Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Love is not wasted time or energy

By Monica Vest Wheeler

The good news was that I knew what to ask.

The bad news was that I knew what to ask.

Yet, when it comes to YOUR loved one … you need wading boots to avoid drowning in the puddles you’re creating with your tears and fears. You have no idea of the depths you’re walking.

All these years of encouraging patients and families to speak up and advocate for themselves … and reminding medical professionals that they need to listen more and ask heartfelt questions … paid off when my mother and I entered that oncologist’s office for the first visit on September 14.

The doctor and staff were beyond compassionate and knowledgable. We explored the knowns … orange-sized mass in right lung consistent with cancer … and unknowns … exactly what type of cancer, explanation of chemo and radiation options down the road … and life expectancy.

And then you turn your life over to paperwork, the calendar and other people’s schedules … and endless scenarios and uncertainty.

We automatically ask, “What can I do?” or “What should I do?”

Yes, I asked myself that as if on cue, but then I suddenly realized the deeper meaning, “What lesson am I supposed to learn from this and what am I supposed to do with it?”

Silly me, the hopeless philosopher …

On the phone eight days later, Mom said, “I hope this isn’t a waste of time and energy for you.” I was not surprised at her statement though reassured her it wasn’t a waste of MY time and energy.

After then saying in a cold, emotionless voice that she could go to a MRI by herself, I said I know she can, only that I wanted to keep everything on my calendar so I was prepared. Ten minutes later, she called and apologized for hurting me. I said I understand, but she said I didn’t. I explained that I understood that she’s being thrust into a whirlwind of activities and people she didn’t want. She didn’t disagree, which was a plus.

This was extremely hard on a fiercely independent woman who had always wanted to do it HER way. I had to keep reminding myself of that fact and that it was not going to be an easy road for either of us … with a river of tears in our path.

And I gave the tissue industry far too much business in October when we heard the test results: non-small cell lung cancer, a tumor on the left side of her neck that caused all the left shoulder and arm pain … and two brain tumors.

The oncologist — bless his heart — explained all the options and how it was her choice on how to proceed.

“Do you want to go hard at it?” he asked.

“I want to stay as active as I can.”

“One thing at a time,” he reassured us.

Yes, all we could and can do.

Order up … one day at a time … with a side of tissues for the daughter ….

Thursday, April 19, 2018

I knew I was intruding but I had to be there

By Monica Vest Wheeler
Bad news has a way of sucking the wind out of your chillin' plans. I only wanted to sit in my sunroom with my baby cats after a week away.

And what a whirlwind it was as I had been home only an hour on Tuesday, September 12. Mom didn't want me to worry while I was on the road, so she waited until I called her after my seven days of travel to Virginia for our first Retreat & Refresh Stroke Camp there and back with a detour to scout prospective camp sites along the way. 

Despite her overall excellent health and some fun photos of us earlier, she told me she had finally gone to the doctor for chest, shoulder and arm pain. She had tried everything over a six-week period to ease the discomfort. After an X-ray, the doctor ordered a CT scan. And the mass on her lung unveiled itself. 

She had signed the paperwork giving the doctor permission to speak to me about her health and get access to any reports. Thank goodness! They were trying to get her into an oncologist ASAP.

We said we’d stay in touch. I love you. I love you.

So, what do I do first? I called the primary physician, and the nurse gave me what information she had.

So, what do I do next? I texted Marylee to let her know what few details I had because we needed backup plans for the FIVE camps I had in the next SEVEN weeks. 

So, what do I do after that? I tell my husband and son that Grandma has cancer and I have no idea what’s going to happen.

So, what comes after that? I called my dear friend Genny and said I’d do a turn and burn — a four-hour drive each way to Indiana — to see Mom on Wednesday and learn more. Genny knows Mom and said she’d come along. She brought stuff for the night; I didn’t because I was certain Mom wouldn’t be able to get into the oncologist until next week at the earliest. And Genny was a perfect and eager support team as she had survived a scary battle with kidney cancer earlier in 2017. She understood the fears and uncertainty.

Mom values her privacy. So, I didn’t tell her I was coming over. She had told me too many times in the past not to come over because SHE said I was busy or SHE didn’t want me to travel any more than necessary.

Sorry, this time, I chose to be the disobedient daughter.

And I needed to do this for ME. I was still grieving the unexpected loss of my dad just nine months earlier. How could this be happening?!?!

On our way, Mom called to say the oncologist could see her in at 12:45 Thursday. She could tell I was in the car and asked if I was driving over. Yes, Genny and I were on our way. Her voice cooled immediately. But I was excited she could get in so quickly. That was good news!

Upon our arrival, I could tell she wasn’t pleased I had come over unannounced, but nothing was said. I knew I needed to stay so I could go to the appointment with her. All we know is it’s a large mass on the middle of her lung, consistent with lung cancer. They said it was the right; she said it’s the left, where she’s been experiencing pain. I couldn’t hug her tightly as she was in so much pain. She will only take ibuprofen though I wonder if she would benefit from more. Not my call to make at this stage.

I couldn’t wrap my head around my only-child emotions. I felt like I was intruding, but geez, I just want to be there. I had to! And I’m not even sure what to say or do.

I asked if she needed any food or other items. No.

I asked if she needed anything done around the apartment. No.

I asked if she’d please reconsider getting text messages so we could communicate easier. No.

As she explained how her cancer insurance policy was for only after the fact, I started to ask if she needed prior approval for anything, but she cut me off, refusing to talk about it anymore. 

I knew I had to give her needed space. Genny and I left and said we’d meet her and my aunt at the oncologist’s office the next day. And I needed some stuff for the overnight stay as my bonus mom Diane opened her heart and home, and the space I needed to process the known and unknown.

And I stayed awake much of that night, sobbing while rocking in my dad’s favorite chair ….

Sunday, April 15, 2018

My mom thinks she should keep a secret

By Monica Vest Wheeler

My mom thinks she should keep a secret. 

However, I have a big mouth and feel the need to share.

Sorry, it’s the storyteller in me, and it’s just too big of a life story to ignore.   

So, she’ll just have to deal with it.

Can you see me thumbing my nose at her right now? Good.

The secret is not that she’s strong.

She’s always exhibited a deep sense of inner and outer strength and a self-sufficient attitude.

Now, that comes in handy when you’re trying to open a jar, take a test or finish a job. It can be vitally important when you need to show yourself that you’re stronger, smarter and braver than you would ever give yourself credit.

We can be strong, but sometimes we can break when we don’t give ourselves a break. I’ve worried about so many things that threatened to fracture her through the years.

The secret is not that she’s stubborn, which kinda ties in with strength.

I hereby declare that she’s the QUEEN of stubborn. Now, that can be good and bad. Sometimes we need to be just stubborn enough to force ourselves through ordinary and extraordinary hurdles and challenges.

If you’re living and breathing, you’re gonna and you gotta face obstacles in this world. It’s all about that learning curve that often resembles a figure eight … that I know she’s navigated so many times, and sometimes purely on instinct and fierce determination.

But it’s a royal pain to ME when you’re trying to convince her to let you help her in a variety of ways, whether it’s physically, emotionally or financially. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the times she’s said, “I can do it myself.” I never doubted she could, but it would have made many moments easier for ME if she had accepted my offers.

At least, that’s MY opinion ….

I’ve discovered much about stubbornness in my own desire to keep going despite an often crippling depression. Yes, stubbornness keeps me alive when I decided today wasn’t all that bad and tomorrow can be better, and more often than not, it does not disappoint.

And Mom has never made it a secret that tomorrow really is worth getting up for. As always, she’s right.

Geez. Mothers.

The secret is not that she’s often a loner and prefers to mimic Greta Garbo’s “I vant to be alone.” She’s lived by herself for the 36-plus years since she and Dad divorced. She values her space and privacy. I completely understand.

I likely inherited my introverted personality from her. I was an only child who really liked to be alone. In the solitude of my single digits and teens, I spent countless hours sucking ink pens dry by filling reams of traditional school-lined paper with all the stories that I obsessively had to write.

I don’t recall ever reaching the center of a Tootsie Pop sucker, but I reached the last drop of ink and said good-bye to many a trusty blue, black or red pen. That was long before purple ink made it to the mainstream office supply market place.

And that reminds me that it’s never been a secret that she’s always been somewhat frugal.

She has turned pennies into dimes and quarters into dollars. She cheaps out on the unimportant stuff but doesn’t on what she considers important. Her shelves are lined with off-brand essentials except the good stuff she treats herself to like facial creams, shampoos, laundry detergent and dish soap. It’s always been Dawn in her kitchen and Oil of Olay in her bathroom.

And she gave up a lot of personal stuff and luxuries to make sure I went to college. My parents paid my way so I would have not any student debt to start my life.

I paid attention because I went through college in three instead of four years to save them thousands of dollars. And that was back when private college was only about $4,000 annually.

The secret is not that she’s smart.

That woman was the first in her family to earn a high school diploma. If circumstances had been different, I’m positive she would have gone on to college and been some leader in the education, science or medical fields.

Why? Because she questions virtually everything. She has to know the how and why something works and what will happen if you do or don’t do this or that. I’m confident I got my reporter instinct from her, a trait that has opened the door to a world that often scared/scares me. I “hide” behind my pen and paper, keyboard or camera to infiltrate the “real” world where all the magic happens.

The secret is not that she’s made some mistakes.

Yes, we all make boo-boos along the way, some of which sparked some boo-hoos on difficult days. None of us are perfect, and hindsight — which can only be delivered in the aftermath — can reveal an unfiltered and illuminating view ….

And taught me to look in the mirror often to make sure I do my best to apologize and humble myself when I need to, and forgive and forget the world in hefty doses.

The secret is not that’s she has a sense of humor.

I got my desire to laugh from her. I got my often-quirky behavior from her. My son can vouch that I got the habit of singing to wake him up on many a school morning from his nutty Grandma-ma. Hey, it made me less grouchy when I was a kid, so why not experiment on my own?

And laughter saved many a day when tears might have been easier, though less productive. Laughter makes you think more than weepy eyes. And it burns far more calories.

What else is not a secret in my mom’s world? Hmm, that list can go on for quite some time, and I need more sleep ….

So, now, what is her secret that I’m spilling?

She’s waving the white flag to cancer … on her terms.

Geez. Mothers.

And I have to and choose to accept her decision.

Geez. Daughters.