After my dad passed away in 1998 my mom continued to live in their home in Florida. In early 2004, I finally convinced her to sell the house and move to Colorado. The house sold quickly, no surprise to me, it was a gorgeous home on a corner lot, and within six weeks of making her decision she had relocated to Colorado. My mom found a great place in Longmont, an apartment building that catered to people 55 and over but was not a traditional senior citizen complex. The building was owned by a wealthy couple who bought it specifically to provide housing for their aging parents. When you walked in you would never guess that it was a “seniors” residence. It made me realize how we, including myself, pigeon-hole people into certain stereotypes and project certain images into that. I was expecting doilies, smells, tacky decorations. But it was just a beautiful well-kept building. What a concept! It had a small movie theatre on the main floor as well as a party kitchen. The owners planned a few outings every month and they transported those that wanted to attend the events in a limousine. My mother was in heaven.
We had some great times when she was here – going out to dinner, seeing plays, being tourists in our own state. We even did sleep overs. Quite often on a Friday after work I would drive out to her apartment and we’d go out to dinner. I would stay over night and take her grocery shopping the next day. My mom had macular degeneration and once she got here to Colorado it appeared to worsen rather quickly. After she was here for about a year it got so bad that she couldn’t drive anymore. She often told me that although leaving Florida was one of the hardest things she ever did, she was so grateful that she was near me and that she had the support she needed to deal with her failing eye sight. It was great for me to have her here. All of my adult life we lived thousands of miles apart – she in Florida, me in Chicago, Dayton and Boulder. We would see each other over the holidays and maybe one other time during the year. It gave me the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with her and get to know here all over again. I will always be grateful for that.
Right before the holidays in 2005 things started to happen. My mother was very health conscious (although she continued to smoke cigarettes and had all her life) and in her later years and worked hard at eating properly and working out. When she lived in Florida she went to the gym three times a week, walked at least two miles on the track and worked out on some of the machines. The apartment building she lived in in Longmont had a fitness room on the third floor just down the hall from her apartment and she kept up that regimen when she moved to Colorado. One day when we were talking on the phone she told me that she must have worked out a little too hard on one of the machines because she was experiencing a slight pain in her back. I thought nothing off it but would come to realize a few months later that it signified the onset of her lung cancer. She dismissed the slight pain as well and told me she would be more careful when exercising.
The next sign came when we went Christmas shopping. We were at the Colorado Mills Mall and at one point she asked if she could sit down for a moment. That puzzled me because my mother never asked to do that before when we were shopping. But she was still a cigarette smoker and sometimes the altitude would get to her. I just dismissed it as that and let her sit while I went into a couple of stores. Once she had rested she was fine for the rest of the day.
After the first of the year a friend of my mom’s in the apartment building called me and said she was worried about her. She was a former nurse and she told me she knew something was wrong but did not know what. When I called my mom she dismissed it – she said she was just tired but she was fine. I found out later she did not want to worry me but at that point she did not even have the strength to walk down to hall to drop off her garbage.
It all came crashing down one evening. My mom called me and admitted she was not feeling well. She kept saying she felt like she had something in her chest and it felt like all she needed to do was have a good belch and it would be ok. I took her to urgent care where they took an x-ray of her chest and gave her something that seemed to subside the strange feeling she had in her chest. She was feeling better and I took her back home. I found out the next day that urgent care called her to tell her that she had pneumonia and that she should see a doctor right away. My mom told them that she had a doctor’s appointment the following week and she would wait till then. I’m not sure why my mom thought that pneumonia was trivial but she did. And of course it is not and two days after that she called me to tell me she could hardly breathe. I called her doctor and begged her to see us, and fortunately she did. The doctor listened to my mom’s breathing and immediately said that she was going to admit her to the hospital. My mom kept saying “can’t you give me something for this and I will take it at home?” to which both the doctor and I both said no. Once she was hospitalized it was determined that it was much more than pneumonia, it was congestive heart failure. She needed to be on oxygen and blood thinners as well as a wide variety of other medications. We also got a nurse to visit her three times a week to monitor her progress and assist with some basic needs around the house. She appeared to be responding to treatment.
And then it happened… I was driving to work and I called her. I called her every day on the way to work. She was in pain, in tears, and hysterical. She said if she had to live with this kind of pain that she wanted to die. I had never heard my mom say that. I immediately called 911 and had her taken to the hospital. When I walked in to the emergency room she was lying on a bed looking frail and helpless. They had taken an an x-ray and noticed a compression fracture of the spine but could not see what caused it. They ordered a scan the next day, Friday.
I will never forget that Friday. At my mom’s request I had gotten a facial that morning. It had been a very stressful time for me trying to manage my mother’s care and a full time job. My husband was hospitalized at the exact same time and my head was in the clouds most of the time trying to juggle everything. The facial seemed to help and I was more relaxed than I had been for quite some time. I got home and decided to call my mom to see if she had gotten the results of the scan. I called her and she said matter-of-factly to me, “They told me I have lung cancer, but I won’t accept that.”
I rushed to the hospital and was fortunate enough to arrive just as her pulmonary doctor was visiting her. It was her primary care physician that had initially given her the news. My mom was not too fond of her primary care physician in the first place so it was easy for her to dismiss the diagnosis she provided. But she did like her pulmonary doctor and when he delivered the same news, she fought it first but started to realize that this was serious. I walked out into the hall with him and asked him how long she had. He stammered for a minute. I told him I was not going to sue him if he was wrong but that I needed to have some idea of what I was up against. He told me she had between three and six months. She lived for five.