Live Every Day As if It Were Your Last

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If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t blogged lately, there’s a reason. It’s a reason I wish I would never have to use. But it’s also an honor and a privilege.

It started when my mother decided to take some time off.

She’s 67 and retired now, but she still works for the school board as a secretary. Sometimes, she takes on part-time jobs and side projects during the evenings and weekends. And this, while helping my diabetic sister and raising two grandchildren.

Since my wife Sylvie owns Workaholics4Hire, some say I married my mother. Live Every Day As if It Were Your Last news  surgeon palliative mother love liver life illness hope health grief chemotherapy caretaker cancer

My mother is a fiercely loyal woman. Stubborn, strong, and selfless.

If any organization would ask her for help, she’d accept the job at the drop of a hat. My mother is one of the most caring and compassionate people I have ever met. Even to her own detriment, as you will soon learn why.

Nevertheless, my mother planned on staying with us for a week during her time off.

Back in 2008 when she went through breast cancer, she stayed with us while Sylvie, having gone through breast cancer herself, provided a powerful support mechanism. Plus, we spoiled her back then, so it’s no wonder our place was her idea of a vacation.

When I went to pick her up back in early July, I noticed how gaunt she looked. She confided in me that she hasn’t been feeling well lately. But she decided to chalk it up to exhaustion and stress.

I was worried. But I know my mom. And I know that making a fuss may prove to be counterproductive. She’s obstinate and proud. So fighting with her would only cause her to stop complaining for fear she would upset or bother those around her.

(This couldn’t be more evident than when she later confessed she had tolerated these pains and bouts of exhaustion since February!)

The next day or so, she was sleeping a lot. I know my mom, and I know she never sleeps that much. When my daughter Megan came to our office to tell us that “Nanny Louise” was vomitting several times in the bathroom, alarm bells went off.

We tried desperately to convince her to let us take her to a hospital. But all my mom wanted was to go back to sleep. That’s when Sylvie contacted a public service called Telehealth Ontario, which offers an on-call registered nurse.

The nurse told us we needed to get her to the hospital. It was serious. Dehydration, particularly during a major heatwave, is not something one takes lightly. But my mom stubbornly refused, pleading to simply let her go back to sleep.

That’s when Sylvie had the brilliant idea to hand her the phone to speak with the nurse, who tried to convince her to desperately seek medical attention.

Eventually, Sylvie’s constant prodding got her to reluctantly agree.

So we drove to the nearest hospital and, once they saw her, even though the waiting room was full, they took her in immediately to rehydrate her intravenously. It was that serious. We almost lost her then.

Little did we know that’s when a roller-coaster ride was about to begin.

After three days in the emergency ward, a series of scans and tests showed a growth in her gallbladder. “Gall stones,” she lamented, which she said she had before. Surgically removing the gallbladder was the only solution at this point.

So they moved her to a room in the surgical wing. We were told surgery would be in another week or so. So we visited mom every day to keep her company.

But something wasn’t right.

Mom has good days and bad days. But lately, they were more bad than good. Her deteriorating health worried the doctors as it indicated something else was going on.

More tests revealed she also had a ruptured instestine caused by the gallbladder being so inflamed. Thus, surgery would also require fixing or bypassing the ruptured intestine so she can eat and digest food again.

That’s when the doctor informed us she needed a hepatobiliary specialist (i.e., a gallbladder and liver surgeon), and they needed to transfer her to a different hospital to see him. Otherwise, the waiting time would have been several months.

(The administrative nightmare by being from another province — my mother is from Quebec and we’re in Ontario — is a whole other ball of wax from which I will spare you the sordid, brain-numbing details.)

Surgery kept getting delayed to allow for more tests. From ultrasounds to x-rays, CT-scans to MRIs, an endoscopic biopsy to a surgically invasive one.

Obviously, seeing my mom deteriorate in front of our eyes (she lost 30 pounds while being hospitalized), with no progress in sight, we were getting a little frustrated by how much time it was taking for surgery to happen.

But looking back, I now realize why.

After this battery of tests, our worst fear became reality.

My mother has advanced gallbladder cancer.

Not only that, they predict she only has a few years left.

I was in shock. I still am. Let me tell you, when the news came it felt like a truck hit me. We had just returned from the hospital when the doctor called us. I decided to rush back because I knew my mom wouldn’t want to be alone.

In fact, that night will be one night I will remember for the rest of my life. When we returned to the hospital, I saw my mother, sitting on a chair in the corner of the hospital room looking out the window, weeping.

This person who was the symbol of strength, staunchness, and humility, and who often kept her emotions to herself for fear of upsetting others, was crying. I will never forget that moment for as long as I shall live.

It hurts me just typing this.

Emotions aside, we still had this “surgery” we were anticipating for over a month, now. Finally, that day came. They told us to get ready, as she would be whisked into surgery within 24 hours. It was the longest 24 hours we’d ever had to endure.

The surgeon told us he would try to remove the tumor, but the main goal was to bypass the ruptured intestine blocked by the tumor, which would allow mom to eat again and regain some strength.

After the surgery, bad news turned to worse.

It looks like the cancer is more advanced than originally thought, and it seems to have metastasized to her liver and invaded other major organs. It was inoperable.

That’s when the doctor told us that she has months, not years.

We are still going to meet with an oncologist who will be the one giving us all the options. For example, chemotherapy, while seemingly redundant at this point as a curative measure, may be administered for palliative reasons to help reduce the pain.

There’s still hope. In fact, the doctor himself admitted she may have more time, since cancer is not his area of expertise. Only the oncologist will know.

So for the next few months, we will be taking care of mom.

She will be staying with us for the remainder of her life, and we have setup a special room for her so that she can be as comfortable as possible. Palliative care nurses will be visiting regularly to make sure she’s comfortable, too.

Trying to bring levity to such a sullen situation, Sylvie told mom who originally came to our house for a vacation: “Boy, do we sure know how to show you a good time, eh?”

Mom always laughs at that one. Which is actually Sylvie’s goal from this point on: “I plan to make her laugh every single day for the rest of her life.”

This reminds me of a speech by Jimmy Valvano, given just weeks before he passed away from cancer. The part I’m specifically referring to is at the 1:40 mark, where he says we should always strive to do three things each day: laugh, think, and cry.

And I can attest that, since mid-July, that has certainly been the case with our family.

I’ll keep you posted. As Sylvie always says, “there’s no expiry date stamped on your foot.” So we plan on living every single day as if it were her last. We all should. More importantly, it’s truly an honor to be there for her during this time.

Until you hear back from me, and before you start telling me all about your cures, recommendations, and alternatives to chemo and surgery, which I do appreciate, please keep this post from Sylvie in mind.

Make sure to hug your family and your friends. Tell them you love them. Because you never know, every chance you get might just be your last.

I love you, Sylvie.

And I love you, mom.