She Did It Her Way

-By Kevin G. O’Leary

It has been a long time since I posted here.  Family business took priority.  We finished one of the most important journeys of our life last month.

On April 10th, Tomoko my mother-in-law passed away peacefully in her own home at age 67.    She was diagnosed during the summer with Stage 4 bile duct cancer.  It was non-resectable and non-treatable.  What makes this type of cancer so deadly  compared to others is that unfortunately the diagnosis is most often made at a stage when medical treatment is futile.  The prescribed course of treatment was to simply go home, stay as active and healthy as long as possible and enjoy the time left on earth.

The cancer was discovered while my family and I were away vacationing in the United States last July.   The official diagnosis was made in August.  After being told there was not much time left, our family began to make adjustments to our schedule to be available to ensure that Tomoko had the best quality of life possible.  I was at the time working as project director in Nagasaki and living on my own during the week.  I resigned my position in the fall and quickly returned to Fukuoka and took a night time job so that I could be available every day if needed.  My mother-in-law had always been a big help while I was away picking up my youngest daughter at the the preschool.   I had to look after my daughter myself from that point on while my wife was at work.   It was an easy decision for me.  My mother-in-law supported everything I did, the Nagasaki job, the year and half in the United States and was always there to help when I had my health problems several years ago.

I was very surprised how energetic and accepting Tomoko was of her prognosis.  It was like she was not sick at all.  There was one unexpected problem when she was particpating in Grandparent’s Day at my daughter’s preschool.  She went to pick up Maria and broke her back for no apparent reason.  I do not know whether the cancer had weakened her bones or this was just an isolated issue.  Since she couldn’t carry a 2 year old, she wasn’t able to do what she loved the most which was being active with her grandchildren.  Her back healed well and with the aid of corset brace she was able to stay active in her kitchen but avoid lifting whenever possible.  We enjoyed lots of homecooked dinners made by Tomoko, took some day trips and lived as normal of a life as we could until the end of March.

March brought on some changes as Tomoko was no longer able to enjoy eating.  I would bring curry bread over but it was mainly for my father-in-law to enjoy has Tomoko was only eating softened rice, soup and drinking.  She quickly dropped 30 to 40 pounds in several weeks.  Tomoko was always slender so this was significant.   But she was still enjoying her independence.

Around April 1st, with the weight loss, she had considerably weakened.  I went to the house and was very shocked by the changes.  I estimated her weight to be about 80 pounds.  It was the evening and the medical supply company had come over to bring in the hospital bed to set up as well as a wheel chair.  It was a sad time for me because it marked another loss of independence and the reality of decline.  She never used the wheel chair as it wasn’t really a practical tool since she could be walked the short distance to the sofa or the restroom.  Her 68th birthday was coming up on April 16th.  But the doctor had suggested if we wanted a birthday party we better do it this coming weekend.  Although she was so sharp and alert, her body had already begun to shut down.  The beginning of April is cherry blossom viewing time.  We set up a nice feast with the family and the relatives in her room looking our over the garden.  She stayed in bed and chatted with us.  When we brought out the birthday cake, we had to ask her, “Hey, where is that thingamajig spatula thing cake serving tool?”  Tomoko said from her bed, “Oh, its over there?”   Then she began to laugh and say “Well, that wasn’t very useful instructions, was it?”   This was the last transactional exchange I remember having with her and it was pretty funny they way it came out.  I thought this is great, in charge of her kitchen to the very end.  Some people brought her flowers for her room and she was very happy and was teaching us the names of the flowers.

The following Monday evening only 2 days after her party, April 9,  Tomoko was sedated with some pain medication that made her sleep all day.  She had complained of some pain that morning and the doctor thought this would make her more comfortable.  I was scheduled to go to work at 11PM that evening.  I really felt I should not have gone to work.  Although Tomoko was sleeping peacefully, her respiration was about 12 seconds apart.  When I returned to her room just a short time later, it was more like 20 seconds apart.  I knew the time was short, but didn’t really know if my wife or her brother really already knew.  Of course, they did.   My wife is a registered nurse.  They were just relaxed eating and drinking and talking.  I went to work and returned at 4AM.   Tomoko had already passed away at 1AM.  I still feel bad I went to work that evening but there were enough people there with her at the end.  It seems my family started a new custom.  When I returned, Tomoko’s hospital bed was out of the way and she was laid out on silky white futon on the floor.  Next to her head was her cell phone plugged into the wall charging.  I thought this was a little peculiar.  But people could call her phone and leave last messages for her.  That was so special.  A few days later, my wife would go to cell phone shop, cancel the contract and keep the memory card from the phone.

This was as successful of a dying process as one could be.  She did it her way.   She kept her independence up until the last couple of days.  Her pain was managed and she did not leave the world in the lonely halls of an impersonal hospital ward.  She left the world in her own room, surrounded by food, flowers and best of all people.

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