Cooking with Myra: Mother's passing painful, but friend's recipe helps
By Myra Starkey
July 24, 2012 at 2:24 a.m.
Updated Sept. 3, 2012 at 4:03 a.m.
My mother gave me many gifts during her life, but perhaps the most important is the gift of grace. Although her standards and expectations were high, she seemed to understand what others were capable of and didn't push them beyond that.
She recognized that no one was perfect, including herself, and so she wasn't too hard on them if they fell a bit short. At the same time, she was always there to encourage others to pick themselves up and do the best they could. It wasn't what she told me, but rather what she showed me. It was how she treated me and others she interacted with.
This past week has been one of the hardest in my 51 years because I watched my mother take her last breath. It was only two months ago that she developed major shortness of breath and was found to have fluid on her right lung. Closer examination revealed that it contained cancer cells. An extensive work-up uncovered a large ovarian tumor that had already spread and was likely not curable.
My mom was 78, yet she decided to fight the tumor with aggressive chemotherapy. After the first round, her hands and feet were numb, which caused her much difficulty with walking. Her nausea lasted for almost two weeks. Her appetite returned for just a few days before she returned for round two of chemo.
After about two days, her nausea returned in a major way and she stopped eating or drinking. This resulted in her becoming weak and dehydrated. She fell at home and my dad couldn't get her up, so he called the ambulance. That was last Friday morning.
My dad called from Lake Charles and asked me to come. He needed me and even if he did not use those exact words I could feel the desperation in his voice. She was beginning to bleed because her platelets had been knocked out by the chemo that was intended to fight her cancer and leave her intact.
Or maybe the chemo had destroyed her white blood cells and she was being overwhelmed by infection. It did not seem that the doctors knew for sure. Whatever it was, her strength and her ability to live were being consumed. She was on a respirator in the intensive care unit by that evening.
As we crossed the Sabine River Bridge, crossing from Texas to Louisiana, I could see dark clouds and lightning as night was rapidly approaching. By the time we neared Lake Charles, 30 miles ahead, we were in the furious middle of it and did not get relief until we pulled into the protective confines of the hospital parking garage.
The hospital seemed rather empty and since it was Friday night, it likely held no one voluntarily, only those who had the bad fortune to be critically ill and those whose calling it was to take care of them. We found a few of my parents' old friends in the intensive care unit waiting room. They looked tired and worried and tearful and their countenance gave me no comfort. They told me I could go see my mom and I found her with my devoted father at her side in the corner room of the unit.
She did not know I was there as the ventilator forced air into her lungs in a rhythmic fashion and there were more IV lines than I could count. A large monitor next to the bed glowed with green lines and numbers, which instantaneously tracked her heart signals and blood pressure and oxygen levels like some sort of morbid scoreboard.
As the night deepened, her blood pressure fell lower and lower, despite blood and platelet transfusions along with all sorts of agents dripping into her veins, trying to coax a recovery from her tired body. Finally, the questions turned to those of ethics and desires of the family and those of the patient, if she had been capable of making that decision at this moment ... "Would she want to live like this?"
She was heavily sedated and the decision was ours, to use heroic measures or not, only it would not have been heroic, only futile and prolonging the inevitable. By mid-morning she slipped away, quietly, calmly, comfortably, uneventfully, with her family at her bedside.
And that was the end of Kathryn Mitchem's graceful life on this earth. She was suddenly off to a grander and eternal adventure in heaven, beyond what the human mind can understand.
That evening, we gathered at the house overlooking the lake. We cleaned up a bit and just tried to stay busy with various tasks, as people do when they are grieving and know nothing else to do. Another late afternoon storm had risen quickly and darkly, and the lightning flashed and the winds blew the rain in sideways sheets until it passed on to the south.
It left a calm coolness behind. The sky cleared toward the west and the sun set in a brilliant, unobstructed orb. The storm had blown feathery and puffy waves of wispy clouds high into the sky and as the sun dipped below the horizon, these lit up into a dancing and fiery spectacle.
There is life and fullness and beauty beyond each hard time we face. I will miss my mom, particularly around the time of family meals on holidays. We are all here for only a given time and purpose.
A friend brought a cake, and I asked for the recipe. She smiled and politely gave it to me.
Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.