A Long December
A long December-
And there's reason to believe,
maybe this year will be better than the last.
I can't remember-
the last thing that you said as you were leaving,
when the days go by so fast. - Counting Crows
Hello. I don't know how long it's been since my last post.
I barely even peek at the blog anymore. I can't blame you
if the feeling is mutual. I'd like to explain my absence to you-
and ask your indulgence, as it will be a wordy post- most of
it unpleasant. But I will try to fill it with some pictures and will
end it with what will be some of my final KennaSketches for FrogDaddy Ink.
2009 has been one of the hardest years I've ever endured-
and I was barely able to make it through it myself. More on that later...
Sometime in June I received a call from my youngest brother Darin-
I could tell by his tone that his message was serious.
My mother, who has been battling cancer for 21 years of her life
was diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer. This was startling because
when first diagnosed with it back in 87, it was mostly located in the lymph nodes at her throat area.
After heavy radiation therapy, she was back on her feet and
performing her duties as "Mom". She's always been the glue that held this family of 11 children together.
Seven years later, it resurfaced again, and she had to have a tracheotomy and was limited to speaking with an electronic voice box. She managed to still keep us in command with a well-placed "Beep!" and was as eloquent and feisty as ever.
But the cancer would never truly go away. It would surface every five years or so as a brain lesion or some shadowy mass on an MRI scan.
But with each developing threat, she'd somehow stare it down without blinking.
It would've killed lesser men, never mind this 5' 2" spit-fire.
Doctors would look at her medical history logs at the hospital (which were
the size of phone books by this time) and marvel at her resolve and will to live.
One even called her a "medical miracle".
But when we heard the cancer had migrated to her lungs and chemotherapy would be involved, we all worried that at 74, her body could only absorb so much punishment.
She would spend much of the summer practically living in Sloan-Kettering Hospital on the upper east side in New York City-renown world-wide for it's cancer research and care.
She had just started her chemo treatments, and they were really taking their toll on her.
In the middle of all this grim news, Darin, my aforementioned brother, gave birth to his first child-
Ronan Jack, on July 29th at NY Presbyterian Hospital, quite literally up the block from Sloan.
I happened to be at the hospital at the time and my mother's situation had
taken a grave turn. Her colon was failing and there was a chance she would have to have it removed, greatly reducing
her quality of life, which is exactly what she was afraid having chemo treatments would do to her.
There was also the added risk that the surgery performed in her weakened state could kill her.
My brother-sensing that he may never get a chance to have mom meet the newest member of the Byrne clan,
snuck little Ronan up to her room where she got to hold him for all of 30 seconds before the nurses whisked them out of there.
The H1N1 virus scare prohibits anyone under the age of 13 on those floors, so it was heartbreaking
for both to not be together any longer. After much debate upon a course of action, the doctors decided to try to flush the colon out, and after an exhausting 48 hour period, her colon had went from being pronounced "dead" to "functioning" again- another crisis averted.
But my mother at this point had decided that she was not going to continue her chemotherapy treatments any longer.
Doctors had suggested trying radiation once more in concentrated bursts at the lung area, since her throat was
over-radiated from the tracheotomy. My mother, ever the fighter, agreed to it, but if this did not work,
she was going to let nature take it's course.
On August 14th, Nearly a week after mom's colon scare, my oldest brother Terry, suffered a heart attack.
He has also had a stent placed in one of his major arteries, and has had triple-bypass surgery to boot,
so this was his third heart-related attack within the last 15 years. Terry was lucky enough to have survived this one as well. Thank God.
We happen to have a long history of heart disease in my family. More on that later.
In early September, Darin and his wife Ursula had Ronan Jack baptized in the parish we all grew up attending,
The Church of St. Columba on 25th street. Literally around the corner from where my folks currently reside.
My mother was bound and determined to attend this special ceremony.
We had her favorite pastor, Fr. Frank, who had left the church for another parish in the Bronx come down to preside over the festivities. Midway through the mass, my mother had a hard time breathing.
Without warning, she started to cough up blood through the hole in her throat. The entire church froze in horror.
My older brother John is a nurse and tended to her while she waved at Fr. Frank to continue the service,
still coughing up blood throughout the rest of the ceremony.
She simply would not leave until that blessed holy water touched her grandson's head.
I marvel at her courage. I was sitting in the row in front of her with my crying daughter-absolutely horrified by what was happening to her grandma, and it took all I had not to completely lose my composure myself.
We rushed her back to Sloan afterwards and found out that the cancer was causing mucus plugs in her throat.
Her condition was worsening.
They say God only gives you as much as you can handle...at this point I felt like He was just piling on.
My younger brother James' wife Dana was diagnosed at this time with a rare form of carcinoma called the Brack Gene.
It is inherited, and if it's in your family lineage, there is a 50% chance you will pass it along to your children.
She tested positive for it, and found out she had breast cancer. I wish I could describe her in a way that would do justice to her youthful beauty, her grace and her joie de vivre. She could make Grace Kelly look like one of those MTV Jersey Shore girls.
I could not think of a person who deserved this less than her. She lived a pure, clean life and doted on their four year old son Max Rocky. On September 30th, she had a double mastectomy performed and is still getting regularly chemotherapy doses to keep this devastating disease in check. She's faring well, Thank God.
By mid-October my Mom was pretty much on oxygen 24-7. We had a tank at the house when she wasn't at the hospital.
Her bad days were starting to outnumber the good ones.
We needed something to keep her spirits up and a date to look forward to. She normally spends Thanksgiving at my sister Maryann's house in Pennsylvania, but knew traveling that far with an oxygen tank in tow was a tall order. She decided it should be at my house in Edison NJ, which is only a 45 minute drive from NY. I cannot describe how honored I was at this choice.
I was also quite terrified of the thought of 52 of my immediate relatives squeezing into my tiny home. But somehow, the weather cooperated and she spent a lovely day on my couch being surrounded by the people who love her the most, which is always what she's always wanted out of her life.
It is a day I will cherish as long as I live...
Which almost wasn't very long...
On December 6th, after cooking my wife a lovely birthday breakfast of bacon, egg, and cheese omelet and then enjoying one of them myself, I found myself feeling what I thought at the time was one hell of a case of acid reflux. After a few painful moments of not being able to breathe, my wife dialed 911 and I was whisked to our local hospital where it was revealed that I, following in my older brother's footsteps, was suffering from a 90% clogged lower anterior descending, or in layman's terms: a friggin' heart attack!
Those who are Facebook friends of mine can read all the gory details of that week in my notes section.
I guess it was a combination of family history, multiplied by about a decade of bad eating habits, divided by years of sitting at a computer without a regular gym routine, with a dash of the stress-inducing events of the last few paragraphs you've just read. I am truly lucky to be alive. I was discharged that Thursday evening and received a phone call from James:
"I know what you're going through and how unfair this is to ask of you, but if you're able to come into the city to see mom tomorrow, you really should."
I had asked the entire family to keep my news from her only to discover that were keeping their own secret from me:
she had nearly passed away herself, while I was recovering. They did not think she would last the weekend.
I got to the house Friday morning and to see how frail she had become since the two weekends from Thanksgiving was more than my damaged heart could bear. Her tiny frame was nearly skeletal now, her fingertips to elbows bruised from lack of circulation, her once full head of hair looked thin and fair, and there was a constant pool of blood at the rim of the hole in her throat.
I immediately broke down and cried at her bedside. She reached out and fumbled for her voicebox, and with my youngest sister Kathleen's hand navigating it up to her larynx, she said to me:
"You always were a crybaby...." I couldn't help but laugh...Just like mom....
My sister gasped and said- "Glenn, you don't understand...She hasn't said a word in two days!"
It would be her last words to me.
I spent the rest of the weekend mostly recovering from my own brush with mortality and visiting my cardiologist. For some reason that Wednesday- December 16th...I knew I had to make the journey into the city to see her...I arrived at about 11:30 to find her with my oldest sister Maureen, who's been with her every step of this heartbreaking journey for the last half year.
Mom looked even worse than she did the Friday before...her eyes had rolled to the back of her lids, she wasn't eating, and the only indication that she was alive at all was the occasional intake of oxygen.
Maureen told me that she could still hear everything I said even if she was completely unresponsive.
She asked me if I wanted some time alone with her. It was then I realized that throughout these last six months,
I've never been in a room alone with her... there was always a nurse, a doctor, a sibling, or my father. I told her I did.
And then I poured my heart out... I thanked her for the mother she's been to me, the in-law she's been to my wife,
the grandmother she's been to my daughter. I apologized for being the "son who never calls", as I was often labeled.
Things I've wanted to tell her for years came flowing out as freely as the tears that were running down my face.
"You're my hero, mom...I love you....Goodbye." and I had to leave, lest my grief overwhelm me...
I didn't want the last thing she heard to be me wailing like a banshee.
My sister went in to look after her while I went to the bathroom to compose myself.
Five minutes later, she came out of the room with a stunned look on her face.
"She waited for you Glenny....She's gone..."
The next few days were a blur for me. Her wake was packed with old neighborhood friends. My mother it seems,
was a mother to all of them as well. Tears flowed freely and many pleasant memories were exchanged.
I was literally a week removed from the Critical Care Unit and was doing everything in my power to keep breathing.
The loss of this incredible woman in my life still hasn't quite sunk in yet.
Her funeral was everything she would've wanted it to be. A standing room only church.
Fr. Frank yet again came charging down from the Bronx and delivered wonderful stories of this woman he'd come to love.
My Uncle Bill who came up with my mother and father when they first courted, gave an absolutely
beautiful eulogy that had some in the church standing and applauding when he finished and my brothers
and sisters went up to the altar and sang one of my mothers favorite John Denver songs- "For Baby (For Bobbie)"
I felt her presence there among us in a spiritual way I haven't felt in many a decade.
I'm keeping a brave face for McKenna this Holiday season, but I feel the invisible itch an amputee must feel
for his missing limb. She's truly gone. My life-our lives- will never be the same.
I hope this explains my long absence from this blog. I will not be updating FrogDaddy Ink for the foreseeable future.
This very well may be my last post altogether. I've not felt the desire to draw for awhile now, and while this saddens me,
I feel like I should be spending my energies on getting my life priorities back in order, which includes taking care of myself and my family.
To all of my fellow bloggers who have given me so much encouragement these past four years, I thank you and beseech you to still keep at it. Maybe one day you'll inspire me to jump again back into the fray.
December 28 2009