On the flight to Long Beach last Friday evening, I sat between my dad, who mostly slept, and a woman who watched TV and asked me several questions about how the controls worked for the tv and satellite radio (I highly recommend jetblue if you have to fly somewhere). I read my book.
A few hours into the flight my neighbor asked me where we were from. That launched a lively conversation that lasted until we landed. The woman’s name is Margaret. She was headed to Burbank to visit cousins and take some time for herself after spending many many months helping both her parents through cancer treatments. Her mom died of breast cancer in April. Her dad is still alive.
Her parents’ story made me cry (although in truth many things make me cry lately). Her father was a POW in Germany for the final 10 days of World War II. He was on guard duty one night when a soldier approached him and asked for a cigarette. As he reached for his pack, the man took him prisoner. He told his daughter that the Germans treated him decently. Near the end of his time in the prison, just before Americans liberated the camp, the soldier who had captured Margaret’s father gave him a painting he had painted, which Margaret’s father still has. He is living at the Veterans Administration hospital, which apparently is tough to get a spot in but his POW status enabled him to move up the list.
Margaret’s mother (actually her stepmother but someone Margaret obviously felt close to and called mom) had fought breast cancer twice before. In the midst of Margaret’s father’s battle with skin cancer, the breast cancer returned. Margaret and her sister and everyone else pleaded with Mom to get treatment. She refused to seek or accept help for her own cancer until she had seen her husband’s treatment through.
One day when her mom was finally getting treatment and was being cared for at home by a nurse, and her dad was at the VA hospital, Margaret arranged some time for them to be together. Dad was transported home by ambulance, and wheeled in on a stretcher. Mom was in a hospital bed in the living room. The nurse wheeled Mom’s bed one way and Dad’s stretcher the opposite way so they could face each other and hold hands across the bed.
As Margaret’s Mom realized her life was coming to a close, Margaret called Mom’s friends and encouraged them to visit. When one close friend came over, Margaret’s mom said “Well, I was going to die yesterday, but I decided not to.”
For a while during our conversation I wondered if I should bring up my Aunt Judy, who I lost to breast cancer last fall. My dad was sitting right there with me and Aunt Judy was his sister. He was there when she was dying. I wondered if this was his story alone to tell. But I decided that Aunt Judy’s death had affected me too, a lot, and that I could claim ownership of the story too. So I told Margaret about what happened, and my dad seemed comfortable enough sharing his perspective as well. He told Margaret about how my Grandma, who is 93, has been attending a grief support group. He went with Grandma to a meeting when he was visiting, and was reminded that no matter how sad your story is, someone else’s is always sadder. One woman at the meeting described how her husband was on the phone notifying relatives of the death of his mother when he had a heart attack and died. She showed everyone the program from the funeral with both her husband’s and mother-in-law’s photos on the cover.