Photo taken Saturday, Nov 25, 2017. Me, my mom, and my husband John 🙂
This time last year, I was preparing for the end. After spending the Thanksgiving weekend at the hospital, I got back to Seattle with a light due to my mom’s drastic improvement and high spirits. After a phone call with my dad a few days later, that light dimmed. And part of me had a feeling. Part of me knew what might happen the next time I would be back in LA.
The Last Month
Just before the Thanksgiving weekend, the week of November 20th, my mom was making suuuuuch amazing progress. She was a warrior and fought through the pain so she could get into a rehab hospital and get better. She wanted to go home.
In the beginning of November, she was still in the ICU, having 24/7 care from nurses and doctors. Two weeks later, she was having miraculous progress (of course she was!) and regained motor functions like swallowing and chewing and started to have coherent conversations with those around her. It was sooo relieving for everyone that she was well on her way to recovery.
Here are a few photos of her progress mid-November:
Mom being funny and pretending to eat her “donut” that was used for her hand-strengthening exercises (isn’t she cute?! AND her brows…kilay (eyebrows) is life, amirite?!):
Mom sitting down in a chair after being in a hospital bed for 6 weeks:
Mom breathing fresh air for the first time since her hospitalization with aid from her older sister (my Ninang) and a nurse (not pictured):
By Thanksgiving week, she was approaching 8 weeks of being in the hospital and it was driving her crazy being confined in a place where she didn’t feel like it was her home. She just needed a few more days of being healthy and make continued progress and her doctors would sign off on her being transported to the rehab facility that would bring her one step closer to coming home. Hopefully on Thanksgiving Day, she would be at that facility where we’d have Thanksgiving dinner there with family and friends.
But like I mentioned earlier, just a few weeks before her miraculous recovery, when she was in worse shape than her week-of-Thanksgiving self and attached to machines that were keeping her alive, we received an update from her doctors on what her timeline looked like. Thankfully, I was in LA when I was told of her future.
Beginning of November – 5 weeks in the ICU
On Friday, November 3rd, my Dad picked me up from the airport, then we visited my mom (routine at this point) at the hospital. She was heavily sedated and was sleepy but I told her I was here and would visit the next day just in case she could hear me.
When my Dad and I got home, he told me how much time she had left. Three to six months they said.
Three to six months. I started doing the calculations in my head. It’s November. She’s been in the hospital since the beginning of October. She’ll likely make it through Christmas. Phew.
Oh shit. The wedding celebration. It’s in March. That’s month six. I don’t know about that one. She needs to be there. She planned it, she wanted that for the both of us.
I took this news, swallowed it, digested it, and accepted it all within a few seconds then hugged my weeping father. We were sitting in my old bedroom, the bedroom that she and my dad took since it had a connected bathroom and lower bed to make it easier for her to maneuver. My dad had been sleeping alone in this bed for 6 weeks now.
While holding my dad, I didn’t feel any tears welling up. I felt nothing. I only knew that it was going to be a tough road ahead. We had to tell my little brother. The miracle baby. The baby who was my mom’s blessing because she thought she couldn’t have kids anymore after her first fight with Stage II Breast Cancer at age 29 when I was two years old.
I put on my “strong Raelene, you-have-your-shit-together” hat after not wearing it for a year since my mom was on her way to being seemingly cancer free after that 2016 summer when she was diagnosed and I cared for her.
Here we go again, I thought. But this time, I had a worse feeling because I was already thinking this might be it. There might be an even slimmer chance that she’ll get out of the ICU and be well enough to receive chemo for the cancer that had spread to her brain and was slowly killing her while left untreated. She’s so weak. She’s already been through so much. How much more can her fragile body take? How much more is she willing to fight?
I slept that night, knowing that when I wake up, my world will be once again turned upside-down into a deeper abyss and the way out would either take my mom staying alive or me moving on after her passing.
The next day was a new day. I woke up, had breakfast with my dad, went to pilates, and hung out with my brother. He still didn’t know. My dad and I agreed we’d tell him together, that night after we visit my mom as a family.
It’s now Saturday, Nov 4, 2017. I know this exact date because I have messages that show when I was ready to tell other people about the gravity of what I had learned. Three to six months.
When I spent the day with my brother, it was a happy time. For the first time, I had an opportunity to watch my brother dance live on the stage. When I walked into the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, I couldn’t help but imagine what walking into this place should’ve been like.
My mom was supposed to be holding my hand as we entered the theater. We would’ve looked at the merchandise my brother would want and pay for it together. We would’ve taken a copy of the pamphlet outlining the schedule of events–actually she’d take a few because “memories” right? haha. Then we would’ve proceeded to walk to our seats, me helping her up the steps as she slowly wobbled up to our designated row. We would’ve sat down, talked, and excitedly anticipated the moment when my brother would step on stage.
Instead, I did this all alone. Thinking about how screwed up this situation is. It’s so unfair. My brother loves my mom…how is he going to take this devastating news? She might not even make it to his high school graduation. When she first got diagnosed with Stage IV, they told us she’d live anywhere from 2 months to 2 years. In 2 years from 2016, she would see my brother graduate from high school. She was supposed to be alive and make it. But now, she’s not. Three to six months, I thought to myself again.
As I entered the performance center seats and saw the stage, the energy I felt from the families and friends there was overwhelming. Parents were happy and holding flowers. Grandparents were sitting with their blankets on their laps. Cousins and siblings ran around from seat to seat, arguing which has the best view. My grandpa just passed away and now my mom is going to be gone. What is my family going to look like?
This thought was so painful, so painful that I started to feel tears in my eyes. Wow. Tears. Feelings. That’s nice. I haven’t felt that in awhile. But I withheld from expressing and found my seat and quietly stared at the stage while waiting for the show to start.
I watched my brother dance. He had so much passion on the stage. So many of these kids did. It was their outlet, just like singing and playing the piano and guitar, and doing sports was to me. I was so proud of the little man he was becoming. I now had a duty to be as best of an Ate (older sister) as I can be to him now that I knew my mom wasn’t going to make it much longer.
After his dance competition, we had dinner then drove to the hospital to meet our dad. When we got there, my dad had an update for us from the doctor. In ordered to make it easier for my mom to eat, they wanted to move her feeding tube from her nose and attach it directly to her stomach. She needed to have surgery so she could receive her nutrients and the risk for infection would decrease.
“Okay,” we all said. My mom wanted us to be by her side until she would go into surgery so we stayed together, the three of us until she was prepped and ready for surgery. As we told my mom “see you later” and promised that we would be back when she wakes up, I couldn’t help but think about how bittersweet this picture externally looked. A family together before sending their loved one into another surgery, promising to be there when they woke up. Please wake up and have this surgery be smooth and successful. Please no more complications.
The surgeon said that it could take a few hours until she’s awake and ready to be transported back to her normal Level 1 CCU for recovery. It was already around midnight when we were heading back to the car to wait for her surgery to be finished. My dad and I were planning on telling my brother once we were in the car. He still had no clue in the world how bad my mom’s current state was. Ugh.
While we were walking to the car, I needed to tell my friends what was going on. I knew things were only going to get harder and I needed the support. This is what I sent them:
Knowing they were there gave me the strength I needed to tell my brother.
And so I did. We did. My dad and I did. We told him, “Mom has 3-6 months left. We need to make the most out of it and make her proud. We need to do our best.” As we sat in the car parked in the hospital lot, we started to learn how to be a family of 3.
And so my brother cried. I held him through the heaves and the puffs and the gasps for breath as he took in the information. As I consoled him, I just remember staring at a bush, thinking “Why? My mom was a good person and she loved with honesty. She has so much life to live. Was that not enough for the god she believed in?”
And as we waited for the phone call from the hospital saying that my mom was out of surgery, I just had thoughts. So many thoughts of life, family, and death. I let my brother and my dad sleep while I kept an eye on the car, staying up until 2am until I realized that it had been over the time that the surgeon had quoted.
As much as my dad wanted us to stay there to wait for the phone call, I told him “Mom knows that we are here for her. She’s in good hands. If there was an emergency they would’ve called by now. We all need to sleep and we need to sleep in our beds. Tomorrow is a new day and we will come back after we rest.”
So we went home, I tucked my brother into bed, gave my dad a kiss and assured him that everything is going to be okay in the end, and went to sleep.
The End of November – 8 weeks in the hospital
Fast forward a few weeks and we are now at Thanksgiving week. The week of the best last day. I call it the best last day because the week after the best last day, was the worst last day. It was December 3, 2017 when she died and joined the angels. But that experience is for next week as I continue to reflect and extract memories to share with you and memories to let go of and store in back of my brain so I can move on.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, beginning of November was when we heard the news of her timeline, the middle of November was when her health turned around and started to improve, and a week leading to Thanksgiving weekend was when we were all hopeful she was going to get well enough to be transferred to a rehabilitation facility and be on her way closer to home.
When John and I arrived in LA for Thanksgiving dinner, we were excited at the opportunity of spending that dinner together with family and friends at the rehab center. But when we landed we were notified that my mom needed to go into surgery because there was a tear on her intestine from the feeding tube that was causing internal bleeding and pain.
I was so excited to see her because for the past two weeks, I was getting texts and pictures of her improvement and she even FaceTimed me telling me that she wanted to see me and wanted to see John. So I was visibly upset to find ourselves back at the hospital, in the waiting room, hoping again that there will be no complications and she’ll be fine. This place was getting too familiar and I was hating the situation.
But even though the situation sucked, it was still Thanksgiving and there was still food to be eaten and a great community to celebrate with. So for Levy, we dined and feasted and prayed and laughed at our house.
After a delicious dinner, we all took turns going to the hospital as my mom recovered from the surgery. She was sedated but I was sure she can hear us all.
The next two days were spent in and out of the hospital. I was trying to balance being normal and spending time with high school friends but as soon as my mom woke up from surgery, she begged me to stay by her side. So I did. We all did.
What a great time to know who mattered. I learned through these countless hospital visits what true friendship meant, what family meant and what love in all forms meant. We shared the ICU family waiting room with many other families who were also going through a roller coaster of emotions. But hugs were shared, tissues were shared, food was shared, and for that community, I am thankful we all gave our families that space and respect.
Since my mom’s room was shared with 3 other patients, we were only allowed 2-3 visitors max per patient. But since we had a good relationship with the nurses and since my mom was a good patient, they sometimes would allow visitors in groups of 5-6 as long as we kept quiet and kept it brief.
I have a handful of memories from those two days spent in the hospital: tickling my mom’s feet to make her laugh, holding her hand while she got a PICC line inserted on her chest, sharing laughs with my family in the waiting room, watching John show love for my mom through storytelling, seeing my dad’s constant dedication to my mom even though he was sleep-deprived…I saw it all and I am so damn thankful for all of those memories because those were my last happy memories with my mom.
I do have a few memories I’d like to share with you all, though 🙂
“I am going to be the cutest mother-of-the-bride at your wedding celebration”
In order to keep my mom forward-looking and positive as she fought through the pain of having a tube externally attached to her stomach and recovering from surgery on her intestines, while also healing from her brain surgery two months before, I asked her questions about what she looked forward to when she got out of the hospital.
She said she looked forward to our wedding celebration and wanted to be the cutest mother-of-the-bride there. She’s clever because she also mentioned that of course John’s mom would be the most beautiful mother-of-the-groom there 🙂 She was just that caring and considerate. Bless her.
Of course, in true mom-fashion, she also looked forward to being a grandmother. Although I knew it in my heart that she wouldn’t live that much longer, I gave her that image and moment to take with her. She would’ve been such a loving, fun, and amazing Lola. I know that when the time comes, I’ll make an effort to teach my kids about the amazing woman that she was and would’ve been.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven
During the time when my mom recovered from the worst of the breast cancer to her time in the ICU, she was reading. I gave her a book to read and downloaded it on her iPad but she never really started it.
On my last day in LA before leaving for Seattle after Thanksgiving, I wanted to also prepare my mom for what was to come without making her scared. So I started to read The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. I had an hour left before I needed to leave for the airport and that’s what I wanted to do, was to read this book to her.
I read the book just as she was getting sedated for her pain meds that were administered every 4 hours. She would drift from time to time but I would wake her and make sure she was understanding what the story was about. My dad was there too, listening in and taking in the scene in front of him.
I only made it to the first chapter, and until now I haven’t been able to pick up where I left off as the action of turning the page makes it seem more final that she’s gone and I am not completely ready for that yet.
But it was happy. And I hope that that story gave her peace during her last few days on the earth.
Phew. I know it was a lot, trying condense the main events of November 2017 into one post, but I figured it would be best to leave it all on here before I post next week after celebrated her one year death anniversary on December 3rd.
I hope that these stories of pain and happiness have given you some sort of idea of what it was like to be there with me and my family as we suffered with and showed our love for my mom.
As this weekend approaches and as the reality of what next Monday December 3rd will be like, all I would ask is for you to think of the great almost 51 years of life she lived and spread her kindness to those you meet.
For those who don’t know me, I hope you have learned through reading my story the importance of celebrating the good, seeing the glass half full in the hard times, and knowing that to be human is to recognize the balance of living–of finding the yin to the yang, of discovering and learning and teaching and growing. It’s amazing what we can accomplish through these actions.
No one is perfect, but we can always strive for the best. To be the best. To do your best. My mom always said that. “Just do you best, Anak.”
Until next week, cheers!
Happy Wellness Wednesday!
I plan to release snippets of my reflections and thoughts every Wednesday so as to recharge my mind and prepare for the rest of the week to come. As I sift through my memories and share the good, the bad, and the ugly, my intention is to promote self-care and self-discovery as we walk, crawl, skip, and run through life.
This blog is meant to be an open space where I share my deepest thoughts, while remaining poised for the Internet and to strangers who may not know me but are reading my story.
This is an evolving blog, with the eventual goal to inspire those to share, to be present, to find balance, and to be fearless.
We all have a story and I am choosing to share mine with you all.
Thank you for your interest! Comment below or contact me if you want to chat 🙂