When I was a child traveling with my family by car, my mom would read billboards and street signs out loud. I don’t believe she knew she was doing it. Yet whether singing Gershwin while cooking brisket, or sharing her opinion on topics ranging from troop levels in Afghanistan to the strength of the Phillies bullpen, if Mom thought it, or read it, she said it.
This was especially true of issues she felt strongly about.
A few summers ago, while my mother and I were driving to my aunt’s vacation home on Long Beach Island, Mom paused from narrating billboards long enough to mention a book she recently read about end–of-life issues.
Even though I was driving, and Mom was in good health, she pulled the book from her beach bag and asked me to read it when I had time. She said it echoed her philosophy of keeping gravely ill patients well informed of their condition, so they could make meaningful treatment decisions. My mom believed that doctors and families were often biased towards extending life, even at the expense of a person’s quality of life, and she was not interested in such compromises.
Since this wasn’t the breezy summer conversation I was expecting, I nodded politely and reached for the radio. But before I touched the power button, Mom grabbed my hand, turned to face me directly, and said, “Cheryl, if I am ever in that situation I want you to promise me two things: first, that you will be honest with me no matter what.”
“And,” still holding my hand, “That you will pluck the hairs on my chin if I can’t do it myself.”
Never more eager for her to resume narrating billboards, I quickly assured her that I would follow her wishes, never imagining that a little more than two years later I would be called to honor them.
My mother was a healthy, vibrant, non-smoking, 67 years old when she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Only six-and-a-half months later she was dead.
It is still impossible to know whether it was the cancer, its treatment, or the side effects, that contributed to her swift, merciless decline. Because she fought so hard from the get-go, striving with all her might to make it two more years to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary and her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, Mom didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on death.
The moment I learned about her cancer, I vowed to myself to accompany her on this rocky march into mountainous territory in a way that allowed her to feel emotionally supported, physically cared for, and loved. And of course, to keep the promises I made just a few years earlier.
About two months into her treatment, I noticed that one of the steroids Mom was taking increased the growth of her facial hair. I agonized about mentioning something as seemingly insignificant as propagating chin hairs; after all, by this time she was too weak to walk to the bathroom, so I doubted she had looked in the mirror in weeks, and the thought of giving her even a moment’s worth of additional discomfort made me cringe. Yet I also knew Mom’s only two vanities were maintaining her Candy Apple Red fingernails, and fuzz-free chin.
So because I had those promises to keep, I went to the nursing home the following Sunday afternoon when I knew no one else would be visiting. I fed her a Wendy’s Chocolate Frosty – her favorite icy indulgence. Afterwards, I massaged her hands and feet with the Crabtree and Evelyn rose-scented lotion a friend had brought, and listened to her sensical and nonsensical musings with equal levels of interest.
Then I took a deep breath and asked,
“Mom, do you remember asking me to pluck your chin hairs if there was ever a time you couldn’t do it for yourself?”
Yes, she replied. And before I could utter another word, she pleaded with me to pull them out.
So I reached in my purse for the tweezers I packed that morning, just as she offered up her chin – reminding me of my 15-year-old cat when she presents her whiskered face hoping for a scratch.
My hand trembled as I grabbed hold of the first hair, then counted “one…two…three” out loud, closed my eyes, and pulled. I felt as nervous as a novice heart surgeon. But compared with the battering and bruising Mom had already endured, this was as benign as brushing her teeth.
In fact, she quickly began cheering me on, insisting that I wasn’t hurting her, and imploring me to get every last unwelcome hair.
My hesitancy turned to determination. And with Mom’s confidence, and my mighty Tweezerman, we worked as a team to remove every last hair. Just as importantly, we achieved a momentary yet satisfying victory over the indignity of cancer.
The next promise was more difficult to keep.
Three months later, my dad and I met with the oncologist to discuss my mother’s condition. She had not responded well to her recent treatment, and we were concerned both about her steep decline and whether she was strong enough to endure a second round of chemotherapy.
The doctor, who at our first appointment, proclaimed, “I’m-in-it-to-win-it,” looked at mom’s recent test results, and conceded that further treatment would not be possible. He estimated she had between two and four weeks to live.
Silently, my dad and I retreated to his car to absorb the un-absorbable. Dad began crying, and I began biting the inside of my cheek so as not to cry; one of the unilateral rules I had made for myself was that I wouldn’t cry if he was crying.
A few minutes later, I said we should go tell Mom this news. Until now, my parents and I had consistently agreed on next steps, so I was unprepared when my father said, “No. We can’t tell Mom. It’s better if she doesn’t know.”
And I, thinking of what Mom asked of me just two summers before, inhaled deeply and said, “We have to tell her – it’s what she wants.”
After a long, staggering silence, my dad put his head in his hands and said, “Cheryl, I couldn’t live with myself if I told her.”
But because of the promises I made, I whispered, “Dad, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”
My mom was a first-rate planner. It was as predictable as it was comical that on our way home from visiting my brother in Georgia for Thanksgiving, she would start discussing where we would gather next year, and who would begin scouting hotels and air fares. Still, nothing could have prepared me for what happened when my dad and I visited that afternoon, both still rattled from our earlier conversation.
We arrived to find my mom’s older sister Sandy sitting at the end of the bed. Mom quickly greeted us, and announced, “Good, we’re all together. There are some things I want to discuss.” And without the slightest hesitation, began talking as if she had been in the doctor’s office with us that very morning.
I prayed that my Dad would not change the subject to something – anything – more tolerable. And to his credit, he listened intently and began gently stroking Mom’s arm.
She began raising previously taboo questions: How will I know I’m dying? What do I do when it’s time to die? Will you be here with me at the moment of my death?
Next, she dictated a list of the lists she wanted made: Who will make meals for Dad when I am gone? Which caregivers should I write thank-you notes to? Who can I ask to speak at my memorial service? Who should receive specific pieces of my jewelry? And what phone numbers will Dad need to help him take care of the house?
Mom was the most lucid she had been in weeks, and the most lucid she would be again.
Dumbfounded and horrified that we were actually having this conversation, I forced myself to stay composed and address each of her questions and concerns with all the honesty and clarity that I could muster. Just as I promised.
At one point, when I realized I was holding my breath, I reached for my Aunt’s hand, and wiped away some of my long-denied tears. It was impossible to believe this was actually happening. My mom was fervently yet gently telling us she was ready to turn her fierce fight for life into a conscious surrender to death.
This was my mother’s last conscious gift of care-giving. Mom knew, perhaps before we did – perhaps even before the doctor did – that she was dying. The signs were as clear to her as the billboards she read on our road trips.
She also knew Dad and I would need each other in unprecedented ways after she died. So she stepped in and resolved the conflict that just hours before had threatened our trouble-free alliance.
Clearly, Mom too, had promises to keep.
Cheryl Rice is a leadership and life coach from Erdenheim, PA. You can contact Cheryl at www.CherylRiceLeadership.com.