F@%k Cancer, Part 2

“Lilo is coming?”

She kept asking me where my sister was as she stalled for time to remember my name. The gorgeous smile that came with that question had a hint of quiet apprehension, because I wasn’t supposed to be there and she knew it. My presence wasn’t unwelcomed, nevertheless she must have realized something had gone awry. The last ER doctor had decided her condition was due to a hypertensive crisis but the follow up results she had in her purse indicated otherwise. Ironically, she had refused to open the file and take in the images, as if not knowing translated to her being well.

Do you know who I am?

She shakes her head yes but can’t recall my name. A nervous jolly laughter escapes her lips as she asks again if Lilo is coming. (That name she remembers! 🤪) My affirmative response makes her pause for a second. “And your spouse?” No, he stayed home with the dog. “Ah, Zach!” She looks at me with the hope I was there on vacation, hence her concern W wasn’t here. After she was certain I was the only surprise guest arriving at grandma’s she tries to shift the conversation. “Mursula mursula, can you take me to your house?” You mean your house, right? She ponders that for a second, says “para allá” and nods her head yes. As I look out the door, the allá she mentioned, I’m wondering if it is a good idea to take her, by myself, on a 15 min car ride to a place were I would need to take care of her on my own. Fortune favors the bold.

Her latest episode came with convulsions, a new symptom, and my aunt is wary that they may recur. With much trepidation we decide to respect her wishes and ask her to get ready to roll. We don’t know what we are up against, nor why she is acting like a 4 year old. It’s both adorable and frightening. Determined, she disappears into the back room to collects her things. I diligently walk behind her down the hallway. She stops in front of the only closed door, the same one that used to be locked whenever her father was home. “Mami is in there sleeping sleeping, wanna see?” The door creaks open and a little old lady – my grandma – can be seen in a gurney style bed, sleeping soundly to the hum of the A/C. Quietly, the door closes. “Let’s go.” I grab her things and carefully load her into the car. I don’t blame her for wanting to leave. I’d want to go home, heck, back in time too if I were in her shoes.

I parked the car in front of the building, a five story walk up, and helped her all the way up the stairs to the first apartment set. This has been her home for the last 36 years, 23 for me. Hoping she’d remember I was still there so she wouldn’t lock me out, I ran back to the idling BMW X1. Adjusting the mirrors to maneuver it in reverse into its assigned parking spot brought a sense of deja-vu. I’d done this parking job many times before, in a past life, as a very serious and determined young lady that wanted nothing more than to leave this place and never return. *Sigh* I swore I’d only come back if someone was dead or dying.

Touché life. Touché.

When I reached the landing she was already in her room, upstairs. I took a moment to let the emotions rush me as I absorbed the scene. The walls were bare but that was typical. We never had works of art hanging from the painted cement because it was a feat of great skill to drill a hole or hammer a nail through the material. Seeing the empty living room was eerie, but she really had no need for entertainment furniture now that the TV had moved to the master suite. The dining room was empty except for a couple of books on the curio shelves. Our round table, the HQ where all big decisions were made, had been replaced by a smaller table that was full of random unused items. Living in an empty nest meant most rooms were now storage spaces. In a corner, there is a pile of stuff owned by the front door neighbor who had recently moved stateside to live with her kids. Wish mom had made that jump too. *Shaking my head*. The galley style kitchen looked identical, with the washer and dryer at the end of the countertops, almost daring me to try and wash a load. Ah! The good old days. 🤭☺ This condo had been the roof over my shoulders. Somehow it seemed small and dated, modest, not as grandiose as I remembered. I smiled.

This was the house where my sister was conceived!

A few minutes later my mom and I were snuggled up in bed. The day’s 90 degree weather and humidity made the house feel hot as hell. The A/C was fighting an uphill battle. “Are you scared?” She asks me as she runs her fingers through my hair. Truth be told I’m not scared. I’m angry, but I don’t let her know this. Are you? I ask her knowing she might not realize her behavior is abnormal. “Un poquito pero Lilo viene pronto.” The sound of the airplane going over our heads at exactly that same moment sent a chill down my spine. My sister was on that flight, the 12:45am from Orlando, all pins and needles because she had gotten the same SOS call. If luck truly favors the bold we’d see her soon sans incident. This impromptu family reunion was weeks in the making. I wished it was under better circumstances. Regardless of the outcome though, I was glad the band had gotten back together for one more tour.

Early in the morning, my sister met us at the apartment to head out to the hospital. Clutching the results she had gotten the day before in one hand, and talking to my father in law’s best friend (an ICU doctor) with the smartphone in the other, we admitted her into the observation wing under his instructions. This was the second time in the last 24 hrs she visited an ER; the previous hospital, a different one from the previous stay, didn’t have an MRI machine so they had stabilized her and sent her home. I gave myself permission to pretend for a few hours that everything was normal and sat down to eat lunch at the nearby Fudruckers. My sister stayed with my mom who apparently kept repeating her name and the sassy phrase “estoy jodía”. (I’m f’d up!) No one was more confused than my mom who genuinely wondered if it was all a dream. She cooperated as best as she could by nodding and smiling.

A few hours later she still didn’t know who I was, how she had gotten to my grandma’s place, nor why we were at the hospital again. The IV meds were slowly trickling through her veins. Sunday went by fast! All kind of tests, including telemetry studies were set in motion once the doctors and their patient learned this was her 4th trip to the ER in a month. The new MRIs would be read back to us in two days because it was Labor Day weekend. Waiting was our only choice. Serenity, now. Whatever this ailment was, it was paramount we had a diagnosis and treatment plan that would minimize brain damage. It was all about saving her beautiful mind.

Please, pretty please, let this just be a tumor…

Tuesday, September 4th is a day that will go down in infamy. The neurosurgeon called us into his office and flashed her results on his screen. His office was being repaired and we received the news amidst a cacophony of construction noise. Hurricane Maria aftermath, ftw. The occipital lobe had a mass of considerable size, inconsistent with the behavior of a cyst. The images taken a week ago, the ones I brought to the ER, showed she had a 3.1 cm tumor. The new ones confirmed it had grown to 4 cm, and other areas were turning cancerous at an accelerated rate. This thing was aggresive! We were all stunned. Brain cancer. UGH! No likey.

The hospital’s medical team unanimously agreed they needed to get her into surgery as quickly as humanly possible. I needed to find the right the words to break the news to my mother. My sister signed all the necessary forms and once she was more coherent my mother did as well. The trip to the OR was set for Friday and if the treatment and surgery didn’t work, she’d be gone by Christmas. I cringed, my sister cried. It didn’t seem fair that when everything was falling back into place – after a decade of deaths, hardships and hurricanes – we’d be blindsided by this tragic turn of events. I should be planning an anniversary palooza, not putting my mom’s affairs in order. *@#$* someone has to tell dad, her friends, the rest of her loved ones. This was beyond tragic. Completely bonkers! The Colonel was fighting for her life, for a chance to exist for a few more months, even a year. Passionate ire and determination ran through my veins. This could not be happening!!

She’d saved all her life to retire and travel the world with her girls and now she couldn’t even remember their names! At least she still knew hers and was in there, somewhere, waiting patiently for the words to find her. I’m torn. We all deserve more time with this lovely woman, more extraordinary moments of wisdom and joy. Emotions overwhelmed our closed knit family. My mind wanders through the memories of how she used to be because the woman in front of me is and isn’t her at the same time: Schrödinger’s mom. Maybe after the surgery she might get better but she could also get worse. Some functions and information may be lost forever in the cancerous extirpated tissues. If she was lucky, the changes would be minimal and manageable. She remained my mother regardless, so I’d have to adapt to whatever person came out of the operating room. As an Army officer, she had come up with crisis management plans before. She even had a plan for this scenario.

Life, give me strength to cope with the things I can’t change…

For those three excruciating pre-op days she worked overtime to get her thoughts aligned with her words. Even with mild aphasia and some recall issues she remained calm, joyful and brave. Watching her be wheeled in was gut wrenching. Solemnly, we stood in the middle of a dimly lit and uninviting hallway dubbed the waiting area for 5 hours hoping this wasn’t the end of her story. Her dear friends, all strong enterprising Army career women, flanked my sister and I, protecting and soothing us. It almost felt like a battle formation, everyone taking arms to defend their beloved Colonel from the rogue cells affecting her cognition. These ladies were more than ready to attack anything thrown at them. Their grace and dignity in front of adversity was truly remarkable. I hope to grow up and be like them. To successfully surround myself with powerful women who allow no one but their dreams and ambitions to reign over them. Autonomous. Supreme. Wonder Women.

Science is amazing! It seems almost magical. By Friday evening the tumor was gone. She’d had brain surgery and survived with minimal discernible damage. Another three more days and she’d finally be out of the ICU. Those who talked to her during her recuperation were impressed. She was almost back to her independent self, back to all of us, just a few hours after lying in the operating table. The frustration in her eyes was no more. If she was trying to communicate and failed to make sense she quickly recovered. Her demeanor was replaced by confidence as she relayed instructions, comprehensive recollections of past memories and fully structured sentences. Instead of despairing when confused, a smile comes to her face and she chuckles; “That’s not it, hehe.” We turned her lapses into fun games. We were all grateful for her stellar positive attitude pre and post the crisis.

The most annoying side effect is that she won’t shut up now!!! That woman barely said a word to me growing up and now is as talkative as W. Oy vey!!! (Hehehehe) It was waaaay easier to play 20 questions when she couldn’t admonish me in both English and Spanish. She just sighed and rolled her eyes at me like a teenager. That’s what I’ll miss most about the hospital stay, about the eight days I was able to suspend time and real life to be by her side, as I’d promised her I would be, even under the circumstances. Love is a gift, one that when imparted well makes us bold and resilient. My mother is more than ever a warrior in the true sense of the word both on and off the battlefield. I am blessed to have witnessed the tenacity of the army of people fighting alongside her, whatever cancer the biopsy reveals we are up against. I hope she keeps finding joy throughout this journey, that she goes down swinging whenever the time comes, and perseveres through the rounds of chemo, radiation and MRIs.

Long live the Colonel. 👸💪💝 Long live our Queen!

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