I sent her a package from Hong Kong for her 39th birthday. She fully embraced the color pink and the sense of camaraderie it gave her, so I picked out some beautiful pink items ... pashmina scarves, bracelets and the like.
Christina was almost exactly ten years younger than me in life, but so much older than me in life experience. Her four children ranged in age (at that time) from 11 - 19, while my two children were 11 and 12.
We continued our friendship when I returned to the United States. I was troubled by the fact that more and more treatments were failing Christina and it was clear that she was slipping further and further away.
She was hospitalized in December 2012 with obvious signs of liver failure. I called her for the first time while she was in the hospital and I asked if I had called at a bad time. Of course, I meant in relation to hospital activities, but as I now well know, a casual question such as that is never just a casual question to someone staring mortality dead on.
"There's never going to be a good time, is there?"
"No, I guess there isn't. I'm so sorry."
"It's so hard knowing someone else is going to raise my children."
"I know. I'm so sorry."
And we cried.
When I found out shortly thereafter that I was metastatic as well, I never told her. I know part of her story was being comforted by a friend upon her metastatic diagnosis with the friend dying two days later. I just didn't want Christina to think that was going to happen to her.
Christina was able to be home for Christmas, but her body was shutting down.
Today is Christina's Remembrance Day. She died three years ago and there is still an ache in my heart over the helplessness of it all. Her story is my story and it's very real and very important.
Christina lived two states away from me and we never met in person. I've never met her family. I've stayed quietly in the background, checking in on them from afar, but never intruding.
However, yesterday, Christina's oldest daughter wrote a very poignant post in her blog. Ashleigh is married now and expecting her first child (who is a few days overdue!) and Ashleigh shared her thoughts about her mother's last night. She gave me permission to share it here.
"One thing I wanted to talk about is the fact that today is January 6th. Tomorrow is January 7th. My mom passed away 3 years ago tomorrow morning. Three years ago tonight, I was taking her to the bathroom when she collapsed and some pretty scarring things happened. I wish that wasn't my last image of her, but I am grateful that I had the opportunity to watch her and take care of her when my dad and hospice were not around. She had to get everywhere with a walker and with someone holding her upright and encouraging steps. She could not really move by herself, and that night she couldn't talk. She only communicated in groans. The only reason I knew she had to use the bathroom was that she was groaning and clutching her stomach. Instead of thinking back on the horrific events of that night and becoming emotional and depressed by them (they are why I have PTSD) I have learned from counseling to look at that night in a more positive perspective, to change the way I perceive those memories. It's a tool that my counselor taught me in order to cope with my PTSD.
"I look at that night now, January 6th, and realize how blessed and how lucky I was to be able to help my mom the way I was. She was in effect helpless like an infant. She laid in a hospital bed that was set up in our living room. My dad and hospice were the main ones who were with her, and of course my siblings helped a little. But my mom wanted them to stay kids and be kids, so she would often ask my dad, hospice or me to do things like take her to the bathroom or clean up after her so that the kids didn't have to experience that. Anyway, as I said, she was like an infant on January 6th. I was in the room with her, even though she may not have recognized that we were spending quality time together I know we were. We were watching one of her favorite shows. I don't remember if it was friends or big bang theory. But it was one we both loved that made us laugh. Any time with my mom was sweet and precious to me. I felt closer to and happier with her than I had for a while, and it seemed like we resolved our issues toward the end, which still brings me a lot of peace. I am grateful I was there to take care of her that night. Grateful that after all the years of her taking care of me, I was able to reciprocate that back to her. That's not something everyone gets to do for their parents. I feel incredibly blessed that I got that opportunity. When she started to collapse, I texted my dad (I think he was outside or at the store or something) when he didn't respond, I held my mom upright and looked up to the ceiling and as the tears started to come and I started to shake, I just said "please Heavenly Father" and a few seconds later my dad came through the door. I was so grateful that he was there, I wouldn't have gotten through it, in fact I was so scattered and scared that all I could do was hand my dad a phone to call 911 and hospice and gather the siblings who were home and take them into my parent's bedroom so they didn't see what was going on. I felt a lot of love for my brother and sister that night too. I didn't have the best relationship with my sister Ema, but in that moment I knew our relationship was going to turn around soon (which it did while I was on my mission) and Ben and I have an awesome relationship. We're the only sibling pair that hasn't ever had huge blowout fights. We've always been close and I'm grateful for that.
"Just thinking on that today. I loved being able to show compassion for and help my mom to do things that I was able to do for her. Soon I will be able to do the same things for my son. It will be interesting to see if he is born tonight or tomorrow. I don't know if that will happen, but I know if it does it's because my mom is up there coaching my son to wait until these two days so that some happiness can be brought on the day my family and her friends dread each year. It just fits so well with my mom's personality. She never liked being in the limelight, especially for cancer or illness. She never wanted people to deeply grieve over her, in fact she told me that she wanted me to keep on going in life in happiness. It just makes a lot of sense. Of course, the grief is felt over the course of the first couple weeks of January the most for me. So any day in the next week or so would make this thought true for me. I hope he is born tomorrow for many reasons, but it would be a comfort and a little sign from my mom and would bring me even greater joy.
"So come on little bear!"
So many times we don't really hear the words of those left behind. Ashleigh's post gives us a very tiny glimpse into the world of an "adult child" (she was only 19!) in witnessing traumatic events that no child should have to see.
Researching more into metastatic breast cancer goes far beyond patient treatment. It goes into so much more. It goes into the heart of life ... loving our friends and family and being there for them at important points in their lives.
Christina should be here today to welcome her first grandson. She should be here for so much more.
Written in honor and memory of Christina, 5/21/73 - 1/7/13. Dedicated to her husband, her four children, and to all those who love her and who carry her banner.