My first day here, around the middle of last November, I didn’t think she’d make it to her birthday. I walked into the Fogies’ little house at the retirement complex, and there was noise and excitement and hellos, and a hug from the Old Buzzard, and the Girl Child finding a vase for the flowers I’d brought, and she stood quietly waiting behind all the fuss.
She looked so small.
I put my arms around her and it was like hugging a baby bird. So small. So fragile.
Those first weeks, when I sometimes wondered whether she’d even make it to Christmas… they were hard. There were days spent waiting for x-rays, for CRT scans, for medications to be ready to pick up. There were arguments with the medical aid, whose protocols demanded this, that and the other painful and pointless test. There were tears and Serious Talks and figuring out what-to-do-about-Dad. There were visits to doctors who were compassionate but not encouraging. There was Hospice, a nurse who was warm and so kind, who gave us things to read with titles like “How to cope when someone you love is dying”.
There was oxygen. It perked her up. There was time working together on editing her book. That tired her out, some days we couldn’t manage more than a few paragraphs, but it made her smile. There were flowers. Visits from friends. Meals she enjoyed, at least for a few mouthfuls. A whole chocolate milkshake at the end of a morning’s shopping.
When we finally saw the oncologist (actually we waited only ten days for an appointment, but it felt like forever – Christmas was close, and I wanted, needed him to work a miracle and ensure she was able to celebrate) I pummeled him with questions. “Should we change her diet? Cut out sugar? What about exercise? Is it good or should she rather rest? We have a source who will sell us cannabis oil – she doesn’t like it but… will it help?”
He looked at her and said, so gently, “It doesn’t matter what you eat. You can eat as much ice cream as you like – and if you don’t feel like eating, you don’t have to. Exercise if you want to. Rest when you need to. Don’t let anyone bully you – you can try whatever magical remedies you like, but you don’t have to do anything that makes you feel bad. Rather, spend time with your family. Enjoy the time you have left.” And then he prescribed hormone therapy, since that worked 20 years ago during her second bout with breast cancer, along with various other medicinal compounds, and he went off on a skiing trip, and it was Christmas.
She celebrated with us.
At the beginning of January we went back to the oncologist. When she walked into his consulting room, still small and somehow fragile but walking on her own two little short stubby legs (sorry, Ma – you passed them on to me; I can be rude about them if I want to) his eyes lit up with surprise and pleasure. The x-rays showed that her lungs were almost clear of fluid, and she was breathing just fine. He didn’t stop beaming at her the whole time we were there.
When I came to Johannesburg in November, I thought for sure we’d be planning her funeral by January. Instead, we went on a road trip.
Last week, when we visited her oncologist again, he told her to get more exercise. He said, “You’ve been really sick, and now you’re going to have to put some work into getting better.”
Of course, technically she’s still sick. Stage 4 cancer doesn’t just go away. So she uses a wheelchair if she goes anywhere that requires a lot of walking, she takes her medications, she rests often, and she spends around 12 hours a day hooked up to oxygen.
But she’s not letting a mere disease take one flicker of the sparkle out of her life. Last week she had cataract surgery, because it looks like she’ll be needing her eyes for a while yet and she doesn’t want to miss seeing anything. On Thursday, undeterred by her eye patch, we celebrated her birthday by wrapping up the edit of her book, then we went out for dinner with the rest of my siblings. On Sunday we celebrated again with a picnic for 25 friends and family at one of her favorite places, the Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve.
Just look at her.
Isn’t she lovely?