After a sleepless night of headaches and heartburn followed by a day of crushing news, how can Mom look so beautiful? As always, her silver hair is swept back in a hairband, and her skin is smooth and clear, the muscles of her face, relaxed. Is she asleep or simply at peace with her decision and what lies ahead?
Her life is flashing before my eyes. Her years as a child with her brother Ding and devoted parents at 12 Upper Ladue in St. Louis, her reign as the Veiled Prophet queen, her joy as a bride, young wife, new mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I feel it all. For Christmas, I made her a photo book: “Mimi, Mom, Greemie,” and for weeks, I’d been immersed in her milestones – many of them so intertwined with my own.
I started the project in October while home at 638 for a visit. Mom had gone to bed and I’d retreated to the back room that once was my sister's and now was used for storage. There were bins and boxes of photographs as well as Dad’s old desk, a high chair, and some glass cases from Mom’s antiques show days. I knew I couldn’t take some of the larger photos home because Mom would notice, so I began to take pictures with my phone, sorting through a sea of moments lovingly frozen in film by Mom’s father, Uncle Ding, and Dave.
Suddenly, around midnight, I heard Mom’s voice, “Lea? Where are you?”
I peeked into the hall and saw her standing at the guest room door where I have stayed since my teen-years-bedroom on the third floor made the transition to another storeroom. In her pale, blue nightie and her hair loose around her shoulders, she squinted in the bright light and beamed at me. "Oh! You’re looking at pictures! Let’s look at them together!” Somehow I herded her into the guest room and we sat on my bed for a “lovely chat” - a cozy, in-the-dark, pre-bed chat, so named by my grandmother Byeo when I was little.
I had never had a middle-of-the-night lovely chat with my mother before! I knew it was precious, kept telling myself to drink it in and enjoy it, but those bins of photos were calling me and I had to work to shut them up. Mom and I talked for 45 minutes or so before she began to fade and headed back to bed. I returned to my project and hit the sheets around 3:30.
For weeks I was immersed in a world of soft matte sepia. Byeo and Poppy always elegantly dressed, Byeo’s hair in controlled curls coiffed close to her head, gloves and hats customary for outings. Mom enviably lovely at almost every age. Dad finally entered the scene in ‘48, wearing civvies for his visits to St. Louis, but handsome in uniform with his lieutenant’s bars for formal shots. And ultimately, I appear, a plain, peaked child, “but we loved you to pieces anyway,” Mom assured me.
We celebrated Christmas at Thanksgiving in Weekapaug this year, so all of us were together. Mom twisted her ankle when she leapt to her feet at the temptation of a TJ Maxx shopping trip, so that slowed her down. Other than that, she was her usual cheerful self. I’m so grateful we didn’t know, that she didn’t know what was brewing inside her. She loved her book, and I sat beside her as she turned the pages, and grinned, pointed, and wept over beloved faces and phases.
It is barely two months later that we are in the hospital, and a CAT scan has revealed lesions on Mom’s lung and three masses the size of golf balls on her liver. Dr. Spitzer spoke to my sisters, Rita and Francie, and me, in the hall outside her room at the hospital before he confirmed these findings with my mother.
Mom was dressed in a blue and white hospital gown, sitting up in bed, propped against white pillows, covered with a white sheet, her hands clasped on her lap. When we walked in, she smiled at the doctor and the three of us trailing behind him.
Dr. Spitzer is slight of build, with dark hair, and black-framed glasses. He stood at the foot of Mom’s bed and rocked from one foot to the other while meeting her gaze. “Mimi. We know why you don’t feel well.”
Mom sat up straighter and appeared pleased. Is it possible she had no idea what was coming?
“It’s not good. You have metastatic breast cancer. It’s gone to your lungs and liver.”
Her smile held, suspended in the gulf between her life as it had been and this news that it would soon end… and then we all burst into tears. But only briefly. Mom wanted information. She had decisions to make.
“How long do I have?”
“I can’t say for sure, and others might say differently. We’ll have an oncologist come in to chat with you as soon as possible. But I’d say one to three months.”
Mom sat straighter as she drew in a long breath. My sisters and I stood taller as we did the same. One to three months?
Mom recovered more quickly than we did. She smiled at Dr. Spitzer who looked as stricken as we felt. “Well. You know how I feel about this, Peter. No treatment. I always thought 86 would be a good age to die. Who knew I’d be such a good predictor?”
The doctor and Mom laughed together, and he said, “But Mimi, you don’t always have to be right!”
May we all have a doctor like him. He told Mom she was boss, and he would honor her wishes and see that everyone else did. He was loving and kind. And he knows my mother well. Over the years, they’d come to an understanding. He would advise her to have this test or that procedure, and she would nod her head, smile… and refuse. Mom did not believe in excessive medical care, and that covered pretty much everything other than a visit when she really didn’t feel well.
It was only a week ago that she really didn’t feel well.
She’d felt “punky” when I went home to Philadelphia with my friend Joanie to join Rita and Francie at the Women’s March in January. Mom has always been stoic, and she greeted us cheerfully when we arrived. When we blamed her lethargy on lack of vitamin D and dehydration, she was willing to agree.
“Are you drinking plenty of water, Mom?”
“Yes. I always have some by my bed in the thermos Rita got me.”
“But have you been drinking it?”
“Oh yes. I take sips.” But the sips were so sparing that the thermos rarely required refills.
It was comforting to blame such reasonable, easy fixes.
After the march, Joanie and I returned to Connecticut, and the next day, I tutored at Mercy Learning Center as usual. After my students left, I stole a peek at my cell phone. Whoa. Ping, ping, ping: a steady barrage from Rita and Francie lit the small screen. Mom had felt sick enough to ask Rita to take her to Dr. Spitzer:
Rita: Mom has a nodule in her lung. Spitzer wants to talk to me. Ordering CAT scan.
Francie: Do you want me to come over?
Rita: I’m good for most of the afternoon. He wants us to stay with her at night as he knows she won’t stay in the hospital.
Francie: I can stay all nights this week if need be. Can she be alone at all?
Rita: I can change plans and come over around 9:00 tomorrow. I can skip Jared’s [her son’s] game Thursday and spend the night. We’ll figure it out.
Francie: Yes, we will! Thanks for being there today. Just let me know what time you need me to come over.”
Here, there was a pause in the exchange, and then:
Rita: She’s begging to go to the hospital. Francie, if you want to come to Spitzer’s office, come.
Francie: Coming now.
And so was I. My mother hated hospitals. She was begging to go? With my throat tight, I sped home, packed clothes for a week, and headed for Philadelphia.