24: Family Business

24: Family Business

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Family Business

A Note from Joan

I think many women would agree that aside from our best friends and family, the other people in our lives that we confide in the most might be our hairdressers, manicurists and our fitness trainers. These are folks that hover over women for an hour at a time, making us feel and look better. And somehow during the process we tend to spill the beans about our lives.

During my workouts with fitness trainer Adam Cass I learned about a wonderful real life love story. It’s the story of Adam and his two brothers and how they cared for their mother when she was diagnosed with a rare form of mesothelioma cancer.

Their mom had been a strong, loving and constant presence in their lives. Orrie Cass, affectionately known as “O” to her close friends and family, got married when she was 17 and had her first baby at 18. She was a vivacious woman who loved her family and enjoyed raising her three sons. But O’s idyllic life didn’t last—upon discovering that her husband was a compulsive gambler and had lost all their money, she went out and got a full-time job and supported her family as a single mom. She reinvented herself and worked hard to provide for herself and her boys. She went to work as a door-to-door insurance salesperson and she not only flourished but went on to become one of the most successful and highest ranking female executives ever at Prudential. She sent one of her sons to law school and helped the others get started on their careers too.

Her sons, Adam, David and Lewis, always had a lot of respect for their mom and how selfless she was to them. So when the brothers learned that their mom was terminally ill with cancer and had only six months to a year to live, they were determined to make that last chapter as wonderful as it could possibly be for her. I was so inspired by their story that I asked them to share it with you. Here is their story:

Joan to Adam: Before your mom got sick, she was at a point in her life, at 62, when she could have kicked back and lived a life of leisure. But instead, she opted to take over the daily care of your young daughters while you and your wife worked. In essence she decided to take the opportunity to be the stay-at-home-mom that she had wanted to be back when you guys were little. She got a do-over; she finally got that chance to be that stay-at-home mom.

Adam: Without us even asking her, she stepped up to the job. She was taking care of my kids. She wanted them every day.

David: From 7 in the morning to 7 at night. Four days a week.

Adam: Even on the weekends, she wanted them to sleep over so my wife and I could go out.

Joan: It’s a true mother’s love.

Adam: Absolutely. It started when Sophia was eight weeks old. Even if we wanted to get some help, she said there wasn’t ever going to be a stranger watching the girls while she was around.

Joan: Things went along great for seven or eight years and everyone was happy. And then when your mom was 70 she got a devastating diagnosis.

David: She had a rare form of cancer, from asbestos. She had had signs but it went undiagnosed for five years. She never complained about anything so we had no reason to suspect anything terrible. My mom smoked so when we took her to the doctor we expected it to be lung cancer. We were surprised when the doctor asked, “Has your mother ever been around asbestos? I think she has mesothelioma.”

Adam: She could have had surgery, but the doctor said, “She might only have six months to live. If it were my mother, I would do nothing. Just enjoy the time you have left.”

Joan: So when you get that kind of a dire diagnosis, and learn that your mom might only have a few months to live, tell us what you did. Because all three of you jumped into action right away, and David, you seemed to take the lead.

David: We just decided to be ourselves, and do what we did best. I took the lead intellectually. I am a lawyer and I was the one who was most comfortable talking to all of the doctors and handling the managing of her care. I constantly researched her cancer and who were the best experts. I was able to get a better handle on the best way to handle our mom’s illness.

Adam: We knew David would be the best one to call all the doctors, and he was incredible. There is such a specific skill to knowing how to deal with appointments, doctors, meds and the follow-through and follow-up, digesting all that information. It was mind boggling. He ran it as a business. David actually left his job and formed his own company so he could have flexibility.

David: I’m the eternal optimist who believes in miracles and I wanted to do everything possible to keep her alive. My brother Lewis was the pragmatist who brought us back to reality, and insisted on planning out every minute of her time remaining. Lewis was a contractor and used to pulling a lot of people together so he assumed the role of “concierge,” planning dinner parties and cruises. He would book and plan every detail of the trips, he would take my mother to her favorite restaurants and, if she couldn’t go out, he would bring her favorite foods to her. He made every meal a party; he made cakes and bought balloons that said, “Thank you Mom.” We were always celebrating. And Adam was the touchy, feely, loving one, just like he had always been—the quiet “favorite” boy who was always by her side, stroking her and telling her how much he loved her. We each had our styles and our strengths.

Adam: I would just jump right into bed with my mother. That’s where I would sleep. We always maintained the relationship we had for our whole lives. That’s how I dealt with it, just constantly providing love and comfort.

Joan: And the three of you literally mapped out her remaining time on earth, and made it the absolute best you could possibly make it. Tell me about that.

David: We also kept her in her own home, as she wished, and we took shifts to be with her around the clock. We allowed our mom to still be our mom while she still could—we would go over for dinner and she would cook. At the end, we would set up a table in her room and would eat meals with her in her bedroom. Once she got diagnosed, Lewis, our concierge, began booking cruises; we went on a total of seven trips. We said, “Let’s celebrate every day.”

Adam: It was important that my daughters went on the last cruise. My mom always wanted to take them to Disney and the last cruise we went on was a Nickelodeon cruise. She even put off having surgery so she wouldn’t miss that.

David: Fortunately, during that cruise, she was still able to have a good time. She never complained.

Adam: Her whole life, she never complained, once.

Joan to Adam: In fact your mom continued to be the caregiver for your two daughters even after she was diagnosed. How did you come to that decision?

Adam: We wanted to keep our mother on her regular routine so she could live her life and have happy normal moments with her granddaughters as long as possible. We also wanted the girls to be there and see everything they were doing.

Joan: How did you deal with your daughters during your mom’s final days?

David: The week before, Ava and Sophia were at the house, lying with my mother in bed...

Adam: And my mom made sure that she looked as good as possible. Her body was shriveling but she still had her full face. Her blanket would cover her, but she was still dolled up.

David: During this time, she would give me specific instructions... “Make sure when the girls get older, if they want that extra dress, I don’t care what it costs, make sure they get it and tell them it’s from Grandma.”

Joan: Did you take notes?

David: Yes we did.

Joan: It’s interesting—you guys really did a lot of things, inherently, and you did them right.

David: When Mom died, I moved into her apartment. I don’t normally watch TV but she said to “make sure you keep all the televisions so that when the girls come over, they have TVs to watch.” So when she died, we bought all new TVs to keep her memory alive.

Joan: You’ve told me that even in your mom’s last breath, she was watching over you guys. How so?

Adam: She hung on and waited for my brother to come home so that the three of us could be there in the bedroom.

Joan: It sounds like she wanted to make it as easy as possible for the three of you.

Adam: That’s exactly what she did. We were disagreeing on how much pain medication was right to give to her and she didn’t want us to argue about her, so at that moment she let go and took her last breath.

Joan: Having gone through this caregiving journey with your mom, what advice would you give others who are caring for loved ones?

David: There has to be an agreement between the people who are giving the care so you can operate together. Put the egos aside. Appoint one person to lead, who will delegate the roles so everyone is not competing. It works best that way.

Also we met often and went over everything. There is so much to be done it kept us focused. We scheduled meetings with each other and brought in our cousins and friends, to get different opinions. This doesn’t mean that everything always went smoothly; there was some tension from time to time because we were scared and nervous, but that’s normal.

Stay organized and on top of the care and always show the person being cared for that you are in control—it’s scary enough to be in that position, but when you think no one is “handling it” then that is even scarier.

Adam: Let them know how much you love and care for them. There was not a day that went by that I didn’t speak to my mother or say, “I love you.” Just keep telling them you love them. If you can’t be there, send cards or flowers or pictures—just something to let them know they are in your thoughts.

David: We didn’t know how long she had. As far as we were concerned, we were in this until the end. She died 12 months after her diagnosis but if she lived another year, we would have been on six more cruises, and would have had many more thank-you celebrations. We understood the sacrifices that she made for us and we so appreciated it. This experience was life-changing for us. It definitely changed me as a person.

Joan: So many people struggle with how to interact with their loved ones when they are caregivers. It seems that you three brothers did a lot of things right in caring for your mom during her illness. You had such a positive uplifting attitude, and in sharing your story you will help so many others.

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