F@%k Cancer, Part 2

“Lilo is coming?” She kept asking me about my sister 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. My presence wasn’t unwelcomed, nevertheless she must have realized something was awry.

“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. My affirmative response makes her pause for a second. “And your spouse?” No, he stayed home with the dog. “Ah, Zach!” This is not a vacation trip which is why I came alone. After making sure I was the only surprise guest she shifts 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. As I look out the door, the allá she mentioned, I’m wondering if this is a good idea.

Her latest episode came with convulsions and my aunt is wary that it might recur. With much trepidation we respect her wishes and ask her to get ready to roll. We don’t know what we are up against, why she is acting as she was 4 years old. It’s both adorable and frightening. She disappears into the back room to collects her things as I walk behind her down the hallway. We stop in front of the only closed door, a door that used to be locked whenever my grandpa was in the room. “Mom 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. “Let’s go.” We shuffle through the slider door and 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 and didn’t lock me out, I ran back to the idling vehicle to unload it before attempting to maneuver it in reverse into its assigned parking spot. I’d done this many times before, in a past life, as a very serious and determined young lady that wanted to leave this place and never return. *Sigh* I swore I’d never come back unless someone was dead or dying. Famous last words.

When I reach the landing she is already in her room, upstairs. I took a moment to let the emotions rush in. The empty living room, because she didn’t need to entertain anymore, had been our family’s HQ. There were books on the dinning room shelves, and the dinning table area had been turn into storage space. She’s saving stuff for the front neighbor, who moved stateside to live with her kids. Wish she 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. Lol This was the roof over my shoulders and it seemed so small and dated now. I smiled. This was the house where my sister was conceived. (Lord, mercy!)

A few minutes later we were snuggled up in bed, the hum of the air conditioning unit lulling us to sleep. The 90 degree weather and humidity make the house feel hot as hell. “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 not normal. “Un poquito pero Lilo is here!” The sound of the airplane going over our heads at exactly 12:45 am sent a chill down my spine. My sister was on that flight, all pins and needles because she had gotten the same SOS call. If luck truly favors the bold we’d see her soon. This impromptu family reunion was not joyful. Regardless, I was glad the band had gotten back together for one more tour.

Once mami was admitted to the hospital, the second time in 24 hrs and the fourth time in 4 weeks, I gave myself permission to pretend to be normal and eat lunch. The MRI results would be read back to us in two days; we had to wait with some sense of serenity. 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 last confusion and cognitive distress episodes had led to two convulsions, and she had no idea this was her 4th trip to the ER. To me, these were all signs that we were running against the clock. Whatever it was, it was paramount we find a diagnosis and course of action that would minimize brain damage. This was not at all normal. The Labor Day holiday forced us to wait one more day.

Tuesday came quickly. The neurosurgeon called us into his office and flashed her scan on his screen. The occipital lobe had a mass of considerable size, inconsistent with the behavior of a cyst. The MRI she had done the week before showed she had a 3.1 cm tumor. It had grown to 4 cm at an accelerated rate this past week. We were all stunned! This was most likely brain cancer. The doctors unanimously agreed they needed to wheel her into surgery as soon as humanly possible. We were heartbroken. If the treatment and surgery didn’t work, she’d be gone by Christmas. I cringed. 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.

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. The woman in front of me is and isn’t her at the same time: Schrodinger’s mom. After the surgery she might get better but she could also get worse. Some functions and information may be lost forever in the diseased extirpated tissues. If we were lucky the changes would be minimal and manageable. She would remain my mother regardless, so I’d have to adapt to whatever person came out of the operating room.

For those three excruciating pre op days we saw her working overtime to get her thoughts aligned with her words. Even with some aphasia and recall issues she remained calm, joyful and brave. After they wheeled her in we solemnly waited in a dimly lit and uninviting hallway, aka the waiting area, for 5 hours hoping this wasn’t the end of her story. Her dear friends, all strong enterprising women, flanked my sister and I, protecting and soothing us. It almost felt like a battle formation, everyone taking arms to defend the Colonel from the rogue cells affecting her cognition. These Army ladies were ready to attack anything thrown at them. Their grace and dignity in front of adversity admirable. I hope to grow up and be like them someday. To be surrounded by powerful women who allowed no one to reign over them. Autonomous. Supreme.

Science is amazing. We arrived at the hospital on Sunday and by Friday evening the tumor was gone. She’d made it through brain surgery and survived. Three days after surgery, finally out of the ICU, she was almost back to her independent self; back to all of us. The frustration seen in her eyes while she was trying to communicate and failed to make sense was now completely replaced by 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.”. I’m grateful for her stellar positive attitude pre and post the crisis. And man, she won’t shut up now!!! That woman barely said a word to me growing up and how is as talkative as W. Oy vey!!! (Hehehehe)

I’ll admit that playing 20 questions was way more fun when she was struggling because she’d say the wrong thing and keep trying to guess, both in English and Spanish. I’ll miss the hospital stay; being able to suspend time and real life to share a few days with her even under the circumstances. Love is a gift, especially when it makes us bold and resilient. If anything, my mother is a warrior in the true sense of the word, and she has an army of people willing to fight cancer alongside her, or whatever the biopsy reveals we were up against. I hope she keeps finding joy throughout this journey, that she goes down swinging whenever the time comes, and especially through the chemo and the next wave of MRIs. Life is but a dream…

Long live the Colonel. 👸💪💝

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