(Photo by Ron Shelton at SheltonImaging.com)
Many of my friends never met my mom. Many did. For those who did, you know how critical she was to me, to our family. Phil has often said that she really was at the epicenter of my family; she was the first one we talked with when something good or bad happened. She played intermediary when she needed to. She always listened no matter how boring the story.
She was born in 1934, the sixth of eight kids, in the middle of the Great Depression. Her maiden name was Wilson, and her mother and father had met in Canada but then moved to the United States. Her mother’s maiden name was Lansbury and had emigrated from England when she was two. My mom, like all of her siblings, was taught to play the piano, to sew, to do some basic farm work including picking off potato bugs and feeding chickens. She remembers her family always struggling financially, partially due to the time in which she was born, but as much the result of her father, an alcoholic, not valuing steady work. When she was five, her mom sent her to kindergarten with her siblings, and because it turned out the school didn’t have a kindergarten, she just went to first grade that day and from then on was a year younger than her school peers. Her father had a heart attack while fishing and drowned in 1951. Mom met my dad at church, and they were married in 1955. They lived for two years in Arkansas while dad served out his obligatory two years of drafted military service; Elvis Presley was serving at the same time and at the same base. Thinking they couldn’t have kids, they adopted my sister eight years into their marriage, and were surprised when my brother, and then I, came along two and four years later. They were married for 55 years.
All of these are facts. Here are some more facts:
- Mom eventually learned what a wreck I was on the piano, but did teach me to sew in seventh grade. The first thing we made together was a dark brown elastic-waist calico peasant skirt that I wore to death. I wish I still had it.
- She never went to college herself, but valued education. She and Dad never made much money, but my brother and I graduated from college with no debt because they found a way to pay for it outright. I hope I’m able to do the same for my kids.
- My years as a college English major corresponded with Mom’s commuting to Detroit for her banking job. She took the bus and spent her commuting time reading the same novels I was reading, classics she hadn’t yet read: Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck and D.H. Lawrence and so many others I can’t remember.
- Every time my brother, sister, or I moved, she was right there to load boxes, clean bathrooms, bring in food, watch kids.
- After she retired, she became a crack garage-saler. She and her best friend Gloria would hit the sales all day Thursday, stopping for lunch. The gorgeous white wood crib she bought while I was pregnant with Max went through three of our kids before I Freecycled it to another family.
- She made the trip from Michigan to Indiana three times for the birth of my kids and stayed with us while our family adjusted to the changes that came with an infant. She cooked meals, took up-and-down-the-hallway trips with squawling babies, spent time with neglected older siblings, cleaned, and drove me around when I had surgical restrictions.
- She and my dad took my brothers’ boys and my boys (a total of four boys!) for a whole week in the summer to go to the zoo, hang out with their cousins, go swimming at the neighborhood lake. Although they were young, my kids still talk about those trips.
Here’s what else I know:
- Starting at the beginning of 2010, the stomach pain she’d dealt with on and off throughout her life began escalating. She didn’t share this with us for many months, but seemed distracted when we would talk. The last trip that she made to my house, to drop off her brother’s geriatric Dachshund who we were adopting, I began wondering if she was slipping; she seemed to have such trouble concentrating on conversations. I didn’t know until later that she was battling extreme stomach pain.
- She talked off and on with several doctors about the pain in the first half of the year. One suggested Mylanta. Another that she may have IBS. In June when she was having a routine colonoscopy, she mentioned the pain to the technician, who suggested that because she’d had some stomach surgery, she might have adhesions in her intestines, something that couldn’t be determined without exploratory surgery. The colonoscopy came back clean and normal, but the pain continued.
- By August, she could barely get out of bed, and had more aggressive tests. These showed several spots that looked suspicious. They were biopsied, and one was found to be malignant, but not the primary location, meaning it had traveled from somewhere else. At this point she was referred to an oncologist described as top-notch.
- The oncologist gave a surprising diagnosis: Stage 4 colon cancer than had spread to her liver. He said the cancer was in an area of the colon, the cecum, that the colonoscopy had missed. He began her on a very aggressive chemotherapy routine. This was September 2010.
- She never lost her hair, but from the time she began chemo, the quality of her life plummeted. She was too weak often to get out of bed. She lost weight. She lost her appetite. The inside of her mouth was desert-like and her tongue had deep cracks. She developed neuropathy that made her prone to drop items she picked up. In January 2011 she was hospitalized for several days and a blood clot was discovered in her leg — another side effect of the chemo. A good day was one in which she felt like eating dinner and had the energy to dust a room.
- She got a good PET scan that spring: All tumors had shrunk; the cancer was out of her liver. She initially understood that she was going to get a two-month break from her chemo treatments. She began dreaming of the things she could do with a little energy back: Get together with her siblings, take some of the house maintenance off my dad, do a little sewing, maybe even come to Ohio or Indiana to visit my brother and me. In fact, her doctor never intended to give her a break; he started her on another aggressive round of chemo. She put a positive spin on it, but she was clearly crushed to get back on the treadmill.
- The week of May 2, 2011, seven months after her diagnosis, I was in Florida for a sales conference and she and I played phone tag. Her message on my cell phone was not the woman she’d been; her voice was frail and tired. She was hesitant finding the right words. Still, with her positive PET results, we were feeling hopeful that she’d be with us for a while longer.
- That Friday, Dad was helping Mom get ready for a doctor’s appointment. She’d been somewhat listless and unresponsive that day and the day before. She had a cough that was getting more violent. Dad was helping her out of the shower; she mentioned that the way he was helping was hurting her, so he changed position. She then became very heavy. Dad looked at one of her eyes and saw the life was gone. That she was gone. The way she died is consistent with a pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot that moves into the lung.
All of these are also facts. Her funeral was well attended by friends and family members and former co-workers and church-goers. Most of us stood stunned that she could have died when it seemed things were going in the right direction.
Just a couple more facts:
This past Tuesday, Mom’s oncologist, Farid Fata, was arrested for what is believed to be a massive Medicare fraud scheme. He is charged with the unthinkable: Deliberately misdiagnosing patients as having cancer to treat them with chemotherapy, prolonging chemotherapy or prescribing unnecessary chemo, falsifying records, putting end-of-life patients with no chance of recovery through chemo. All of this so that he could bill Medicare for the treatment; the charge is that he and his business falsely charged $35 million to Medicare. According to the complaint papers, 78% of his business’s income is derived from Medicare billings, meaning if the allegations are correct, he preyed on senior citizens with cancer. And if the allegations are correct, there is not a circle of hell low enough for him.
This has brought up all kinds of questions regarding Mom’s diagnosis, treatment regimen, end-of-life. We don’t know whether she might have survived as long or longer with a less aggressive regimen. We don’t yet know whether Fata’s assessment that her cancer was inoperable is in fact accurate. We don’t know whether perhaps her life wouldn’t have been extended, but the end could have been so much more dignified and positive if her body weren’t sustaining the levels of poison that it did when she died. If she died of a blood clot brought on by the chemo, we don’t know what the outcome might have been had she not had chemo or as aggressive a program.
Here’s what we know: Eleanore Morrow was an extraordinary woman, wife, mother, grandma, and friend. Regardless of what is revealed in the next months as we comb her records, follow Fata’s trial, continue to connect with other families, the end of her life and how it could have been more peaceful is going to take a backseat to who she was for the 76 years of her life.