Love Your Mother… While You Can

I WROTE THIS BLOG TWO YEARS AGO ABOUT LOSING MY MOM TO CANCER IN LATE-1995. I HAVE POSTED IT EVERY MOTHER’S DAY SINCE, AND WILL CONTINUE TO DO SO. PLEASE LOOK IT OVER AND EMBRACE THE MESSAGE WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND SOUL.

TORONTO (May 8th, 2011) – In this sports town of ours, it is common to speak – numerically – in terms of a deficit. For example, we know the Maple Leafs have gone 43 seasons without playing in the Stanley Cup final. Baseball fans are all too aware that the Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs in 17 years, after winning their second World Series title in 1993. History buffs will remember the Argonauts somehow failing to win the Grey Cup over 31 seasons (1952-83) in a nine-team league.

My deficit has nothing to do with sports. As of this afternoon, it stands at 15 years, four months and seven days. That’s how long it has been since I had a mom. Jan. 1, 1996: the date will be seared into my memory for as long as my memory lasts. This deficit will go on forever. And that’s why it is so important for those of you that still have a mom to spend extra time with her today; to tell her how much you love her; how important she is; how selfless she is, and how your world has been shaped – through good times and bad – by her unconditional devotion.

You’re one lucky dude (or dudess) if you still have a mom… doubly so if she’s in good health. I had that privilege for nearly 37 years, until my mom – Sandee – got a death-sentence. I remember that date, too: Nov. 8, 1995… the worst day, to this point, of my life. Not that I was expecting favorable news, mind you; our family and friends were all anticipating the worst, and we got it – like a George Foreman wallop to the solar-plexus.

In mid-September of that year, mom was at the beauty salon when her hair-dresser noticed a small bump on the back of her scalp. Mom went to the doctor a few days later and was told the bump was “probably nothing”, but to keep an eye on it. Not long after, she developed a backache, which wasn’t particularly worrisome; mom had always carried a bit more weight than her frame required, and aching backs are common among people of all ages. In late-October, my diary-book on the Leafs 1994-95 lockout-shortened season On The Road was released. I brought a copy to my parents’ house in North York and waited for mom to arrive from doing some chores.

Certain images in our lives get locked into the mind forever, and the sight of mom walking up the front steps of her house that day is a haunting one to me. The grimace of pain as she negotiated those five stairs – bent slightly back with an awkward side-to-side gait – had me concerned. Typically, whatever discomfort she felt – and we later found out how enormous it must have been – disappeared from her face when I presented her a copy of the book; she always reveled in any success I achieved. Moments later, she said she needed to take a hot bath, as her back was extremely sore; the chiropractic treatments hadn’t been working too well.

Thinking nothing of it, we all went on with our lives.

At the beginning of November, I covered a Maple Leafs road trip to Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton over a four-night span. Arriving home from Edmonton on Sunday afternoon (Nov. 5), my wife, Susan, picked me up at Pearson Airport – joining me around the luggage carousel as we waited for my bags to appear. On the drive home, she said, “I’ve got something a bit scary to tell you,” informing me that mom had coughed up blood several times while I was on the trip. To this day, I have only once in my life slammed on the brakes in the middle of a wide-open highway.

“She’s dead!”

I’ll never forget those words involuntarily escaping my throat. In a fraction of a second it hit me… the inexplicable, sub-conscious feeling of doom I’d been trying to escape for several weeks suddenly made horrifying sense. Mom didn’t have a “probably nothing” bump on her scalp and the knifing pain in her back – immune to chiropractic and strong medication – wasn’t a muscle issue. The coughed-up blood sealed it: she had cancer – in her lungs, her back, her bones and God-knows where else (as if it mattered).

Oh, the anguish of that week. We didn’t need an MRI to tell us what we already knew, nor did mom – the calmest among us. Though she didn’t say so until later, she had accepted her fate well before the official diagnosis: a massive tumor on her spine – likely originating in the lung – that had spread to her bones (thus the scalp lesion).

I’ll always remember how bravely and resolutely mom looked her oncologist in the eye as he delivered the heart-wrenching news: “Mrs. Berger, we have no cure for this. We’ll try to prolong things as best we can but we’re talking weeks-to-months, not months-to-years.”

I recall the brief silence that followed; how mom glanced over at us with a half-smile, half-grimace on her face and an almost imperceptible shrug. How she looked at the floor seconds later; shook her head, and gently said, “Fuck” – which turned out to be the extent of her self-sympathy. From that transitional moment; a moment so absolute in every sense of the word – and until she fell into a coma seven weeks later – my remarkable, dying mom held her family together.

She did so through a difficult operation – an elective procedure that enabled her to use her extremities for whatever time she had left. Surgeons removed a softball-size tumor, and as much of its root-growth as they could, from her spinal column, allowing her to grasp a knife and fork at the dinner table a bit longer… with full and devastating assurance the tumor would redevelop in all its nastiness.

Once recovered enough from surgery to return home, mom experienced a brief though blissful stretch of purgatory – a fortnight during which her recurring spinal growth was asymptomatic. We had family dinners; laughed and joked as best we could – always wondering when that inevitable “other shoe” would drop.

Once it did, it carried the weight of an anvil.

Mom suffered through debilitating muscle spasms, as the cancer attacked her spine once again. To this day, I don’t know how I grew accustomed to that agonizing wail down the hall in her bedroom… but I did. Though I wanted so desperately to run as far as humanly possible from that hideous sound, I couldn’t… and wouldn’t.

Yet, when she finally; mercifully succumbed to her disease, I was nowhere near her side.

Three nights before she passed away – on Friday, Dec. 29, 1995 – mom shocked all of us by snapping out of her narcotic-induced pallor. I had spent the entire day lying by her side, holding her hand, as she comfortably tripped out on Morphine; mumbling recollections of her childhood on a farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This was hardened proof of a person’s life flashing before her eyes in the shadow of death.

Around 7:30 p.m., I was watching a TV program when I suddenly heard, “Hi How”. I snapped around; did a double-take like never before, and said, “Mom?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” she smiled.

I walked over to her side of the bed – wondering if I were in a dream – and fell to my knees. “How is this possible… you haven’t been lucid in almost a week?” I asked, hugging her gently; tears streaming down my face. That, by the way, is something she wouldn’t tolerate… not from me, anyway. Whenever I began to cry in her presence, she flashed me a wordless look – forefinger wagging – that demanded I stop, or leave the room. Some choice, huh? Choking back the tears, I called for my dad and sister. They, too, couldn’t believe their eyes.

We spent the next couple of hours talking with mom as if her struggle had been a nasty joke. She wasn’t in pain; wasn’t in a stupor, and seemed capable of popping out of bed for a trip to the supermarket. How the hell was this happening? At one point in the conversation, she enquired about my job, surely unaware I’d missed an inordinate amount of work in the prior three weeks. I told her the Leafs were in the midst of a four-game road trip that would finish on the weekend in St. Louis and Dallas, but nothing about hockey or work mattered much.

“Why don’t you go to those last two games?” she asked, encouragingly. “I’ll be here when you get home.”

“What if you’re not?” I replied, half-idiotically.

“I’ll be here,” she softly repeated. “You have a job to do.”

With that, a palliative-care doctor entered the house. Having attended to dying patients many times over, he was only mildly surprised to see mom chatting with us. After he examined her, I pulled the doctor into an adjacent room and asked for his opinion on attending the Leaf games in St. Louis and Dallas.

“Will she be alive when I get home?” I asked, pointedly.

“Well, I’m not God,” he replied, probably for the thousandth time to a family member. “But, she does seem to have stabilized for the moment. If she’s encouraging you to go, I think you should consider it.”

Double-checking with mom, she seemed almost insistent that I go. Dad signed off on it, too. I called Air Canada and booked a flight to St. Louis for early the next morning. Then, a return to Toronto from Dallas with American Airlines on Monday night (I would fly on the Leafs’ charter from St. Louis to Dallas after Saturday’s game).

Needing suddenly to pack a suitcase, I went in to see mom. Head slightly propped on a pillow, she extended her arms to me. “Go do your work,” she urged. “I love you very much.”

It was the last time I saw her alive.

Less than four days later, I stood above an open grave and shoveled dirt onto my mother’s coffin; I had dreaded the hollow, gut-wrenching sound it would make when the soil hit the top of the polished wood, but I survived.

The moral of this story – melancholy though it may be – involves the most basic of parental instincts: to protect a child.

Mom didn’t want me to cry in front of her.

And, she didn’t want to die in front of me.

Moments after landing in St. Louis on that Saturday morning, I called home. Dad answered and said mom had taken a serious turn for the worse. She was unresponsive and her swallow reflex no longer worked. “The doctor says her organs will shut down pretty soon,” he informed me. Wishing only to return to Toronto on the same plane, dad would have none of it. “No, How… your mom wants you to get back to work. We’ll stay in touch, don’t worry.”

What a woman… encourages me to travel for work so I won’t be there when she lets go. And she let go – as it turned out – almost as soon as I left the house on Friday night.

“She didn’t want you to see her die,” dad later confirmed. “She just didn’t.

These memories are painful to recall. They do not, however, overwhelm the years of love and interaction with the greatest woman I’ve ever known. When I think of mom today, I remember how she lived much more than how she died. I also remember the repeated warnings from family members and doctors about her three-packs-a-day smoking vice.

We could have talked forever. There was no way she’d quit.

And that’s why she accepted her fate – stubbornly and bravely. “I knew what I was doing,” mom told me during her brief illness. “I just never thought it would happen to me.”

In the end, it will happen to all of our moms – one way or another. That’s why this day, in particular, is so important. On Mother’s Day each year, we’re provided a reason to say all the schmaltzy things we assume our moms take for granted.

Don’t take anything for granted.

Walk up to your mom – so full of life – and wrap your arms around her like an angry bear. Tell her, in no uncertain terms, how important she is; how meaningful life is because of her, and how you could never love another person quite the same way.

Go ahead… do it. Don’t waste a precious moment. That lady with the sparkle in her eyes won’t be there forever.

I know.

I’ve lived it.

And, damn, do I miss that sparkle.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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