What My Mom's Battle with Cancer Taught Me About Happiness
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My mother stood with the phone cradled to her ear, fist on her hip, shaking her head. “Well, there’s not much chance of that!” She caught my eye as she spoke, her tone friendly but slightly impatient. I smiled; I could guess the other end of the conversation. The calls had come regularly in the months since my mother’s diagnosis. “We’re hoping you’ll get well,” friends and relatives would say. “We’re hoping for a miracle.” But as hard as it was for them to understand, we weren’t chasing any miracle cure. We were simply honoring every moment, miraculous or mundane, that remained of her life.
Nothing in my mother’s medical or family history had prepared us for her sudden diagnosis: terminal pancreatic cancer. On the day we learned her prognosis, my mother, father, and I sat alone in a hospital examination room, the doctor having left for his next appointment. The ruinous news replaced all the oxygen in the small space as my mind spun forward: How could my mother’s life be ending? My father shook his head and sobbed, repeating, “Why us? Why does this have to happen to us?” My mother, canny and practical to her German-Lutheran-Midwestern core, simply patted his knee. “Now, these things have to happen to someone.” She never suffered the delusion that bad things only befell other people.
While my father and I struggled to accept the situation, my mother made a list of things she wanted to do: ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, stay in North Carolina’s fanciest mountain inn, fly cross-country to visit my home in Seattle, and finish a thousand-piece handmade quilt.
Within two days, Mom had started on her list. She and my father watched Blue Ridge sunsets from the top-floor suite of a breathtakingly expensive resort. She selected the few foods her stomach could tolerate from long hors d’oeuvres tables decorated with melons carved in the shapes of dahlias and roses. My father sobbed as my mother savored steamed prawns and asparagus, a live band playing in the background. Mom sang along with the band’s John Denver covers and talked about the glorious August dusk. My father marveled at her unfailing cheerfulness and wondered how many more sunsets they would share.
A week later, I quit my job in Seattle and arrived with my suitcases in North Carolina, ready to stay for what we understood would be the remainder of Mom’s life. We consulted with an oncologist, who recommended palliative chemotherapy. The weekly chemo treatments could extend Mom’s life by a couple of months, but would probably make her sick for four days out of seven. We did the math and declined treatment, enrolled in home hospice care, and focused on Mom’s to-do list.
We sent out the news to friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers and waited for them to visit. Most never showed, though some called to wish her well or say they were praying for a miracle. Many, even those who knew the starkness of her diagnosis, sent “get well soon” cards.
There were exceptions. My mother’s closest friend, Betty, visited every week. They spent a few afternoons each month chatting, laughing, and piecing fabric triangles and diamonds into quilts, just as they had done for years. When Mom grew sicker, they just sat and talked.
Mom called her post-diagnosis life “the new normal.” As her energy flagged, she calmly revised her criteria for contentment downward. A good afternoon was a few hours of quilting; an exciting weekend was a quiet mountain cabin with a good view; an ideal meal was anything her stomach would accept.