Some time ago, maybe a year or so, my mother in law - a woman I admire and adore - was diagnosed with cancer. A long-time diabetic, she'd already struggled with health problems before this ugly creature reared its head. She began treatment, with the caveat that it was maintenance only, but over the summer things began to go downhill far faster. She developed an abscess on her abdomen that could not heal if she continued chemo, and on top of that her doctors revealed that chemo didn't seem to be helping anyway. It was decided that she would stop treatment, and quite suddenly a regimen that had appeared to be giving her what could have been years that she otherwise might not have had was failing her miserably. She was given days, maybe a couple of weeks, and discharged on that dismal note on hospice.
She, of course, wasn't really on board with that idea. My father in law, a legal grower in their home state, researched cannabis treatments and began to provide what he could for her where traditional medicine had given up. Sure enough, though it took far longer than it would have for a healthy person, the abscess began to improve. She slept a lot and didn't heal much, but those days she was given became weeks, which became months. A woman sent home to die in a wheelchair moved to a walker, then began getting out again - and it seemed that perhaps she wasn't about to let what was unarguably a terrible situation get her down.
Unfortunately over the holidays she became ill. Common things that would get any of us down for a few days were a disaster for her, and now there seems to be no question of the inevitable. We are merely trying to determine how long, now, instead of trying to determine what's next. There is no what's next. That question is obvious. And it's heartbreaking.
We were lucky enough over the summer to be able to go visit them. Our stay wasn't long enough - though, how long would have been long enough? - but it gave the boys a chance to see a place they'd never been before, to see the place that Daddy grew up, and to spend quality time with family that they had last seen when they were too young to form memories. We took pictures, saw sights, they went on a train and airplanes and went fishing for the first time. They got to experience so many things - but most of all, they got to spend time with Grandma. They understood the pretense, that we needed to be there because she was sick, but the urgency of the whole thing was understandably lost on them.
Now, I have to come to terms with the fact that those few days in August were likely the last time I will have ever seen her. That every other time my oldest two had seen them, they were too young to make memories - and the last time they got to see her, will have literally been the last time. I think we knew those things, but at the same time, she improved little by little, and we had hope. Hope that she was stronger, maybe, than what was ravaging her. Stronger than such a silly little word like "cancer", just five letters long. Maybe as long in letters as she is in feet tall.
But earlier this month my father in law sent the email, the one none of us wanted to get: she understood, he said. She got it. She realized she wasn't getting better, and there was no "see you next time".
I'm not sure how to process this. I've never lost a parent, and while we always assumed my mother would surely experience some kind of life threatening health crisis first, instead I'm trying to figure out how to guide my husband through losing his mother. She has, for half my life, been a force of comfort and strength, a small but powerful person that I knew I could call and talk to whenever I needed to vent, or needed a willing ear that would listen to me. And she did, every time, without fail. Now, I have to try to figure out how to help him, and help the kids, understand - why Daddy is so sad, why Mommy is frustrated, why Daddy will (hopefully) be leaving in a week or two to go see them on his own, without the rest of us.
Because I want him to get to say goodbye.
I feel like I didn't get to. I know that the boys didn't, and I have a lot of guilt about that. But I don't think any of us wanted that summer trip to be a goodbye. We all hoped it wasn't. For them it was a unique vacation, a new experience, a fun trip. Thinking of it as a goodbye would have ruined so much of their view of the whole thing, would have filled them with confusion and dread instead of excitement and wonder. I wish she'd felt better, so we could have gone and done more things with her, but at the same time, I don't hold it against her.
I think, as hopeful as we all were, we knew the demon she was fighting was strong. Too strong.
So over the next few days we're going to be watching with bated breath for our tax return to come in, will be writing letters to Grandma and making videos for her. We'll be doing everything we can to "be there" as much as we can be - because at least four of us will have to stay here, and there's a chance that Hubby won't be able to make it up before something happens either. We're going to need to talk to the kids, to each other, and to who knows who else. We'll need to hope that he can get there in time, hope that the boys never forget her like I've forgotten my grandparents. We're going to regret being so far away, regret seeing them so infrequently, regret having so few pictures - and we're going to have to try to find ways to make up for that regret. To come to terms with it, accept it, and move on. We're going to have to accept how this may or may not affect my father in law, how he may react, what this might do to him emotionally. I have to learn very quickly how to help support and guide my husband through grief and all its stages, however long each may take, and how to come to terms with those stages myself. I need to figure out how to help our kids through these.
Most of all, I have to hope his mom doesn't forget that I absolutely adore her, and that I'm going to miss her like crazy.