A Few Dollar Bills and a Diagnosis

In my dresser’s top drawer, tucked away inside a plastic bag that looks like it’s been through the wash, two dollar bills lay folded together. I cannot bear to put the bills in a more appropriate location, or use them for their intended purpose. Sometimes, when I catch sight of the bag, tears spring to my eyes.

I gave these dollars to my mom as she left my house on a Monday in January, as I always have. “Here’s your bus money,” I said, noting how strange it all was, yet how accustomed to it I had become. It was part of our ritual.

The next afternoon I received a surprising, but not unexpected call from Mom’s social worker. Early that morning someone had found her on the floor having difficulty using the right side of her body. She’s had a stroke, I thought. I was sure of it. A few weeks earlier, as she sat on the couch in our back room, she tried and had difficulty touching her right fingers together. I tried to get her to see a doctor, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Her social worker and I had been keeping an eye on her ever since.

By the time my husband had made it home to be with the kids, Mom had been in the hospital for over eight hours. Her face lit up in a smile when she saw me as I rushed into the room, but she was tired and having trouble speaking from what turned out to have been a seizure. Her tongue was swollen and purple from biting it during the ordeal.

Over the next few days a picture unfolded of what was happening inside her brain. “She has a large mass over her left frontal lobe that is pushing into her corpus colossum,” a young, but kind resident doctor told me in the bright hallway outside her room. “We’ll know more tomorrow after the neurosurgeons examine her scans.” As I spoke with family members about what a “large mass” could possibly be, all kinds of hopeful thoughts were offered: perhaps it was benign, perhaps it was a massive blood clot from her concussion twenty years before, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… The neurosurgeon who came to deliver the news and to show me the pictures of her brain did not have such good news.

“This is a very nasty tumor,” he said, gently. “The life expectancy with tumors like these is between 18-36 months.”

I didn’t hear most of what he said after that. My brain was filled with one thought: if only it had been a stroke.

*   *   *

After wrestling with the doctors not to send her back to the street – which they intended to do the day after we learned her diagnosis, but that’s another LONG story – my mom consented to brain surgery to biopsy the tumor, to a small dose of an anti-psychotic called resperidone, and rested in the hospital for several weeks while we tried to find her a place to stay. “It’s incredible what we’ve been able to accomplish,” my sister rightly said, when I relayed my challenges with getting her housing, the final linchpin in taking care of her. ” If she wasn’t dying, we’d be jumping for joy.”

As we sought out a place for my mother to live, we met wall after wall. Everyone within the Seattle area rejected her because Medicaid is her only insurance and Medicaid pays very little. We were looking at sending her hundreds of miles away, which I couldn’t bear, or taking her into my home, which sounded almost as impossible. And then, a woman at Columbia Lutheran Home, just blocks from my house, said, “You’ve touched my heart. Let me see what I can do.”

Today, almost three months after her diagnosis, my mom is living in a very nice facility – all day long – and just was admitted to hospice care. These days, I would give my right arm for eighteen months, but my mother is unlikely to see her sixtieth birthday this August. Her Stage IV Glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer, is beginning to get the upper hand. However, my mother, who has endured heartbreak and hardship for most of her adult life, remains sweet and kind. She is grateful for the chance to see us on a daily basis, and so are we. Her gentle, sweet spirit has shown up during this time of great challenge, and we couldn’t be more grateful for the chance to tell her the things that we’ve always wanted to say, but that didn’t always get communicated in just this way.

We love you. 

We are grateful for you. 

We are so, so glad you are my mother. 

And, always, underneath:

God, how we will miss you. 

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11 thoughts on “A Few Dollar Bills and a Diagnosis”

  1. Oh, Penny, I am so sorry, and yet so thankful. Wish I could give you a big hug. I know it’s really hard right now, and I don’t really know what to say, except that I’m tearing up right there with you. ❤

  2. Thank you for sharing. I am so glad your mom is close by during this time. I pray you continue to have many sweet moments with her, as does your whole family.

  3. Words fail me. All I can say is that I think it’s wonderful how you are able to see the silver lining, despite everything that’s happening. I honestly hope and pray that you will be able to spend more time with your mother and enjoy her company. Thank you for writing – and sharing this.

  4. Thank you everyone, deeply, for your kind replies. I covet all of your prayers, and am grateful that I can cast this out into the interweb and receive such touching responses. It’s a funny thing to do, to share all of this where anyone can read it, but it’s worth it to know you’ve got my back.

    This was all I could eke out yesterday, but there is so much more that is beautiful and even redemptive about all of this. I hope to have time to share some of those stories, too. Again, my deep thanks to you for reaching out.

  5. Wow! You are such an incredibly strong and beautiful and soft woman. After all you’ve been through. I don’t know you but I cried as I read your post. whispering a prayer for you and your mom. May strength and love and peace be yours throughout the tough times ahead.

  6. Penny, I just stumbled onto this because of a completely unrelated tweet you posted. I’m sorry to hear this, and will pray for peace and comfort for you and your mom. I’ve read your earlier things you have written about your mother on Burnside, and I really admire the way you make it clear how much you love her in the midst of her problems. And now this.
    Don’t know what else to say. Peace and comfort.

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