What it’s like to care for a parent dying of cancer

My mother passed away in January 2016 after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer seven months earlier. Looking back, there were earlier signs, but they were explained away with “aging” for over a year. I’m not mad at the doctors. I’m angry at the cancer.

At the time of her diagnosis, I lived in Northern California and my mother lived in New Mexico, where I was born and raised. I had seen her a little over a year ago and she was happy as usual. Now I can’t believe I didn’t realize something was wrong. I blame living so far away.

When Mom called and told me about the cancer, she casually mentioned the upcoming chemotherapy and that her cancer was already in stage four. She lived alone. I couldn’t sit here in sunny California while she drove herself to the treatments. I couldn’t imagine leaving her alone with something so difficult. I told her I was on my way.

My husband and I had a small press company. He took care of the finances and IT; I’ve done the rest. But he agreed that I should take care of mom. We both agreed that with his own full-time job, he couldn’t run the entire company on his own. I cried when I decided to sell the company.

I loved working with writers and artists. That was a dream job for me. I am still deeply saddened when I think about it. But once I finished crying, I focused on taking care of my mother. With a deep breath, I boarded a plane to New Mexico and moved into her guest room.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I denied how hard it would be. I imagined walking her to her appointments, picking up her medication, cooking dinner for us, and staying by her side. That’s what happens in the movies, isn’t it? There is a struggle, the nurse helps with the little things, and then the patient beats the cancer. Instead, it nearly destroyed me.

The reality of nursing is one of those issues that society doesn’t talk about. It’s too closely related to death and people don’t want to discuss it either. It’s physically and emotionally chaotic. It ruins your relationships and your health. Everyone is expected to be strong and persevere without complaining.

Even when the doctors called and said the chemotherapy wasn’t working and they couldn’t help her anymore, Mom refused. We argued about her going shopping with friends when she shouldn’t go out due to the risk of pneumonia. We got into a fight when she went to drive her van after her reflexes began to fail. At one point she threw her phone at me.

I was exhausted from driving by to see if the restaurants were empty because she told us to go out, despite doctors’ insistence on avoiding crowds. At the restaurant, she ordered three main courses and four drinks. I told the waitresses to just bring it. It was wasteful and expensive, but it was about giving mom those little moments of happiness.

Hospice work involved dying, so Mom wanted nothing to do with it. When it came time to call her, I went into the back yard and cried. I wish I had called earlier. They took care of me just like mom did. While they were with her, I didn’t have to feel bad for taking a bath or sleeping an hour. I wasn’t prepared for what a luxury that was going to be. In trying to be a pillar of strength, I made it harder for both of us.

She slipped and fell when we were trying to get her into the bath. I did my best to catch her, but she still hit her head on the counter and needed stitches. That was a trip to the emergency room. Sometimes she asked to go to the hospital because she felt dizzy, sometimes she felt nauseous. Most of the time she was just dehydrated but I couldn’t say no. There were painful arguments with the ER staff trying to get me to understand that she could catch pneumonia and die there. How do you explain that to a woman who is dying anyway?

One of her “friends” convinced her that the sleeping pills would make her sleepwalk, so she repeatedly threw them away. I had to lie to her about what they were so she could get a few hours sleep. I stopped taking my own sleeping pills for fear she might need something at night. I also bought baby monitors so I could hear them. I barely slept.

At 2am on a cold November evening I went to check on her but she was nowhere in the house. I panicked. After searching the house, I went outside and eventually found her wandering around an empty lot. She was barefoot and wearing only her pajamas. She fought with me just because I put socks on her. She yelled at me to get out. I stayed. Where was this newfound closeness that we should experience?

As hard as it was for me, I know it was a lot worse for her.

At Christmas time, she drooled into the cookie dough while trying to make presents for her friends. My brother threw them away instead of delivering them and Mom never knew. Toward the end, she became a very young, precocious child in her mind and behavior. My brother called it “chemo brain”. Maybe that was a blessing, because she found joy in the little things everywhere. Just before Christmas we went for a ride in the hay wagon and she sang to the snowmen. It was adorable. It broke my heart.

On Christmas Eve I called the hospice and a hospital bed was set up in the living room. After getting strep disease, I found that the stress of taking care of someone can impair the immune system. That was years before COVID but I wore the N95 so I could eat her soup and change her sheets. At this point we were snowed in and the hospice staff could not get in. It was lonely even though we were together. She stopped speaking or moving. I sat next to her and watched her chest to make sure it kept rising and falling.

The week before she died, I slept on a gurney next to her bed. I play all the movies I can remember and their favorite music. At one point I looked over at her, unable to move, and saw a tear roll down her cheek. I whispered, “It’s okay mom. Don’t cry.” I knew I was a fucking liar. It wasn’t okay. She had every right to cry.

My brother was there when she died one January morning. One speaks of a death rattle. I want you to know it’s a real thing. It came loud and panting, jerking her upper body. Then she fell silent and was gone. The hospice nurse had previously told us that she would hear us for about five minutes after she died, so we spoke to her about how much we loved her.

Today people tell me how amazing I am when I take care of my mother. It wasn’t great. Every time I talk to my aunt on the phone, she tells me I’ve been a blessing. I know what she means, but I still think it was a curse to watch Mom slack off without being able to do anything to heal her. I couldn’t do anything better for anyone. I just have to decide which of the three people to whom she promised her antique divan will ultimately be allowed to take it home.

The author inherited her mother's dog, Tiffie.
The author inherited her mother’s dog, Tiffie.

Photo courtesy of Kim Richards

As awful as it was, I would do it again. It’s awful to think of someone having to endure what Mom did on their own. Still, I made a lot of mistakes. I hope mom has forgiven me.

The experience changed me on many levels. That first summer after her death, I watered the garden with tears directly from the garden hose. Even now I forget and pick up the phone to call her. I got a tattoo in her memory on the first anniversary of her death. It is a sunflower with birds flying in the sky from the petals. On the stem are the words “You are my sunshine,” a song she has sung many times over the past few months.

Sometimes the sadness weighs on my shoulders and I seek comfort under my covers. I doubt it will ever go away. Maybe I don’t want it.

There are good things too. I brought home mom’s 10 year old terrier, Tiffies – she is 17 now. Although she is a constant reminder of my loss, the little ball of fur stole my heart. She takes me for walks and when the sun goes down we hang out together on the back deck.

I don’t want applause and I don’t need a trophy. I’ve done what families should do for each other. And while I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone, it’s an experience shared by many, and it’s an important part of life. I went into it not knowing what nurturing entails and how much of myself I would have to give up. But maybe it’s just giving someone a part of you Is finally a kind of blessing.

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