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.