Six Years

Today is the six-year anniversary of my mom’s death.  It’s easier now to remember the pleasant memories, rather than the end, but it’s still difficult.  I still try to call her or think of things I would like to say to her.  I’m saddened when I discover a book she would have enjoyed and can’t share it with her.  She wasn’t able to be at my brother’s or sister’s wedding or meet my wonderful sister-in-law, or her amazing granddaughter, Zoe, who shares her dark hair and eyes, and that secretive smirk of a smile.

I’d like to again share a post from last year, that I wrote upon request, with the intent of helping another family through the difficult journey that happens at the end of a life.  I hope it helps you and yours…



This weekend, my sister asked me to assemble some information, for a very young friend of a friend who is dying of cancer.  My siblings and I lost our mother almost five years ago to breast cancer.  We were lucky, in that we knew what was coming, and planned things to take full advantage of the time we had left with mom.  I will share the background story here, then list the ways in which mom planned ahead and took care of us well into the future, even as she was dying.

My mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in early 2006, after about a year and a half of hearing that “it was only a cyst.”  She was diagnosed by a surgeon, who was investigating an infected cyst, or so we thought.  The cyst turned out to be a baseball-sized tumor, resting against her chest wall.  It was too large to remove, and there was no way the proper surgical margins could be taken around it – her ribs and heart were within those boundaries.  Surgery was aborted; she had a port-a-cath placed, and began chemotherapy within weeks, in the hopes that chemo would shrink the tumor to a size small enough to be removed surgically.

ImageMy sister was about to graduate from high school.  My brother was in college.  I had just started dating Eric.  We were all devastated, but mom rebounded after a few weeks, and had a winning attitude.  She did extensive research, kept meticulous notes, and complied with every suggestion from her oncologist.  She faced things bravely.  Even the days when she was too weak to do much more than lie on the couch, she would keep me updated on her play-dates with her constant companions, the cats.

Everyone loved mom’s cooking and baking, talents she inherited from my Granny.  She took goodies to her doctors and nurses at almost every appointment.  She helped me plan my wedding – a fete she attended in wig and false eyelashes – from afar.

My family took our last vacation together in January 2008.  The next month, my sister and mom decided to drive north from Louisiana during a long weekend, to visit me and Eric, and check on the bakery that my parents still owned in Mount Vernon.  They even brought our old cat, Buddy, along, to visit his very good friend, Tiger, who had lived with us ever since mom became ill.

When mom arrived at our house, she was disoriented, and wanted to go straight to bed.  She wasn’t acting like herself.  I called my mother-in-law, Mary Ann, who is an ER nurse.  She examined mom, we took her temperature – well over 104°F, so we went to the hospital.  It took a few days to have the proper testing done and receive results.  Mom had been on a break from chemotherapy for about a month, and during that time, two small tumors in her liver had overtaken the whole organ.  She was accumulating fluid in her lungs.

The rest of my immediate family came to Indiana, shocked by the news.  Mom still seemed so healthy; it was difficult to believe things were really as bad as the doctors described.  She was offered more chemotherapy, and really wanted to pursue it.  Unfortunately, it was only palliative – meaning it would slow progression and possibly extend life by two to three months.  Mom had always had difficulty tolerating her chemotherapy; she developed numbness in her extremities; her white blood counts would fall precipitously, so she was not allowed to go out into the germ-filled world at times, and she was so tired a lot.  Nevertheless, she thought that not taking the chemotherapy meant that she was giving up, and she wanted to fight.

Mom and I had a very long talk.  I convinced her that the best way to fight would be to enjoy the time she had left while she could – not under the haze of chemotherapy.  She and dad, and my brother and sister at times, moved in with me and Eric, while mom received hospice care for the next two months.

First things first: mom wanted to say goodbye to everyone, but not from her deathbed.  As soon as we arrived home from the hospital and had settled, we began to plan a party for her.  Most who lived close by received telephone calls as invitations; I set up a makeshift phone tree, and had friends and family spread the word.  I also emailed a few; the text follows:

I just wanted to let you all know that mom came up for a visit last week.  She and Lauren got to my house and mom has just started running a high fever and was not feeling well, so we went straight to the Emergency Room.  She was admitted to the hospital in Vincennes and stayed a few days.  During this time, she saw an oncologist and had some scans done.

Her cancer has worsened.  Her liver is virtually replaced by cancer cells and she is accumulating fluid in her lungs.  She is now at my home on hospice care.

While we are all deeply saddened by this news, we want her to enjoy the time she has left with us.  We will be having an Open House on Sunday so that everyone may come and visit her.  We do not want this to a sad time, instead we hope that you can come and enjoy some time with us all, tell stories and make this a joyous occasion for her.  Please share the following details with anyone I may not have reached.

<<Phone call delegation inserted here.>> Thank you all for your kind thoughts and prayers.  We hope you can all make it.

Sunday, February 10th

2-4 p.m. CST

Eric & Holly Newman’s House

The party was amazing.  Mom planned the menu and made a good portion of the food.  Friends and family came; our family’s priest attended and gave mom Last Rights, with everyone praying around her.  Of course, mom still looked and acted healthy at this point, so most who saw her were stunned by the news of what was to come.

Chances are only the very closest of relatives and friends would have come to visit mom once she worsened, and those memories would not have been happy ones.  Throwing this party for mom meant that everyone got to enjoy his or her time with mom, and her memory was not tarnished by what came later.  Of course, from the family’s point of view, there was another benefit: what may have been a constant stream of visitors was now a one-day event.  When mom got very, very ill at the end, having one visitor for even an hour took a toll on her, since she felt the need to be presentable and do simple things like sit up on a chair or the couch, when she really belonged in bed.  Eliminating the interruptions, if you will, and leaving mom more at peace by herself in the last few weeks, was good for her.  The family and very close friends were able to spend time with her, on her terms.

In addition to the party, mom did a lot of planning while she was able.  She:

  • Pre-planned her funeral arrangements, even writing her own eulogy and planning the music and what to wear.
  • Wrote her own obituary.
  • Ordered her gravestone.
  • Recorded hours and hours of family stories on video.
  • Read books on video to her grandchildren yet to come, and left them autographed copies of those books.
  • Met my future brother-in-law, Nick, and left explicit instructions for the care of my sweet sister, Lauren.
  • Signed greeting cards, to be sent to us after her death, for birthdays, holidays, etc., and left them in the care of a good friend, to be distributed on schedule.
  • One of the most important things she did was to have medical directives in place, specifying what she wanted done or not done.  As a healthcare professional, I must urge the importance of having these documents taken care of.  While they are designed with the patient in mind, the family also benefits immensely from them, since it eliminates second-guessing whether your split-second decision was the right one or not.  Living wills, powers of attorney, even legal wills, are so important.  Don’t put this off.

Death is not an easy thing.  Despite our fond memories of her, and all that she did for us, it is still a constant challenge to live without mom.  Our family is strong and stubborn, and we rely on each other a great deal, when things are rough.  We feel mom’s love wash over us.

I know this post is a sad one, but please take some good away from it.  Live every day to its fullest.  Spend time with your loved ones.  Plan – it eases the burden so much.

With love from me and momma,


4 Responses to “Six Years”
  1. Dave says:

    Holly, the planning your Mom did was so admirable…..I would have loved to have meet and spent time with her. Blessings ……D&D

  2. Cathy says:

    Love you Holly. I miss my momma too.

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