I try to mostly write stories that are positive and filled with hope. Not because I don’t have times of deep pain and loss, but because it’s where I try to stay in my thoughts and in my heart... even when it’s not easy. That being said, sometimes it’s hard to find the positive in a story...
Almost every day I get an email from someone new who has followed our story and has taken the time to share some of their own stories with me. Husbands who’ve lost wives and are raising little ones by themselves. Women and men and families torn apart by cancer and pain and loss... doing their best to find hope in their hearts too. But it’s not easy. Life is hard sometimes and why one person is dealt a difficult hand while another gets a royal flush is impossible to understand.
My cousin Marvin from back in Kansas called me yesterday. His father and mine were brothers. “She was so strong...”Marve said, choking back tears on the phone. My cousin’s a big man – strong as an ox – but the weight that he and his family have been carrying is more than even the broadest shoulders can bare.
After more than a two-year battle with cancer that his eight-year-old granddaughter Aimee had been fighting, Marve said he was at the hospital with his daughter Stephony when the doctors told them that Aimee had three weeks to live, at most. And how Aimee had climbed into his big arms and said, “Papa, would it be okay if I die at your house?”
Now my pain and my loss is great and my wife’s struggle was something that neither she nor I would’ve ever wanted to have had to go through. But compared to losing your little one… Joey would have given her life up again without blinking. And I would’ve given mine.
And so Marve told me the story of how they moved a little hospice bed into his house and how a week or so later, as his family was gathered around her, Aimee passed from this world to wake up in a new one. One of the things that Marvin said hurt him the most was when Aimee told him, “I’m scared Papa.” “What are you scared of baby?” he answered. “I’m not gonna know anybody…” she said as if being in Heaven was going to be like being at a new school.
And there I was outside of a busy downtown restaurant, walking in circles with my cell phone in my hand, crying like a baby, listening to this story. Stopped dead in my tracks… realizing that this coming Mother’s day isn’t just gonna be hard for me. I’ll be with Indy and our older girls on Sunday, wishing they had their Mama here to celebrate… and all over the world, there are mamas waking up on Mother’s day without their babies. That thought snapped my life into perspective.
“Awe... you’re gonna know lots of people honey,” Marvin said he told her. “Joey will be there... and grandpa...” And as I listened, it occurred to me that his words and mine are not that different.
I realized why I write a blog and books, and why maybe I share so much about hope. Because we need it. We all do. And the emails I get, and comments people write, mean that our story is helping someone. That Joey’s life and death is giving new life to others. That her example of being a light, even when there was darkness all around her, can make a difference to someone else this Mother’s day and every day.
When I woke up yesterday morning, before I got the call from Marvin, I had been thinking about how Mother’s day is coming and about Joey. And also about my own mother. About how Mom had passed away from cancer a year and a half before Joey did. And how she had chosen to die, living. And that all the rest of us—my wife included—had been watching and how, Mom’s example, gave Joey some courage and perspective when her time came.
In my book This Life I Live which came out a couple of months ago, I wrote a story about my mother and her example in the end and the impact she had on us. I called Matt at HarperCollins and he said it’d be okay for me to share it this morning.
PS, little Aimee’s service is tomorrow... two days before Mother’s day.
“My mother smoked her whole life. She took her first puff at around thirteen or so and her last at seventy-one.
A Winston was still burning in the ashtray next to her recliner when she took her last breath in July of 2014. Like most people, she tried to quit a few times, but it was too hard. When you start anything that young, it’s tough to walk away from it. She finally did quit smoking though... when her heart quit beating.
Mom was diagnosed in 2005. My sisters and I went to her appointment at Vanderbilt and we listened to the doctor tell her that it was because of the cigarettes. She was upset about that. Upset mostly that we were in the room to hear it. That he confirmed what we always told her might happen if she didn’t quit those nasty things. She knew the truth of it, but I don’t think she wanted us to know what caused that spot on her tongue. She wanted to keep it vague, like it was just one of those things that happen to people sometimes. Bad luck. Dr. Sinard could tell it made her uncomfortable, and that she wanted to gloss over it, so he said it again, “those cigarettes are gonna kill you Mrs. Feek if you don’t stop.”
And he was right. They did.
Those and the beer and the hurt and the pain. And old age. Who knows what actually causes a heart to stop beating when it finally does? It could’ve been one, or all of those things, or something else truthfully I guess. But we didn’t need an autopsy to tell us what took our mother from us.
It wasn’t the first time that word had crept into our family’s vocabulary and unfortunately, wouldn’t be the last. My youngest sister Candy had had breast cancer in her early thirties and had come out of the surgery, chemo, and radiation fine and was still doing well. But this was different. Less random and more scary for some reason. I don’t know why.
Maybe it was Mom’s age. Mid-sixties by then. Or her years of hard living. Whatever it was, it got her attention and ours.
After a brutal surgery where they had to go through Mom’s neck and take half of her tongue, and use part of the flesh from her arm to fix her neck, and skin from her leg to fix her arm… she was left with scars in all three places and speech that would be forever slurred. She was self-conscious about it. About being hard to understand. But she learned to embrace it in the end. The lisp she had became a kind of battle scar for her from her war with the cancer that tried to take her down.
When she came home from the hospital, after a week in intensive care, she followed the doctor’s orders and quit. For six months she stayed clear of her smokes. Alcohol too. My sisters scrubbed her little brick HUD house from floor to ceiling to try to remove the smell of nicotine, so she wouldn’t be tempted when she got home. And it helped. For a while. To make it easier, my brothers quit too. Or at least in the waiting room, during her surgery, they swore they would. And I know they wanted to... but instead, they just hid their smokes when they came to visit her and walked outside and did they’re smoking away from her. They could see Mom’s scars and knew what the cancer had put her through... but as scary as that was, it was no match for the years and years of having a shot of nicotine in between their fingers when they’re nervous or just finishing eating, or whenever.
After six months, Mom just sent my brother to the store for a pack and started back up. And beer and wine magically started showing up again in her fridge too. At first, it upset me. Upset my sisters. But we learned to just accept that this was her life and she deserved the right to make her own decisions on how to live it. But she never smoked in the house again. Sort of. She loved the way her house smelled after the girls cleaned it, and wanted to keep it that way. So she always went outside to smoke from then on. Well, until that became too inconvenient, and she just cracked a window in the laundry room, put a fan in it to blow the smoke out, and lit up. It seemed the same as smoking inside to me, but for her it was change, and real change was hard for her to come by. So we all just were thankful for it, no matter how small it was.
It was January of ’14 when we heard that word again. She called each of us on her cell phone from a waiting room at the community hospital in Columbia and said you might want to come down here. She didn’t say why. She didn’t have to. We knew.
She had gone in that morning for a scan to see why she was having a hard time swallowing. Her throat had been bothering her for a while, and she had thought it might be acid reflux that was causing it. That’s what she hoped anyway. But inside, she probably already knew, or suspected what it was. When we got to the hospital, the doctor showed us the scan and explained that the mass on her esophagus was a squamous-cell carcinoma. Esophageal cancer. And they were pretty sure there were some spots on her lungs too. We knew enough about cancer to know that when it returns, it isn’t a good thing. Mom did too. There was a good chance that this one was going to leave more than just a scar.
We went with her a few days later to see an oncologist. That didn’t go well. He was blunt. He brought up her smoking again. This time, Mom wasn’t going to put up with it. he was mortified and felt disrespected and demanded to see a different one. So we arranged a new oncologist and this one took a softer approach. She needed it to be random and not the cigarettes, so we all just played along. My brothers vowed to quit smoking again, then doubled the number of packs they smoked a day. It was heartbreaking for all of us, and stressful. My sisters were amazing. So loving and patient with Mom thorough all of the meetings and scans and opinions on how to treat it. And then Mom told us she had decided on a plan.
She was going to do nothing.
She had no plans to quit smoking again, or stop drinking, or anything else. Her time had come and she knew it. She was going to live. That was her choice. She and we knew that she would most likely not live long, but it was her choice and she was going to do nothing.
We were outraged. We demanded that she fight. The doctors said that she could have a decent chance of surviving if they did the big surgery where they remove your esophagus and stretch your stomach up to your throat… if you live through it, that is. But it was a chance. We thought she was being weak. Giving up too soon. All so she didn’t have to quit smoking. “Damn, I hate those cigarettes,” I said to myself for the thousand time!
But I was wrong. That wasn’t the case. She wasn’t just quitting. Or being weak. Over the next six months, she would show us, and everyone around us, what it meant to be strong. To have courage. To live. And to die. The way you want to. On your own terms. It was incredible.
By then, she was living in a little white-frame house just down the road from us that Joey and I had purchased for her a few years before. That house is one of the things I am most proud of being part of in my life. To be able to have done something for her. Truly done something that she couldn’t do on her own. She loved that house. It’s the only one she ever owned. The only piece of land that was actually hers. And she was so proud of it. She planted roses and moonflowers all around and spent her days watering and weeding and sitting under her big covered-in patio, with a cigarette in her hand and her children and grand-children all around her.
And she loved her neighbors. She brought them flowers and meals and called them daily and they all loved her. That little house was more than just a house. She finally had a home of her own. Even if it was for only a short while.
A month or two after her diagnoses, hospice came in. And she mothered and loved each of them. As they checked on her, she checked on them and always left them feeling better about themselves than when they came. As her health declined, her joy increased. She loved life. What was left of it. She truly loved it and lived it to the max. My brothers and sisters and I were at her house constantly that spring and early summer. We spent every Sunday having brunch together, grilling out and laughing and gardening and listening to her stories. It was strangely beautiful. Her dying gave her grown kids the chance to really live.
I had no idea at the time how important Mom’s death would be. Not to me, but to my wife. How Joey saw her mother-in-law be so strong in facing the unknown, that it would help her in her own journey a year and a half later.
But for now, it just felt good. It felt right.
My aunt Mary came to live with my mother that summer. For almost two months, she stayed with her and kept her company and loved on her. After all those years of Rita being at her house, Aunt Mary knew how important my mom was to her and wanted to be there for and with her, in her time of need. And she was incredible. It was Aunt Mary on the other end of the line, when I got the call early one morning that July. Rory, you might want to come on down here.
Mom’s house was only a mile or so from mine, so I was there in no time. I found her in her laundry room. Fan running. Cigarette burning. She was struggling to breathe. But still forcing a smile when she saw me and my siblings. We put our arms around her and told her how much we loved her. We did. We all did. And I think she knew it. Within an hour or so, Mom would pass and a shell would be left in the chair. Mom’s body was still there, but she was long gone. That was clear to me.
I hadn’t been around death much. Not at all really. I had seen my wife’s beloved dog Rufus pass away a few years before, and had experienced his spirit leave his body when the vet gave him the shot that would relieve him of the unbearable arthritic pain he was in. I saw his eyes a moment before, and then after. He was gone. It was the weirdest thing. I didn’t really know what to make of it then, and I didn’t know how to feel about it sitting beside my mother. Her hand growing colder as time passed. Strangely, it was the same.
My sister Marcy lost it. Completely. She wouldn’t find it again for almost a year. She was completely unprepared for the loss she would feel. No medications, or midnight trips to the emergency room, or even trips out west to weekend grief retreats would help her. Only time would.
When I stood over my father’s casket at his funeral, I didn’t know what to do. But there at Mom’s house, I did. When the men from the funeral home came, I told them I wanted to pick her up and put her on the linen-covered stretcher that would wheel her to the long vehicle that would take her away. I wasn’t afraid or nervous. It felt natural. This was my mother for God’s sake. She had picked me up and held me in her arms the day I was born. I could hold her in mine the day she left us.
There is another family that lives in my mother’s white-frame house now. I try not to be hateful to them in my mind when I drive by, but sometimes I am. It bothers me to see their cars parked in Mom’s driveway—one of them up on blocks in the carport that she loved. To see the clutter on the front porch and in the yard that she loved so much. But in another way, I recognize that this is life. That it’s beautiful. My sister Marcy had ripped up every flower and bush that Mom had and replanted them at her house... and these people now have dozens more growing. Beautiful flowers and roses everywhere. Mom would love to see them. And it clearly looks like life is going on there. Lots of it.
As it should be.”