This is part one of a series I’m working on. Stay tuned for the rest.
These days it’s hard to look around and not noticed someone somewhere asking you to join their cause and fight for this, or fight for that. As a young child I remember wanting to be a doctor that cured cancer at one point of my young impressionable life. I never knew the irony of that until today. July 7th, 2012 my mother lost her long drawn out fight to what started as colon cancer, and I lost my grandfather, her father, to liver cancer September 26th, 2012. They both fought this extraordinary fight, with every ounce they could muster up, they fought.
February 7th, 2010 my husband and I discovered that we were expecting that September. After our appointment with the doctor we went to the hospital where my mother had been admitted into for stomach pains; that were originally diagnosed as diverticulitis. When I got there my grandfather and grandmother were both there sitting by my mother’s side. I didn’t really think too much of it, since we were about to tell my mom that she was going to be a grandma finally, but something inside of me still didn’t give right, because it was rare for my grandparents to make the long trip from South West Avondale to Central Phoenix where the hospital was. Moments after telling my mom that she was going to have a grandchild to spoil in the coming months, her on call doctor came in with scan results, and news that would shatter our family.
I could sense the doctors hesitation when he walked into the small cramped room where we had piled in with my grandparents, my step father, my husband and myself. Before he even uttered one word I knew something was not right. Looking back at that moment, as if it happened just yesterday, I can barely make out the words that followed, “I’m sorry Mrs Guttery, the tests reveal that it is colon cancer…….” Grasping to hear what was really being said, and pinching myself hoping I was having a God awful “pregnancy” dream, I was able to cue in on, “You might have 3-6 months at best……” and then I was out again suffering my lost in my head.
My mother is incredibly stubborn; both a blessing and a curse trait I got from her. I never could understand why God allowed my husband and I to have many failed pregnancy attempts, losses, and why He would gift us with a child now! I was on the brink of losing my mother! How could I possibly enjoy the beauty that is child bearing and birth? In retrospect I understand God’s plan was so that she could fight, that she would fight. My mom needed something, some goal someone to fight for. Her children were all grown up, leading our own lives, she was not “needed”, or so she thought. The prospect of a grand baby to her meant some little being would need her unconditional love and spoiling. So, my mother fought. Clasped lung after the next, needle after needle, chemo therapy, radiation, alternative medicines, and surgery one right after another. There wasn’t anything she turned down if it meant only giving her one more day; because one more day to shower her children and grand children with love was better than no more days.
My mother looked at the doctor, and told him, “No, in your charts I may have 3-6 months at best, but in my head, I am already at the birth of that child, and I will be there at any other grand baby births. Cancer can not have me, not now, not yet, and I will fight it. I will go red lady on it if I have to, but Cancer can not have me.” Completely shocked at what I just heard my mother say, I knew she would not go anywhere, and that she would fight this, that she had a reason to fight it now, that she had a goal, and there’s nothing more dangerous than giving that women a goal!
My mother made it to see my oldest son Jayden born, after which the doctors again told her that she wouldn’t see his first birthday. With the same unrelenting gull she told them wait and see. My mom not only made it to see his first birthday, but she planned nearly all of it! (Her doing, not mine, despite my repeated pleas to relax and let me be in control. I apparently was doing it wrong, and my mom said she could do it best.)
A few days after my oldest sons first Birthday we found out again that we were expecting our second later that Spring. Recent scans of my mothers body and cancer revealed an ugly truth. She had gotten worse and not better. The cancer was spreading like a wild fire, and had grown into her esophagus and lungs, slowly approaching her breasts. Once again we stood in the hospital room telling my mother that she was going to have another grand child to spoil. Again, the doctor came in and told her there was absolutely no way she was making it to see this child born, that her only option at this point would be pain management. Holding onto hope that her second grand baby was a girl, she looked the doctor dead square in the face and said, “No, we will keep fighting until the last breath I take, we will fight.”
The next 9 months were riddled with intense chemo, radiation, alternative drugs and therapies, where my mom was constantly sick, and constantly weak, and frequently unable to leave her bed. My mom knew the end was drawing near, but she never leaked the truth to me; she only ever confined in my husband and my mother in law. I was livid when I found out that everyone knew, but I had no clue. Those months I watched my beautiful mother shrink down into this frail lady, and age about 20 years before my eyes. I did not care, the fact was she was still my mother, and I still loved her and needed her to help me be a mother and raise my children. Despite all of the evidence falling into my lap, I never imagined what would come next.
I was admitted into the hospital after being closely monitored with my child in my womb. I was pre exclampsic and within 24 hours went from pre-e to full on exclampsia and right into toxemia. My mother was scared to death that she was losing one or both of us. I told her it was no big deal, that the doctor had it under control, I was being induced to have him a little early and that all was fine. Against my strong advice to stay home and rest, that I would have someone bring her once active labor started, she insisted that at 12:30pm that my husband come get her so that she could be with me. She had, had chemo treatment that day being that it was a Friday; so she was chemo sick badly.
When she finally got there, she got super sick, and had a lot of pain. The hospital ended up admitting her into the hospital two floors up on the cancer floor, while I labored away in labor and delivery. My mom was not there in the room when my second son made his debut. We frantically tried figuring out how we could get to her floor to let her see her new grand baby, or get her into the post pardum floor to see him. After some softened hearts at the hospital, it was arranged so that she could come down to where I was at to meet her new grand baby.
From that day forward there was only one day that my mother didn’t feel pain all day. Where she could relax and enjoy herself and her grand children. That was on Father’s Day, the day we dedicated our youngest son to the Lord at our church. The days following Father’s day on June 17th, 2012, would be the hardest and worst days she would endure. The cancer rapidly conquered organ after organ, memory after memory, and took time away from us like it was something you could just freely give away with out consequence. Frequently I wanted to go see my mom, she wouldn’t allow it because she knew I had to bring my babies with me and she didn’t want to scare them, or allow them to remember her that way; sick, tubes, wires, etc. She wanted them to have a full loving memory of her.
We had planned a family vacation with my mom the weekend of July 5th-8th. We were all suppose to pile up in the car and go to Sea world. My mother loved dolphins and wanted to so badly see Jayden’s expressions as he got to see the sea life that we all looked at in his children’s books. My mom could not go because it was time for her to go into hospice. I didn’t want to accept it or believe it but my mother was slipping away.
I remember asking her several times in person on that Thursday night before we left is she was okay, if she wanted us to cancel and or post pone our trip for another time so that she could go. I texted her several more times asking the same thing. She called me as we were leaving early Friday morning and asked me what we were doing, I told her that we were already half way to California from our Arizona home. I asked her what was wrong and if she wanted us to turn around and come back home. She stubbornly reassured me that she was okay and that everything was okay, to go and enjoy the vacation with my husband and children and that we could talk when I got home. Like my mother I stubbornly accepted that would be the reality and truth in the coming days, when I returned home.
Knowing how badly I wanted my mother there with us, and how badly she wanted to be there with us, I frequently uploaded pictures to her facebook page for her, and between my phone and my husbands phone I texted her images to look at. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother was in the process of dying while we were enjoying ourselves at Sea World. My mother made everyone swear not to tell me, that she didn’t want me to remember this trip as a painful one. I called her frequently and talked to her while at Sea world, I texted her. We talked about Jayden’s excitement, and how I was enjoying watching him enjoy himself; especially with the dolphins like his grandma. My phone died. However, just before my phone died, my step dad called, and he told me that if I had anything at all that I wanted to tell my mom, that this was my last chance to do so!
I was totally unprepared, and shocked. I didn’t know what to say and so I kept stumbling over my words. I was in disbelief, my mother sounded fine the day before when we were leaving town, and the night before that when I went to see her. Heck she sounded fine that morning when I called to tell her we were leaving our hotel room for Sea world! What had happened in those few hours I will never know. I know now that it was my mother’s grand plan this entire time to make it so I would not see her die. She did not want me to remember her that way. I must have told her a thousand times that I loved her. I tried to smile as my husband took photographs of me talking on the phone, while one child slept in the stroller and the other child ran around the Shamu Splash Park playing. I knew she could hear my oldest son playing, laughing and having a good time, and that it brought her joy to hear that. But I wasn’t ready for my mommy to go just yet!
Thursday night at the Hospice center we had a conversation in which I told her that I didn’t want her to be in pain. That I know she was hurting and that if she felt she couldn’t go on any longer, then she could let go. I basically told her it was okay to die. Silly me, I never thought it would happen! I thought I was doing the noble oldest child be strong for her mother act! I thought I was heartfelt about it! I even told her I would not be angry or upset if she let go. It was in that exact moment, standing in the middle of the Shamu Splash park watching my oldest son play, listening to my youngest son snore, and watching my husband snap pictures that I wanted so badly to eat my words. Truth was, I was angry, I was angry at God for doing this to her, to me, to us, to our family, to my boys, and to the world. I was angry because I wasn’t there, I even felt guilty over it! Why wasn’t I there when my mother needed me most echoed in my head and still does to this day! I was angry because my mom was being robbed of time to be a grandmother, and my small 22 month old and 2 month old sons were being robbed of a grandmother. I was angry for a lot of reasons, but mostly I was angry because I never wanted to see the truth from the beginning, and the truth was, that no matter what, my mom was going to die.
Some days I feel like this walking empty shell of a person, and some days I want to just crawl under a rock and give up. However, my mother’s voice is strong in me, and I hear her tell me, no not tell me, YELL at me, “Get up! Get up April! Give those boys the biggest hugs and the wettest kisses! Get up April and live! Life is not over for you! Get up! I’m still here! Listen to me and Get up!” That was my mother’s saying, to give the boys the biggest hugs and the wettest kisses. That Thursday night she made me promise to give them the biggest hugs and the wettest kisses every day of their lives. Every day when we wake up in the morning and before they lay down for nap or for bed at night I ask them, “Where is mommies kiss and hug?” Then I “attack them, lovingly of course in play, “Attack of the kisses and hugs from gma! (grandma)” I tell mom when it’s just the two of us sitting up late at night reflecting, doing work, or homework, that I’m following through on my promises I made her, but I still want to hear her voice, or feel her arms hug me.
It never get’s “easier” like they say, it just gets different with another point of view and different obstacles to over come, but for me it never gets easier. Especially when I look down into the beautiful faces of my boys and see her while thinking of the memories she’s missing out on! I think of the milestones she’s missing, and the impending birthday’s she wont be a part of. I do small things like wear purple for her, her color on holidays, it’s my way of having mom with me. I try to swallow the fact that, “She’s in a better place”, but Lord, if I hear that one more time I think I might just shove it back down into the throat of who said it. Sure, she’s not in pain any longer, but is she really in a “better place”. Because from my point of view, her better place would be here spoiling the tar out of her grand babies!
So when I sit here and look at the different causes to fight for, and the different ribbons there are for the different cancers, I find myself asking, what are we doing to document this process of death? Why are there not more photos of this process? Go ahead do a google image search and you will find that there are few to no images of this process? Why is that? Why fight when we know we are going to lose? How do you get happy for those who do win the fight and get to survive? It’s because most are like myself. It makes you lose everything and if you are a photographer like myself, the idea of snapping a photo means it’s real, it’s real in some way or form, that photo symbolizes truth, and truth is reality. I snapped very few photos and hardly touched my camera. I didn’t want this to be reality, and I thought that if I don’t snap these photos then it can’t be real, that there was still room for hope. But is there? What difference would it have made? In the end, my mother would have still lost her battle?
No, we fight because we care, we fight because we have hope, and we fight because if we don’t, then who will?
In my heart always, giving your grandbabies the biggest hugs and wettest kisses from here until my last breath, I love you mom, RIP: Thelma Dale Guttery 1965-2012 Colon Cancer. 269 days gone, but never forgotten. All my love mama!
This is the link to my latest projects still in the works, exploring my creative outlook on the process and grief stages I am going through.