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Breakfast used to be my favorite meal to eat out.
When nearly every day started with a quick bowl of cereal as I rushed the kids out the door to school, sitting at a table, ordering breakfast from a menu, and being served my meal on dishes I wouldn’t need to wash was the ultimate luxury.
And how much more special is it to sit across that breakfast table from someone whose company you love! Coffee in hand, refilled dependably by a vigilant waiter?
That is the delight I had in meeting my Mom for breakfast every week for the past twelve years.
I treasured our breakfasts together. And I know she did, too.
We had our list of favorite places where I would usually get pancakes and Mom would get a muffin. We’d both drink cup after cup of coffee and we’d talk about everything. We’d talk about the kids, of course, and her planned trips with Dad, we’d talk about church, and my latest project.
She was my mom, and also my best friend.
In the past few years, Dad starting coming along to breakfast as well. Sometimes I felt like the three of us could spend the whole day connecting over our cups of coffee (or orange juice in Dad’s case), if only the responsibilities weren’t nudging us to get back to reality.
One day, as we sat together in the booth in late June, 2019, we could tell something wasn’t right with Mom. Mom fumbled her words. She spoke in a clear voice, but couldn’t remember the names of everyday things. Flagging down her favorite server (named Clay, just like my oldest brother), she said, “I want… I want… that…black drink.”
Mom laughed at herself; and we chuckled along…awkwardly…afraid.
What’s going on with Mom?
Mom always had a refreshing vocabulary. She used unusual words – the charming ones that you find in literature, rather than the humdrum descriptions most of us have in our back pocket.
Except when she forgot the words for things altogether.
When I was a teenager, still living at home, I remember getting frustrated when Mom would say, “Kendra, would you give me the thing over there? The thing on top of the thing.” It always seemed like her mind was moving too fast for her vocabulary. She had more important things to think about than the words for things. (Did she have a tumor even back then?)
So, that morning over breakfast, Dad and I were baffled over Mom’s difficulty to remember the word for coffee and her unusual tiredness, yet we didn’t panic. In fact, I don’t know what we would have done if their friends hadn’t come by that night for dinner. They took a look at Mom and said, “Jim, you’ve got to take Bev to the hospital right now!” So he did.
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The Terrible Diagnosis
A month later Mom had brain surgery to remove a mass. That’s what they called it. It could have been anything. “A mass.” A mass of what?
A mass of what??
A week later we found out.
I believe there are two types of people in the world. There are the people who worry and wonder and make the immediate appointment with the doctor to get the answers. And then there are the people like me (and incidentally, like my mom) who would be quite content to never find out. Let me live in comfortable ignorance. Let me drink my coffee and have my breakfast dates with Mom.
Let it stay the same!
But everything changed the day they called us in to the Cancer Center at Memorial Hospital.
The appointment is at the Cancer Center? Is it cancer, then? We all wondered, and we knew that we knew.
A team of doctors took turns coming into the tiny room where we sat – Mom and Dad, my sister-in-law, and I. For several hours we heard from a neurologist, a radiologist, an oncologist, a nurse liaison, continually asking each other between visits, “What do they do again?”
Mom had gliosarcoma, a terminal brain cancer. Treatments were available but they wouldn’t hold off the cancer for long. She wouldn’t be cured. She would die from this.
Handling the Pain Our Way
I held a pen and pad of paper in my hand and I handled it. I took in the practical information they gave us, wrapped my head around it, and shut it up safe in my little notebook. I watched Mom to see how she was doing. (She was fine. Was she “handling it,” locking it up tight for later like I was?) I checked on Dad. His emotions were on his sleeve. Crying. Grieving.
After three hours, too many new doctors, and a flood of information about things I had no interest in learning about — “chemotherapy,” “standards of care,” “radiation therapy”– I gave Mom, Dad, and Kerry a hug, tried to look hopeful, texted an informational update to Steve, and drove home.
I crawled onto the couch and into a game on my phone and tried not to look up – for hours.
I answered Steve’s questions, but I wished he wouldn’t ask them. I may have made one of the kids a snack, but I stayed in my shell. I was afraid to feel, so I didn’t.
That lasted about a week.
Then I started writing a cookbook.
Steve was flummoxed by my behavior. Normally, if there’s one thing we do well, it’s communicating. But suddenly I was uncommunicative, clearly avoiding the elephant in the room.
I realize now that with a serious attack on our comfort systems – with major stress, trauma, the loss of a loved one, or a terrible diagnosis, we each have an initial coping response. This is the way we respond to try to manage our overwhelming emotions.
- Some people (like me) numb themselves, trying not to feel and building walls to stop others from making them feel. They get busy with internal activity to block the rest out. That may be video games, books, movies, or sleep. I call this Numbing.
- Others (also me) get into a frenzy of activity, still trying not to feel, and still building walls, but doing it through external activity. They may work extra hours, clean out a closet, or start a new project. I call this Frenzy.
- Still others respond by mulling over the problem, chewing on it like a tough piece of meat, hoping to soften it by worry. They internal rehearse their difficulty, over and over again, hoping to change the outcome. I call this Mulling.
- And finally others (like Steve) process their problem with others, needing to vent, needing to express their feelings and concerns out loud, hoping to release the stress of their difficulty by talking about it. They will likely find someone to talk with or cry with to try to feel better. I call this Venting.
As Steve and I sat in the pit, trying in vain to manage the overwhelming pain of knowing someone we love was dying, we weren’t “strong” or “spiritual.” We just let the feelings swirl around us, and looked for the light at the other end of the tunnel.
And that’s okay.
The doctors told us that Mom would not live long with gliosarcoma. They tried to squelch our optimistic expectations. They told us Mom would have 8-18 months left to live.
Mom smiled and said, “God is in control.” And he was.
To be continued…