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When the "H" Word Means Gratitude

Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Year’s - the holiday season is upon us where we practice gratitude for all that is good in our lives, and hopefully recognize that difficult times often go hand in hand with the good. Those challenging moments, ones that cause an unbelievable ache in your heart and soul are a part of life and considered growth opportunities. Truth be told, I struggle with dealing with those said opportunities yet I am trying to be better at it, to remain positive when life's challenges get in the way. When times are tough, all I want is for it to go away, or ignore it by hiding under a pillow and simply hope for the best. This year though, with all of its ups and downs, living the proverbial emotional roller coaster, I ‘ve come to the conclusion that being extremely grateful for everything, the good AND the bad is much better than ignoring it. I am constantly reminded that there is so much to be thankful for and yet, I am keenly aware of how quickly life can flip on a dime and change.

"Our time on earth is limited " and "no one lives forever" are things we have all heard when a loved one is going through a terminal illness or nearing end of life. While those words are meant to ease the insurmountable sadness, it only reinforces the accompanying anxiety we feel knowing time is definitely not on our side. The helplessness one feels pales in comparison as we watch our loved ones go through the process of acknowledging their own mortality and the acceptance that the disease they have so valiantly fought, is winning the unbelievable and relentless battle. While I watch from the sidelines, I am amazed that my mother's upbeat attitude remains intact.

The decision to discontinue chemotherapy or any curative treatments was a collaborative effort made between my mother and her oncologist, when there were no more breakthrough treatments and chemotherapy would do more harm than good. Needless to say, it is a harsh reality and bitter pill to swallow. Her oncologist said, "focus on quality of life". What does that look like when time is limited? I’ll tell you – it looks like a giant hug of gratefulness sprinkled with bits of tears.

After 4+ years of fighting the fight with umpteen tests, treatments and doctor appointments to suddenly have all this free time is liberating. Obviously, we were all devastated by the news that chemo was no longer an option, yet completely relieved my mother won’t endure the horrible side effects associated with the treatments and that our schedules no longer include going to the cancer center every other Tuesday.

With our new found liberty, we managed to get to New York for a week in July, have successful outings in and around the Raleigh-Durham area, special excursions to our favorite places (TJ Maxx and Marshalls), strolls in her neighborhood, and tonight my mother, sister and I are having our first ever slumber party, treating ourselves to mud masks, ordering in from the Cheesecake Factory and watching funny movies. Additionally, my mother has partaken in Driveway Drinking, a new twist on happy hour since Covid-19, with her friends and neighbors. We reminisce about growing up in Huntington, or hearing about the numerous boats and homes my parent’s owned, and being reminded of the sailing trips we took including the time we chartered a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. We were hysterically laughing about the time we threw bread in the water while my father was snorkeling and a school of fish engulfed him! I've had the privilege of learning some of the obscure facts about my parents’ lives growing up in Brooklyn or Lynbrook and their early lives together that remained hidden until now. Additionally, my mother and I do the NY Times crossword puzzles together, she starts it, and then I attempt to finish it. I never thought I was smart enough, as I found the prospect intimidating however my mom gave me the confidence to try and have even completed a few. We've tried various flavors of ice cream as my mom has become quite the connoisseur, enjoying it every day! Even if my mom is resting, and am quietly reading a book, I savor these moments. There is something to be said about surrounding yourself with those you love and care about. And this my friends, is what it is all about.

While all is good, I am quite cognizant that the current situation is tenuous. As such, we enlisted the help of professionals that are more equipped to handle sudden changes in our delicate balance. From the very start of this journey, we never uttered the "H" word as it wasn't on our radar, even mentioning it was considered taboo. With trepidation, we introduced it to my mom and where we now find ourselves. Hospice. As frightening as it sounds and as much as I hate to acknowledge it, this is where we are. I am extremely grateful there is an organization that provides all that they do. Some may say we contacted them way too early, that my mother is well enough to continue living on her own, and we know that with Hospice’s help we are able to keep it that way for as long as possible. It is far worse thinking we (and I say this collectively) could manage taking care of my mother without their help and resources. Time and again my mother has been the outlier, the one who has beaten the odds and she proudly represents the coveted 10% that survive Pancreatic Cancer 4+ years. She's a master at resiliency, a fierce cancer fighter and remains irrepressible, even at this stage of her life. And while involving Hospice is still new, we have already managed to consider my mother’s nurse part of our inner-circle and a member of the family. She is a trusted partner and caregiver, not only to my mom, but to me and the rest of our clan.

It is worthy to note that throughout this cancer journey, doctors have routinely underestimated my mom’s unbreakable will and fighting spirit and she continues to show extraordinary courage and determination. Her positive attitude exemplifies her persona as she continues to exceed and defy the odds. She is calling the shots at every step of the way, even now under Hospice's guidance. She is the boss, the reigning Queen of Everything. What Hospice has provided thus far is finding the magical medication cocktail that provides relief so my mother can continue to live. She is able to enjoy her friends, family, grandchildren and her beloved grand puppies. And for this holiday season that is what we are doing! Asking for help and recognizing that she needs more than what we can provide was tremendous and despite where this is going my mom continues to show us how fierce she is - don’t let the pretty face and small frame fool you.

Anyone who has a loved one going through this unfortunate journey knows it is when and not if, that the inevitable will happen. The lesson here though is to make sure the time we have left together counts. Involving Hospice was not easy and one might think we gave up and admitted defeat. It’s quite the opposite. We are choosing to have Hospice as a partner in my mother's care. Their thoughtful and compassionate staff are guiding us through a myriad of pain medicines, helping us understand what is happening, what to expect, and are providing so much more through this journey. Calling Hospice was the right decision for my mother to continue experiencing life.

So, the next time you mention the “H” word, know that it really means Gratitude!

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