“Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. “ Elisabeth Kubler Ross
March 21, 2007
Could I please sit down, I said as my head started to spin and the heat rushed through my body. I sat in the chair in the emergency room, and put my head between my knees. I was listening to the Doctor tell me that my Mother was in a very bad way. She is most definitely the ‘Queen of Denial’, he said. She will be requiring an emergency radical mastectomy that is, if we can stabilize her enough to perform the operation. She has an external tumor on her breast that has been hemorrhaging for days. She had lost so much blood that they were performing multiple blood transfusions, just to try to stabilize her. Cancer is what he was saying, and this was ringing through my ears. This was the day that my world came to a screeching halt.
When I sat up, he had a container of juice for me to drink. I swallowed it down, trying to absorb what was happening. The heat in my body started to dissipate and I could at least see. I looked at my husband; he looked as though he had been hit by a truck. The stress on his face was heartbreaking. He grabbed me and hugged me tight, and then we both burst into tears. We went to see Mom. She was so white, and frightened looking. I had never seen her look so ill. I kissed her and told her I loved her. She told me she was so sorry.” I am so sorry to put you through this”, she said.” I am such a stupid, stupid woman”, she sobbed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I said, “Mom stop, there is nothing to be sorry about; Just rest please, we will talk later”. She drifted off, and I sat down trying to gather my thoughts together.
What could she have been thinking? I wondered. She had told the doctor that she had just noticed the tumor a couple of weeks ago. He told me that it had to have been there at least a year, by his estimation. Had she just thought that if she ignored it and prayed hard enough it would go away? It would appear so. It must have been complete and total fear that kept her from acknowledging it. The tests had revealed that it was in fact Stage 4 as it had metastasized to the bone in four places. This was now considered bone cancer, and was a terminal situation.
We got through all of this, and then once the situation stabilized we moved to six month checkups. I accompanied Mom to every Doctor, Oncology or Emergency room visit for the remainder of her time here. The scene was always the same, the Nurse or Doctor would ask a series of questions. Do you have any health concerns, Mom’s answer would be “No”. I would say, she has Stage 4 Breast cancer metastasized to the Bone, Type 2 Diabetes, and High Blood Pressure. Mom would look at me and say “Oh Phooey” and the nurse or Doctor would look at the two of us, as though they desperately wanted to ask questions about her cognitive abilities. I would want to laugh out loud, at the insanity of it all.
The first time this happened, I said to Mom, “you do realize you have bone cancer and diabetes don’t you?” She smiled at me, and with twinkling eyes said, “Yes dear I sure do”. I knew then that we were tag teaming this, she needed for me to deal with the reality but she was going to choose another path. She needed to remain hopeful and have faith.
And with every medical visit, we would repeat the same insane scene.
When friends would ask about her health, she would say that she had cancer but she beat it. I would look at her and shake my head, and she would smile that smile of hers that meant I will have my reality, you have yours.
I thought about her life, losing her first husband just years into their marriage and her left with two young children. Then remarrying and that relationship also not working out after only a few years. She was raising four young children in the 1960s alone, and doing it to the best of her ability. And no matter what the situation, she would always be able to put a smile on her face and share that joy with others. Perhaps her ability to submerge reality once in a while was her way of coping with the things that life would throw her way.
It made me think about my own ability to shelve reality, even just for a few moments and found it to be lacking. Reality was always staring me in the face, and sometimes stealing my joy. I didn’t seem to have her ability to deny to myself what I considered to be reality, even just for a little while.
This mode of operation continued for her, and carried her well for eight years with a very serious terminal illness. You would never know this to look at her, until the last year. In the end, the doctor called me at home and told me it would be best to move to hospice. I rushed up to the hospital, and knew that they had also spoken to Mom. She looked at me with resignation, and said “they told me that I have bone cancer dear”.
And I looked into those eyes I knew so well, and could see that she was tired and ready to embrace a new reality. I always knew this moment would come, but It was heartbreaking all the same. “Yes Mom, I know”, I said with tears building in my eyes.
With grace, I watched as she moved to hospice and became calmer than I had seen in the last year. She was at peace with her decision, and I understood that she was in charge all along. She passed away a week later. She was 91, had an amazing life and she had been in charge of what she let in, every step of the way.
With Love and Light