obviously asking for comfort, asking if she could be at my wedding, my graduation, even my children’s birth all in one sentence. The doctor’s insensitivity felt frigid and tense to me as I heard him tell her otherwise. How awkward it must have been for him to be there when she lost her strength, she cried into her hands as we handed her tissues and rubbed her back, her skinny, fragile back from loss of appetite the last three months. Because the cancer was in her lungs she eventually became dependent on an oxygen tank. At the point of the appointment she hadn’t become completely reliant yet, but she would cough excessively, creating a no appetite and lack of sleep. We left the appointment silently, the car ride home she cried, and while at home she cried, the sadness lasting three days, while the decision to do chemo took three minutes.

After her first treatment she became sicker, and couldn’t get out of bed because she would become out of breath without her oxygen. Thanksgiving I made dinner by myself for ten people with her direction from her room. With her barking orders and having everyone in check, it amazed how she had that ability even though she was twenty feet away not able to walk. I set the table and did everything exactly the way she taught me to. With the china on the table cleaned, and the fancy napkins folded, everyone but my mother sat down to enjoy the large meal prepared. My mom was in her room, with my best friend’s mother Shelly, who conveniently lived next door, and took on the role of taking care of her when my brother and I were unavailable. I sat down at the full table; it felt so empty when I checked the spot she usually sat at. “This was the start” I thought, “This will be her last Thanksgiving.”

The company left for the holidays, and the house soon became a morbid place to return to. My brother and I both attended Texas State and would make trips together, creating a tight bond between one another. It was the Sunday after that Thanksgiving where I was on the computer, and my brother and another one of her close friend’s Ana were accompanying her in her bedroom, watching Lifetime- her all time favorite channel. I heard the sudden sound of shuffling feet, and panicked discussion. I rushed into my mother’s room, with Ana on the phone and my brother on his, speaking about her information and my mom sitting up, struggling for air when the oxygen tank still functioning. The look on her face was always the same when she saw me watch her in pain. She had sorry eyes and dissatisfaction in her throat when she spoke. I believe she was a reflection of what she saw in me, reacting in the same way; not wanting her in pain. Ana was off the phone, “they are on their way, Kate.” I could only assume she meant the ambulance, considering she was short of breath all day, but when she mentioned extra help from medical care she would quickly refuse her own offer. I think in her mind, if she accepted it she would be giving up on herself, she would think that the hospital would be her last hope, which in a sense, it was.

I clenched my eye lids closed and my teeth grinded as the sirens made their way into the neighborhood. I was putting my mom’s stuff together and as usual she was telling me what she needed, she always needed things in such an orderly way. My brother and I followed the ambulance and when arriving she was put into a tiny room with a curtain as the door that created a claustrophobic sense. The memory that stings in my mind was she insisted that my brother take to me get food since she knew I hadn’t eaten the whole day. She had an IV knitted into her arm, and a shortage of oxygen on a bed in the hospital, and her last thought was herself. Which truly defined her as a human being, selfless and beautiful.

My mother went under for surgery for her lung, and during the procedure there was a complication putting her in the ICU and on a ventilator. Winter break brought a bittersweet feeling to my heart. My mother was currently on life support and I had to go home to an empty house, my father spending every night at the hospital in the uncomfortable chair. Winter break also brought me the opportunity to see my support system, and to be surrounded by the amazing people that made my upbringing remarkable. My mother started to breath on her own, although she was still on the ventilator. One of the nights that I went to go see her, even though she was unable to communicate, let alone stay awake, I went and touched her hand. She was peacefully sleeping and taking deep breaths, her hands were strapped to the bed preventing her to pull out the numerous cords connecting to her upper torso. Her feet were swollen from the lack of movement and her body was cold. It was so hard to see the strongest women I knew to be in such a state, so frail and uncomfortable. I was on my way to see “White Christmas” at the paramount with Shelly and my best friend, one of my mom’s favorite movies. At the ending scene I had never wished for her to be there so badly then before then. Uncontrollable tears started to rush down my face, and as the theatre darkened to show the credits so did my hope for my mother’s future.

The winter break continued, and my visits to the hospital were progressing. My mom could talk now, but was immobile and weak from being on a feeding tube for several weeks. Nothing brought more joy to me than to talk to my mother, my best friend. She moved from the ICU to immediate care, with a roomier feel and where my father could sleep on an actual recliner! My mom would ask about my day, and would speak about “getting the hell out of the hospital.” Christmas was four days away, and she made it apparent that she wanted to be home with her family more than anything. We all knew it was a terrible idea considering the care she needed was far more advanced than what we could supply her at home, but with two days of constant bickering, the doctor discharged her for the holidays. She was rolled into her home in a wheel chair and the oxygen tank set up. Her diet consisted of fruit smoothies and fattening substance to help her gain the weight she lost. My brother and I would take shifts sleeping with her, every two hours her waking up asking for her bedpan for her waste or a meal. She claimed she was scared to sleep because she was scared of not waking up. We would all assure her it wouldn’t happen, but truth be told, the reason I wouldn’t sleep at night was because I was scared of the same thing happening. She soon made the decision to go with hospice care, if talking in blunt terms; I would say hospice is a comfortable way to die. The hospice nurses would come to the house and heavily sedate her. Back in the same state she was in while on the ventilator. She could barely communicate and when she did, she told my brother that she didn’t want any more medication. At this time, she was taken to the Christopher house; the comfortable situate to lie for permanent rest.

The room was beautiful; it had a welcoming setting filled with flowers, and lamps. She was placed in the bed and was still heavily sedated. The nurse would come and check on her and tell us their estimation of her time left. I wondered why those nurses picked such a career, to deal with such a serious matter. She held on until January 2nd, 12:31 A.M, after my brother and I left to go home to the empty house. Death is a weird thing that goes beyond our universe as unknown. It creates a new sense of appreciation for the world, for the gift of love. I hope if my mother can still be with me in spirit like my faith tells me she is, she can read this paper and know how miraculous of a woman I thought she was. Forever she has a unique presence that can never be taken, and still a stronger bond that a mother and daughter ever could have. She was fifty-three years old, and lived every day with grace and a persistent love for everything, including her blessed life.

You were an angel mama, rest in peace.





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