A Last Kiss for My Mom

My sister Lisa (left) and my mom (right) were travel agents together. Here they are a lifetime ago during a trip to Peru.

My mom (Nina Lustig) always had a plan. She was determined to do things her own way. And in her own time.

For instance, she went in for a mastectomy even though it seemed hopeless. Her doctors told her she had only three months to live. They were only off by…29 years.

On the morning of Jan. 13, 2012 (Friday the 13th) she finally lost her battle with the Big C. But she didn’t give up without a world-class, kick-death-in-the-teeth fight.

She was an incredibly tough and private woman. (And I wouldn’t even dare tell you that much if she was still with us.)

How private was she? Well–she didn’t even tell me (or my brother) about her second cancer bout. I should’ve guessed something was going on, though. During those years, she was…oh, let’s call it “slightly grumpy.” (As in–slightly grumpy enough to bite the heads off baby seals.)

When her third bout with cancer came up–about four or five years ago–she decided to take my siblings (Jim & Lisa) and I into her confidence. Things didn’t look good. A doctor she’d been seeing had horribly misdiagnosed her cancer. Instead of giving her traditional chemo, he gave her hormones—which probably sped up the cancer. By the time she went to a new doctor, her breast cancer had spread into her spine.

Once the cancer gets into your bones you can’t really beat it. You can kill most of it. But there’s always going to be some cancer spores lurking–waiting to take root and bloom.

Mom knew what was ahead (chemo & radiation) and wasn’t sure she was up for the fight this time. I strongly urged her to fight. It was only of the few times I ever won a discussion with Mom. And I know—let’s face it—I would’ve lost if she were really against it.

For a long time, it seemed worth it. There were some good times and the chemo wasn’t overwhelming—at first.

But the last year and half were pretty miserable. The cancer was eating away at her bones. And the chemo was having some nasty side affects. The type that never get mentioned in Lifetime made-for-TV movies.

Among other things, the chemo made her teeth (never that good) crumble. She lost feeling in her feet and didn’t even realize she’d stepped on a toothpick until my wife spotted it several days later—sticking out of Mom’s foot.

Mom became increasingly unsteady on her feet. After one particularly nasty fall, she ended up in the hospital and a steel rod had to be permanently inserted into her right femur.

She needed new knees too, but that was judged too risky for a cancer patient.

For a while there, she was in and out of the hospital more than a soap opera star during sweeps week. And then she’d go home–insisting that she could live on her own. (My siblings and I slept over as often as possible, though.)

Finally, it became clear that life wasn’t worth living with chemo. So Mom decided to go on hospice at home. She wanted to die in her own bed. She figured it wouldn’t take long. Maybe a day. (She actually said goodbye to all of us the night she quit chemo.)

Instead, she was around for another seven months.

Hospice provided superb support. But hospice workers were there only two or three hours a week most weeks. The bulk of the 24-7 care fell to my siblings and me.

The first couple of months were surprisingly nice. Once she was off chemo, Mom started feeling better. Thinking clearer. And we had some wonderful talks.

But as the cancer grew, she was in more and more pain. She had a smorgasbord of painkillers available. But as the dosages increased (and the cancer possibly spread to her brain) it became harder for her to think and eventually even to talk clearly. Towards the end, Mom started repeating the beginning of sentences and wasn’t always able to find a way to end them. She’d get anxious about little things—worrying that something “might” go wrong.

And then—a little over a week ago—everything changed. She became clear again. Not perfectly clear, but more like the old Mom. She started calling family members to say goodbye. And close pals to thank them for having been her friends.

She grew obviously weaker each day. Sometimes we couldn’t understand her because she had so little breath that she could barely whisper. But she was pleasant again. Polite. Grateful to have family around. And often surprisingly funny.

On Monday (Jan. 9), the hospice nurse predicted that Mom would slip into a coma within 24 hours. Didn’t happen.

On Thursday (Jan. 12), the nurse predicted that Mom would die that day. Mom must’ve taken that as a dare because she slept all day, all night and it wasn’t until the next morning that she suddenly woke up. Then she whispered, “I love you. I’m dying.” And moments later—departed this world according to her own plan.

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29 Comments

  1. What a touching story, and my deepest condolences on your loss. When looking back on any life one must not only weight how long they lived, but how fully, and your mother sounds to have lived a full and wondrous life indeed.

    You are truly gifted to be the child of such a strong lady, and sadly the world is less joyous place in the wake of her passing. May her memory live on eternal in the hearts of all who knew her.

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    • Thanks, Silveressa. I was definitely blessed. There was a lot more I could’ve said. Her death was amazing. Her life even more so.

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  2. I am sorry. in 2009 my dad passed away after fighting 10 months against a cancer from asbestos expose 40 odd years ago. It was a hard time for me and my mom. So i know some of what you went through. Even then at the end he was very dignified and i know exactly what you mean with “her death was amazing”, It isn´t just a phrase. There is strong meaning behind those words. More than we – who are waiting behind – assume at first glance. But later we learn. Oh yes. We learn.

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  3. John, I feel for you, and know how tough it is to lose someone so close. My mother died in 2005 after a mercifully brief bout with cancer. By “brief”, I mean about six months, six of the toughest months I had to go through. Then she dies, also “kicking at death”, but with the anticipation that she was bound for a better place. And then I realized that there is no such thing as “being prepared” for this – I was devistated, and remained so for a very long time. My prayers are with you, my friend. Your mother’s pain is over, but yours will begin here. Stay strong, and know that something better awaits.

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  4. John, My heart feels for you because I also lost my mother to cancer, as well as my favorite aunt. My mother did battle with cancer for about a year and at towards the end my wife and I took care of her. She died peacefully at home with her family with her. We know she is dancing in heaven watching over her two new great grandbabies.

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  5. Thanks for the story. The world is a better place for you and your Mother and your family.

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  6. My heart goes out to you and your family… I wish I had better words….

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  7. My Condolences John, to you and your family and be comforted for all the time you had with her……

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  8. Your mother was strong and courageous indeed … and so very aware and caring of those around her. I offer my sincere condolences and wish, for you and your family, the ability to celebrate her life, and in doing so, ebb the tide of sorrow of her passing.

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  9. John, so very sorry to hear that your Mom’s long battle has finally ended. You have my deepest and most sincere condolences. I’m sure she was very, very proud of the man that her child grew into! -Larry Steller

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  10. Hi John. So very sorry about your loss. Peace be with you.

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  11. This was a wonderful write-up. I’m sure that if she could read it, she would absolutely love it. My thoughts are with you.

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  12. John, my biggest wish for you and your siblings and family now is rest, and lots of it. So much of what you describe sounds familiar. I’m very glad you had that last good week. That must have felt like a gift. I wish my dad could have rallied a bit at the end, but I don’t think he had your mom’s spirit and force of will! Thank you for writing and sharing such a wonderful tribute. Love to you all.

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  13. Condolences, John. Your mother was a treasure. You and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers.

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  14. Your mom sounds like quite the person and somethings you describe about her i see in you- she was lucky to have you as a son!!- i have a feeling she will visit often. lots of hugs!!

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  15. I am so sorry for you loss. Working at a Cancer Research Center I keep hoping to see fewer stories of the pain cancer causes. But for every painful story there seems to be an even more powerful story of love, courage and strength. It is good to know that a woman like that will be with you forever.

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  16. My deepest condolences, John. I lost both of my parents to cancer within 6 months of each other 18 years ago, so I do understand. She’s in a better place now. Your short reminicence shows you had a wonderful relationship with your mom. Those memories will always live on.

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  17. My condolences, John. May she rest in peace.

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  18. My deepest condolences to you and your family. She was a great woman indeed and one with endless reservoirs of courage and determination. May God bless her soul.

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  19. I’m sorry for the loss of your mother. When I’m at church next I will say a prayer for her and your family.

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  20. A brave, tough lady who raged against the dying of the light — and against the default values of a system used to channeling passive patients in a limited number of directions. My condolences to you, John.

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  21. My sympathies on your loss. She sounds like she was a pretty cool woman.

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  22. Wishing comfort and peace to you and your family. Thanks for sharing your mom’s story and the beautiful picture. Now she can roam where she wants to…

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  23. That is an amazing story John. My condolences on your mom’s passing.

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  24. Thank you for sharing this story of such a determined woman. You and your family will be in our prayers for your loss.

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  25. My condolences John. That was one amazing mother you had. Thank you for sharing her story with all off us.

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  26. My condolences go out to you & your entire family. Amazing indeed, thank you for sharing. A burden shared is halved, and love shared is doubled. Keeping y’all in thought & prayer.

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  27. Thanks for sharing this John. Your mother’s courage and determination to prevail will live on in all who read your memoir and take its message to heart. I hope that the memories of your mother’s fighting spirit and determination bring you consolation at this difficult time.

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  28. I am so sorry, John. Losing a parent is one of the hardest things in the world. Your mom sounds like a magnificent woman whom I’m sorry I never met. You and your family are in my heart and my prayers during what has to be a really hard time.

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