It's Christmas Eve, 2010. As we do every year, my siblings, niece and nephews travel an hour and a half to spend Christmas Eve with my parents.
This Christmas we want to keep things simple. We decide on In n Out burgers, potato salad from Safeway, and store bought pies. For libations we are pouring Bailey's Irish Cream into coffee served in paper cups from a machine. Our family is spending Christmas Eve in a hospital room.
On Dec. 22, 2010, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Now, you're thinking, geez ... I don't want to read a story about cancer, and not just any cancer, pancreatic cancer! Pancreatic cancer (PC for short) wouldn't exactly be anybody's first pick of cancers. Stay with me here. I assure you, I don't write sad stories.
Needless to say, the days leading up to her diagnosis were agonizing, especially for my father. My parents have been married for 57 years. During those years, my mother never once hired a handyman or a contractor. Whatever my mom wanted fixed or built around the house, from bathroom remodel, to a room addition for her home dog grooming business, my dad always complied with, "yes dear" and off he would go drafting plans on grid paper for her approval.
The hospital floor is only about half occupied and is eerily quiet. There are a few tacky Christmas decorations scattered around the nurses' station. The nurses are kind and attentive, telling us to stay as long as we want, despite the fact that they must work around a crowded room of people, coolers, laptops, chairs, food, and backpacks strewn on the floor.
The family huddles outside her hospital room to make a plan. The plan was, just act normal. Well, the only person who was truly acting normal was my mother. She was barking out orders to the nurses to bring her cooked cream of wheat rather than the instant kind, and joking about how she is so relieved that she doesn't have to cook this year.
I'll skip over the next 60 days and just say that we were blessed to get her back to Johns Hopkins for an extremely complicated and intricate surgery called a Whipple Procedure. The doctors were amazed at this 72-year-old's recovery after undergoing the grueling seven-hour procedure. They felt her remarkable recovery was mainly due to her family support and positive mindset. In fact, one of the criteria for selecting a surgical candidate for Whipple is the patient's support system. The doctors needed no convincing that criteria was met here.
Mother's Day 2011 is approaching. I'm racking my brain trying to think of what to get my mom. I select a scarf and a matching hat, thinking she may need it to keep her head warm after chemo, yet something just doesn't feel right. Just as I am getting ready to plunk down nearly $75 at the register, I get out of line and put the items back on the rack.
I'm sure those who have gone through a serious illness, or who've had family members become ill, can understand that "things" become truly meaningless. But, for me, things were not just meaningless, things became sinful in a way. How can a stupid scarf and hat make a person feel better about facing such a daunting challenge? The answer is, it doesn't! What people need is your time and your thoughts.
I'm driving home from the mall thinking about what I can make my mom that would cost no money. Ah ha, something with photos ... a scrapbook!
I start the process by sorting through a couple hundreds family photos. They are scattered over my dining table and as I am stacking the ones I plan to use, one photo drops to the floor lying face down. I pick up the photo and it's me at age 7 standing in front of my childhood home in Los Gatos with my first Poodle.
Yipee! I have just thought of the perfect Mother's Day gift!
Dear Resident of ………….,
My name is Vikki and I grew up in the home you now live in. I am writing to ask a favor of you. My mother has recently been diagnosed with a serious illness and I wondered if I could borrow your front lawn for five minutes. I would be most grateful. Please call if you feel comfortable with my request. If not, I understand.
Three days later, I receive a call from the person who lives in my childhood home. He tells me he would be more than happy to allow me to take a photo in front of his house. We chat for a while, mostly about the house and some of the changes he has made. He tells me he is a firefighter, and how much he loves raising his young family in the house. We arrange a day, and off I go shopping for a white sundress.
Photo day has arrived. I'm dressed in a white sundress which matches my white legs perfectly. (Remember, it's early May). My dog is freshly groomed, camera in hand, and husband in tow. Mr. Hero Firefighter is working in the front yard as we arrive. I have flashbacks of my own father around his age mowing that same front lawn. My hubby snaps the photo, I thank Mr. Hero Firefighter for his kindness and off we go.
Mother's Day 2011
The two photos are placed side by side in a single frame. My mom opens the photo and lets out the biggest belly laugh I think I have ever heard. Then, there is a pause. She removes her glasses and begins to bring the photo closer to her face. "This looks just like the window we had in our old house." I reply, "That's because I am standing in front of our old house." Another glance down, "OMG! OMG!" as everyone is now grabbing for the frame. The gift is a grand slam!
My mom and I reminisce about that day back in 1963 when she took the photo. I was strutting around the front lawn pretending to be in a dog show and frustrated that my dog wasn't feeling it. She even recalls where she bought the white sundress I was wearing. "Marquitte was such a great dog," she says. I reply, "well Mom, I have gotten taller, so I had to upgrade to Standards," meaning Standard Poodles.
I am thrilled to end this story by telling you that my mom's latest scans show no evidence of recurring disease. Although she continues to take maintenance chemo, which she tolerates well, she has more energy than pre-diagnosis. She jokes about writing a diet book called how to lose 30 pounds in 30 days and attends regular cancer support meetings to encourage others on the importance of staying positive.
This past Friday we spent the day at a the PanCan Symposium in San Francisco. We attended seminars on current clinical trials, nutrition, genetic testing, and the latest pharmaceutical therapies to treat PC. We lunched with dozens of survivors, care givers, and their families. I could hear my mom across the table in classic Shirley fashion giving high calorie recipe tips, and discussing the buckets of enzymes PC patients need to take with their meals.
During the past 17 months, my mom has never once complained or asked, "Why me?" In fact, quite the opposite. She says she is the luckiest person in the world. She has this crazy idea that I have somehow saved her life just by finding her surgeon. (She doesn't use Google much). Perhaps it's her "chemo brain" because she has this all backwards—the second hero in this story is my mother.
My Mother's Day gift to my mom this year? ... Me.
For names of experts in the field from UCSF, and Stanford
Pancreatic cancer is a complex cancer and must be fought with knowledge.