I know I’ve been remiss in posting, and I wish very much I could say it’s because I’ve been so busy creating amazing and exciting book campaigns and creating a plan to hit the NY Times Bestseller List in July. I still want to, don’t get me wrong, and I still plan to at least give it ago. But that’s not why I’ve been quiet.
I guess you could say I’ve been doing nothing. Nothing. Let me explain.
I’ve said to many people when I started working with as a hospice veterinarian two years ago it was like my career and work finally made sense. I liked working in a clinic, I liked the day-to-day stuff, but only two jobs in life ever touched my soul and felt as close as one could come to a calling: writing, and veterinary hospice. Stepping into hospice work was like buying a new pair of leather shoes and finding them already perfectly worn in.
Something deep in my gut implored me to proclaim our work far and wide. I began speaking on the topic at various Ignite talks, the first one being in January this year at NAVC:
Then later, in San Diego in February:
Putting those two talks together forced me to really dig into why I thought this work was so important- first, I realized, we can do a lot to help people understand the process of grieving a pet.
Then, I realized losing a pet is in itself a really important lesson in how to lose a person, or more importantly, how to help them gracefully experience the end-of-life process.
I remember a lot of things about that night at Ignite San Diego, namely about how I said that all people should hire me so their kids wouldn’t stick them in a nursing home later in life because they were too scared to deal with them. I pointed at my parents, sitting proudly in the second row, and said, “See? Aren’t you glad I made this promise to you guys in front of like, 200 people?” And they laughed, because we knew they were young and healthy and that was all a long time away.
It’s funny how that works.
It all happened very suddenly: the fall, the seizure, the diagnosis of my mother’s inoperable brain tumor. One day, my life was filled with the usual concerns, getting annoyed with pseudoscience on the net, figuring out Teacher Appreciation Week. The next day, I forgot everything except this: My mom, still young, beautiful, and full of life, looking at the same diagnosis that made Brittany Maynard a household name last November. It is perhaps one of my worst fears, this particular beast, and now it has invaded someone I love more than words can adequately express. The person who, in any other circumstance, would be the one I called for support.
Now she was looking to me, and then it all made sense, this need to understand the importance of hospice and advocacy and learning to let go gracefully. I wasn’t meant to help other people understand the difference between living poorly and dying well. I was doing all of this preparation, whether I knew it or not at the time, for my own mother.
In the space of two weeks, I moved my parents into my house, earned frequent parking points at the hospital, and had to dig deep into everything I ever stood up for and ask myself if I really meant it when I said I thought people should change how they dealt with illness and end of life in their families:
- Would I help someone honor their own wishes to say no when everyone in an authority position was pushing for treatment? It seems like oftentimes it is easier to do all the treatment than to say no and risk upsetting loved ones who want you to try it.
- Would I be honest with my children in an age-appropriate way or just kind of try to avoid it for a while? Use the old la-la-la-everything’s-fine approach our family has relied on for generations?
- Could I bring this whole experience into my house, ask my husband and my children to take on this really intense experience, when it would be a lot easier on them- in the short term at least- to keep my parents at arm’s distance, in their own home, in skilled care?
The two weeks during the diagnosis phase was an unending slog up and down the linoelum floors of the hospital, trudging from one cramped waiting area to another: CT. Neurooncology. Neuroradiology. Neurosurgery. Each appointment took an emotional toll that far compounded the physical one, leaving mom too pooped by the end of the day to do more than go to sleep. Waiting rooms filled with other seriously ill people nervously picking at the fraying vinyl upholstery, doctors too aware of the gravity of the diagnosis to be able to offer a smile.
My mother was so upset at the prospect of poorly effective radiotherapy she didn’t want that she could barely speak after the appointment with the radiologist. He had recommended six weeks of daily radiation and chemo, tied to those halls and the stale air. Glioblastoma, a poorly researched and dreaded cancer- even in the world of oncology, it’s a bad one- has had few treatment advancements in 25 years. Treatment doesn’t cure the disease, just kind of kicks it down the line a little.
“And if we choose not to do the radiation?” I asked.
“You could do nothing,” he said, baffled, “But I don’t recommend it.” No one did, but nonetheless that was exactly what Mom wanted.
So we did it anyway, leaving through the doors of the hospital one last time into the cool evening breeze of the evening marine layer rolling over, before calling in the ‘Nothing’ that is hospice. So far, Nothing has included the following:
- Watching hot air balloons fly by in their sunset flights
- Getting through all the Harry Potter movies
- A comprehensive plan for managing every symptom, every discomfort
- Greeting the children every morning and tucking them in every night
- Trying every flavor of macaron at the local French bakery (lemon = best)
- Getting our nails done
- Going through old photo albums
- Driving to the beach
Brody, exhibiting that strange instinct most dogs seem to possess, hasn’t left my parents’ side. He’s been so protective, in fact, that he came barreling out of their room last night to bark at me when I got up at 2 am for some water.
My mother has chosen to die well instead of living poorly. But really, I can’t call what she’s doing right now dying. The walls of the hospital, filled with fear and extended wait times and the ever-looming spectre of illness, feels more about dying. She is living. Each moment, each breath of spring air, each hug, is imbued with a gratitude and a joy it wouldn’t have had in a different situation.
I don’t believe one person’s tragedy is any greater or less than anyone else’s, no story more worthy of being told. But I do hope that in sharing this one I might reach someone who is struggling with a similar situation or just looking to understand why a loved one may have made the same choice.
We’re terrified, but we’re ok. We’re devastated, but happy. I have an incredibly high tolerance for stress right now but Rubio’s running out of pico de gallo leaves me in tears. We are doing what we can and continuing what routines we are able to do. We are together, and that matters most.
We are doing nothing but living, and that is enough. It is, in fact, everything. And when all of this is said and done, I regret—nothing.
Both you and your mother are brave and amazing women! Your mother for being strong enough to stand up for what she believes in- living and dying well. And you for tackling these tough issues head on, having the strength to support your mom, and helping your kids to understand a part of life that our society doesn’t handle well.
You are awesome. :::hugs:::
Wow. I’m so sorry that this is happening to your family (my grandmother passed from a brain tumor), and I agree with Summer below that your mom is brave. I hope that when my time comes that I will be able to choose to die with such grace.
It sounds like you are filling your days with the very best kind of nothing – quality time together. My thoughts are with you and your family.
I hope I can, too… I have been thinking so much about how difficult it must be to stand up to doctors and say NO. Societal pressure can be overwhelming, but she has the resolve to do what she knows to be right in her heart.
Amy Kargus says
I’m so very sorry. Something very similar happened to a dear friend of mine. My prayers are with you and your family.
Oh Dr. V….. thank you for sharing this beautiful and sacred time with us. My 8 year old asked me the other day what was “sacred” to me. (Apparently they had talked about that word at school.) Life is sacred. But so is death. Living poorly is not sacred, in my opinion. Anyway, I could go on…. but thank you for sharing this sacredness with us. May you continue to find more love and joy than you thought you could and may those carry you as you go through the grief and sadness of missing someone who has moved on…..
Sending you so much love right now.
Beautiful and heartbreaking, all at the same time. Love goes out to all of you.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart says
This is the big stuff. The hard stuff. It’s left to those strong enough to do the work. I’m so very sorry to hear about your mom and send unending love and support.
Sending you much love and support for all of you – I’m so sorry to hear this, and my thoughts will continue to be with you.
Oh, Dr. V. I am so very sorry to hear this. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.
I’m so very sorry. Your such a strong & lovely person and this post is so important. Thank you for writing it. Not to give false hope or to suggest a fight that is not wanted, but I have first hand experience with relatives being helped greatly, one with cancer cured by Dr. Hino in Ensenada. http://www.hinomedicalcenter.com. He treats with stuff that is not available in the states, and is fantastic. I have met him personally and it is worth the trip for the most comprehensive blood test analysis and prognosis you can get. He use to be Dick Clark’s personal Physician, had anti aging clinics in Beverly Hills, and besides being a Dr. has doctorates in cellular biology and molecular biology and is working with the Mexican Govt. on the patent on his stem cell treatment. I am sending you love and light to get through this with grace.
Leah Shirokoff says
So well written and thought out. This is so sad and hard, but I would go along with your Mother – live well – I already know.
The most powerful and universal piece you have ever written. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for articulating with such grace and passion that which we all experience on some level. Blessings to you and yours.
Think about it says
I am a newbie here, and wondered why there was not much “new stuff”. How very touching that you would share such a private part of your life with those here. You are a beautiful writer, and a compassionate, loving human being. I wish you nothing but to continue enjoying life with your Mother to the fullest extent possible!
Thank you for sharing this intimate time Dr V. I’m 77 now, and have put my final treatment wishes in writing – officially. I have a representative to help me make sure they are carried out. I have made the decision your mother and you made, to enjoy life while I have it and to die with dignity. Oh, and I made a donation to our local hospice to help them be here when I’ll need them! 🙂 It’s an awesome program.
Blessings of peace on your journey through this time. Hugs from Barbara, sloppy doggie kisses from Watson.
Saying goodbye to your parents is an exquisite type of pain. I am glad y’all are able to do it on your terms. Thinking of your family right now….
Beth Lytle says
Blessings to you Dr. V. Palliative care, quality life is a beautiful way to spend your final days with your mother. Keeping you and your family in my prayers. paws together.
Thanks for sharing this Dr. V. Your grace and courage in such a difficult time is inspiring. I wish you and your family the greatest love and life.
Thank you for sharing Jess, and thank you for taking the time out of what was going on during this emotional time of your life to offer me the guidance I needed in mine. You’re a great friend, daughter, and woman.
Dr. V I’m so sorry to hear about your Mom. Our hearts and prayers go out to you and your family. The kitty sends loving headbutts. May you all have the grace and courage to face the life you have left and to be strong for your parents. May God bless you all.
I’m so sorry to learn this, but so glad you are enjoying being with your mother. After my experience with the difference before and after my father went into hospice, I realized this is what I want to be doing and am training as a hospice volunteer. What a wise mother you have, no wonder you cherish her. (((Hugs)))
jessica, this is such a beautiful, articulate post, and you can just feel the love shining from every paragraph. I’m so so sorry to hear your devastating news. Don’t underestimate how many people your words will help and how profoundly. Thank you for sharing, sending big hugs – Jo x
Heather W says
You all are in my thoughts. I just have no words right now. My heart is with you.
Lynn Aka Frugal Dougal says
Jessica, so so sorry to hear your news, you are in my thoughts. I lost my brother to exactly the same thing last year. Treasure every second. xxxx
Steph Schmidt says
Dr V – So sorry to hear this news. You are a strong woman and a fantastic daughter to stand up and say No to the doctors. Enjoy the living, enjoy the happy time and enjoy the time spent together. Every day is precious and to live it well is to live well. Prayers to you and all of your family.
Thinking of you and your family. Thank you for sharing this with us. Like so much of what you write, this broke my heart and lifted me at the same time. Glad that as hard as this time is that you all are creating such beautiful moments together.
Robin Fogle says
Bless you and your mom and dad! Your whole family. I know of too many families that suffered because they went the treatment route and regretted it! Praying for strength for all of you during this journey! Hugs to you all!
Jennifer A. Stewart Dvm says
Thank you for sharing this. I am amazed at how our lives have been paralleled this year–not my mother but two very closely integrated older friends in our lives and of course similarities in our careers. People always ask, “isn’t it hard? I don’t know how you can do it” not realizing that the love they have for their pet is what makes it easy on my staff and me. Sharing the love of family and friends involved in the care of these two women who we love so very much, being kind to each other, and expecting an unseen miracle in every breath and action will keep us facing forward to receive each blessing.
When my Grandmother chose hospice care at home rather than a nursing home after her stroke, I was both devastated and humbled by her strength. She died exactly where she wanted to be, in her own home overlooking the forest view out the big picture window and surrounded by family. Having seen the onset of death many times as a vet tech, I knew that evening when I came to visit that this was the night. I sang her the song she sang to me and my son and my dad and all of her kids and grand kids and my cousin and I were holding her hand when she left us. It was both heart wrenching and helped me come to peace and acceptance sooner than I otherwise would have. My Gramma was an incredible strong woman who I had always admired. Her choice of how she wanted the end of her life to happen made my admiration increase exponentially which I never thought would be possible. 🙂
Marie Gean Mills says
May God’s richest blessings shower you and yours. I was with my Dad and then my Mom when they died. And I am humbled that God allowed me to be there, for I know where they went. Life is so fragile, but death is a sweet release when you are ready to meet your Savior. Hugs to you all. . .
Heather Lyn McCabe says
Thank you Dr. V for sharing this incredibly touching story. What you are doing for your Mom and Dad is what we should all hope to do. I know you will be celebrating her life and my hope is there will be many years of “nothing”. Happy Mother’s Day to you both!
Michele Lee says
Many many hugs and much love to you and yours.
Maria LaFond says
That one line you wrote – Choosing to live well instead of die poorly – brought me to tears. You are doing it well – I believe in taking the fear out of dying – we all start dying the minute we are born – just takes some of us longer than others! You hang in there. You are not alone. You are leading the way for others to come back to compassion in all affairs and to take the fear out of dying. I told my 4 surviving kids (now in their 20’s), “I wiped your butt when you couldn’t, I fed you when you couldn’t feed yourself – you will do that for me or hire someone to do that for me in my home when I cannot do those things for myself.” They know I want to live well instead of die sickly. It’s about dignity and respect. My heart is with you.
Rose D. says
This is a wonderful post. I am so sorry, but so glad you are getting to be together. Glad she is making a choice that works, and that matters. Love to you all.
Cathey Avery says
I have been gone for a while, and now that I’m back, and I’m in tears, AGAIN! There is so much to be sad about here, but my overwhelming feeling is of JOY! And LOVE! You have given your mother the greatest gift – the gift of choice and of yourselves at a time when it would be much easier (in some ways) to be distant. And you are also giving your children a gift that they will, perhaps, only fully understand much later, but I’m sure that even now, they understand that this is a special time and in a good way. Many hugs and prayers coming your way in the days and weeks you will be blessed with.
Gail Whitney says
Sometimes you don’t know what to say, so you say nothing. I wish I knew the words or the magic that would make this all go away. Since I don’t want to say nothing, but I don’t know quite what to say, I want to say that my heart is breaking and selfishly partly for myself. My memories are partly childhood, mostly friendship. Pat and I grew up in a very innocent time. We had siblings, cousins, friends within a stones throw. We played hopscotch and jump rope and were a big part of the Collinsville girls of Summer. Our Moms watched out for all of the cousins and we were not at the time grateful. But now we are. Even though all of the cousins who grew up together eventually moved in different directions geographically, we never grew apart emotionally. When we would see each other after many months or years, it was like no time had passed. Living life for every bit it has to offer each day is what we should all do. My heart is with all of you..
I hope you continue the celebration! I wish for the same consideration from my family as you are giving to your Mom. We all deserve a good life and a good death and you are wonderful to see that. Becky Wells
I hope you had a wonderful and memorable Mother’s Day. My thoughts are with you as you go through this. When my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor years ago, they performed an operation to remove it, but discovered it was larger and deeper than they originally thought. They removed what they could, but, after that, my parents opted to also forego radiation therapy and go the hospice route. I am glad she is able to make the choice of what course to take, and that you are helping to make that possible. Cherish the time you have together. Sending lots of hugs