The day that I had been dreading and praying for over the last five years finally came and went. I lost my mom on July 25, 2014 and my life has been forever changed. This was a day that will always be engrained into the deepest parts of my memory. A day that I encountered every emotion possible in a very short period of time. Similar to the emotional roller coaster of giving birth to a child, but with a completely opposite outcome. It was the day that my beloved mom finally surrendered to an incredibly courageous and heart wrenching battle.
Mom’s journey began 20 years ago when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 vaginal cancer.
Yes, we have the cancer gene that nobody wants to talk about. It’s hard to even say it. Vaginal cancer. Cancer of the vagina. No matter how you slice it, you don’t really like the sound of it and certainly nobody talks about it. There are no 5Ks for Vag Cancer, that’s for sure, and I’m pretty sure there is no Vaginal Cancer Awareness Month, at least in the US.
Vaginal cancer is very rare. According to The American Cancer Society only about 1 of every 1,100 women will develop vaginal cancer in her lifetime. Approximately 3,170 new cases will be diagnosed in 2014 and approximately 880 will die from it. Compare that to the estimated 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer that are expected to be diagnosed among US women, of which an estimated 39,620 will die. Rare indeed and pretty bad luck for Mom.
But my mom kicked that cancer’s booty, because she is one tough cookie. And when I say tough, I mean the strongest person I know. Let me give you a glimpse of just one of her many treatments 20 years ago. The main treatment was a ball of radiation that had what seemed like a thousand needles that the doctors inserted into, yes, her vagina. Back then, technology was not in her favor for retracting those needles. So once the needles came out injecting radiation directly into the tumor, the needles could not retract. So the doctors literally had to sit on top of her and pull the radiation ball back out of her, with every single needle still sticking out. I was 22 when I watched that happen to my mom. I still haven’t recovered from that vision.
But the good news is, that radiation ball cured my mom of her cancer. It never came back. She had months of recovery from all of her treatments, but for the most part, she had a full recovery minus a permanent colostomy (the radiation burned a hole in her colon). Mom had 15 great years. She was able to be present for all of her grandbabies to be born. She attended baseball games, basketball games, soccer games, football games, ballet recitals, graduations – she saw it all and didn’t miss a thing. Until the last 5 years.
When you get diagnosed with cancer, even if you beat it, you eventually lose. The cancer never came back, but the long term effects of her treatment did. 20 years ago, radiation was the magic treatment for her cancer – not so much chemotherapy. As a result of intense radiation in her lower body, her bones became brittle and her hip broke. It didn’t just break, it ripped out of the bone. So for the last 5 years, Mom has undergone several unsuccessful hip replacement surgeries, suffered from infection after infection, and was basically in and out of hospitals. But every time, she rallied. Several times she was even knocking on heaven’s door. But every time I asked her why she came back, her answer was “for my grandbabies, my children…and your dad.” She once described a vision to me after one of her life-threatening surgeries. She saw all eight of her grandchildren sitting on a brick ledge and there was a huge white light behind them. She felt pulled to the light but turned away because she could see every single one of her grandchild’s faces and she didn’t want to leave them. That experience pulled her through the worst of her surgeries and she has been fighting for every extra second to be with those grandchildren ever since.
The last six months were particularly hard on Mom – after her latest bout of infection and yet another emergency surgery in January, her body entered a slow decline. It was undeniable, yet we all hated to admit it. Mom’s life had become absolutely miserable. She was 100% dependent on my dad, he was her primary care-taker (and would have it no other way:-). She could not walk, shower, cook, clean, drive, shop – basically function. But worst of all, she was in unbearable pain. No medication would cure her of the pain she was enduring all over her body, day in and day out. It was so awful for all of us to watch – we felt so helpless. When I’d visit, I couldn’t imagine why she would want to live in such pain. I was certain that I would have thrown in the towel by now. But her answer never wavered – “to see my grandbabies grow up…and I’m a little worried about your dad.”
After my last visit to FL in June this summer, it was really hard for me to leave. Deep down, I knew this would be the last time I saw Mom alive. Let me tell you, pulling out of that driveway with that weighing on my shoulders was no fun. I was praying so hard for God to show Mom the way, give her strength and courage and peace to transition over. Her time here on earth was too painful to bear. But no matter how much I prayed, how much I talked about it out loud, how much I tried to prepare myself and almost numb myself to the situation, I realized one thing. You’ll never be ready or fully prepared to lose someone you love.
Just one week after this visit, I got the call from my Dad that hospice was in place in their home, and if I wanted to see Mom somewhat lucid, then I should head back down. When I first heard the word “hospice”, it took my breath away and I fell to my knees. Little did I know, hospice nurses are true angels on this earth and I was about to experience that first hand.
My two brothers and sister packed up and we all moved into Mom & Dad’s. We knew we had a week or so left with her and we needed to get things in order for her and my dad. My sister and I fell into the roles that we women do best – we cooked, cleaned and took care of Mom in her final days. Dad needed to sit this one out. He had been taking care of her for so long, that we just stepped into this role and let our brothers take care of Dad. My sister and I took shifts and set alarms for pain medication, cleaning Mom, changing Mom and all the usual nursely duties. We actually joked often that we weren’t very good at being nurses – I’m in marketing and my sister is an engineer. But we did our best and we think we did a pretty good job at the end. We grew very close to our hospice nurse – she was our lifeline as new nurses thrown into the fire. We hung on her every word or suggestion and looked forward to her daily visits. Every day I kept asking the nurse “is it today?” and she would calmly say “no, not yet, but soon.” I read the book “Gone from My Sight” (a hospice book) at least a hundred times and I knew every sign that would come. They all came and I recognized them immediately, but the last one was the hardest to accept. The death rattle. That’s a sound that I hope I never have to hear again. It still haunts me at night. It was this sound that made me officially break. I had to leave the house at midnight that night and I felt like I could never return. I wasn’t strong enough and I was O-U-T. I actually quit my new nursing job which made my sister outraged. But at that moment, I had to do that, for me and to regain any strength I had left to do what came next.
I slept that night for just a few hours. I heard my sister go into Mom’s room, give her the medication and climb back in bed. I wished I had as much courage as my big sister. But at that moment I did not, there is a reason she was born first:-) The next morning, the hospice nurse came and when I asked her the question “is it today?”, her answer was “yes, it’s today.” I can’t tell you what came over me, but I knew exactly what I needed to do. The nurse told us to tell Mom when we were leaving the room, even if just a few minutes. She assured us that Mom could still understand us, even though it didn’t seem like it. She reminded us that sometimes your loved ones don’t want to die in front of you. This made us chuckle a little because we had been having “happy hours” in her room every night. At one point, we had my dying mom, her sister, my sister, my niece and my sister-in-law all sitting in Mom’s bed telling stories and laughing over our glass(es) of wine. That’s how we Kinney’s do things. It’s a big party, no matter what the situation. My sister and I thought – OMG, we are doing this all wrong, she has been trying to go all this time and we have been smothering her. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
So I took the nurse’s advice and shortly after she left that morning, I told Mom that we were going for a walk. We’d be back in 30 minutes, but we needed some fresh air. I remember staring at her for a minute or so and something made me put two fingers on her nose. Nothing looked any different, but something made me touch her nose. When I did, it felt like an ice cube. It took a few seconds for this to register, but when it did, I knew that it was happening NOW. So we called everyone in the room and just then, Mom took her last two breaths. She was surrounded by all four of her children, her hubby of 55 years, her sister and brother-in-law, her daughter-in-law and one granddaughter and it was absolutely perfect. Just the way she wanted it. Breaking all of the hospice rules, just like her to call her own shots.
Those last five days of Mom’s life were the biggest gift she could ever give to me. Perspective. It was such a privilege to experience that journey with Mom as she transitioned over. Mom showed us signs every day that week, which were amazing. It was as if she was still teaching us things in her final days, making sure we were all ready. She showed us that the angels were present and she told us who visited her from heaven each night. If there was any doubt before, there is no doubt in my mind now that there is an after life. I know Jesus was in our room that morning on July 25th and for that, I feel like my life has been forever changed.
I learned a lot about myself, my family and my perspective in life in those five days. I pledged a new “sorority” so to speak – those of us who have lost a parent. You can pick us out in a skinny minute. You see, these women know what they are doing when they have a new pledge sister. I didn’t figure this out until I received the special notes, meals, cards, gifts and words of encouragement that only someone who has walked in your shoes could offer. Thank you to everyone, I have the best friends ever:-) These women continue to rally around me and for that I am forever thankful. I have already payed it forward with a few new pledge sisters behind me, as difficult as it was because my grief was still so new. We all agree that we are forever bonded and will vow to help all of those behind us as they enter the journey of losing a parent. Each and every one of us will lose our parents ~ it’s just such a bummer when it’s your turn.
I have one last story to share today. I’ve had this blog in draft mode for quite some time. I think for me, writing about my mom’s death made it too real and too raw. So I’ve deliberately kept it semi-private (very un-Jen of me:-). But I decided that it needed to go public today for a very special reason. Today would be Jen Bunich’s 43rd birthday and for those of you who know me well, you know I wholeheartedly believe Jen is my personal angel. She has guided me through everything since her passing, including my Mom’s death. Lately, I have been looking for new signs from my mom, but they seem to have vanished and left me feeling very disappointed. Until today when I received this gift from my dear friend in barre class and it literally took my breath away:
My mom had the BIGGEST collection of angels you’ve ever seen, that’s all she talked about throughout her 20-year battle, the angels and the saints and how they have guided her throughout her journey. When I opened this thoughtful gift (from the talented artist herself:-), I immediately started crying tears of joy. This was my official sign from Mom all wrapped up in Smarty pink! Mom is telling me that she’s OK and will always be my guardian angel too, alongside my Jen.
I hope you enjoy some of my favorite photos of my mom:
One big happy fam, circa 1972!
My Wedding Day
My First Holy Communion
Ansley’s First Holy Communion
Isabel’s First Holy Communion
Mom & Her Granddaughters
More of the girls!
I think Mom may have been more excited to be a Grandma of twins than I was to be a Mama of twins!
The big 5-0 Wedding Anniversary, the greatest love story of all!
She adored her grandkids!
The girls on Christmas
Grandma goes uptown!
The boys all grown up!
Vero Beach, FL
Our last family reunion pic – advice…get lots more of these taken:-)
Mom at Dinner
The JMSD Ballet Recital – Mom was a dancer too!
Hug your Mamas today for me:-)