A Difficult Time

Ten days ago my mother passed away, on her ninetieth birthday. She'd had health problems for many years but always overcame them. We called her Iron Woman because it seemed nothing could take her down. Over the past twenty years there were a lot of hospital stays with congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and various surgeries. A few years ago she suffered a massive heart attack after knee surgery. Her blood pressure hit rock bottom, causing the doctor to call the family in, but, amazing everyone of us, she came back. She stayed in the hospital for 3 months, then went home and picked up her life again.

This past winter she had several mini-strokes, her heart further deteriorated, her kidneys began to fail and she was diagnosed with the beginnings of dementia. She was in the hospital for 6 long months this time, with not one of the medical staff believing she would ever go home again. Surprise! She did go home and spent 7 more weeks surrounded by her own things and visited by family members before having the stroke that finally ended her life. The truth is we had all gotten used to the idea that she could survive any crisis, so we were stunned when this time, her body failed her.

It really doesn't matter what age a person is or how sick they are, you are just never ready to lose them. I'm feeling the awful truth of these words from Gustave Flaubert: "There is always after the death of anyone a kind of stupefaction; so difficult is it to grasp the advent of nothingness and to resign ourselves to believe in it.It's the nothingness in her place that is so hard to comprehend. Will I ever get used to it? I miss calling her. I miss her voice. I miss her face.

After the graveside service I came home to a package sitting on my back steps; the post office had delivered the Christmas gift I'd ordered for her. I had taken an old photograph of the five of us kids sitting on the front steps of my grandmother's house back in the 1950's and had it woven into a throw. She was always cold and I thought she'd enjoy having this reminder of her - and our - younger days on her lap on chilly winter evenings. It turned out better than I'd ever dreamed it would and I want so much to show it to her. I want to see the look of surprise and hear her exclaim how much she loves it. I want what I'm never going to have again in this life.  

We had her for ninety years, making us much more fortunate than some who lose their mothers earlier. I know that, and I'm grateful, but it doesn't really help. It doesn't change the incomprehensible fact that she was here and now she's not. That she'll never be here again. Never. There are consolations, of course. I know she's in Heaven and that I'll see her again, and when I do it will be without all the little personality differences and idiosyncrasies that caused us to get on each other nerves at times. Our love for each other will be perfected, a day I look forward to a great deal. But that's not now.

For now, we'll try to get used to this. We'll try to adjust. We'll cry and we'll remember and we'll tell stories and cry some more. We'll check in on each other to see how everyone is doing, particularly my sister, who was my mother's caregiver and closest friend for many years. We'd had a small family party planned for the day she passed away; not many make it to ninety years old and she was proud of the accomplishment. We did each get to say Happy Birthday to her, not really knowing if she heard or understood. I think she knows and is glad that we were all there; I believe it's what she would have chosen for her final day.

I'm glad you're in perfect health again, Mum. I'm glad you've been re-united with your parents, brothers, and sisters. I'm glad you're experiencing that greatest of joys: seeing Jesus face to face, and I wouldn't wish you back here to suffer for one more minute. You entered Heaven on your birthday, a wonderful day for you but a hard one for us. We miss you.

P.S.  We ate your cake.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My goodness, what an great story. A fascinating combination of science and personal interest. Far better, and quite a bit different, than what I was expecting. And now I really must get back to writing in complete sentences.

Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31, just a few months after being diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. A wife, and mother of 5 children, one just a few months old, her family didn't find out until 20 years later that her cells were being used for research at laboratories all over the world. Those cells, labeled HeLa from the first two letters of her first and last names, had been reproduced millions of times and were responsible for some of the most important medical developments of the century.

Rebecca Skloot spent ten years doing thousands of hours of research and interviews with Henrietta's family and doctors in an attempt to make her story public. She manages to explain the science in a way that is fairly easy for a non-scientist to understand and still tell the deeply personal story of Henrietta's family. Most of her family contact was with Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who put her off for a long time because she and her brothers felt they couldn't trust anybody to tell them the truth.

This book raises a lot of ethical questions about the use of human cells without the patient's permission. Who owns those cells - the patient, the family, the researchers who use them to advance medical science, or the corporations who multiply them millions of times over for sale at a profit? It also takes a realistic look at the suffocating effects of poverty and the lingering consequences of slavery and discrimination for black families even now. It's not always an easy story to read, but it is worth it.

I had read a few unflattering reviews that suggested the story was being told for the sole purpose of making the family some money, but I can't see how that is accurate at all. The family doesn't seem to have received anything, a situation I still have reservations about. So much benefit has come from Henrietta's cells, yet her family couldn't afford medical insurance to pay for needed procedures. Is that right? I don't know, but I'm glad I read the story. I met some great characters who have given me a lot to think about.