Patient Stories: Tamara's Mom

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

I get stories in my email almost every day, and while the purpose of submissions is to hopefully turn them into a comic, not every submission works well in a comic format (at least my comic format). So I have determined that I will try to share the story submissions that moved me and share them in text (and in this case, also picture) form.

So please enjoy Tamara Cryderman's story, and get a tissue. 

This story is not mine, it's my mother's.

November 2015, my mother finally broke the news to her children that she had been diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer.  And she was declining treatment.  My mother was always the type to face something head-on, never sugar coat things and do the best with what you have.  She faced every day of her life with a level of wit and badassery that carried her through many a dark year. From a lifetime of abuse and bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts, times of mental instability and days where she went hungry to feed her own children, she's been a fighter with an ever broken mask of humanity and a warm, inviting heart.   But I know it was also hard.  Especially after this.  She told me she wasn't surprised at all.  She told the Doctor, "Well, I guess it's about that time." And she got to work. Sadly, I lived almost 1000 KM away and didn't have the funds to make frequent trips.  I called her often and depended on my local family to take care of her.

We talked about options, treatments and outcomes.  We talked openly, and I appreciated that about her. She told me, "Honey, this isn't my first rodeo.  I've been at the bedside and put too many friends and family members into the ground from cancer.  Doctor says even with chemo and radiation, I've barely got a chance. (I think it was 12-20% total, but my memory is fuzzy) If I've only got so much time, I want to LIVE it, not being sick all the time. I'm doing this on my own terms."  We respected that choice and we treated every day as another only a little different.  The cancer was a constant back of the mind item, but it stayed there unless discussion was needed, and then the doors were pulled wide open.  No secrets.  No hiding.   We hadn't had a family Christmas in many years, but we made it happen that year.  It was joyful and very hard.  And of course, full of laughter.

On February 12th, the day before her 64th birthday, she went into the ER.  Her lung had collapsed completely flat.  We almost lost her the day she went in.  They thought the lung was full of fluid and a young, impatient doctor tried to insert the wrong type of tube and failed, almost puncturing her heart. Instead, the tube came up and almost out her shoulder. All she wanted to do was get out of that damned hospital, but they kept her there a week.  She told me about the horrible food and the lumpy bed.  It makes me laugh to picture my mother raising hell as she was good at doing.  "Eggs," she told me.  "How do you screw up eggs? I told the nutritionist if you want me to eat, then bring be REAL food, not POWDERED eggs.  Then the one day it was spaghetti and meatballs.  It tasted good for the first couple bites.  I thought, finally, some real food!  Then, as I got down the container a bit, there was a half inch of water in the bottom. Gross." The first chance she got, she had my brother pick her up some fish and chips from a local restaurant.  It was her favorite treat and she was going to indulge every chance she got.   "And the bed!  There's a sagging hole in it and it hurts my back so much the only way I can sleep is to curl up on the bottom half like a cat." 

She went into palliative care after that, living with my Aunt and Uncle who were both retired. I'm happy to say we didn't respect one of her wishes, and she was also happy I defied her.  My now husband and I had had a quick discussion and there was a unanimous decision. You see, 5 years ago, we lost my sister-in-law to stage 4 cancer.  Treatment extended her life, but she didn't make it to her daughter's wedding. I didn't want the same outcome. We told her we were engaged on Valentine's Day and she was over the moon happy, shouting it throughout her hospital room, but she wasn't a fool and tried calling us out on our plans. Thankfully, I had had time to practice lying.  It wasn't easy with her.  Over the course of 4 days with the help of family and friends, we planned a small wedding 1000 km away.  Someone let it slip and it was an interesting phone call.  "Your godmother told me she would be coming back for the wedding in a few weeks.  What wedding?"    "Uuuhhh... Surprise!"   I could hear the twisted cone of emotion rise up in her throat.  The tears and joy barely held in by that wall of masks.  "I told you not to do that.  Don't do it because of me.   Have your special day the way you want it.  I'll be there in spirit.  Don't--" At that point I broke in.  "We are doing what we want.  We're doing this because WE want you there.  THAT is what we want. So frankly mom, it has nothing to do with what YOU want, we're selfish. We're doing this all because of us, just like you wanted."  That finally make her crack.  She laughed with her tears.  Then she gave us the OK. We booked the "VIP Room" off the bar of the local small town Motel and decorated it with items we found mere hours before at the next door second hand store.  I found a dress on my lunch break and pulled together everything else I could.  We dined on platters of bar food; pizza, wings, mozza sticks, fries and had a cake from the local grocery store.  My husband's immediate family hopped on a plane without a second thought and all my immediate family was in the area. My husband, his best man and my maid of honor made the long, early morning drive through a blizzard.  My brothers walked me down the aisle (my father, as well as most of the world, at this time knew nothing of mom's condition as per her wishes). And mom was there, smiling.   It was everything we wanted.    

As a side note, my Godmother didn't make it to the wedding because her own husband was fighting cancer in his neck.  He had been a survivor, but then it came back and there was no stopping it. We lost him a few weeks later. They were only the beginning of it all.  2016 has been a rough year. 

My mother had an incredible amount of strength, and that strength was in her tears as much as her smiles.  While discussing final arrangements, she told us, and I directly quote, "Don't you fucking DARE waste the money on a funeral.  What you can do is go out to your brothers acreage and have one last party on me."  When I asked her what she wanted done with her body, I could hear the 'don't worry about it' shrug over the phone.  "I've already taken care of it," she said.  "I went in and pre paid for my cremation.  You guys don't have to worry about a thing." Then she started laughing before coughing, then chuckled.  "He asked me if I wanted an urn and I said, no way! Haha. Don't spend the money on that. Put me in a cardboard box on the corner of the desk and someone will be around to collect me at some point."  We laughed.  "Spread my ashes on your brother's acreage, that's all I know for sure."   "Oh, I don't know, mom," I told her.  "I was thinking of sending your ashes to that company that presses you into a synthetic diamond."    "Oh my god, no! I don't think so!"   "Yeah, picture it mom.  You'd be the new family heirloom.  And there I would be, trying to shove you through the mail slot at my brothers saying,  'No, it's your turn to take her for Christmas!'" We laughed more.

At the beginning of June, my family said if I wanted that one last visit that I better get there soon.  I asked them how she was, what she looked like, as I had only talked to her on the phone and her voice was still the same to me, if not more tired.  They told me how she was skin and bones.  She looked horrible, couldn't get out of bed and could only talk for a bit at a time and slept most of the time.  I told them that my mother and I had already discussed that possibility.  I wouldn't be coming back.  I will remember my mom as she was at the wedding; smiling, laughing and full of dignity and pride.  I could pick up the phone and hear her voice, that's all I needed.  I talked to my mother again that day, asked her if she wanted me there.  She told me no, not to come on her account.  She completely supported my decision.

The week before the wedding, I flew down by myself to spend time with her and it was the hardest thing I've ever done.  There were masks everywhere and I found myself wearing my own.  There was a dedicated amount of love and patience that drained me.  When my mother got tired or didn't put her oxygen on it was like watching a rapid onset of dementia.  She got agitated and angry, forgetting conversations mere hours before, mixing up details.  Get her settled again and she was emotional but smiling and cracking jokes. She would remember clearly and apologize.  You're right.  It's hard.  It's so hard.  And as hard as it was for me, I knew it was a million times harder for her, so I smiled and gave her all my strength. I had to keep reminding myself; it's the cancer. It's the cancer.  That look, those harsh words aren't my mother.  They're the cancer.  Then she would laugh, and I would be so happy, I wanted to cry.  

I never did say goodbye to my mother.  I refused to.  When she told me she was canceling her cell phone because she couldn'toperate it anymore, I knew the time was drawing near.  I cast off all the veils that day and I told my mother everything I ever needed or wanted to.  We had laughed.  We had cried.  But never as much as we did that day.  She told me, and this will stick with me forever, "I love you to death." And then we laughed.  Then we cried.  I told her I'd talk to her later.  The next day, I talked to her, but she couldn't really talk back.  She was so up on pain medication at the moment that she could listen, smile and nod and mutter a few things while my Aunt held the phone.  I told her again, "I'll talk to you later.  Until next time, mom.  I love you."  The next day, my phone rang and I knew she was gone. 

I came across your comics via Imgur after seeing your Hollywood Superstar comic.  I've since started at the beginning and read through every comic and message that comes with them.  They made me smile.  They made me cry.  I know your comic's existence is to bring light to the silent struggle of the various cancer fighters and survivors. To tell the world that it's not a simple cut and dry topic, not black and while, life and death, and I couldn't help finding my mother between the lines.  Because although her body didn't make it, her spirit survived.  Her voice, her laughter and wit has stayed with everyone she ever knew. She faced every day with a smile and a laugh. She would say, "It is what it is" and "Sometimes, all you can do is laugh". 

Years ago, before her cancer, she had hurt her back badly trying to rip up an old hardwood floor by herself.  She was on heavy duty muscle relaxants but it was canning season and there was a huge garden to contend with or else we wouldn't eat that winter.  I was in my room, and I heard CRASH! SPLASH! ... giggle giggle giggle.  I came out to find my mother leaning against the counter giggling her face off with the pressure canning pot empty on the floor and all the water around it and her.  She could barely tell me she had tried to lift it out of the sink and her muscles gave out. I asked her if she was ok and she nodded, saying, "Yes, I just... I just can't stop laughing because what else am I supposed to do?" I laughed with her, got some towels and helped her with the canning.

 

I had intended to share a short story reflecting the idea of talking openly about cancer, but it's gotten a bit long winded, I'm sorry. (I guess that's the writer in me coming out. It is, after all, my mother's story. Haha.)  Seeing your comics and comments, I was happy to see that people are breaking down the walls and changing out the DEATH SENTENCE labels for declarations of WE LIVE!

We see cancer as this thing lurking in the shadows and as long as we don't look, it's not there, or we don't have to deal with it or think of it, even if it's not our room it's in.  It's time we shed light on it and bring ourselves out of the darkness. It should cower in our presence, not the other way around.  No matter what, there is always a level of 'out of sight, out of mind' for everyone involved and that is part of the survival.  You can't live in constant dread nor can we pretend nothing's going on.  You can only live. 

My mother's life and time with cancer was not glorious.  It's not the victory story people expect to hear. While she was strong, she was not the ideal statue of stalwart composure under the eyes of the beast you read about in books or see in the movies.  Cancer may have taken her body, but it never ended her life.  She may not be so in the eyes of the world, but she's my hero. And so are you, and every other person who is or has fought the beast.

All in all, I wanted to say thank you for what you're doing. Keep up the good work, and please, don't stop.

Best regards,

Wendy's Daughter,

Tara