Denise's Story

My mother was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer in May of 1998. She had smoked most of her life and as a result had severe heart and artery problems in addition to the cancer. She was a young 70-year-old with a lot of spunk and an infectious laugh. She had been married to my father for over 35 years at the time of her diagnosis and together they had three boys and one girl. She loved people and was actively working as sales clerk at Uptons, a local department store.

As a family we were devastated by the diagnosis but vowed we would fight this monster called "cancer" to the very end.  She attempted Chemotherapy on three occasions with horrible results. After her first round of Taxol and Paraplatin, she suffered dehydration and her bowels became severely impacted. She was hospitalized for over a week while the doctors tried to clear up the impaction. They gave her morphine for the pain associated with the impaction and as a result, she began to have drug-induced hallucinations. We would later find out that she had also suffered a minor stroke and that her carotid arteries in her neck had blockages in the 90 percent range. After her second round of chemotherapy, she suffered a minor heart attack in addition to hair loss and nausea associated with the chemotherapy. She was miserable but agreed to try chemotherapy one more time. After the third time she developed a hiatal hernia. She hated feeling so bad and was concerned "what else" could happen.  She wasn't ready to die yet.

As on so many other occasions, my brother, father and I accompanied Mom to her oncologist's office.  We discussed her options openly and agreed to discontinue any further treatment since the cancer was slow-growing. However, her heart problems still plagued her. Throughout the following year, she would undergo by-pass surgery and lose three toes on her right foot.

During the next two years, my mother's greatest wishes would became reality.  Gary (her oldest son) married Sue, and Bryce (her youngest son) married Jill, both in February of 1999. I married Marty in 1995 and Scott (her middle son) married Jennifer in 1998) In April, on her birthday, Marty and I announced that we were expecting a baby. She would finally be a Grandmother!!! This past December, we were blessed with Katlyn, a healthy baby girl. Katlyn was a welcome ray of sunshine as the cancer continued its war against my mother. Each day was a gift and we relished the time we spent her. We took great joy in watching her play with Katlyn as only a Grandmother could.

After two years of battling the cancer and heart problems, her body as well as her spirit had grown tired of the fight. In April of 2000, she started to hallucinate. She would see money on the floor which wasn't there or she would say, "what is that guy saying, the one behind you?." She didn't seem scared by the hallucinations and I told my father and brothers to simply go along with whatever she said.  I didn't want her to feel bad about seeing these things which we did not see.  I must admit, it came as a shock to each of us when she would say such things.  Sometimes she would be talking to you and you would think she was fine and then she would say "why are those people in the living room". We would respond by saying something like "they are friends of Gary's and they're leaving now." We would say anything to make the hallucinations seem normal and non-threatening. It worked.

As the month wore on, she became progressively weaker and physically unstable (due to her lack of toes on her foot). She ate less and less. She complained of constant head and stomach aches. We spoke with her doctors and they attempted to adjust her medicines but she never really got relief. We got a bedside commode for her to use.  Even with that by her bedside she began needing assistance getting to and from the potty.  Her legs were simply too weak. We moved her into a guest room in the house. This room afforded her the ability to see everyone coming and going so she wouldn't "miss out" on anything. We got a baby monitor so we could hear if she needed anything.  In addition, my bothers and I took shifts at my parent's home to give my father a break from the rigors of caregiving.  We noticed that she began requiring more sleep and began to withdraw. She no longer delighted in the things that brought her pleasure. She stopped watching TV and could only play with her granddaughter for very brief periods of time before she "needed to close her eyes".

Towards the "end", maybe three weeks prior to her death, she started saying that she wanted to "go home". She began to ask what her death would be like.  I sucked in my gut and calmly told her "peaceful". I promised she would not be uncomfortable anymore.

On Sunday, May 21st, after a really bad night, my sister-in-law called me to tell me that Mom's pulse was getting weak.  I raced over to be with her. When I got there, she was having difficulty recognizing people.  We sat Katlyn on her bed and asked if she knew who she was.  She answered, "Oh, my baby".  She looked at me and said, "Denise, I'm soooo sick". A Hospice nurse came to the house and informed us that she was "dying".  We all said, "What does he know!!!". Her oncologist suggested bringing her into the Hospice ward to be evaluated to see if perhaps she was suffering from anemia, low potassium or an electrolyte imbalance. We were all sure that it must be one of those.

When we got her to the Hospice ward, the nurse brought us in the book called "Gone From My Sight".  (We had not been given that to read when we signed her up with Hospice).  As each of read that book we realized that she would be leaving us within "days or hours".  Her stomach and head were still bothering her. She could not get comfortable in bed as much as she tried. The nurse gave her a dose of Morphine and Ativan so she wouldn't be so restless and hoped it would help ease her pain. It worked and she seemed to finally be comfortable.

My mother hated being alone in the hospital. During the course of her illness, one of us would usually spend the night with her so she wouldn't be lonely and would feel safe.  This time would be no different. Her friend, Cathy, daughter-in-laws Jill and Susan and I camped out next to her as we had done before on so many occasions. Shortly after we got there, my mother called out her sister's name, "Angie".  She then threw her arms up as if to give her a hug. Her sister Angie had passed away two years ago from lung cancer. As the night wore on, she no longer had the energy to speak but would do this "hugging" motion about 10 more times before leaving us.

I contacted her best friend, Linda who drove all night to be with my mother. At 6:00 a.m., on Monday morning, shortly after Linda arrived, my mother's breathing became really shallow.  My father and brothers raced to the hospital and we all gathered around her. We took turns telling her how much we loved her. My father held her hand and asked if she could hear him to squeeze his hand.  She did. Suddenly, she got a bright look in her eyes. She looked up past our heads, and looked at all of us gathered around her. She tried to speak, but the words would not come so I said aloud the words that I knew she wanted to say, "We know you love us all; it's okay, we know you have to go". Moments later she passed.

We stayed in the room with her for what seemed like hours. I never dreamed I could hurt so badly and cry so much. The days that followed are somewhat of a blur. I remember that Monday never seeming to end. It was the longest day in history. I have cried a river of tears. I take peace in knowing that I was able to keep my promise. She left peacefully and did not suffer any pain. I feel honored that I was able to be with her during her final moments. It renewed my belief that death only occurs to the body.  The soul simply moves on. I know my Mother is in a better place and surrounded by family and friends who had passed previously. However, that does not keep me from missing her enormously.

It's hard switching gears. We all spent two years going from doctor to doctor with my Mother, checking her meds and caring for her. It was almost like an obsession. Then all of a sudden it simply stops, and we are forced to go on with life without her.  We all knew two years ago this day would come, but somehow it's still a shock. My brother Gary wrote a poem, which he read at my mother's Mass. I think it sums up how we all feel.

    We have gathered here to pay tribute to your life. To recognize your accomplishments as a mother and a wife.

    To remember the good times and the laughter that we had... the lotto, the bingo which we thought were oh so bad.

    We would gamble all our lives just to get another day 24 more hours so we could get the chance to say.

    That we love you very much and there's no way we can replace your voice, your touch or the smile on your face.

    It's our hearts that have been shattered and we grieve most every day. Our lives have never been the same since the day you passed away.

    So walk in to the light but keep us in your sight, for we will all be reunited together in God's light.

                                                       -Gary

Yolanda, 4/26/28 - 5/22/00 Broncheogenic Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer; she is survived by her husband, Jim and children Gary, Denise, Scott & Bryce; their spouses, Susan, Marty, Jill and Jennifer and granddaughter, Katlyn.

copyright 2000 Susan Peticolas Lahti