Week 22

16 Aug

This week was rough.

Thursday was the disastrous dentist visit. Friday we gathered for family dinner for my dad’s famous tacos. The tacos were delicious and we actually had a nice time together, but my mom was wiped out; she quietly ate one and then went to lay down, then was in intense pain an hour or so later and I had to give her morphine. Saturday brought more intense pain for my mom and another trip to my parents’ house for me, to give my mom morphine again.

I had a hospital bed delivered on Saturday because my mom was having a lot of trouble getting in and out of bed, and sitting up. Of course, it’s not her favorite thing because it’s a reminder of how sick she is. So she slept in it for a bit and then returned to her regular bed. Frankly, that doesn’t bother me at all; that stubbornness is a hallmark of my mom’s personality.

Michaela spent the week at Y camp, which she did not like. She said the counselors spent a lot of time on their phones and didn’t seem to care about the campers. Every day, I picked her up and heard a litany of complaints. It was kind of a bummer.

Mike had a really big shoot that kept him super busy, but it went off really well. His client was happy and I think while it was incredibly stressful, he enjoyed the chance to tackle such a complex project. I’m so proud of him. He works really hard, hustles like crazy, and does great work. The pandemic upended his business and he’s figured out not only how to keep going, but to thrive.

Besides chauffeuring Michaela to her day camp and helping out with my mom, I spent the week immersed in public health bureaucracy hell. I keep joking that I should have gotten a degree in epidemiology. My BA in Spanish and Government and MA in Latin American Studies are NOT cutting it in this COVID world. Still, as we mark five months since schools closed campuses to prevent the spread of the disease, I can’t help but think even more my stressful work days now are waaaaaaaay better than they were in March. So at least there’s that!


13 Aug

Today was a shitty, overwhelming day. There’s no other way to put it.

My mom and I have a long history together when it comes to the dentist. The short version is, for the last several years, I’ve made dental appointments for my mom, taken her to and from them, and paid for them.

About six weeks ago, my mom said she had some tooth pain and I made her appointment to have it addressed. When she got her terminal diagnosis, she had me cancel the appointment. I call her twice a day these days and when I spoke with her yesterday morning, she said the tooth was really bothering her.

I happened to have a dentist appointment today and I was able (after a stressful process that involves my mom’s declining mental facilities and a conflict-not-conflict with a visit from my mom’s hospice nurse) to switch it. The dentist gave my mom my appointment and I’ll go another time.

So this morning, I got to my mom’s house to pick her up. She was dressed and looked pretty good, but something felt a little off. She said she wanted to use her walker. So I helped her to the car — slowly, so, so slowly — put her in, folded up the walker, put it in, and we were off.

My mom is practically agoraphobic and didn’t like the leave the house even before all this. She gets extremely nervous riding in cars. And she was agitated because she couldn’t find her sunglasses and had to wear a pair Michaela left at her house. Fortunately, her hospice comfort kit (magic box of medicines for a variety of conditions) includes Ativan, so I gave her one of those.

I should have taken one, too.

When we got to the dentist, my mom had a really hard time with the walker. I hadn’t realized this was the first time she’s left the house in any way in six weeks. It’s the first time she’s spent any real amount of time out of her bed in weeks. She was so weak! She was stumbling and her hand-eye coordination was poor. She made it from the car to the building, into the elevator, and to the appointment. Then from the dentist office lobby to the dental chair. The whole time, she wasn’t really talking, and when she did say something it was a barely audible mumble. She refused to take her glasses off.

I know my mom is dying, but it really hit me, there in the office. She was so diminished. And, after years of our mother-daughter dentist routine, this is the last time I’m going to take her to the dentist. It’s probably the last time I’ll take her anywhere.

The problem with the tooth is something that would normally call for a root canal to fix. Not a great option for someone who doesn’t have much time left. So the dentist, who I love and who has been our dentist for probably 25 years, did what he could to make my mom more comfortable.

The walk out of the dentist was even worse. My mom’s energy was totally depleted. It felt like she was giving it everything she could, just to make it back to the car. When we got there, she couldn’t fasten her seat belt. I had to do it for her.

I asked her if she wanted to take the scenic route home and she said yes, so we drove through a part of town where we used to live. I stopped in front of our old house — the house we lived in for my whole childhood, the house she and my father rented for decades — and she said, “was that our house?”

I drove the rest of the way home with tears streaming down my face, thankful for sunglasses and that she was so out of it.

When we got to her house, my dad was there and he helped my mom into the house. She went immediately to bed and was asleep in the time it took me to fill my dad in on what had happened.

This is so hard.

Week 21

9 Aug

It’s been five weeks since my mom’s terminal diagnosis. Four weeks since she got her three-month prognosis. She’s still chugging along.

We started a weekly family dinner tradition, which has been mostly nice. After the first week, when I told my dad we’d be over for dinner the following week, he said, “AGAIN?!?!” (As you can tell, he’s not really into family time.) Friday was our fourth week and after, when I told Mike I’d enjoyed it, he said he wished we’d started earlier. I reminded him about my dad’s comment, and we laughed. Just goes to show how set in our ways we are, until something happens that forces us to change.

I have been spending lots of time at my parent’s house. This week, I was over on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and today. I’m thankful they are only seven miles away, but it adds up.

Michaela did a half-day jump rope camp this week. She’s not super sporty, but she enjoys jump roping and has learned all sorts of different tricks. It’s nice for her to be out of the house and doing something with other kids. Friday, my dad picked her up (both Mike and I were working and couldn’t) which was a really nice thing for him to do. In these times of COVID, you can’t just get a friend to do it!

Next week, Michaela’s doing a full-day camp through the YMCA. I haven’t pointed it out yet, but that’s her last full week of summer. Her new school starts Aug. 20. I’m really looking forward to seeing how homeschooling goes. I have high hopes that she will learn a lot, but also create some great memories with her dad as her teacher.

Sparkles and Nibbles, our new guinea pigs, are adorable and sweet. I bought them so Michaela would have something to love while processing her feelings about my mom, but as it turns out, I really needed them, too. I get a ridiculous amount of joy walking into Michaela’s room (where their cage is) and talking to them and feeding them lettuce and filling up their hay or their water bottle.

Another thing that’s bringing me joy lately is reading. I devoured “The Song of Achilles” and limped through “The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.” I am a compulsive adder of books to my Amazon to-read list, and I have a goal of getting my library subscription set up again so I can do ebooks from the library…. once I finished reading the other books I have downloaded on my Kindle. A year or so ago, Amazon was doing a special on books about women from all over the world. The books were free, they were all in translation, and I downloaded maybe a dozen. So I’ve been working my way through those, reading tales from across the globe. I have a few more as well as Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” which I have been putting off reading for reasons I can’t articulate.

The other book that’s been on my side table lately is “Bridge to Terabithia.” I’m reading it aloud to Michaela. We are approaching the sad part and soon enough I’ll be trying to stifle my tears as I read. Just like Mike did when he read her “Where the Red Fern Grows.”

What classic books do you enjoy reading aloud to your kiddos? I’m always looking for recommendations!

Week 20

2 Aug

…And then it was August. How did that happen? How has it been four months since the world stopped (and then reopened in a weird purgatory, with all signs pointing to the right thing to do being to close down again)?

We officially took Michaela out of her neighborhood school and enrolled her in a charter that will support homeschooling her. Mike will be the headmaster and lead teacher at Watson Homeschool Academy, as we’ve been calling it. I will be in charge of being cute and working my day job.

Michaela seems to be fine with the change. I think it helped that all schools in our county will be opening with distance learning. So it’s not like all her friends will be together and she’ll be stuck at home. With Mike’s support, she did well during “crisis schooling” from March through June, so I expect this year will go well. It will be interesting to see what happens with Mike’s work, though; if he starts having more full-day or out-of-town shoots (as he usually does), that will mean a lot more independent learning for Michaela, or help from me.

Not sure how help from me will go, as I’m still (obviously) very involved with my mom’s care. I am happy she finally qualified for hospice but so far, am finding that I have to be very hands-on.

My dad is doing his best, but it’s a lot to keep track of (as an example– in the last week, my mom went from one pill three times a day to two pills three times a day to two pills three times a day and one pill twice a day). He isn’t inclined to ask a lot of questions, and he and my mom don’t communicate very well, so I feel a keen responsibility to stay on top of everything.

My mom gets a visit from a nurse once a week. The nurse takes her vitals, talks to her about any pain or discomfort or issues, checks her medicines, etc. We (I) get a call in the morning from the nurse saying she’ll be there within a certain window (which has been as short as “I’ll be there in 30 minutes” or, at 9:30, “I’ll be there between 1 and 2:30”). So far, the visits haven’t been on a designated day; they’ve been different days of the week each week. I like to be there for those appointments, so it generally means dropping whatever I was doing and heading over there. I’m happy to do it, but it’s definitely stressful.

On another note: is anyone else afraid of having COVID every time you some some random thing happen? I sneezed after visiting my parents and had a sleepless night wondering if I have COVID, even though I know my parent’s cat makes me sneeze. I had a scratchy throat when I woke up one morning and was convinced I have COVID. Etcetera.

Just me?

Week 19

26 Jul

My mom made it to my brother’s birthday dinner!

It was really, really important to my brother that she go, and she did, and everyone had a nice time.


Also, we got Michaela two guinea pigs: Nibbles and Sparkles.

A friend suggested that getting Michaela a creature to care for might help her process everything that’s happening with my mom. Michaela has really wanted a cat, but I’m allergic. Mike wanted a dog, but that’s so much work. So we compromised and decided to explore a guinea pig.

As it turns out, piggies are social animals, so you’re supposed to get two. I talked to the Humane Society but, thanks to COVID, you basically do a phone interview and if they approve you, you go get your animal the next day and take it home. No meeting the animal in advance, no chance to see if you’d bond. And that was just too weird to me! The local small pet rescue didn’t have any openings to meet animals until late August, and we were looking to move sooner. So I was thrilled when someone in our local Buy Nothing group was looking to re-home her two piggies.

Sparkles is about a year old. She had some sort of condition when she was born so had surgery (can you imagine doing surgery on a tiny animal? I cannot!) but is fine now.

FiFi, who Michaela has renamed Nibbles, is 3 or 4 years old. She’s an Abyssinian, which means she is bigger and has very long, unruly hair (fur).

We have a variety of cages and Michaela’s room now looks like a pet store, with the food and Timothy hay and bedding and such. The girls are very nervous still and not acclimated to our house yet, but Michaela is over the moon.

Week 18

19 Jul

Friday, the governor announced that schools in counties on the COVID watchlist shouldn’t reopen campuses. That, of course, includes San Diego County. Fortunately, I was expecting that and was prepared for the onslaught of media inquiries and questions from our employees and leaders of traditional, charter, and private schools. I had been very nervous because my mom, who was denied entry into hospice on Tuesday, was re-evaluated on Friday and I can only do so many things at a time. Luckily, the hospice appointments (three separate phone calls, only one time-certain– thanks COVID) all happened early in the day, so by the time the governor made his announcement at noon, I could turn my attention to that. And, best of all, my mom was admitted to hospice, meaning we have access to resources to help her be comfortable.

She is fading really quickly. I don’t think it’s going to be three months. I can’t even say I hope I’m wrong, because months and months and months of this would be super difficult for all of us.

On the not-depressing-news front, this week:

Mike and Michaela went tubing on the bay with friends who rented a speed boat. Michaela loves tubing — it’s the highlight of our annual trip to my in-laws’ in Oklahoma — and she was happy to be able to do it here. They also spent a day at the bay with these same friends, kayaking and playing.

We had some friends over for (outside) dinner. It was great to see them, although much of the discussion focused on what is going on with schools and what we’re all going to do. Lots of talk about pods in my yuppie friend circles.

We filed our taxes. Okay, that’s kind of depressing. It would be less so if the money I paid went to helping average citizens instead of bailing out big businesses, but that’s not our lot in life right now.

Perhaps best of all, we had a nice dinner with my parents and brothers on Friday. My family is very… untraditional. Neither my parents nor my brother are into spending time together as a family, so we don’t do regular gatherings and even holidays are spotty. But given everything that’s going on, I suggested that we pick a day and get the food of my mom’s choice. My mom picked a BBQ joint that’s been around forever, I took orders, Mike went and picked it up, and we converged on my parents’ house. We all sat around the table and ate and laughed and it was really good. Easy. Fun. Light. Mike said it was the nicest dinner he’s ever had with my family (and he’s been around for 16 years, so that’s saying something!).

My brother’s birthday is Saturday and we’re all set to go to an early dinner together to celebrate. I’m a little worried it’s not going to happen. I hope it does, for the sake of my brother, who is having a hard time about this.

I’m not the praying type, but if you are, the dinner is set for Saturday at 3.

Week 17

13 Jul

Last week was stressful (duh), but there were also some high points. Namely our super abbreviated Route 66 road trip.

I flew to Las Vegas on Tuesday night and met Mike, Michaela, and our nephew Peyton. The flight was fine– only 36 people on the flight, I sat in the first row, everyone wore masks the whole time, it was only an hour. They picked me up and we headed to Fremont St., which was a really weird and frankly unpleasant destination. There were so. many. people.; masks off as they were smoking, eating and drinking; it smelled like pot everywhere I turned; and people were not great about distancing. We hightailed it out of there pretty quickly and headed back to our hotel, which was a lovely suite on the 32nd floor of the Bellagio.

The next morning, we headed to the pool (easy to do when it’s 100 degrees at 9 a.m.!) for a quick dip. We were the only ones in the pool and the few people who were lounging nearby all wore masks. After that, we got on the road, driving towards the Hoover Dam (closed due to COVID) and dropping into Arizona.

We met up with the Mother Road, as they call Route 66, in Kingman, Arizona. The beauty of Route 66 as a COVID vacation is, you’re not around a lot of people. Much of the trip is driving and looking at old gas stations, Googie architecture, cool motels, etc. It was the four of us in the car (not towing the Airstream as we’d planned when we were going to do the full route), meandering along, generally at about 45 MPH. Very slow and relaxed.

We went west through Arizona. The few places we stopped and, say, went inside a store or used the bathroom, the people we encountered were nice… but unmasked. Coming from California, it was quite a change. And given what the infection, hospitalization, and death rates are in Arizona right now, it was really unsettling. I don’t know if it’s because they’re in small towns and think of COVID as a big city thing or if it’s the politics or what, but it was a trip.

After a day of driving and sightseeing, we made it to Needles, CA, where we spent the night in a hotel that was serviceable and clean, but a far cry from the opulence of the Bellagio. The next morning, we were off for another day of driving– this one mostly on the freeway because we were heading home.

The kids got along pretty well and complaining was minimal. Although they did torture me by singing “99 Bottles of Pop on the Wall,” an experience I could have lived without. Mike had wisely packed a cooler full of snacks, so we had many a nosh at a cool old place, gathered around the tailgate of his truck. It was, for me, less than 48 hours, but a peaceful respite.

The trip whetted our appetite to do Route 66 the way we’d originally planned, hauling the Airstream from Chicago west to Santa Monica. Maybe next summer…

3 Months

10 Jul

My mom and I met with her oncologist on Tuesday. He said she has about three months left if she chooses to forgo treatment. Which she’s choosing. So.

It turns out that Kaiser has its own hospice in our region. Hoping the process of getting the referral and getting the process started is quick.

Week 16

5 Jul

After last week’s news, I feel like I should restart my numbering. After all, many Americans seem to have decided COVID-19 is done, and my focus is now counting down my mom’s last days. For the time being, I’ll stick with it but I reserve the right to change my mind.

We officially crossed the halfway mark of 2020. Part of me thinks “I can’t wait until 2020 is over,” and part of me thinks, “I need to try to savor every day.”

Mike and Michaela left today, driving to Vegas to pick up our nephew, who is going to spend a week with us. I spent the day with my mom, going through old photos. We picked out a bunch to get rid of, some to scan, some to put in albums, and some to give away. It was nice to spend that quality time together, part of my savoring every day.

The other highlight of the week is my deep appreciation for the friends who have reached out. It’s a little overwhelming to think about replying (“yeah, it totally sucks!” isn’t great reading), so I haven’t quite gotten there yet. But I spent some time this week talking to a dear friend from high school who lost her mom to lung cancer and another friend whose mom was killed in an accident, and I am grateful for their making the time to talk and their advice, and their instant and generous offers to do it again.

I am very lucky.


2 Jul

On Tuesday, my mom was given a terminal cancer diagnosis. We’ve been told she has 6-12 months to live.

About 18 months ago, my mom was found to have a tumor on her liver (not uncommon because she has liver disease). She was successfully treated with a targeted procedure called TACE. Her doctor (interventional radiologist) said at the time that she would continue to develop new tumors and best case scenario was, we would play whack-a-mole, with new tumors growing, him zapping them, and that going on and on until it couldn’t anymore.

Six months ago, routine blood testing found an elevated level of a particular cancer marker. My mom went for a CT scan and there was a small spot, but it was so small, the doctor recommended waiting three more months and then looking at it again.

Three months later, my mom went in for more blood work and the cancer marker had spiked. I took her for a CT scan on Tuesday and that’s when we learned she has a large (baseball-sized), aggressive tumor on her liver that is growing into the portal vein and vena cava, and that there are two spots in her lungs and one in the lining of her heart (very close to where the liver tumor is).

This means it’s Stage 4. This means it’s incurable. This means my mom is going to die, sooner than later. This means I’m heartbroken.

Her interventional radiologist walked us through some options. Do the same TACE procedure she had before, recognizing the best it would do is hopefully slow down the liver tumor to buy a little more time and that it would cause some pretty intense discomfort for about a month (when she doesn’t have much time…). Do targeted beam radiation — another targeted procedure that would hopefully slow the liver tumor growth, but one that usually takes months to be effective (and again, she doesn’t have much time). Do systemic chemo to try to get all the tumors, which my mom has been very clear throughout she doesn’t want to do, so it’s not really an option. Or do nothing, which is what my mom has chosen.

My mom’s sister died of breast cancer after an incredibly grueling, painful fight that made her last days excruciating. My mom does not want to do that. She wants to focus on quality of life and managing pain. So that’s what we’re going to do.

In spite of literally saying to Mike a year ago that I would never want my parents to live with us, we’ve invited my mom to move in. Our two-story house has bedrooms on the first floor and a bathroom with a large stand-up shower. We’d be able to keep her company and take care of her and keep her comfortable. I don’t know if she’ll accept the offer, but I hope we can talk about it more after a meeting with a hematology oncologist on Tuesday, where we will learn more about what services and supports are available to her through my mom’s health insurance.

And now we wait. To see how much time she has left. To see how sick she gets. To see how much we can cram into I-don’t-know-how-long.

Michaela has been having a hard time with this. She’s worried about her grandma, and worried about all of other grandparents (she has 5 others) dying. We went over to my mom’s house last night and after, Michaela told me she felt like crying every time she talked but tried not to so she wouldn’t make grandma sad.

I can relate.