Monday, September 14, 2020

An update on life (and death)

Well, shit, it has certainly been a long time since I posted to this blog. January specifically. Barely anything from 2020 at all. Honestly, for most people who have been conscious for 2020 that's probably not a surprise. I see that my last post was about the Authors For Fireys fundraiser, back when Australia was literally burning. Fast forward to September of 2020 when the entire world is figuratively burning as large parts of it also burn in a literal fashion. Again.

Good times. Good times. (<--- SARCASM ALERT)

So, yeah. I won't pretend that my 2020 has been worse than everyone else's, because I know for a fact that loads of people have been having a worse year than I have. However, my 2020 has not been a barrel of laughs either. There are so many things happening everywhere that it feels weird to list off all of the ways in which 2020 has sucked. Obviously the global pandemic has been a big deal. For me, so far (and I don't want to tempt fate by trying to suggest it couldn't be topped) the low point has been losing both of my parents on the same day back in early June.

If you follow any of my social media (FB, Twitter, my newsletter, etc.) you are probably already aware of this, but I realize that a few people only keep in touch with me via this blog, and those few people probably have no idea why they haven't heard from me in over six months.

So, if that's you, settle in I guess, as I explain why the past year has been a struggle.

Back in August my mom was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in her life. She had first been diagnosed with a form of ovarian cancer back in 2005 or 2006 and she went through a full hysterectomy and six rounds of chemo to treat it at that point. The last round of chemo almost killed her, and she had to have a couple of blood transfusions to pull her through, but she made it, and that cancer was in remission for well over ten years. (Around the ten year mark they stopped bringing her in for regular checks on remission, so we're not sure exactly when the cancer returned, but nobody caught it until August of 2019.) At that point, she had been unwell for at least six months, possibly longer, but in July of 2019 her right lung collapsed and that really got her (and her doctor's) attention. Many tests were run, and finally it was clear that it was cancer, and eventually they were clear that it was her ovarian cancer back again but metastasized to her lungs. Needless to say, that diagnosis doesn't come with a great prognosis. You'd never know that talking to my mom though. She insisted that everything was fine, that she would beat it, and that chemo had gotten way better than since her first run through. She expected to make a full recovery. 

A part of my brain realized this was unlikely, I had conversations to that effect with my husband and a couple of close friends, but my mom was insistent that she would get better and it was clear that was the story she needed/wanted to embrace so I joined her there. Naysaying wasn't going to help anything, so I bought into her narrative full on because positive thinking at least had some chance of helping her, and I would do anything to help. 

It was a rough road. The first few rounds of chemo seemed ok. At least from afar. I kept checking in with her via phone after a few visits when she first got sick in July and August, but didn't get a chance to visit in person again until December. But before that point the chemo seemed to be killing her again and they had to suspend treatment. Her blood just couldn't keep up. Then, the week before we were all due to visit for a big family get together she fell and broke her hip. And didn't tell any of us about it because she didn't want us to worry, but finally had to admit it because we were all about to arrive (to stay in a rental nearby thankfully) and she was still in the hospital. 

She was making progress with physical therapy, and she was doing better than I had expected once I heard what happened, but she was still having a rough time of it. I mean, come on, her body was trying to recover from chemo AND a broken hip at the same time. No small feat at any time but extra hard when you're in your mid seventies and it's your second battle with cancer. 

We still managed to have a lovely visit and with all the kids and grandkids surrounding her for brief visits after she was discharged we made some truly lovely memories despite everything. It was difficult to balance getting everyone to see her and not overwhelming her while we were there, but I think we managed it well enough. Thank Gwen we had a rental nearby and weren't all piled into her home. 

Later, in January, I went to stay with her for ten days, just by myself to visit, help out wherever I could, and to see with my own eyes how she was doing. When I first got there I was convinced it was the last time I would see her; she was so weak she could barely sit up for long, let alone stand or use her walker, she was out of breath just sitting up, and her skin was all the wrong colors. But as the visit progressed she started getting stronger and stronger. Her color got better, she was able to stand up with help and use her walker with a spotter, and by the time I left she marched herself to the car (with her walker) sat herself down and rode with us to the airport to send me off. By then I was convinced she would make it. She had made so much progress in such a short period of time.

Every time I called her after that she sounded so much healthier. She could talk without sounding out of breath, she told me about how she was using the walker to take short walks outside and using the wheelchair less and less. I started to figure out when I should go back down. Mom said I should come right away, but I had work to do, and Cedar missed me, so I figured I would wait a month or so. I had been there in very late January, we had travel plans for late February/March but I figured I would visit at the end of March.

Then, right after we got back from our early March trip, the world started to take covid seriously and traveling to the US from Canada became risky and against government advice, and then became a literal impossibility as the border shut down. We stayed in touch via phone, trying to make plans to visit in the fall when we (naively) thought that I might be able to travel again.

In March and April mom seemed like she was getting better still, but in May she caught a cold that turned into bronchitis, that turned into pneumonia. She was given antibiotics but they didn't do enough. By mid May her lungs were in an awful state and she was hospitalized once and then discharged with more antibiotics after a short stay. Then she was admitted again ten days later.

She was admitted via the ER, then transferred to the ICU. She never made it out. 

So, weirdly, my first impression back in January that it would be the last time I saw her was right. It was the last time I saw her in person.

Covid of course, made all of this infinitely worse than it would have been otherwise. I was not able to go see my mother while she was in the hospital. I was not able to hold her hand while she breathed her last. Thankfully, my siblings were able to be there, and they brought me with them on video, but it wasn't the same.

And to top things off, we lost my dad on the same day in a completely unrelated event. They had been divorced for 21 years, so there isn't even a pretense of "romance."

My dad had been suffering from dementia (his initial assessment by a specialist was Alzheimer's but we didn't ask for an autopsy or anything, so who knows) for years. For the past three or four years he had been living in a home because he was no longer able to care for himself and, due to occasional violent outbursts was not in a state where he could easily have lived with any of us (his children). We had been expecting things to get bad eventually, but we hadn't really expected them this year.

But he suffered a steep decline in May and eventually was placed in hospice care. My siblings and I were actually constantly having zoom meetings at that point to keep up to date with how he was doing before my Mom went to the hospital the first time, and then the zoom calls shifted to being about both of them. Then they both passed away on June 3rd about 7 hours apart.

In many ways we are lucky. We are lucky that we got to say goodbye to them, even if, in my case, it was only over the phone/via zoom. We are lucky that they were able to have in person visitors at all (in a very limited fashion in both cases, but at least my siblings were all able to let them know that they were loved). We are lucky that the most of our immediate family is ok (although we've lost other family members as well). And we're lucky that we still have our homes, and our livelihoods and each other, and supportive and loving communities. We really are so lucky.

But it still sucks. Both of those things can be true. We are lucky, and it sucks. It sucks that my parents are dead at all. It sucks that I couldn't be there in person to say goodbye to them. It sucks that I can't go be with my siblings through a stupidly sad and difficult period of our lives. It sucks that, since my siblings refuse to do any kind of memorial services without me (for which I am incredibly grateful) it may be more than a year after their deaths that we finally hold ceremonies for my parents. It sucks that, because we were still in lockdown when my parents passed away, even the people who showed up to support me, delivering food, books, wine, and other lovely distractions, were mostly unable to hug me and let me cry on their shoulders as they might normally have done (many of my friends offered to eschew this particular restriction, but I was reluctant to let them).  So many things about this suck.

And yet it's hard not to think about how much worse things could be. It's hard not to feel grateful about all the other ways in which we're lucky. It's hard not to look at my daughter, hug her tight, and be so grateful that for now we're all still healthy, happy, and here. 

So, I'm afraid I don't have any particularly strong message to send to anyone except to love the folks you love while you can, because no matter how long you have with them it will never seem like enough. Don't waste your days not loving the people who matter because one day it will be too late and you will always wish you had more. My mom was in her 70s, my dad was in his 80s. They both led lives full of adventure, travel, stories and love. I still wish there had been more. My daughter isn't four yet, and she spent time with both my parents and remembers them for now, but it's entirely possible her memories of them will fade away, and that makes me incredibly sad. I wish she had gotten more time with them. I wish they could live on in her memory as they will live in mine. I will have to do my best to make sure that they live on in stories and in her imagination, even if they can't quite remain in her memory.

Before the year is out I may write eulogies here to them both. If I can wrap my heart around the words enough to make them worth reading.

So, that's where I've been for the past few months. Doing my best to keep on keeping on in a world without my parents in it. Most days are fine. Some days are sad. Some days are full of anger. I'm doing my best to let those emotions roll through as they need to, and then keep on going the rest of the time. So far I'm mostly ok. I hope, if you're reading this, that you're ok too. Or at least as ok as people can be in a world like today's.