When Frances was ninety-one. I experienced yet another recurrence of breast cancer (in both breasts) and was unable to travel to Portland or visit her for several months while my immune system was compromised by surgery, chemotherapy and staph infections. During that time her assisted living facility in Portland began to deteriorate and fell well below the standard of care they had previously provided. Without my regular oversight, Frances was neglected and ignored. It was clear that she was depressed and becoming increasingly isolated. My siblings called her regularly and read her stories, but they all lived in other cities, unable to visit. My youngest sister, Anne, also had breast cancer, and was in treatment. A mutual friend, Beach, who had studied the Course in one of Frances’ group twenty years earlier, learned about her loneliness. From then on he showed up every Thursday without fail, and took Frances out for maple bars and coffee. He was a virtual lifesaver. An angel.
As soon as I was able, I moved Frances to a facility near my home on the coast, where the level of care was all that one could hope for. At the same time, Anne began a downward slide in her own battle with breast cancer.
During Frances’ year in her new facility, the final year of her life, she called me five or six times a day. I visited her at least once a week, and for special occasions, or to take her to doctor appointments, or I brought her to my house for a visit or party. My friends didn’t understand my involvement with my mother. Their mothers had already died, or were only a distant presence in their lives. They thought I was obsessed, and needed to, as usual, “get a life.” Anne asked me, in a musing sort of way, “Judy, don’t you wish you could be as casual about taking care of Mom as we are?” The question jolted me. How did my siblings do that? They sometimes stepped up when I was unable to be involved, but that slacked off as soon as I was healthy again. Why was I “the one”—the chosen one, obviously, to be my mother’s caregiver? There was no answer. It seemed predestined, a contract I was unable to break, though I had tried to several times.
Frances had a set of cards with ACIM quotes, and one that she kept by her chair was this one: “Under His teaching, every relationship becomes a lesson in love.” I was learning a lesson in love. Love that endures when a person becomes difficult to love, and there are no answers that satisfy.
During that final year I completed the novel I had worked on for years, and recovered from cancer and treatment. I did have a life, I assured myself, though it revolved around Frances’ needs and demands and phone calls and emotional meltdowns. If I tried to design a class or a group that would allow me to use my training, skills and gifts, “something” stopped me. I couldn’t get interested, let alone committed. Apparently, the only way I could be of service was with Frances, and by volunteering at her facility—every Monday I read to a group of residents, from one of the books she had written, which pleased Frances immensely.
Her nightmares worsened. She began to call me at two or three a.m., in a state of angry panic—“They won’t let me eat breakfast!” or “They won’t help me get dressed!” and “They say I have to go back to bed!” The middle-of-the-night alarm of the telephone followed by the trivial, childish complaint became a pattern. If I tried to reason with her, her stubborn resistance escalated. If I spoke to her as if she were five years old and told her she could stay up if she wanted to, she calmed down. If I didn’t hear the phone, she called Jenny or sometimes, my brother Wes. If she couldn’t reach any of us she became unmanageable.
“I just want to die,” was her mantra for that last year. “Just let me die.” Sometimes I could soothe her out of it, but sometimes not. “I’m going to walk to the ocean and keep on walking.” Or, “I’m going to just stop eating.” She couldn’t get far on foot—she used a walker, which she pushed at a fast clip, but she tired easily, and her balance was shaky. She couldn’t just stop eating. The facility allowed her to order her favorite foods from a menu, so she ordered strawberry waffles with whipped cream and ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and often, dinner. She asked me to bring miniature cream puffs when I visited, which I did. A bag or box of candy disappeared in hours. She had dessert at lunch and dinner, even if she’d already had a strawberry waffle as her main course. When one of us took her out to breakfast or lunch, she insisted we go to the Pig ‘N’ Pancake, where they had the best strawberry waffles. She lived on sugar.
For a few months Jenny and I took over transporting Anne from Mt. Angel to Portland for weekly chemotherapy treatments, until it was clear that there were no more treatments available and Anne went home, on hospice, and we spent time helping her there. During this time Frances became increasingly difficult to manage—she was belligerent, angry, or silent and withdrawn. At first we thought she didn’t fully comprehend how seriously ill Anne was, because she turned away and changed the subject when we brought it up. But often in a conversation she would surprise us with the question, “How is Anne?” Her grief was palpable, and inconsolable.
Anne died on February 2, 2010. Jenny and I together told Frances, who dissolved in grief. Later we took her to the Pig ‘N’ Pancake, where a strawberry waffle gave her temporary comfort. But during the following six weeks, she called me nearly 100 times, often sobbing. She wanted to die, she wanted to die, please help her die. She wanted to be with Tim and Anne, she was tired of living, please help her die.
My entire focus for fourteen years had been to help my mother have a reasonably happy and comfortable life in spite of her increasing dementia and sadness. I couldn’t turn that on a dime. I couldn’t help her die.
On March 13, 2010, Frances fell and broke her hip. We followed the ambulance to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, where she had surgery to pin the break, early the following morning.
The next seventeen days were a journey of revelation and healing, for me, for Jenny, and for Frances.
What follows is a condensation of my diary of those weeks.