“Death, thou shalt die.”

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When I teach John Donne to my Brit Lit students each year, I take time to show the class the film W;t, written by Margaret Edson and starring Emma Thompson. The tale of a Donne scholar facing terminal ovarian cancer, the movie helps students grasp the depth of Donne’s themes without drowning them in 17th Century metaphysical conceits. It’s an excellent film.

It’s also a very difficult film for me to watch.  I usually detach my emotions when I watch it — after all, I’m in class and it’s not my general M.O. to cry in public (ever) or in front of students (especially). But Vivian’s dilemma is a real one to me — she trudges through the hell we call chemo, and suffers greatly in the name of “treatment.” Cancer is a horrible disease.

I was thinking today of the phone call I got in my dorm room my senior year in college … Mum was starting a second round of chemo in her battle against recurring breast cancer.  It’s such an insidious, rude disease. “They” say that if you make it 5 years cancer-free, your survival rate is 80%.  Apparently Mum was one of the unlucky 20%, for despite 8 healthy years after her first onset of cancer, the beast returned with a vengeance to chew up her remaining short life.

My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.

The first 6 months of chemo (which fell during my junior year of college) were bad. I’ve always felt a little guilty that I wasn’t home then to help my dad take care of my mom.  I think I might make different choices now, given the chance to redo it … but my parents were insistent that nothing interrupt my education. I think they would have physically thrown me out of the house rather than let me stay home from college so I’m not sure that my regrets have much foundation in reality.  I’ve commented on here before about the incredible sacrifices my parents made on my behalf; this is somehow a capstone.

Mum had a good summer in 1995, when the first round of chemo was over and her hair started coming back — growing in thick ringlets (that was new) and completely gray instead of flaming red (in case you’ve ever wondered where my temper comes from LOL). She was healthy enough to come all the way to SC from PA to see me at Thanksgiving my senior year, and meet Coart’s mom. (Coart & I started dating in ’95.)

I wasn’t stupid; I knew recurring cancer is bad news.  But that didn’t soften the blow much when our conversation in February of ’96 turned to life and death. “I’m not going to take any more chemo,” Mum told me.  The first dose was bad enough of the second round of hell-as-medicine.  After three days lying on the bathroom floor (to be close to the toilet during all the dry heaves), Mom had come to the decision that enough was enough.  This life is not THAT precious.

I can’t really explain how it feels to be 21 years old and have your mother tell you that she’s done.  My mom was 39 when I was born, so I knew she would come to the end of things before my friends’ parents would, but this was too much. I didn’t understand. Why wasn’t she fighting? I would fight, I thought. I wouldn’t just quit.

I understand her a lot better now.  Faced with equally bad choices of dying soon of cancer or dying later of the treatment, she chose to let it end sooner.  It still ended up being a horrible 6 months — the chemo plus the advancing cancer triggered a stroke, and if I could delete my memories of those visits in the hospital and nursing home, I honestly would. Really.  That wasn’t my mother as I want to remember her — a strong, beautiful woman.

Truly, this life is not so dear that I would fight for it at any cost.  If I’m going to die (and I will), I might have no control over the circumstances. But I don’t have to be a slave to them either.  I’m glad that Mum stepped up to say, “I’m done.”  She knew that Glory lay before her; she knew that she had prayed for the years to raise me to adulthood, and God had given her those 8 years.

I’m positive that historians will shudder at our barbaric cancer treatments as they write their new textbooks in 200 or 500 years.

Today would have been my mother’s 74th birthday — March 3rd.  I usually write about my parents on their birth and death days.  Humor me — memories are all I’ve got right now.  I’ve said it many times — the worst part of death is that it literally removes someone from our daily lives. No one talks about them. No one weaves them into the fabric of our lives any longer. It was not meant to be that way . . . .

I look forward to a good reunion in Aslan’s Country.

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