Moments that MatterLeen LakkisStep by step, I walked through the long, busy corridor of the University of San Francisco Medical Center. The walls were white, the lights were bright, yet the mood was utterly gloomy. As I looked to my left and right sides, I passed by rooms that hid stories of pain and survival, except that one room at the far end: a fragile self was hanging between life and death, filled with a genuine spirit, fighting an evil, sly disease.The corridor was in the hospital. The fragile self was my beloved mother. The evil disease was cancer.For months, my mom was living between physician visits, scans and tests before finally being admitted to the hospital. Yet my beloved mother was a mighty, rebellious lioness. She kept fighting her cancer disease for seven months, prolonging her life three months more than the doctors expected. Every minute I spent with my mother was like a tree out of season: I felt that all my leaves, my layers of comforts and beliefs, were stripped away from me. I was left vulnerable, open, I a place where I was learning invaluable lessons that I would forever cherish. I can safely say that the bitter experience of my mother’s death was a turning point that taught me lessons about life and society as a whole. Specifically, it taught me that life is so short and consuming, one should spend it with loved ones and never take their precious presence for granted no matter what. It also taught me that cancer has become a widely spread disease, affecting even those with an apparent healthy life style, anywhere around the world. Indeed, my late mother was far away from being an unhealthy individual. She never lit a cigarette, grew her own crops, cooked her own vegan-based food and exercised on regular basis. I remember the scents of the aromas of fresh vegetables, spices and herbs that saturated her carefully organized kitchen. She was my reference for healthy recipes, responsible behavior and a constant reminder of my inherent value as a female. When we learned that she had cancer, it was a shocking surprise that remained unexplained, especially that it was in the late stages.The room’s door was closed. Fearing that mom would be sleeping, I gently pushed the door and peeked through. There she was: awake, smiling, with a remote control in her hand and light blue oxygen tubes attached to her nose.I walked in, she turned her head towards me. Instantly, her dark brown eyes grew in excitement. I kneeled down and kissed her forehead, then her hand, three times. The mood in the room was very serene. All I could hear was the humming sound of the air-conditioning system and the slightly squeaking sound of the oxygen tubes. The sound of San Francisco’s bustling streets was suddenly muted.“How’s my little baby?” she asked.“I’m okay. Worried about you. How’re you feeling?” I asked“So far so good…so far so good. Don’t worry about me. I’m right here” she said, with a comforting smile and a gentle nod.Her positivism-induced answers eased me, but I always strived for more.“How’s’ your pain on a scale from 1 to 10?” I asked“It’s 0! Don’t worry sweetheart. Now tell me about you, how’re you managing back home? Is dad eating on time and taking his pills?”I held her hand, gently rubbing her soft, wrinkled skin… I felt it was getting flaky. Yet my mother’s eyes were blossoming with happiness at the scene of her daughter in front of her.“Mother. We’re all fine. We’re always be knowing that you’re happy. So what do you want me to do back home? Shall I mow our lawn? clean our bathrooms? get the house some groceries??” I asked, with a pitch of excitement in my voice.“Oh none of that. Your aunt and cousin will take care of it” she immediately responded with a serious tone. Then she said jokingly: “If I let you mow the lawn, you would end up mowing the grass it into a fashion brand logo”Mom always recognized my passion for fashion which sometimes stood out as an obsession and stood solidly next to me when I made my choice and throughout every step of my career. She turned off the television, looked straight into my eyes and said: “Lynn. Just take of yourself sweetheart. Be well. In every way. And be good to others as much as you want them to be good to you” she added. “Be especially caring towards your dad” she stressed, raising her frail index finger, with a dose of seriousness in her eyes.Mom’s self-less attitude never faded away, even on her death bed. She always yearned to learn about us, worry about us, guide us, advise us, listen to us. And whenever she sensed worrisome or sadness from any of us, she made sure to infuse a new dose of optimism and positivity in our hearts and minds. To me, there was a thick fog along the horizon of mom’s life. But for mom, it seemed like a glow in the sky everytime she saw one of us around. I often wished I could adopt her perspective into my stubborn brain cells especially when I spent time with her.Looking around the room, I realized that mom was not alone. She sure had a lot of company: a liquid-oxygen cylinder behind her bed, a digital monitor on her left and a transparent IV transfusion bag hung upwards on her right with its needle feeding into her arm. A urinal was on her left for the times when she wouldn’t be able to walk to the toilet one two meters away. All the medical gigs that always scared me are now taking over my one and only mother. It was a bitter scene to gulp.Lunch came in and was put on the over bed table: boiled potato and yogurt was all what mom could eat at this stage.“Want more salt mummy?” I askedShe smiled. “It won’t make a difference sweetheart”Mom’s taste buds no longer functioned. And her appetite was at an all-time low. The fact that she’s actually eating was an event worth celebrating.I cut the boiled potato into pieces and fed her every bite. She never enjoyed depending on anyone for anything, but when it comes to her daughter, she loved being pampered. “You’re gonna feed your husband in the exact same way when he’s tired and needs a mood lift. Okay?” she instructed. “But only if he does the same to you!” she added. Mom always strived to make sure I’m appreciated wherever I go. My personal life was no exception for her.Throughout my stay with her, mom gave me advice, found small things to joke about, asked about the news of everyone we knew, and kept telling me that she’s okay and will be okay. Yet my mind was somewhere else. Everytime I went back home I spent hours researching experimental therapies for bone cancer, news, methods, diet therapies and whatever door that remained closed in the quest for ending her ordeal. Yet given that her case was incurable, all what I thought of was mere fantasy. Yet for me, thinking about fantasy was easier. It was less painful, less explosive and less emotional than thinking of what I was seeing.Lunch was done and mom wanted to wash up in the toilet. I came around her bed and held her hand helping her to get up. As she turned her head to the left attempting to stand up, I saw fallen pieces of hair scattered on her white pillow. Mom was losing hair fast.I started walking her from her bed to the toilet. She had to stop several times to catch her breath. I knew it was chest pain. “Do you want to go back to bed?” I asked, confused and unsure of what to do. “No, no sweetheart. Just keep holding my hand”. She wrapped her arm around my shoulders, her slippered feet took one slow shuffling step after the other. By the time she finished the toilet and went back to bed, she got increasingly short of breath and exhausted. I figured that walking the length of the corridor of her room was out of the question.Looking at my mom as she laid there, tethered to the artificial, life-prolonging gigs, drifting in and out of sleep throughout the day, I kept wishing for the impossible; like having a magic wand that I would use to delete every single machine, every single drop of pain, every single dim moment from my mother’s pale room. My mind was in constant thought, teetering on miracles sometimes and on delirium other times. I so much wanted her to leave this borrowed, dull, fluorescent place. It was too narrow and too dull for her to even spend a minute in. Deep down, I never stopped hoping that a miracle will happen. I never ever, not for one second, believed that the cancer was going to win. Whenever I expressed my despair to her, she always answered: “My faith will save me”.Nevertheless, emotional turmoil was overwhelming our family members. The mere thought that mom will be leaving us soon was an immediate depression trigger. I was constantly worried and only thought of ways to ease her pain and set her free. My dad took constant breaks from work to spend more time with his beloved sweetheart. Yet none of that turmoil existed in mom’s resilient spirit; She refused to allow cancer and its accompanying drama to consume or alter the feelings that lived in her heart and the thoughts that occupied her mind. Mother saw the tornado coming towards her, but instead of running away, she decided to stop and smell the roses. She knew that life was one, it was hers and decided to lead it on her own terms until the last breath. She kept her grit all throughout, and amazingly enough, this helped us cope with the situation better. At a time when many succumb to stress and depression, my mom was an exceptional example of a sweet rebel that always lived to win. She constantly encouraged me to live strongly and happily, assuring me that I will do great and would not proceed any choice without conviction. Every time I was about to slip into a depressing mood, mom lifted me up again. Her personality shone through; it was riveting, irresistible and so full of strength and pure love. Her only wish, besides our own well-being and happiness, was simple “I just wish that nobody, anybody, would have to go through a fraction of what I went through,”. Those words were reflective, a kind of acceptance to the only thing she cannot control. Yet throughout, she remained upbeat and maintained a positive attitude infront of us. Her biggest concern was leaving us making sure we are in the best shape possible. She knew she could not change the wind…but she also knew that she can direct the sails.On the broader social context, my mom’s ordeal opened my eyes on how cancer patients are traditionally and widely being treated. The goal of ordinary medicine is mainly to extend one’s life. But this is often happens at the expense of the quality of the patient’s existence. Chemotherapies, surgeries, intensive care units and other procedures are performed with the intention of simply gaining time. We end up with a pattern of spending high initial costs with regards to testing, surgery, specialized scans, pills and other necessary bills that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars. The main objective is to prolong life, and delay death. The traditional question here is: when such expensive decisions are made, who should win? Is it the taxpayers and insurers footing the bill or the patient that is fighting for his life? Some may argue that if patients and their families handled the bills, cancer therapies would no longer be that expensive. Yet mom’s experience taught me that this is the wrong question to be debated. The real question is: Should we prolong life, or ease pain? Should we allow the patient to live his last months supported by loved ones or machines? What is it that really matters to the patient? Instead of spending all that money on treatments that only extent but do not relieve, today’s medicine should invest in hospice methods, deploying specialized doctors, nurses and social workers that would help patients with terminal illnesses like mom to live their current life in the fullest most meaningful manner possible. This means focusing on issues like freedom from discomfort and pain or maintaining emotional and mental awareness for as long as possible, or being able to get out with family and loved ones every now and then. Indeed, when people with terminal illness face the end of their life, they have concerns that go beyond just prolonging their life. For mom, all what she cared about was to spend time with family, enjoy the touch of others, remain mentally and emotionally aware and above all, not to become a burden to those around her. Yet today, much of the world’s medical care systems have failed to fulfill these needs. The cost of this is measured in more than just dollars. So here, it is not whether we can afford the expense of prolonging life for these patients or not. It is how we can build a system that would truly and effectively help a dying patient fulfill what most matters to them at the final months of their lives. My mom was proud of her achievements and the influences she has made on people throughout her life. Her utmost wish was to spend precious, pain-free moments with the people she influenced and her most important achievement; her family. She certainly did not want to prolong her life while prolonging the pain confined to a deathbed. Yet the doctors gave us the medical treatment option as the most viable one available. Is this what the medical field has to offer? If medical science can only offer expensive machines to prolong a patient’s life in the most painful manner, then I’m afraid it has lost its core purpose and needs to reinvent itself. It is high time that the heart and the soul are brought back to the field of medicine.Second of all, my mother’s experience changed my perception about life and death. In life, my focus narrowed down. The non-essentials of life were put on hold. The experience taught me to focus more on ‘now’ and less on the future, more on what and who matters and less on who comes and goes and changes. I learned that yes, I can choose my fears now. But I may not know them all until I face them on life’s horrid battlefields. Looking ahead, knowing that I will grow up to be an elderly senior and may as well face chronic, life-threatening diseases, my wishes have been weeded out to just two: All I care is that, regardless of my situation, I wish to be surrounded with those who have my best interest at heart and die in the least pain possible. I do not want to add years to my life. I want to protect the life in the years that I still have. I would live longer when I stop trying to live longer.When it comes to death, I have always considered that death was a brief process. Whether it was a heart attack, difficult childbirth, pneumonia or even a deadly disease, death to me was a matter of days or a few weeks. Yet mom’s case continued for years. Indeed, nowadays, swift illness has become an exception. For most people, death is becoming more of a long medical struggle. While death is certain, the timing is not. It is a struggle with uncertainty: with when, where and how to accept an already-lost battle. The issue is no longer a question of dying or not, but rather: how to die.The time I had available to spend close to her became so limited, it felt like seconds. The experience showed me that today’s life consumes us so much, we get caught up with what we are seeing, feeling, buying, eating, gaining and doing on an hourly basis. We always strive for more, for what is new, for what is better, for what is different…. we often forget what truly matters. The turning point made me think: What is really important to me in life? What are my real sources of happiness and fulfillment? Are they my social life? My personal achievements? My leisure destinations? My bank account totals? Or perhaps the people who are the closest to me yet whom I tend to forget or take for granted the most? This is because death can take away your loved ones from you at any time and in the most painful way possible, one that you may least expect. The experience also humbled me; it was an eye-opener to the many blessings that I had. I counted my blessings everyday and thanked God for what I used to take for granted in the past.The experience of my beloved mother also taught me that precious things in life never last forever, and may even be gone too soon before you fully appreciate their presence. Life is a journey, yet today’s hectic society forces us to focus on where we are going while missing the beauty of what’s around us. Being a highly independent, individualistic individual who spent her time travelling, learning and socializing, the time I spent with my family was very limited. Specifically, my mother often missed me being around and I always promised to dedicate special time with her during weekends. Yet it rarely worked. As a result, I often feel regret and guilt over my performance in my past relationships with loved ones, especially my mom. Yet I realized that I only acted based on what my awareness knew at that time. If I knew back then what I knew now, I would have surely acted differently. But I did not know. Yet, the core lesson that I learned, one which keeps swirling through my mind is this: life’s fortunes and blessings are less about your possessions and experiences, and more about your loved ones and the sacrifices they’ve made for you. The moments spent with them are moments the that matter.At the end of my visit, I looked at my mother’s pale face as she stared at the ceiling. It brought me mixed feelings. On one hand, I was happy to see her alive, right in front of me, fueled with optimism, smiling despite the odds, talking in resilience. On the other hand, my mind was clouded. Clouded with the uncertainty of what tomorrow hides. The surmounting obstacles to mom’s missed comfort and well-being that she once enjoyed and the loss of control that she once had. The woman that once led every aspect of an entire household, a full time job and a vibrant social life…was confined to a hospital bed lacking the ability to make the difference she always used to make. Yet, she was accommodating. My mother’s attitude continued to challenge my worrisome and negativity. Her smile never left her face, neither did the questions about me, my studies, my friends, even my love life. “Have you found a man that appreciates you?” she often used to ask. “I’m following your advice and not giving in yet mommy!” I responded. Mom had a genuine interest in what mattered. Above all, she always wanted to know unfiltered information about her condition and the potential possibilities, no matter how narrow or gloomy they were. Her ability to comfort herself, by herself, was unmatched. It was inspiring.It was time for mom to sleep. I covered her with her bed sheets up to her neck and gave her a long kiss on her forehead, feeling her cold, dry skin against my warm, moist lips. Before I left, I grabbed my smartphone, plugged the earphones and put them in her two ears. With a few taps, I found her favorite song and pressed play…and the tuneful lyrics began:“And now… the end is nearAnd so I face… the final curtainMy friend… I’ll say it clearI’ll state my case… of which I’m certainI’ve lived… a life that’s fullI traveled each …and every highwayAnd more, much more than thisI did it my way”Regrets… I’ve had a few;But then again… too few to mention.I did… what I had to doAnd saw it through… without exemption.I planned… each charted course;Each careful step… along the byway,And more, much more than this,I did it my way”Crystal tears streamed down her tender cheeks. I cried like a baby, burying my face in her bed sheets. Little did I know, that meeting…was our last.
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