A year ago, on the 26th, the day before Thanksgiving, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cAnswer. I will still in chemo myself for a recurrence of ovarian cAnswer. My sister, Kristen and I agreed that one of us would be with her at all times until she healed or died. I stopped chemo 3 treatments short of the protocol so I could stay healthy.
The following months were beautiful, tender, painful, horrific, desperately sad, filled with joy and love all at the same time. Kristen believes as I do- that death is a part of life, that our experiences can be embraced and that our perception changes everything. I found a clinical study for her which gave her hope. We walked with her through so many examinations and procedures that numbness would have been welcome. But no, I chose to be fully present. And when it got worse than we could ever have imagined it could be, something shifted.
Christmas Eve I heard noise in the kitchen at 3:30 in the morning. I came downstairs to find mom doing a laundry with no clothes in the machine. She had started the coffee pot but had spilled water all over the floor. She wasn’t making sense. I cajoled, then argued with her to get her back into bed. I slept on the couch next to her bed. Christmas day she still was not herself. It was painful to witness, not knowing if these “crazies” were medication induced, a chemical imbalance- her sodium and potassium levels were always wacked, or if the cAnswer had gone into the brian, or she was dehydrated. Then she’d be fine for days and not remember what she did or said.
New Years eve Kristen was with her and dreamt about mom being near her. She got up find mom had climbed the flight of stairs with an empty laundry basket and was now collapsed in a heap in the hallway. All the love in the world had not prepared us for this. We began looking for a respite place to take care of mom for a week so Kristen and I could take a break. There was nothing, nothing, nothing. We stayed in contact and in prayer. Neither of us slept when we were with her. Every other week or two we would go home and try to regroup while the other one stayed with mom.
The clinical study and her oncologist was in Goshen, an hour drive on a good day. In January, in 20 degree, snowy, blustery weather, I bundled up my, now tiny, mommy and poured her into her car. My van was too much of a struggle. She had 3 rounds of injections for the study each a week apart. She then had 1 chemo treatment. It knocked her on her ass. She was already weak. Her hair started falling out two days later. Kristen and I knew to look forward to to mommy’s passing, to come to grips with, as best we could, losing her. But we didn’t speak it to mom as long as she wanted to do the study. We supported her in her choices, as best we could. If that meant letting her have her cocktails and eat desserts, plural, then so be it.
In March Mom’s best friend was visiting. Kristen had just left as I arrived. Mom was just sleeping and sleeping. When we realized she was non-responsive and crazy talking when she was responsive, we had an ambulance take to the ER. It was 3 days before coherency came back. In those 3 days Kristen and I were praying for alternative care-taking. It was just too much and we hated to admit that to each other and ourselves, but we just couldn’t do it. The evening she started making sense again I had the urge to paint her toenails. I had removed the old polish weeks before but just hadn’t gotten around to finishing the pedicure. We giggled while she wiggled her toes and we sang. At last they were done. China Red. Perfect! That night at 3:30 in the morning, she called for help to go to the bathroom. She asked to be left alone while she did her business. Instead of calling the tech back to help her into bed, she stands, leans to get something and falls.
Everyone who examined her leg, or who just walked by, commented on her beautiful toenails! Go figure! Her ankle twisted so violently it broke the phibea, her shin bone. There was no going home. They put her in rehab to get her strong enough for chemo… A weird answer to our need of rest. And while she was not as happy, she couldn’t have her cocktails or her kitties, Kristen and I found this new normal to be more breathable at least. We realized that NOT tending to everything would allow us to be more loving and we could sleep through the night.
By the fifth week mom started to admit that she was not getting stronger but weaker. The last chance to continue the treatments were pulled by the surgeon who told her she was just too weak to continue. That was on a Thursday. The next Monday was Kristen’s 50th birthday. She was in Nashville for her business where they were honoring her. Than morning I white tornadoed Mom’s apartment. I meant to bring her home on hospice in a couple more days. When I went to pick her up for another peracenthesis she couldn’t stand. The rehab nurse called a transport. While they worked to drain her swollen tummy as they did every week for the past 7 weeks or more, I called hospice. I packed up her things at rehab and cleaned her room. I had the ambulance bring her to her apartment where her kitties greeted her.
I avoided calling my sister. I wanted her to have a good birthday memory with nothing tainting it like “Come home. Mommy is dying.” But the next day, that’s what I did…
Mom knew for one week that she was dying. That’s very different than knowing for 5 months. Ten days after she learned chemo and the clinical study were no longer options, one week after I moved her back into her apartment and one week after my sister’s birthday she was no longer coherent. With the help of hospice we tried to keep her comfortable. My husband Phil and come and gone back home to tend to our animals. Kristen’s husband had come. Mom’s last words were recognizing him with a big smile then no more. Just labored breathing. Kristen slept beside her the night before expecting each breath to be her last.
When Jeff came in from the patio in tears, we thought he had been talking about mom to someone on the phone. A young family friend had died that morning. I felt shock waves as I watched my sister and her beloved reel from the news that the 30 year old had taken his own life. An athlete in his 20s, he had an accident that hurt his back so badly that he lived on pain pills but was still debilitated. My nephews were his friends. Jeff needed to be there, with his boys.
Kristen and I were again, alone with Mom. We sat on either side of her and held hands over her. Kristen spoke to her directly. “Mom, I don’t know if you have an agenda over there, but someone may need your help. Our friend might be in a dark place. Could you take his hand and show him to the light? Let him know that it’s all ok and that he is deeply loved no matter what. Thank you Mommy”
We sang Angel Flying, one of her favorite songs. “When I’m old woman preparing for my rest, will I see my family of angels from the past? Smiling faces tell me that I’ll not be alone. Winged graces beckoning, they’ll come to take me home…” And she gave us her last breath. We kept singing.
(Click below to hear the song)
There is always more to the story and now that I vow to blog regularly, I’ll share more with you soon. Just know that the gift of those 5 months with Mom, walking her home is one of the most breathtakingly memorable experiences of my life. I feel so honored to have spent so much qualtiy time with her, for her. I know for sure that love never dies and I say I love her now in the present tense and feel her loving me back. Thank you Mommy!
The hills are alive with the sounds of Mommy.
April 20th at 5pm, daughters Lauren and Kristen sang their mom home. Her singing and piano playing created the foundation of much of their lives. Countless people will carry the memory of singing around her piano. Sandra Lane Powell, known to friends as Sam, was born in San Angelo, Texas, February 12, 1940. She was married to Larry Powell for 16 years. She got her degree in Political Science from Indiana University in South Bend. Living a life of service and social action, she marched with Cesar Chavez, helping shine the light on the unfair treatment of farm workers. She was a social worker and hearing specialist for the Welfare Department and Vocational Rehabilitation, giving of herself tirelessly and touching the lives of thousands. She will be celebrated and missed. Survived by daughter, Lauren Lane Powell, and her husband, Phil Long, and daughter, Kristen Lee Hartnagel, and her husband, Jeff, and their two sons, Ryan and Steven. She donated her body to the Indiana School of Medicine for medical research. Thanks to all who love her. Sandra Lane Powell Feb.12, 1940 – April 20, 2015