It’s 9:15 a.m. on a Monday, and I’m making my Mimi a bagel. I’m staring at the countertop while I wait, thinking about when I was a little girl and she would make me breakfast. Now, as she slowly but surely succumbs to her stage 4 colon cancer, which has now spread to her brain, we’re all making breakfast for her.
She suddenly breaks into song:
“I’m just wild about Harry! He’s just wild about me!…”
I smile. It’s not the first outburst I’ve heard since I got here yesterday afternoon, and the tune is definitely one that reminds me of her. I ask her what she wants on her bagel — butter and cinnamon. The cinnamon spice container has really large holes. I know it’s going to be a mess. I do my best to distribute it evenly-ish with a spoon.
As I set it in front of her, I see that Harry Connick Jr. is on “Good Morning, America” with a caption that reads, “I’m just wild about Harry.”
“Oh, that’s why you were singing that!” I say, laughing. She looks at me like I’m a moron.
“I think you forgot the cinnamon….” she says.
“Oh… Well, I’ll add more,” I say.
This is my reality for a couple of hours for a couple of days. But it’s my mom’s new reality daily as she watches her mother, my Mimi, slip away. While the official recommendation is to keep her at a facility, she cannot be contained. She even broke out of a rehab facility a few weeks ago (yes, really). She just desperately wants to be at home, so to appease her in the short term, a rotating cast of family members are playing nurse, with my mother as the cruise director, while she still works a full-time job.
But home is still just another prison for Mimi in a lot of ways. She stares listlessly out the window, I’m sure wishing she could drive her red convertible or visit the condo complex’s pool or go shopping. She’s barely mobile, using a walker and often needing assistance getting up and around.
“Oh, how am I going to get out of this hole?” she asks me.
It’s heartbreaking. “One day at a time, Mimi,” I respond, the mantra all of us are muttering to ourselves to get through each passing day. Later, my mom tells me she asks this a lot. Of course no one wants to tell her the truth: You won’t.
It’s a dismal diagnosis. She’s in her mid-70s (Mimi would never want me to reveal her true age, even now). It’s in her brain. There’s no going back. From here forward, we are following a path that is at best flat, before it steadily declines. It’s reality.
It’s hard to watch this happen to a woman so beautiful, so commanding, so full of life. Someone who doesn’t take “no” for an answer when they want something. Even now. But there are things on the horizon even she cannot control or overcome. There are going to be hard “nos” on many things.
But for now, we take each day as it comes. We try to be upbeat and appreciate any time we have left. It’s hard. You can see the internal struggle in her eyes. She’s not ready to go, to succumb to this monster. She’s frustrated and angry. She throws fits, much like a child, when she doesn’t have what she wants. We’re all trying to breathe and be patient. How would you feel?
The phone rings. It’s a man, Al, who would like to visit this afternoon. A gentleman caller?! Of course. Cancer cannot snuff out the regal woman painted in a portrait hanging on the wall behind her. I remember the day she was painted. My brother and I were at her house. I remember her getting all dressed up and posing on the couch while they painted. To me, she was a movie star.
I tell her Al will be by later. She puts her hand on my arm. “We have to put my face on.” I smile and nod. “Of course.”
Later, after meeting a friend and running some errands while another family member takes over, I collapse on the couch at my parents’ house in sobs. I’m there to clean, as my mom is spending more and more time at her mom’s house, going straight from work, packing a suitcase for days. It’s the least I can do. But right now, I cannot get up from the couch. I stare into space. My heart constricts. Why the hell did I move 8 hours away?! What am I doing?! I feel awful. I haven’t been home since spring 2015. I don’t know what I was thinking. Did I think I’d just have unlimited time?
I know these thoughts are not helpful and largely unnecessary, but I have them anyway. I pull myself up and begin straightening. It’s therapeutic. My dad comes home from work and we make dinner together. I was going to spend the night at home and leave from there in the morning, but after spending time at Mimi’s with my mom, I know they both need my support. Dad and I talk about the road ahead. I look him in the eye: “It’s going to be hard. Really hard. Ask her what you can do to help. We all have to come together now.” He uses humor as a primary coping mechanism. I acknowledge that’s important, too, but he has to supplement with other ways to support mom aside from making jokes. He nods.
When I return to Mimi’s, the new season of “Dancing with the Stars” is about to begin. Everyone seems to be in good spirits. I pour a glass of wine, noting the bottle my Mimi has is the exact same bottle I was drinking at home last week. Great minds.
“That looks good,” she says longingly as I sit next to her. She has her own glass of red in front of her, albeit untouched. Maybe she wishes she had the desire to drink it. I’m not sure. As I sip my wine and we judge the contestants from the couch, in this moment, everything is OK. The three of us together, sipping wine, watching people dance. It’s all normal.
After the show we go to bed; we’re all drained in our own way. I’m leaving to go back to Wisconsin tomorrow. As my mom and I settle into bed upstairs, I hear Mimi coughing through the baby monitor. I fall asleep.
Another morning, another messy cinnamon bagel.
My mom hasn’t left for work yet. “Alyssa!” she whispers from the other side of the kitchen, motioning for me to come over. She smiles and covers her mouth: “She has your shoes on! I don’t know why!” She doubles over trying to contain her laughter.
I turn around. She sure does. I was planning to wear those shoes home today. I’m not sure how this is going to go. We eat breakfast and my cousin comes. I go upstairs to get dressed and pack up. I decide I’m going to leave the shoes. If she’s comfortable in them, I can’t take that away from her. They’re just shoes. Sandal season is about done, anyway.
When I come back downstairs, they’re out on the patio, and she has slippers on. My shoes are by the door. I think about leaving them, but I take them.
When my mom left for work, she said “Focus on driving; be careful.” I know what she means. Don’t think about it all. Don’t break down.
I say my goodbyes, telling her I’ll see her again soon. I will. I have 2 more visits planned this fall. But in my mind I know I may or may not get to see her again. We just don’t know.
I make it about 5 miles before the first of several crying bouts begins. I just don’t know a world without my Mimi in it. She is one of a kind.
As I cross into Indiana, the pull from my childhood home begins to dim and I begin to feel the pull to my new home. This is where I belong. I know that. But driving around town those past few days, seeing all the changes, taking in how beautiful it really is, I wonder how I could have left it all behind. It’s all foreign and yet familiar.
I’m so thankful I got those days with her. I don’t know how many more I will get. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep singing. She’d want it that way. One of our favs:
If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to
why don’t you go where fashion sits
Puttin’ on the Ritz.
I love you, Mimi.