Three years ago, my mom called me and told me that the chemo had stopped working. The doctor thought it was best to just stop treatment. I got off the phone quietly, and then panicked. I needed to see her. Now. I should go to Virginia. I looked at my husband. Go, he said.
But I started thinking about how much I’d like the kids to see her, too. Their Abuelita, whom they loved so much. How I’d like to take care of her for an extended visit, not a day or two. How I would feed her good food to help her gain some weight back, pamper her. I called my mom and asked her if she’d be willing to travel to Charlotte for a visit, whether she felt up for it. She said she’d love nothing more than to see her babies, and that she did feel up for the travel. I booked her on a flight for the following day.
My husband took the kids to the St. Patty’s day parade. I went to the airport to pick up my Mami. She was in a wheelchair. She looked so weak. Much more frail than she had just a few weeks ago when I saw her last. Driving home, I started questioning myself on the wisdom of having her travel. She had sounded so eager on the phone, but I could see she was declining quickly.
At the house, I set her up in the guest bedroom, fluffing the pillows around her and trying to get her as comfortable as possible. And when she said she wanted to rest and watch something, I turned on an episode of Downton Abbey while I busied myself in the kitchen to show her love in the way she’d always shown hers, through food.
I made an elaborate dinner and we sat at the dining room table, trying our best for things to be normal. For this to be a joyous visit, this time with the small, bald woman with dark patches of skin, that had replaced my rosy, robust Mami from just a few months ago. She took a few bites of the stuffed chicken I had made, apologizing that she couldn’t eat more. But I hoped that even that small amount had nourished her and she’d start feeling stronger soon.
The next day, the children had a birthday party at a small gym in the area. They loved those parties, and it was exciting for them to both be invited, since most parties they attended were for one or the other. I had decided to stay with them since my mom was napping at home.
Halfway through the party, I noticed him, the boy about my daughter’s age, four or five, coughing. He looked flushed and when he coughed so hard that he spat up some mucus, I looked hard at his mother. He was obviously very sick. Why was he at this party? The staff quickly cleaned up, and his mom joked that he was just playing too hard. But there in the small, confined party room, the boy broke into another coughing fit so bad, that all the parents just stood by silently looking at each other while the mother tried to calm him with some water that someone had fetched. And yet again, there was no motion to leave.
As soon as the party was over, I had the kids go into the bathroom and wash their hands thoroughly. But two days later, they both had high fevers and tested positive for the flu AND strep. I was trying to keep them as far away from their abuelita as possible. Caring for them and caring for my mom, I felt stretched so thin you could see through me.
But it didn’t work. My mom fell ill and wasn’t able to keep down any food. We didn’t know what to do. Her doctors were all in Virginia. Her oncologist advised us to get her back to Virginia if we were able. I flew with her to Virginia, and he sent her straight to the hospital.
She was never able to return to her home again. From the hospital, she went to a rehab facility, and then another one, and passed away one month later.
My mom had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. We knew it was terminal. We knew the odds of her surviving past one year, even with the chemo, were minimal. But I do wish she had more time. I wish she could have seen Easter. I’ve retraced the series of events, and fresh after my mom’s passing, I could not see the mom from the party again without angry tears filling my eyes.
Time has passed, and the anger has subsided. I’ve thought about why the boy was at the party. He was a twin, and perhaps he had begged to not miss the party that his sister was going to. Perhaps he wasn’t feeling that bad earlier in the day, but it progressed a lot at the party and caught his mom off guard. We’ve all made questionable calls about going out with sick kids. I know I have in the past.
But as we hear more about how the Coronavirus affects the elderly and those that have compromised immune systems, like my mother, I hope people will err on the side of caution. There were no old people in the waiting room at that party. But, like the little carrier monkeys they are, my kids brought home germs that ended up sending my mom to the hospital and ultimately ending her life.
I can’t tell this story in person because it still hurts too much. But when I heard today that the show Jeopardy is not going to have live audiences for the time being to help protect the show’s host, Alex Trebek, who has a compromised immune system from stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the tears came again. I wish I had not asked my mother to travel. I wish that child had not been at the party. I wish a lot of things had gone differently.
But what I can do is share this story in the hopes that it helps other abuelitas stay with their families on earth longer.
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