Love Survives

October 20, 2012

When I was eight years old, I saw “The Christmas Shoes,” a touching movie about a family’s struggle with cancer, for the first time. Petrified that my mother would die like the boy’s mother in the movie, I crawled, weeping, to her side and confessed my fears. Looking straight into my eyes, she promised she never would leave and hugged me tight. I believed her with all my heart, but sometimes we make promises we cannot keep; this was one such promise.
My mother, Judith Maria Byrne, died from Melanoma Skin Cancer December 8th, 2009 at the young age of forty-eight. However, her battle began two years earlier with a tiny mole. During a routine skin check, dermatologists discovered a cancerous mole sitting in the middle of my mother’s upper back. With a shot of numbing medicine, a quick incision, and a few snips the dangerous mole was removed and she was notified that she had nothing to worry about. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, the cancer lived on and Melanoma cells secretly invaded my mother’s body, transporting themselves throughout her blood stream, latching onto her most vital organs. They waited patiently for a year and a half until my mother derived a persistent cough that forced her to visit the doctor. After taking a CAT scan of her chest and visceral organs, tears leaked from the corners of the doctor’s eyes as she informed my mother that Melanoma cancer cells had metastasized and formed tumors on her lungs, kidneys, and liver. She had stage four Melanoma Skin Cancer-chance of survival: less than twenty percent.
I did not understand the seriousness of the situation when my mother broke the news to me. Sitting quietly on the couch, she pronounced she had cancer and would undergo Interleukin treatment in a couple of weeks. Dumbfounded, I looked into her watering eyes and whispered, “You’re gonna be okay, right? They treat cancer all the time…” Forcing a smile, she wrapped me in her arms saying, “I hope so,” as I bawled into her shoulder. Truth be told, I honestly believed my mother would be fine. As a fifteen year old girl, I was naïve to the world of death and suffering; after all, it was only people in movies who died of cancer, right? I could not have been more wrong.
Entering the University of Washington’s cancer ward, my mother began two weeks of intensive cancer treatment that left her bloated, feverish, and weak. My father forced us to stay home during the worst days of her treatment, but when we were allowed to visit my heart ached for my mother. Swollen and blotchy, she hardly resembled the woman I had known my entire life. I was afraid to touch her; scared any contact would send shocks of pain up and down her beaten body. Seeing her this way made me angry at the cancer, upset with the nurses and doctors for not doing more, and frustrated that everything was out of my control.
Despite this, my true anger and resentment fell on my sister, who aimed all her fury at our helpless mother, lying sickly in her hospital bed. Eighteen months younger than me, Mackenzie towered over my mother. With hot tears rolling down her cheeks and clenched fists shaking at her sides, she blamed my mother for everything that was happening. Her cold words shot an arrow through my heart. Trembling inside, I wanted to drag Mackenzie out of the room and scream at her. I wanted to slap her, shake her by the shoulders, and tell her how utterly wrong she was. Sitting in that hospital room, watching Mackenzie bully my mother, I felt hatred toward my sister for the first time in my life, and let my emotions take hold of me. Later, at home, I screamed at her until I collapsed and we sobbed into each other’s shoulders. Vulnerable, desperate, and broken-hearted, we cried until we could not cry anymore.
Soon, after two weeks of agony, my mother and father came home with good news: many of the tumors had reduced in size, and some had completely disappeared. For a treatment with only a ten percent success rate, it seemed to be working. Hopeful, my mother went back for two more weeks of treatment about a month later, and we all held our breath. Surprisingly, more good news came after round two and my mother began to feel better. She returned to work, attended regular Body Pump and Pilate’s classes at the gym, and seemed like her old, spirited self again. The Melanoma was not defeated though, and doctors wanted to try a new experimental drug on my mother. Open-minded and ready, my parents arrived in Seattle for their final meeting before the experiment trials, only to learn that my mother’s previous scans revealed fluid building up in her lungs. Due to this, she was no longer qualified for the drug, and had new problems on top of the cancer.
Within days of receiving this news, fluid filled my mother’s lungs, and it pained her to breath. Barely breathing, she returned to the hospital and doctors immediately installed a catheter in her side where the fluid could drain. Manually, they drained two full liter bottles of red fluid almost daily, reestablishing her airways, and extending her life a little longer. With the fluid situation seemingly under control, the doctors taught my father the procedure, and he graciously returned home with my mother.
Upon their arrival, we greeted an entirely different woman. With a heavy heart, I gazed at her thinning hair, bony limbs, and sunken eyes as she struggled to sit down on the couch. My siblings and I surrounded her and my father quietly announced he had to tell us something. His sad, tired eyes searched our questioning faces as his shoulders sagged under the weight of his news. I knew what he was going to say before the words escaped his chapped lips. “Mom isn’t going to live much longer,” he choked as my brother and sister erupted in a fountain of tears. Wearily my mother tried to comfort them, but her slow and laborious movements tired her quickly and she whispered she wanted to go to bed.
Supporting her frail frame, my father slowly helped her up the stairs. Ragged breaths escaped her thin chest, and I could almost hear the fluid suffocating her from the inside out. After she was comfortably settled, I crawled gently to my mother’s side and laid my head against her bony shoulder. Suddenly, I felt the need to confess all my secrets and update her on my life. In whispered tones, I filled her in on my hopes and dreams, my newest crush, and how much I loved her. As her eyelids fluttered and she drifted off to sleep, I knew there was no going back to how life used to be. This was the last real conversation I had with my mother before she died.
In the days that followed, Hospice arrived at our house and a large hospital bed took residence in the middle of our living room. Next to the bed, moaning oxygen tanks filled hollow silences and drowned out ragged sobs behind closed doors. Extended family began to arrive, preparing meals and offering hugs. One cold, sunny afternoon, my aunt suggested I help feed my mother. Hot soup in one hand, I tentatively balanced on the edge of her bed and blew on the soup to cool it. “Mom, you have to eat,” I said and gently forced the spoon into her mouth. Slowly, she struggled to swallow, and I proceeded to feed her a bit more. Following her fourth bite, she closed her eyes and turned her head away. She was finished. But she could not tell me because she could not speak. Stroking her soft, bony hands, tears dripped down my cheeks. This was not supposed to happen. I should not be feeding my dying mother. But it was happening and I was forced, beyond the lingering hope she would live, to believe it.
December 8th, 2009, our Hospice nurse and social worker arrived to check on us. As we talked around the kitchen table, the nurse appeared and gravely told us it was time. My heart skipped a beat as my stomach dropped. Time? Time for what? Rushing to her bedside, my brother, sister, father, and I watched as she gulped for air, eyes rolling in all directions. As we cried out desperately to her, she shuddered one final time and lay perfectly still, glossy-eyed and gone forever.
Deafening silence filled the room until my brother screamed, “No!” falling across her lifeless body. In a moment of sheer shock and panic, I felt like I was watching my life on TV. Tears rolled down my face and I hiccupped violently, gasping for air. Countless arms engulfed me and pressed me close, but I wanted to be anywhere but there. None of this was right. That hospital bed did not belong in my living room, all these people needed to go home, and my mother should have been alive. But she was not, and never would be again.
A little over two years ago, my mother died from Melanoma Skin Cancer. Ripped apart and broken, my family struggled to stay afloat as we grieved. However, life goes on; and so did we. I believe my mother would be proud of where we stand today, living life to the fullest, but never forgetting to appreciate what we have been given, as it could be taken any day. During her lifetime, one of my mother’s favorite quotes was by Leo Rosten, who stated,
“The purpose of life is not to be happy-but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.”
Though her life ended shortly, I think my mother fulfilled her mission as a woman, a mother, a wife, a lover, a daughter, an aunt, and a friend. A woman of extraordinary faith, she let no moment pass unnoticed and truly made a difference in the lives of all who knew her. She will forever be remembered in the minds and hearts of those who loved her, and will never be forgotten.
Gabriella Byrne