Together, Parents Taught a Lasting Lesson in Love and Hope
It doesn't sound like a long time.
In truth, from this perspective - written hours after we gathered 'round Mom's grave in Cedar Grove - it doesn't feel like a very long time, either.
Still, if you had told me back on Feb. 20, 2003- that bitter, frightening day on which we first received word that Mom had pancreatic cancer - that we'd have 22 months with her, I'd have gladly seized it.
As she gathered us all in her living room that day to reveal her doctor's diagnosis, we knew from her face that it was bad. Worry creased her face, a great anxiety not about her own fate, but about how my father and my sister and my wife and I would cope with her death sentence. And that's what it was in those first hours. The doctor who broke the news pulled no punches: she would not survive this illness, it would likely be a quick progression and "there was nothing that they could do."
My wife and I shuttered all the more that night, knowing what we alone knew. Just a week before, our own test came back positive: We were to have a child - her first grandchild - later that year. We were only six weeks or so along and convention held that it was premature to share the news just yet. That night, as we huddled together, the five of us cried a little and laughed a little, too. We were in shock and, selfishly, we all indulged in some self-pity.
Then the morning came and with it news that helped to put things in perspective: as we lay in restless sleep, 100 people perished in a fast-moving nightclub fire in Rhode Island. The body count kept climbing as the morning hours clicked by and the haunting images from inside the Station replayed over and over again on our TV. It was so horrible and so sudden. It took but seconds to turn a roomful of vibrant, happy beings to dust. For them and their families, there was no time for goodbyes.
For us, those first hours of confusion and despair were quickly replaced by the warmth of friends and family who raced to our side: the notes of devotion, the calls of sympathy, visits that focused on prayer and faith. The most important of these came from a close friend who immediately connected Mom with a pair of Mass General doctors who came to be great friends to us all. They gave her the tools to fight her disease and, against the odds, she used them well, soldiering on valiantly for nearly two years.
A few days later, my wife, Linda, and I gave her something else to use in her arsenal. Around our dinner table, with both sides of the family drawn near, we revealed our joyous news. For all of us, the promise of a new life balanced out the fear and the anger. Mom was determined to make it to the end of the year and put her new friends at Mass General on notice: They were to keep her around long enough, at least, to see her grandchild.
Little did we know that she would not only hold our son, John Patrick, but come to know the many joys of being a grandparent: spoiling him with gifts, bathing him in the sink, changing his diapers on her bed, holding his hand on a trip to an animal farm, splashing with him in the waters of Cape Cod Bay. She marveled at his every move. We all marveled at her resilience, her fight, the biting wit that never left her, even as all else failed in the final days.
Through the whole journey, my father kept a weekly e-mail diary, chronicling the chemo treatments, the dreaded CT-scans, the end-of-life falls. They are a loving record of a couple, a family who refused to let despair linger.
The first entry, shared with family and friends that first week, was typical of the many more that followed.
"The great initial trauma of hearing the news of cancer has been tempered greatly by our sense that we can indeed do something to control events. Things move so rapidly. But we resisted the early temptation to despair and give in to negativity, and our motivation now is to deal with this news, and to take measures day by day.
"I remember an old religious painting... that proclaimed, 'Where there's life, there's hope.' We know there's plenty of life left, and we have great hope that Mary will deal with this disease."
Deal with it they did, together, and with great dignity and devotion and courage and love. For us, her children and grandchildren, it was a fine lesson, not in how to die, but in how to live.