Note: I've posted a version of this the past couple years, so some of you may have read it, but this time of year will always remind me of what I'm truly thankful for and the sentiments I originally wrote two years ago on her first anniversary are just as heartfelt and relevant today. I've tweaked the time references so they are accurate for the current year, but otherwise it stands as previously written.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Fall has always been my favorite season of the year, the colors, coolness in the air, what's not to love? It was Dad's fave as well, which made it especially difficult when he passed away unexpectedly at 61 in late October 2003. Every Thanksgiving since then has been bittersweet with happy reminiscences comingled with the memories of the raw shock of that first holiday season without him.
Three years ago, my remaining parent was literally fighting for her life. She had been diagnosed with leukemia in May 2008, fought a losing battle with chemotherapy over the summer, and nothing was helping to stem the advance of the cancer in her blood and bone marrow. With the classification that she fell into, her prognosis at the time of diagnosis was less than a year.
Then a miracle happened...her doctor was able to convince the insurance company to approve a bone marrow transplant despite her age (63) being beyond their normal range. That was followed closely by a second miracle...she didn't have to wait for a donor match. Her brother, who lived 4 miles away from her and was still in good health at 65, tested to be a perfect match for donation. Sibling donations have the highest success rate, and we crossed our fingers that Mom could hold out long enough to stabilize for and undergo the god-awful pre-procedure chemo and radiation.
So on November 25th, 2008, she was given the transplant, and we waited while her body fought both the cancer and the 'invading' new bone marrow cells. That Thanksgiving was filled with worry and hope.
As December began, she started slipping away. Her counts were proceeding 'normally', but she was becoming delirious and eventually unresponsive. An unexpected allergic reaction to her anti-rejection medication sent her into a coma due to fluid buildup in the brain called PRES syndrome. Nearly 2000 miles away, I could only wait for news. She was moved to intensive care and the second week of December I received a call needing permission to place her on a ventilator as a respiratory infection set in.
At that point I could wait no longer and scheduled my flight to South Dakota. I hadn't seen her since August, and barely recognized her; her hair was gone, she was 30 pounds lighter, and all the medical support equipment... I walked into her empty house alone that night and it was the strangest sensation, as if she were already gone.
I sat by her bed for nearly a week with no response. I'd had the irrational thought that once there, she'd hear my voice and open her eyes, but that only happens in fiction I suppose. I lotioned her feet, tried to keep her bloody tears from drying on, and tried to talk. It was hard to know what to say, again where the movies and fiction have it wrong. Her hand was warm but dead in mine. During this time, her only movements were occasional gagging motions, and I asked, begged, pleaded, and finally demanded they remove the breathing tube. Their response was that she'd met every protocol except one; she had to be responsive before removal.
I was stymied by ICU staff and resp therapists at every turn until one day I finally spoke to the Pulminologist on the phone and reminded him that she's been unresponsive for days before insertion. After securing my permission to reinsert if she went south, he approved the removal, much to the dismay of the resp therapist who'd smugly handed me the phone in the first place, sure that the doc would support her instead of me.
She and the ICU nurse went through the shut-down and pulling of the tube. It was awful watching my mom's body fighting and gagging. But it was finally out.
Then her eyes opened...
After weeks in a coma, when that tube came out, she just...woke up. The nurse asked if she knew who I was, and she said in a raspy, but clearly disgusted whisper, "Of course! That's my daughter." Oh, that's my mama. Give 'em hell, Mom.
While she'd been laying there, her body had been accepting the transplant. They moved her back up to oncology the next morning (that was a jolt, coming into her ICU bay and having it be empty!). I flew home the day after, on Christmas Eve, to be with my girls for the holiday. And only two weeks later, she went home. Her mom, my grandma, who was nearly 90, moved out to the farm to spend the rest of the SD winter with her and take care of her 'little girl' during her recovery.
Tomorrow is the three year anniversary of her transplant, and she is 100% donor cells and cancer-free. She's flown out to Oregon a few times now for visits, something I never thought would happen again. She is living alone, still driving and doing for herself. Moreover, she's still herself--still Mom, still Mimi to my two girls and my brother's little boy--something that I'd almost given up hope on during my vigil that winter.
Back 'round to Thanksgiving again, I am so thankful that my small family is not one person less this year. We had every reason to expect that she could have been gone by now, but a few miracles later and I have something very real and concrete to be thankful for this year and every year...my mom's future.
Robert Joffrey (December 24, 1930 – March 25, 1988)
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