“All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am

So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am”

My earliest memory of my mother is of her walking beside the pool, backlit by the bright morning sun, like a goddess. Her heels clicked on the pavement. Her hair shone in the light. Her tiny waist was cinched in above a full skirt, all Betty Draper style. She glowed. And I was proud that she was my mine. Then she was gone. I was having a swimming lesson with my sister in the frigid unheated pool at Cherokee Country Club. My mother was playing bridge in the River Room above. Eating triangle-shaped club sandwiches with the crusts cut off and those little toothpicks wearing cellophane party hats.

Fast-forward 50 years, a lifetime of bridge games and sunny days, children and grandchildren, happiness and heartbreak and now my mother has cancer.

There I said it. I’m not going to say it again. Not going to give that C-Word power or relevance. Because words are potent and I’d rather give power to words like Compassion. Courage. Clarity.

You’d think if you live to be 91, you’ve earned the right to die peacefully in your sleep. You go to bed and dream sweet dreams of paradise and pass seamlessly to the other side. No fear. No pain. Just love.

Gmamma has a pocketful of malignant tumors on her neck. We’re not sure when they appeared, because she hid them behind her Talbots mock turtlenecks, like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. Gmamma’s father, grandfather and brother were doctors. She grew up with a behind-the-mask look at medicine and a healthy respect for the horror of hospitals. To be avoided at all costs.

And then there’s Gmamma’s naturally stoic nature. Her high tolerance for pain. Stiff upper lip. No complaints. She’s no sissy, this one.

“I’ve always had swollen glands,” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand and a defiant lift of her chin. “Ever since I was a child.”

So her tumors grew and grew until she couldn’t hide them anymore. And still they keep growing. She can’t speak above a whisper. It hurts to swallow. She is disappearing inside her new favorite cardigan sweater – pale gray, cable knit, not too short, not too long – my sister’s birthday gift, as requested by DooDaddy. Only it’s already too big, because Gmamma is wasting away. 

Biopsies will name the C-Word. Squamous cell carcinoma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma or something equally hideous and ominous sounding. There’s talk of radiation or proton therapy to hold the tumors at bay, keep them from slowly suffocating her or eating into her carotid artery or worse. Chemo and surgery are not options due to Gmamma’s frail health and congestive heart failure.

But it really doesn’t matter at this point. Because it is my mother’s choice now.  I will do my damnedest to honor her wishes and swat away the well-intentioned experts and never-say-die doctors. Because this is Gmamma’s life. And so it will be her death. On her terms.

Now when I look into my mother’s ancient face, and see her pale blue eyes, blue as the summer sky behind her that day at the pool, I am praying that the Lord holds her in the palm of his hand and gives her comfort. I’m praying also for my father, her partner of 59 years, that he will walk beside her on these final steps of their journey together. And let go with love when the time comes.

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Keeling, Gmamma and me circa 1963