Its been four weeks today.
The most excruciatingly dark, pain-filled days of my entire life.
January 24th was supposed to be a day filled with love, joy, and celebration for my second daughter’s birthday. But pain washed over each of us that day, hiding us under a cloak of sorrow and anger.
As many of you know, my mother was diagnosed with a form of lung cancer on December 8th, 2015. We were all extremely optimistic, because even though the mass on her lung was large, her doctor said he cancer was a very treatable form, and the most common type of lung cancer in women. We all felt so much relief. At the time she wasn’t in too much pain and only needed a lower dose pain pill to manage at home. She was an incredibly strong woman.
How strong was she? Strong enough that when she was eight months pregnant with my brother and went through the windshield in a car accident and fractured her skull, the only thing she was concerned about with the paramedics was that she didn’t get any blood on her brand new maternity outfit. She was strong enough that when we were tubing on a lake one summer and she had broken two of her ribs, all she did was confirm the ribs were going to heal correctly, and go about her days as usual with just some tylenol occasionally. She was so strong that when one of her mentally-ill patients she had bit her finger to the bone, she got treatment and continued caring for him because he was one of her favorite patients. My mother had either broken or fractured nearly every single bone in her body by the time she reached middle age. She was, in fact, a boss.
The day she was diagnosed with lung cancer, I immediately drove to her house once she was home. I walked into the kitchen smelling cookies, and there she stood. Pulling trays of Christmas sugar cookies out of the oven.
“Did you make those?!” I panicked.
“Yes! Here you go sweethearts!” She said as she handed each of my kids a cookie.
I pointed to a nearby chair and asked if she should be resting. She gave me a smile and a nod, and said
“Okay, okay. I just had to make them cookies! I’ll sit now!”
That was one of the last times I would see her walk without feeling excruciating pain.
She began radiation that next week, and her doctor told her once the radiation treatments were complete, she would begin chemotherapy. The plan was that the radiation would shrink the mass on her lung, and the chemotherapy would kill the cancer.
Radiation was okay for the first two weeks. She went everyday, received the treatment and came home. She didn’t like it because laying down would cause her back to hurt terribly, but she did it. And she continually reassured me that she would be okay. She was a fighter.
But as the days grew to their shortest, she grew weaker.
Christmas went by beautifully, and she did so well. Not too much pain, only enough to need to sit on a pillow. She was happy, and she was still her beautiful, loving self. She was having difficulty eating, but was told that it was a side effect of radiation treatments. All was well, and she seemed to be handling everything alright. A Christmas we will cherish forever.
On January 2nd, my father asked me to spend the night with my mother so he could have a night off. My mother suggested we have a “girls night” and do our nails, I could drink some wine, and we could gossip, like we always have. I was so, so excited to spend an entire night with her. But when I got there, she was in so much pain. She was hunched over in a chair not saying a word. I immediately walked over to her and began rubbing her back (where the mass was pressing) and it was the only relief she was getting from the pain, despite the upped dosage of her pain medication. I held back my tears as I watched her frozen with pain. I felt so incredibly helpless, and she continued to apologize for her pain. Its okay, mom.
I spent that night by her side, and when my father returned and I had to leave the next day, he called me soon after and told me “I’m taking your mom to the hospital.”
I was terrified, but still very much optimistic. I asked him to keep me updated, as I was beginning to get sick with a bad cold, and didn’t want to risk her catching it.
She was sent home a couple of days after another stay. The doctor said that the cancer had spread down her entire spine. That the radiation had not helped at all, it had only increased the speed of it spreading. She was sent home with more very strong pain medication and that’s it.
My father and I were livid. The most angry I had ever been in my life. Her doctor didn’t even try to help her. There was no rush on anything. And with both of my parents working in the medical field their entire adult lives, they knew that there should have been.
But at that point, while I was still grasping to whatever hope I could hold on to, we began to watch her fade. Fade into a ghostly shadow of the women we once knew.
She was now on oxygen, many different pain killers, and medical marijuana.
It was a scarring sight to see my beautiful mother essentially stuck in a chair. She could only walk from the chair in her bedroom to her bathroom, which was only maybe ten feet away. It was difficult to explain to my children why their “Memom” was like this, and they were frightened for a little bit.
I was there nearly everyday. Everyday I sat on the arm of the chair she sat in, rubbing her back until my father kicked me out so she could rest. We talked about everything. How the kids were doing, how Nick and I were doing, how much my father, her husband, annoyed us. (She lost her filter at this point, and became quite hilarious!)
Our time was precious, and each day she hugged me tight and kissed my lips. At the time I assumed it was just because she loved me. We were always very affectionate. But looking back now, I realize it was because she didn’t know if she would make it to the next day. She always thanked me for coming and spending time with her, and each time I’d peek my head around the doorframe to her room and say “You don’t have to thank me, Mom. I love you.”
Over the last two weeks of her life, she was not herself. She still had high spirits, as usual. But her pain had increased to the point where none of her medications helped. The only thing that could provide temporary relief was medical marijuana. She had stopped eating for the most part, and had lost so much weight that she looked as if she had aged thirty years.
That was the biggest struggle, getting her to eat.
Naturally, the pain medication she was taking made her quite “out of it” and dare I say, bitchy, which she proudly admitted to at this time. She refused to tell my father what she wanted to eat for some reason. So my father enlisted me to help. I would go back and begin rubbing her poor, bony spine, and list off different foods she loved, whether it was from a restaurant fifty minutes away or a homemade dish. When I listed off something that sounded good to her (usually something unhealthy) she would nod her head and say that she would eat it if I got it for her, but only if I ate it with her, because “If she was going to get fat, I was going to get fat with her.”
I’d get fat for you any day, Mom.
During those last two weeks, she also began to have issues controlling her bladder and bowels, which we assumed was from the massive amounts of pain medication as well.
On January 22nd, I went over to my parent’s house to visit my mother before going home and preparing for Delilah’s birthday party the next day. She seemed very bad, and my father told me he had called my brother and his wife in Chicago to come soon, because “it was time.” Those words will forever ring in the back of my head. I panicked, but was so optimistic, that I truly thought she might pull through.
Hope can be so strong.
I went back and she was hunched over in pain, but once I rubbed her back, she softened. See, Dad? You’re wrong. She had been crying and yelling at my father over things that didn’t make sense. She hardly made sense when she spoke. It was a bit scary to see her so confused. I asked if she would please eat something for me, and she whimpered. But she did it. She ate half of a piece of banana bread. I was so proud of her.
I asked her “You’re going to be at Delilah’s party tomorrow right?”
“I will be there.” She replied with a smile. She had been determined to make it to her party for weeks.
At that point my father told me to go so she could rest.
Nick and I decorated the house for the party, blew up what felt like a hundred balloons, and got ready for what would be my mother’s last day.
I set up our glider that has been used to rock our children to sleep downstairs, lined it with absorbent pads in case of an accident, pillows, and blankets. I had it all set up. I even invited several people who I know have wanted to see my mother since her diagnosis. Everything was going to be perfect for her.
When my mother and father arrived, Nick helped them inside while I dressed Delilah in her princess gown. My mother was very out of it. She didn’t talk too much, and when she did, she didn’t make sense. But she made sure to tell me that I had done a beautiful job on Delilah’s party, and she was thrilled when Cinderella (my mother’s favorite princess) showed up at our front door.
My mother somewhat chatted with family and friends who came to celebrate, and when I continuously offered her snacks, she took up my offer on a piece of cake. She loved it, and everyone was so thrilled to see her eat. My mother smiled so much, though I could tell each smile was a struggle that day. She never once uncrossed her legs out of fear of having an accident.
Cinderella came over to my mother, sat beside her, and told her all about her Prince, her castle, and how much she admired my mother, the “Queen” of our castle (family). She gave her several hugs, and I could see so much light in my mother’s eyes. She provided us with so many photos that we will forever enjoy.
But soon, the party had to end. My father and Nick lifted my mother to carry her to the car, and on the way out, she had an accident. I know that she was so embarrassed, but she hid every emotion. I didn’t know that would be the last time I would see her conscious.
That night around eight, I received a call from my father saying that paramedics were on the way because my mother was found unresponsive on the toilet. I knew what was happening. He didn’t need to say it. My heart began to pound, I began to shake, and the tears flowed uncontrollably over the phone. He asked if I was okay, and through a trembling cry I said “Not at all.” He told me he would keep me updated.
I dropped my phone and began to pace around the house to stop the adrenaline rushing through my veins. I explained to Nick what happened, and he offered his gentle love, but didn’t say a word. There was nothing he could say that would make it alright.
I felt as if the world slowed into a timeless blur around me while I was sinking into quicksand.
I waited. It was all I could do. I smudged the house, asked my tribal sisters for reiki healing and full moon blessings in honor of my mother. I lit candles and set my crystals out in a healing grid.
Until two in the morning.
I had decided to try and doze off while I waited for my father’s phone call. And through the quiet darkness of our bedroom, I saw the light of my phone glow. Nick jumped up out of bed and said “Melissa! Your phone!”
I shook as I reached for it and answered.
“How is she?” I panicked.
The words I’ll never forget:
“I have some bad news. Your mother is dying.” he said.
I lost it. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. I lost it.
“What is going on?” I cried.
He went on to tell me about how the cancer had eaten her organs. Her bowels and bladder had fused together, causing a massive infection. He body had literally been eaten from the inside out, and when they had gotten to the hospital, she was screaming in pain and writhing about, so much that it took several doctors to hold her down to anchor an IV.
At that point, she had one or two days to live.
I hung up and cried. Hard. For three hours straight I cried. Until I could no longer see for my eyes were too swollen. Until my lungs ached, and my heart felt like it had shattered within my being. Not my sweet mother.
When the sun decided to show her light, I hurried to get the kids ready. I rushed to get them to a friend’s house so I could visit my mother with Nick. There was no way the kids could see her in that state.
The entire way I cried. I felt empty and hallow, yet filled with love.
When I reached her room, her, Nick, and I were the only ones around. The fear of not making it before she passed had lifted, now the fear of being there as she passed set in. I can’t handle seeing her die. I thought repeatedly.
“Hi Mom, I’m here!” I said as I walked next to her head. She was so small. Obviously unresponsive, I heard her wheeze an exhale, and I swear that she was trying to talk. I will always feel like she was trying to say “Hi” back. I felt it. I looked at Nick, and he stared at her. I knew she wasn’t going to wake up, but I asked the nurse anyway. She shook her head, and handed me a box of tissues.
Since my mother had requested no life support, she was breathing on her own with an oxygen mask. The nurse came up and asked if I wanted them to administer more morphine with the use of a machine, which would most likely speed up the process of her dying. I began to cry harder and told her that I didn’t feel comfortable making that decision and that my father, her husband, needed to be here and that he should be here soon.
The nurse nodded in agreement, asked if we needed anything, and embraced me after I shook my head no and thanked her. She left.
I stood there for what felt like an eternity staring at her breathing. She was struggling. I know that she could hear me, and I felt like she wanted so badly to open her eyes. But even with her shallow breaths, she looked so peaceful and comfortable. Something she had not been in two months.
My father, brother, and sister-in-law soon walked in with red, swollen eyes. My father immediately came up and squeezed me until the tears flowed freely from my own eyes once again, staining his jacket. This couldn’t be happening.
A few moments later, my father went around to the opposite side of the bed, cleared his throat, and said clearly “Honey, we are all here. Everyone is here. Melissa, Nick, Chris, Ami. We are here and we love you.”
And just a few seconds later, I saw my mother turn her head to the side, grimace as if she was struggling to break from the disease that had taken control of her, and she took her last breath. After that last breath, my father said softly “I think she’s gone.”
The nurse came in to check and make sure, though we all knew. When my father went up to caress her cheek, he noticed a few tears sneak down her face. (Not too terribly common. Usually a sign that the person could very well hear and sense what was happening)
“She’s crying!” He wailed as his own tears escaped. My sister-in-law and I were nearly hyperventilating from the waves of emotion. We embraced and held each other for a few moments.
It was a painfully beautiful moment. To watch such an incredible, wise soul cross over before my very eyes. My emotions were all over the map. Relief, denial, happiness, sadness, grief, anxiety, love. A moment I was glad to have witnessed.
Its been four weeks today.
Four weeks since I made a joke with her. Four weeks since I hugged her last. Four weeks since I complained to her about something one of my children did, and she retold a story about myself as a child to make me feel grateful that they aren’t as bad as I was. Four weeks since she smiled, watching my children play with her.
The longest four weeks of my entire life.
I’m still early in the grieving process. Everything is still very raw and open.
I feel similar to a wounded animal. I wish to hide away each day, licking at my wounds until they heal. But with a family, that’s not possible. I’ll heal, though never fully. Losing a parent is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But such is life, correct?
I have felt her quite a bit since she crossed over. The first time was a few hours after her death. I was crying in the car, feeling deep emotional pain, when all of a sudden I felt a wave of love that I can only describe as hers wash over me and calm me. I know that she was telling me that everything was okay. That everything was going to be perfectly fine. And that she loved me.
The second time was the night after her death. I walked up to the crib where Kohana was sleeping, and walked through a literal “cloud” of air that smelled exactly like her. I actually “freaked” out a bit that time. Odd, but comforting.
That night she also visited me in a dream, and looked very sad. I got the sense that she was sad that she had left so quickly, and that she was upset that we were feeling so much pain. She told me to make sure that her pain medication got thrown away, because she was afraid of my father committing suicide from the pain, or of the pills “getting into the wrong hands.” I told my father, he immediately tossed them.
She is in my dreams nearly every night. She’s also in Lily’s dreams quite often, and I feel like its her way to let us know that she’s not actually gone. She’s very much here, just not physically. And that? That’s the most comforting gift of all.
I would also like to take a moment to publicly thank everyone for their love and support. Without the support of our friends and family, this would have been much more difficult. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We see you, we love you, we appreciate you.
“It’s so dark in my mind
I cross my heart and hope to die
I’m so bad, at goodbyes
I hold my breath, and close my eyes
I don’t have a lot left
Oh, how did it end so fast?
I say, with my last breath
It’s a perfect day, to float away”
Susan Sampsell Bales
60, passed away January 24th after a brief but intense battle with metastatic lung cancer. Susan was the daughter of the late Sam and Margaret Sampsell (Carmel, IN) who adopted her when she was only 3 days old. They raised her with intense love and devotion, which molded her into the loving and caring person she was to everyone she met. Susan was the wife of Steven Bales for 32 years, and loving mother of two children, Christopher Bales (Ami) of Chicago, IL and Melissa Bales (Nick) of Cicero, IN. One of Susan’s true treasures were her three beautiful grandchildren, Liliana, Delilah, and Kohana.
Susan was an outstanding, compassionate nurse who found her true calling serving clients in the mental health field. She was a supervisor at St. Vincent New Hope at the time of her retirement. Susan was a graduate of Ladywood Academy and J. Everett Light School of Nursing.