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Terminally ill, Mom still had some living to do

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http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/li ... 551521.htm

Faced with her mortality, Mom never flinched, never wavered. She packed up her oxygen tanks and took the train high into the Rockies for a visit with her son's family.


Special to The Miami Herald


In the bustle of unloading at the Amtrak station, I don't have a second to think about anything not on the checklist. Do we have Mom's oxygen equipment? Her spare tanks? Her cane? Bill, did you tip the driver?

But once checked in, I lighten up. I smile across the waiting room to my mother, patiently seated in her wheelchair, looking so small and frail. A wave of sadness pitches over me.

My mother, my husband and I are beginning what will likely be our last vacation together. It is a Sunday morning in August and we are at the train station in Emeryville, Calif., about to ride Amtrak's California Zephyr to Colorado.

My brother Jon will meet us Monday evening in Denver and drive us an hour south to spend a week with his family near Colorado Springs. Then we will rent a car and drive five or six hours further south to my mother's favorite destination, Santa Fe, N.M.

My husband and I have often invited my mother to join us in our travels. She shares our passion for the American Southwest and has been our enthusiastic companion on trips to Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Taos, and the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. Each trip involved spending a few days in Santa Fe, and my mother loves it there.

But now, at 78, she is sick. Terminally so. A smoker for much of her life, Mom has lung cancer complicated by emphysema and asthma. Death could arrive as soon as the next cold, flu or case of bronchitis.

I am heartbroken over my mother's illness. But I am also swelled with pride at her reaction to it. With the glass of her life nearing empty, she hasn't retreated into inert depression. Instead, she is active and upbeat. With an oxygen backpack slung over one shoulder, she meets her friends for lunch. She drives herself to church and shopping. She smiles. She laughs. She lives.

This trip is testament to that spirit. High altitude makes neither my brother's home in Monument, Colo. (7,800 feet) nor Santa Fe (7,000 feet) the best of places for someone prone to shortness of breath. My mother knows this, but is not deterred.

Mom's doctor applauds her spunk. When I ask if this trip is advisable, he says if she wants to go, she should go. But, he says, she needs to go now.


And so we climb aboard the Zephyr, eager to be off.

We have chosen to travel by rail for several reasons. Mom always has trouble keeping her luggage within airline limits. She has oxygen equipment and a wheelchair to deal with. Then there is her need for extra oxygen. Amtrak not only allows her to bring her oxygen condenser, they let her plug it in and use it in her room. And Amtrak is not affected by safety regulations that prohibit airlines from transporting the oxygen canisters she uses in her backpack.

The laid-back pace of train travel has its appeal as well, and we have rented rooms in a sleeping car for the trip. Mom has a spacious compartment with a wide door that permits entry by wheelchair. My husband and I have a smaller room just down the hall.

Mom wants to travel in bed, propped up with pillows so she can read and see out the window. So while the car attendant makes up Mom's bunk, my husband and I stow the wheelchair, then set up her oxygen condenser and secure it near her bed.

In case of electrical failure, Mom keeps her battery-operated backpack oxygen apparatus and one canister with her in her room. Also close at hand are her book, catalogs, water and cell phone. On the wall behind her is a call button for the attendant, who will serve her meals in her room.

On a train, one marks the passage of time by one's meals. Our first is lunch, and my husband and I take seats in the dining car as the train climbs eastward through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. By dinner, we have crossed Donner Pass and made brief stops in Reno and Sparks, Nev.

Donner Pass is the first test of how my mother will fare on our trip. At 7,085 feet, it is high enough to tax her damaged lungs. But with her oxygen in place, she does fine.

Later, during a brief stop in Winnemucca, Nev., I remember that our family once spent a night here while on a car trip to Montana. I try to remember the tired girl I was that night. How wonderful it must have been to have a mommy -- a young, healthy mommy -- to tuck me into bed. How wonderful to close my eyes and drift quickly away to dream. How wonderful to not stay awake staring out a train window through gathering tears that come, in part, from knowing that mommies die.

By Monday breakfast, we are east of Provo, Utah. By lunch, we are chugging uphill into the Rocky Mountains alongside the Colorado River. Mom is doing great, but another test is coming. Just before Denver, we negotiate the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel, which crosses the Continental Divide at 9,239 feet. Again, Mom does just fine.


I am a little over-attentive to my mother on this trip. Would she like something to drink? Is her oxygen set right? Has she taken her pills? To each interrogation she patiently replies that she is fine and having a wonderful time.

My brother Jon is waiting for us in Denver and we are soon on our way south to his home in Monument.

My mother is on oxygen constantly at my brother's home. To go off it even for a few minutes leaves her short of breath.

But she wants to go out, and we take her -- equipped with her oxygen backpack and wheelchair -- to the Garden of the Gods, a park of spectacularly beautiful rock formations just west of Colorado Springs, and to call on a college chum she has not seen in more than 60 years.

A few days later, we drive to Santa Fe and check in to the St. Francis Hotel, located an easy one-block wheelchair ride from the city's famous plaza.

My mother sometimes claims she was a Native American in a previous life. Perhaps. In any case, she has had a lifelong passion for all things Indian.

The day after our arrival, we visit the many Native American sidewalk vendors and make several purchases. At a jewelry store, Mom buys two rings, an amber-colored tourmaline stone set in gold for her, and a gold band inlaid with green slices of Australian black opal for me. They will make perfect mementos of our trip, she says.

She is right. Later, as we leave Santa Fe and I worry that my mother might be depressed, we bring out our rings to ward off solemnity. We each try on the other's, delighting in their beauty. They are already the keepsakes we hoped they would be, reminders of this wonderful adventure together.

Still, I worry about Mom. I don't want her to equate the end of our trip with the end of her life. I want desperately to offer her something to look forward to. But what?


My sister-in-law, Josiane, has the answer. She invites us to return in a few months to celebrate Thanksgiving. My mother is thrilled. We catch the train in Denver the next morning already eagerly planning a return trip.

Mom has some rough spells in the ensuing months. Nonetheless, late in November we again find ourselves on board Amtrak, headed for Colorado. My mother was hospitalized just the week before to have fluid drained from around her lungs. But she won't hear of staying home.

Her doctor and friends try to intervene.

''With all due respect, I didn't ask your opinion,'' she says. ``Furthermore I find the prospect of dying in Colorado equal in every way to dying in California.''

She does fine and we spend a wonderful week, thankful to be together. Mom travels again at Christmas to spend a week with my brother, Chris, in Northern California. Three months later, I drive her to my home in Southern California to help me spend a final week of leisure before I begin a new job. She comes on the condition that I promise to let her be active.

I tell my husband I think she is stronger than when we went to Colorado in November, and we both smile. But on Friday, the last day of her visit, after a final shopping excursion, her breathing suddenly becomes labored.

I call her doctor who says my mother should take drugs she carries to calm her breathing. And then she says Mom's symptoms indicate that she is nearing the end of her fight.

In shock, I give Mom her drugs and her breathing returns to normal. I don't tell her yet what her doctor said about the end being close. But later I will come to think that she knew. That evening, Mom slips into peaceful unconsciousness. Early Sunday morning, she dies.

Most people my age -- I was 57 when she died -- have lost their parents. In their place, we carry thousands of cherished memories. Among my most enduring recollections of my mother will be those of the final eight months of her life.

Faced with her mortality, she never flinched, never wavered, never stopped living. Instead, she looked death square in the eye, found him not to be such a disagreeable fellow, and traveled on with strength and dignity and purpose to the very end of her journey.

I am so proud.

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