My Mom would say,
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather you skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: WOW — what a ride! ―Hunter S. Thompson
This is a story about her ride.
The chill of an Indian summer
I just got home. I’m in the bathroom.
I’m brushing my teeth. My mind is racing. I’m looking into the mirror but I don’t see me. I’m tingling. The hair on my left stands up. I hear a touch. I don’t feel this touch.
Then an “everything will be okay” flows through my body as the sunlight reflects off the mirror onto my cheek.
That’s what happened. I never shared that with anyone. I’m 16 years old.
The bomb drop at Mercy Hospital
Two hours prior, my Dad tells me that my Mom has leukemia. The doctor says she has two weeks to live.
I sense the doctor’s resolve and his sense of urgency.
We drive home.
She stays in the hospital.
I’ll leave out a lot of detail
Things get ugly as the days pass.
She loses her hair. Every arm and leg is black and blue from needles. She loses 60 pounds. Spinals. More spinals. Unbearable pain. She struggles to live. This doctor is determined.
Why would someone fight so hard to stay alive?
Things get uglier. We race to the hospital because she may not survive the day. That happens a lot lately.
White lies and tunnels
Around Thanksgiving, I’m driving with my brothers and sister to the hospital to say good-bye to her. This time things are different. She’s not expected to survive.
My brother, Mike, stops the car. He wants to buy pot. I’m in the backseat. I yell,
“No! We need to get to the hospital.”
We swear. We argue. I punch him. My sister starts crying. We make up and drive to the hospital — without the dope.
She looks weak. She’s sleeping. She wakes up as we take off our coats.
“What happened to your eye, Mike?”
“Kevin threw a snowball at me.”
Lying to her on her deathbed makes us all laugh.
What I want to remember
She’s pumped with morphine and falls asleep again. We’re with her waiting for her to die.
Time tugs by — maybe an hour or two — she wakes and says,
“I’m going to be okay.”
The morphine is talking — she’s hallucinating.
She just left a warm, white tunnel. She was talking with her Mom who died when she was seven years old.
Her Mom gives her a choice, “You can come with me or you can stay with your kids.”
She decides to walk back through the tunnel to her kids.
My Dad calls the doctor into the room. He’s as surprised as us that she’s awake. He pokes for a blood sample. He comes back a couple hours later.
“Her white blood cell count is increasing.”
He needles out more blood and leaves the room.
He’s back. He reports that her white blood cells and platelets are making a comeback.
This goes on for several more hours.
Hilberg, the doctor, enters the room one more time.
“Pat, you’re in remission. I don’t see any cancer cells.”
She says, “I know.”
That’s the day I became spiritual (without the heavy load of religion).
I’m still leaving out a lot of detail.
My warrior Mom went through four more years of chemotherapy.
But that sanitizes the living hell she endured.
Pittsburgh’s Central Blood Bank (1985 Annual Report) says this about my Mom:
In October 1976, Patricia McKeown was admitted to Mercy Hospital with pain in her arms and legs. She complained of bruising and extreme fatigue. Blood samples and bone marrow analysis revealed the seriousness of Pat’s condition-acute leukemia.
During the next several weeks, Pat underwent aggressive chemotherapy and numerous blood transfusions. Throughout her illness, Pat’s family and friends continued to extend their love and support. When Pat’s white blood cell and platelet counts reached critical levels, her sons, Michael and Kevin, donated these components through a procedure known as hemapheresis.
The year in which Pat McKeown’s illness was diagnosed, only 97 such procedures were performed. Families and friends of patients served as donors to provide the critical needed blood components.
Since 1982, the need for plateletpheresis products increased four-fold. To meet this demand, the hemapheresis “on-call” donor program was developed to expand the available pool of donors beyond the family and friends of critically ill patients. In the past year, approximately 1,200 on-call donors responded to the need for over 1,800 specialized products. Patients, such as Pat with leukemia, and others with cancer or aplastic anemia, depend on hemapheresis donors to provide platelets and white blood cells.
Pat McKeown has been in remission for nine years — a victory in her battle with leukemia. Pat shares her heartwarming story to reaffirm the importance and constant need for hemapheresis donors.
My Mom’s remission (life) lasted 37 years not nine. She died old on November 16, 2013. That was a long “two weeks to live.”
Gritty is never giving up
What my family went through leaves me resilient. The hardships my parents endured taught me a way to live:
- Live your life — not a life others expect of you. Life is too precious to be herded.
- Be healthy. That gives you the time and freedom to pursue your dreams.
- Create space and moments to be alive — don’t fritter your life away working.
- Be open and honest with everyone. Speak your feelings. To do otherwise invites dysfunction.
- Honor and stay in touch with your old friends. The definition of family is broad.
- Play like a puppy. Choose to be happy. Life is too fleeting to take seriously.
- Simple is better in all aspects of life.
Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Dr. Hilberg. Thanks to St. Barnabas and the hospice nurses. Thanks Kathy Belcastro. She’s a nurse who did more than just care for my Mom on the 3 to 11 shift. Kathy got to know my Mom and cherished her “snappy one-liners.” Thanks to Lauren who jumped in to help my family. And, finally, thanks to my sister, Trish. She’s a rock. I’m a lucky guy to have a sister like you.
Mom, your soul walks with us. As requested, your ashes are with Dad’s ashes in Deception Pass. We had a party to celebrate your life.
I love you, Mom.
My Mom was born in Washington, IN on June 8, 1937. She was in Chicago attending nursing school when she met my Dad, Tom. My family moved to Pittsburgh from Chicago in 1976 when my Dad took a job with Equitable doing the property management and leasing for Gateway Center. We lived on a five-acre wooded lot in Ellwood City. My Dad died in 2004. Trish lives in Munhall, PA. Timmy lives in Duquoin, IL Dennis lives in Chippewa Township, PA. My brother, Mike, died in 1980.
His black eye healed. He still owes me one.
Related Link: Breakthrough in treating leukemia, lymphoma with umbilical cord blood stem cells (out of Maywood, IL)