Watching My Mother Die of Breast Cancer

Watching My Mother Die of Breast Cancer

“Mom, the doctor just gave me the latest test results.” I sat down on her hospital bed, and held her hand while three tubes, pinned to the wall above her head extracted a vile brown mixture from her body. “Your breast cancer has returned!” She rested her head back down on the pillow, emotionless – not wanting to hurt her son – the messenger.

Watching someone die is a very unpleasant experience. Being tethered to your dying Mother for four weeks by a 20 foot wire connected to buzzers gives new meaning to “umbilical cord.”

Several days after delivering the news, the doctor told me that there was not much more he could do for her, and he released her by ambulance to her garden apartment in New Jersey, where I set up home for the next four weeks. She lost the strength to speak or move while tethered to the tubes in her body, so I installed a buzzer by her bed that connected to a wire that ran along the floor, through the living room and then out to the terrace,where it snaked up the leg of my chair,and connected to a flashing red light that sounded an alert like an alarm clock. There was only one setting: LOUD. At first, the buzzer sent me flying into her room, until I realized that she was just doing it to keep me on my toes. She couldn’t speak, so she gestured to the water glass, tissues, or bed pan.

Television, radio, or any loud noise was out of the question. My wife couldn’t make it down from our apartment in New York City until the weekend. In need of friends and companions, I invited a case of red wine and a box of cigars to join me in my daily death vigil.

It was only a few short years before, that I had sat on the edge of another hospital bed and comforted my 46 year old sister Patricia, who was dying of cancer. An hour after I left the hospital, the doctor called me to say that she had passed away. (God, I trust that you have forgiven me for all the things I said to You that night.)

On a cool, crisp and sunny day in September 1999, I was on my way to the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, to interview Nancy Brinker*, the founder/president of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, named for her sister who died of breast cancer at the age of 36.

Nancy is right out of Central Casting. Tall, attractive, intelligent, determined and very charming. She was in town to kick off the “Race for the Cure”, one of the most successful fund raising events in the country. We sat at a desk in her suite, and while my tape recorder rolled, I asked her several mundane and routine questions. I felt that I was missing a wonderful opportunity. As she got up to leave for a luncheon in her honor, hosted by Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Waldorf Astoria, I caught her at the door, and requested one more question: “If you had one wish for something to take place in the first 10 years of the new millennium, what would it be?”

“Wow, that’s interesting.” We returned to the desk and the tape recorder. “I wish that we find the CAUSE of cancer!”

There are over 100 types of cancer, so we still have our work cut out for us. However, Breast Cancer is a particularly hideous disease, with it’s hidden secrets – taunting us to defeat it.

My mother was a product of the Great Depression, and had some ingrained habits that still prevailed – like hiding money. When my wife and I visited my Mother for Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day, I would leave a note with clues to find $20 bills that I had hidden all around the house. It was only when I got home that I would call her and tell her where the note was that held all the clues. When my wife first found out about this game she said, “Michael, that’s so cruel!” My mother absolutely loved it! Sometimes she would call me the next day to say that she had stayed up most of the night, because there was still one $20 bill she couldn’t find.

My mother was rapidly deteriorating. It wasn’t a pleasant site to see a woman who was so active and alive. Driving, taking trips to Branson, Mo. for her new found love of Country music.

I had to undertake a very unpleasant task. I called a cousin whom my Mother adored, and asked Rita if she would help me. I explained to her that I feared that my Mother may have money hidden around the house, and could she please ask her for me.

With hand signals, she led us to the hope chest in the corner. Inside was a note that had a series of clues, that led to envelopes, keys to boxes, and riddles. After a day and a half of following clues that led to loose boards, picture frames, and false bottoms, we had uncoverd over $33,000.00 in cash. I didn’t have the nerve, so I asked Rita to please ask my Mother if we had found all of it. She came out of the bedroom with tears running down her face, “Your Mother said to tell you that it’s for her funeral.”

During those four weeks that I sat on the terrace, jumping at the buzzer as cigar ashes flew in my face, I reminisced of times gone by; I remember her yelling at police detectives telling them that her saintly son couldn’t possibly have done that; yelling at Mickey Mantle to look up and say hello to her son (he did), getting me into the best possible schools; (she had a way with authority figures);paying for Mrs. Murphy’s broken window; and a very strict code on how to treat girls.(The Nuns in my Catholic High School were pretty good at this too!) My mother was also a very big fan of Susan B. Anthony. I never knew who this person was. I assumed she was a movie star.

Breast Cancer is a hideous disease, I was thinking as I drove my Mother’s car to the County Seat to file her death certificate. I popped in her favorite cassette of Garth Brooks and sang along. It started to rain very heavily. I gratefully pulled the car off to the side of the road, as I was crying too hard to safely drive any further. (God, I trust you forgive me for the things I said to You that night)

So, how do you react to someone’s illness?

Your little girl comes screaming into the house, blood running down her knee, tears streaming down her face. How many seconds does it take for you to jump off the couch? Your pet dog or cat comes yelping and limping into the room – a thorn in it’s paw. How long does it take you to jump off the couch? A loved one comes into the room – she tells you she has breast cancer…I trust I did as well as I could.

I can’t even fathom or pretend to know what mental anguish a woman has to bear when she’s been told she has breast cancer.

We have a little over 2 years for Nancy Brinker’s wish to come through. Perhaps we can all look under our mattresses and find a dollar or two and send it to our favorite breast cancer charity. And may God be with every woman and family going through this ordeal.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In 2007 in the US, an estimated 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer.