Saturday, March 05, 2011

A Daughter at the Foot of the Cross

Shortly before her passing, while she was in the midst of her own passion, Marilyn's daughter wrote a beautiful and inspiring reflection -- her mom had competed well, she had finished the race. Melissa graciously gives her permission to post this. Next week we will receive ashes on the head and be told to remember, "you are dust and unto dust you shall return." May this reflection be of help in times like these in your own lives.

My Mom's not a Runner, but She Taught Me How to Be One
by Melissa, February 24, 2011
I've spent the last week and a half with my mom here at [the] Hospital. She has stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The lymphoma has passed into her central nervous system, presenting itself in her spinal fluid. It's become clear to my brothers and me that she is nearing the end of her life.

Since I've been here, I've been thinking a lot about running. I haven't run since before Thanksgiving, because I had foot surgery. About a week ago, I looked at my calendar and counted the weeks since I've been out of my walking cast. It was exactly six weeks--and my surgeon told me that I could start running at six weeks; but I told him I would probably wait a little longer. I sort of made up my mind that I would wait till is February 25.

When I came down to [Kentucky] almost two weeks ago, my plans were to come and spend the weekend with my mom and take her to the hospital for the lumbar puncture they planned for her, then I was going to get her settled in and then drive home. My brothers would be spending time with her during the evening. But for some reason, I just didn't want to leave. I wanted to be here when we heard the results of that test, and to be with her as the doctors decided what to do next. My brother Brian was coming down from [New York] on the weekend, and my other two brothers were working during the day, so I thought it might be nice for Mom to have some company during the daytime.

I felt torn about it, but I came back to [Indiana] for a day to take care of some things . . . I came back here the next day. I packed as many shirts, underwear and socks as I could, plus three cardigan sweaters and a pair of dress shoes. I thought about packing my running shoes and some gear, but decided I wouldn't feel like running while I was here.


My mom's lived with lymphoma since 1995. It's 2011, people. That's sixteen years. It's come back maybe two or three times--I don't remember. And, she is 78 years old.

But this time, it was different. Something happened early last year, and we noticed Mom started changing, at least her cognition did. She started saying things that didn't make a lot of sense, or she seemed unreasonable about some things, about decisions that had to be made. Her doctor referred her to a neurologist, because she started having these nasty headaches, and pain in her eye. She was in the hospital in the fall, having been diagnosed with Waldenström's macroglobulinemia, a rare type of cancer. She had to have her blood "cleaned out"--excess protein had built up in it; and so she had to have plasmapheresis performed to bring it back to normal. But her pain came back. In January, the neurologist believed that she had Tolosa-Hunt syndrome, and treated her accordingly with massive doses of steroids to reduce the inflammation they thought had developed around her eye. But the pain returned, and her oncologist searched for the answer in her spinal fluid. If he didn't find it there, he would have biopsied the temporal lobe of her brain.

Indeed, the lymphoma had spread to her spinal fluid. Neither chemotherapy nor radiation could get rid of the cancer this time. The treatment plan shifted to comfort care. Dr. H., Mom's oncologist, said the word "hospice" as three of us kids talked to him on the phone about her prognosis. I swear my heart just about broke in two.


So what does my running have to do with my mom, and the fact that she is dying from cancer?

I've thought a few times about how I'd like to go running since I've been here. Running changed my life when I began 2 1/2 years ago. I discovered not only the physical benefits, but that my life improved mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I started running half-marathons that first year, and it's my favorite race. I've not done a marathon--I've heard they're just hell. I don't have my shoes though, and I need to wear particular shoes that work well with my crazy foot. So I haven't run.

But I've watched Mom over the past couple of weeks now, spending time up here in this room with her. I've watched what most people would call a "decline"--from the unbearable pain she felt because she didn't want to take her pain medicine, to walking around all wobbly, to sitting up, to talking with us in rare lucid moments. She's experiencing many of the signs of approaching death: seeing things or people that we can't, sleeping all the time, the agitation. She completely stopped eating and drinking two days ago. My three older brothers and I have all watched our mom's health deteriorate before our eyes. But I'm seeing something different. I see her moving forward.

Over the past two years, I've run in probably thirty different races. I've never been a good runner, not fast at all. My foot surgeon said to me, "I don't know why you all do it. You all look miserable! Like you're not having a good time at all!" I thought that was kind of funny. Yes, running can be painful and difficult, but we don't do it because we're masochistic; I'd bet that most of my friends would say they run because it's difficult. Why would anyone do that? Because after our run is over, we know we've done something that was a challenge and we accomplished it. The sense of victory we feel, even if not running a race, is there for us at the end of every run--even if it's a bad one.

So I look back over the last two weeks, and I think about my mom running this big, long race. Her race is longer than any one I've ever done. I've been thinking about St. Paul's famous quote from his [second] letter to Timothy: "I have competed well; I have finished the race." (Thank you to Anthony Hopkins for portraying St. Paul in a movie--it's because of him that I remember this quote.)

In the community of running, I've never been good enough to be competitive, but I learned what it means to support other runners. We always want to see our friends run well. Running injuries, illness, age-related foot and leg problems, messed up joints--these all get us down and keep us from running, but we always get back to it. . . . And we cheer each other on. The sound of my friends' voices calling out, "Good job, Melissa!" as I approach a finish line several minutes after them, often gives me that extra surge that I need to fly across it, not hobble.

You often hear runners say, "Run your own race." I've run in events where I tried running with other folks for a while, and sometimes that works. I ran what would have been my fastest 5K ever with my friend Steve (although the distance was cut short by the front-runner who was misguided by course sentries). But I also ran an event last spring, a 12-miler, which I will forever remember as my worst event ever. I ran the first six miles with two buddies of mine, but the pace was too fast; and I begged them to leave me and run ahead after that first half. I finished on my own, completely exhausted and disappointed that I didn't focus on my own pace, and that I had chosen to follow theirs.

When a person is dying, we know that she must do so on her own terms. We may think that a person is very near death, yet they linger. I asked a nurse this morning if it was wrong for me to anticipate my mom's death. Is it wrong for me to look forward to it? I'm certainly not getting impatient, like you'd wait for the cable guy to show up; it's more like this: I don't want her to suffer any more. I don't want for her to have to linger. It's such a strange feeling: we never want to lose our loved ones, but we don't want them to be stuck in place, either.

So I find myself cheering for her. I am on the sidelines, clapping and calling out her name. She has to run her own race; she must complete this journey herself and I cannot do it for her. She cannot go faster, yet I don't want to do anything that would slow her down. I cheer for her, and encourage her.

In the movie "The Passion," we see Simon of Cyrene forced to help Jesus carry his cross. I will never forget the look on the man's face when he realized he had to do it. At first he refused, but he had no choice--the Roman guards gave him no choice. As Jesus journeyed on the way to Calvary, Simon became more and more supportive of him. About halfway there, Simon puts his arm around the cross, and Jesus' shoulder at the same time. And he looks in Jesus' eyes, letting Him know silently that he is there. And as they make it up the hill, Simon says, "We're almost there, almost there." Simon's refusal to accept the burden of help transformed into a passionate commitment to see Jesus to the end. Again, I see the parallel with our mom. She's on a long, challenging journey, but I want to see her through to the end. I want to say, "You can make it, Mom. I will stay beside you as you travel on this path." But I don't carry a cross--I'm just here.

One would think, that if a person dies from cancer, that they are defeated by it. I'm starting to understand, that's not necessarily true. Just as I have never been a fast runner, and I've never won a race, my mother has not "beaten" cancer. But she hasn't been defeated, either. When this is over, we can say with certainty that my mother has fought the good fight; she has kept her eye on the prize. She will have finished the race. And that is the best kind of victory.

As I was reflecting on these things with a nurse this morning, I realized that all the life lessons I thought I had learned from running, I have actually learned from my mom. I see my mom pushing forward through this challenge. She's never given up. She doesn't stop just because it's too hard. She goes the distance--an ultramarathon of races. She goes through this process at her own pace. She'll conclude her life, run her own race, on her own terms--not when I'm ready, or anyone else. And like in my races, she'll go before me, and I know that when it's time for me to run my final race, she'll be cheering for me at the finish.
Marilyn went ahead to the House of the Father on Sunday, after they had prayed the chaplet of Divine Mercy, having also received all the last sacraments.

A few days before that, Melissa gave an update about these final days.
Mom has indeed settled in here in the Hospice Care Center. Yesterday before coming, she was very restless, sitting and standing constantly. Once she came here, everything changed. She relaxed and stopped the standing. She went to sleep, albeit sitting up. Later, she laid her head back. She's been sleeping heavily ever since. She has not taken food or water since Monday.

The staff here have encouraged us to speak quietly, to touch her, and reassure her that she is safe and it's OK to sleep. They also said that she might be afraid -- which I had never even considered. I felt so sad when I realized that I hadn't thought about that. But, the nurse asked her if she was afraid, and Mom somehow indicated that she didn't want to go to sleep; she was afraid she wouldn't wake up.

I have been telling her she's safe and that it's OK to sleep. I've also told her that we will be fine and told her especially that I will be, that C---- will be taking care of me. And I told her that we're taking care of her. I also told her that I've asked for angels to guide her on her journey, and that it's OK to go with them. . . .

Thank you for the prayers and keep them coming. I know He hears every whisper and sees every tear, and it all amounts to love in the end.
The funeral was bittersweet -- sad, but not overly so. The presence of faith helped a lot in that regard. "Blessed are those who mourn." Such faith does not totally eliminate the sadness, but it does provide hope -- the hearts of the mourners are made not so heavy by the Lord's assurance that, by the power of His love, all things are made new, and even death is transformed to life.


1 comment:

Prairie Lover said...

Melissa - thank you for sharing this most touching reflection, and I love the analogy - most astute.

You've written a wonderful tribute to your mom, and it was a privilege to read it. God bless you and yours.