So, ten years ago, my mother-in-law, Nina, was diagnosed with leukemia. She started a rigorous regimen of chemotherapy and radiation treatments that successfully killed the cancer cells in her body.
Unfortunately, it also killed every white blood cell as well.
For sixty-five days, she remained in a sterile room at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY, waiting for them to come back. Her blood was tested often, the lab techs desperately searching through the red cells to find the white blood cell fighters. Because that's what the white ones do - they fight infection. Without them, a simple cold can kill you.
At the end of sixty-five days with nary a white blood cell in sight, the doctors gave up and acquiesced to her daily question, "Can I please go home to die?" She wanted to be home for her final moments, not dying in a sterile room an hour away from her family and friends. With regret, the doctors conceded that, while the cancer didn't kill her, the cure had.
So you can imagine everyone's surprise when, two weeks after being home, a blood sample (yes, they were still taking them, pitting hope against hope) showed not one, but two white blood cells! A week later there were four in the sample and another week later she hit double digits. By the end of the year she was declared cancer-free and released from all restraints.
That was ten years ago.
Two years ago she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She'd put off her screening and by the time it was found, it was too late. She underwent emergency surgery, but the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes and they couldn't get it all with the scalpel. Back to chemo treatments. Doc gave her 3-6 months. Yes, the same doctor who had treated her before and who now called her his "miracle patient."
Eight months after the initial diagnosis, Nina threw herself a going away party. She rented a small banquet room at a local restaurant, invited close friends and family, and had a celebratory dinner, complete with a large, decorated cake for dessert. Her husband and daughter had passed away in the years between her cancer bouts and she lived alone in the house she and her husband had bought just after their marriage. The house she intended to die in. The attended in spirit, with pictures of all of us spread around the room to enjoy.
At the party, she gave out envelopes containing checks for various amounts. She said she wanted to see people enjoy the money she was able to give them, rather than have them spend it after her death when she wouldn't be around to watch. We had a cake and she even invited her cancer doctor, who made a great speech about how she keeps turning science on its head. When asked how many other patients he had that kept bouncing back the way she did, he answered honestly. "None."
Two months later, she fell and broke a wrist. We were starting to get concerned about her living alone in the house and checked up on her often, but she was adamant: she was staying where she was.
Seven days later, she fell again and broke the other wrist.
Chemo treatments were stopped as they'd made her bones too brittle to withstand these falls. She went to a local nursing home for rehab, having to learn how to feed herself with a cast on each wrist (hint: it ain't easy!). At the end of summer the casts came off and she came home.
By February, however, she was getting weaker. Her fierce independence was being assaulted by the growing cancer. My husband would go over every morning to get her started and his brother and his wife would stop in during the evenings to put her to bed. By March, we had a calendar and a system in place that provided 24/7 watchers because she'd fallen two more times, putting a hairline fracture in one hip and separating the muscle from the bone in the other.
We are not professional caregivers, however, and she needed more medical care than we could give her by ourselves. She wanted to go back to the nursing home for rehab for her hips and, after a struggle, the insurance company said yes. Her independence asserted itself there, too, as evidenced by the first day when her physical therapist found her, alone, without her walker, in the bathroom washing her hands. She was just standing there, though, because she couldn't get back to the bed by herself. Ya gotta love such determination!
But cancer always wins in the end. She went, officially, into hospice on March 30th and we knew it wouldn't be long. She would tell stories, but her strength was ebbing and we could catch only a single word in about six. As the pain increased from the cancer and the broken hips, morphine took over and she spent a lot of time sleeping. On Wednesday, April 2nd, at 10:15 in the morning, she slipped away.
Her sons were with her, as was her other daughter-in-law. My husband said it was an incredibly peaceful moment. The space between breaths lengthened and then...she just didn't breathe in again. She was gone to meet her husband and daughter on the other side.
I cry as I write this. I keep thinking I've done with the tears and then someone will make a reference or I'll see my husband's bent shoulders and the tears fall again. She's in a better place. I firmly believe that. Her pain has ended and our lives move on.
But I will never forget a woman who had the gumption to give herself a going away party. She was an inspiration and will be missed.
RIP, Nina Duprey. Requescat in pace.