62: An Unexpected Bucket List

62: An Unexpected Bucket List

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

An Unexpected Bucket List

A Note from Joan

I want to introduce to you an extraordinary young woman named Robyn Pring who is the daughter of long-time friends of mine, Dr. Sam Schwartz and the late Diane Schwartz. When Robyn was just 16 years old she learned that her mom Diane had lung cancer. Robyn always took dance classes with my daughters when she was young, so I saw her on a regular basis, but then like many young women she went off to college.

I was quite taken when I learned that Robyn had moved back home to take over the care of her mom when Diane’s condition grew more grave. But I never fully understood the full extent of what that commitment meant in Robyn’s life until I read her personal account, which you will read below. I am sure that you too will find Robyn’s story inspirational.

We all make many lists in our lifetimes. We list our accomplishments on résumés and our friends on social networking sites. We keep grocery lists, Christmas card lists, and compose an endless parade of daily to-do lists. Most of the time when we have taken the time to write a list, we expect each item to be neatly checked off and soon forgotten by the end. But what happens when a list is left unfinished?

My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was 16 years old. It wasn’t long after the epic birthday party my parents threw me that I returned home and was sat down for “the talk.” At the time, they promised me miracles. I was to go about my business of finishing high school and getting into college while everyone else pitched in to help her through. I resented this plan, but did as told and eventually she did go into remission, where she stayed for about four years.

When the cancer returned I was halfway through college. My solution was to drop out, get rid of my apartment, and be with my mom, but all the other parties involved seemed to hate my idea and insisted that I stay the course, promising miracles once again. During this period, I rode the train home from New York City every Friday after my last class so I could help out just a little bit. It never felt like enough. My mother was my best friend and in my mind no number of daily phone calls or weekend visits could make up for missing the worst of what my family was going through. All of our dreams came true when she entered remission again. Life would feel normal again, or at least as normal as life can be in any family battling a potentially fatal illness.

Almost five years passed before our world was turned upside down again. We thought she was in the clear, but the cancer was back, bigger and badder then ever. My mother, such a tiny cheerful woman, seemed to have endless fight in her. A five-foot tall super-hero, she had too much passion for life to be taken down by any evil.

But this time felt different. She dreaded the treatments she was now all too familiar with and felt a tremendous amount of unnecessary guilt pulling my father, a doctor, away from his patients again or burdening her own mother, now in her eighties. Though my father was always our family hero, someone had to pay those medical bills and she was desperate to not be alone on the couch with the worst of her thoughts. This time, my parents allowed me to take on the primary caretaker role. Though I loved my job, I gave my two weeks notice the next day. She quit her job to raise me. How often are we given an opportunity to give back to the ones who do so much for us?

My mom and I were always kindred spirits. Our time together had always been filled with adventures, laughter, stories and a deep appreciation for one another’s quirky personalities. The first time I took her for her weekly four-hour round of chemotherapy, she found something to joke about at every possible moment. This tiny woman was strapped to a chair double her size, being poisoned by horrific toxins, and yet laughing at bad fashion choices in magazines and baby daddy shows on mid-morning network TV.

During that first session of what would be many, she told me she was determined to heal again, and having her best friend at her side was going to make all the difference. She wanted our time together to be fun. She wanted me to force her out the door and make her live and not allow her to lie in bed, cursing the cosmos. She wanted to make a list of things for us to do while she was recovering and before I went back to work. I happened to have a Betty Boop notebook floating around in my oversized purse. Our brainstorming session began.

By the time we left that day, Mom and I had listed over two pages of things we wanted to do together that neither of us had done before. Some of them were silly like finding stores we always saw on TV but had never been to like HomeGoods and TJ Maxx. Some were places of local historic interest such as the Mark Twain House and Phillipsburg Manor. And some of them were totally out there like the lost, at the time closed to the public, City Hall subway station or a trip to the Andes to sit atop the ruins of Machu Picchu—something she always wanted to do. Our list was filled with adventures that we wanted to have before our lives went back to “normal.” I think we both felt blessed to have post-college bonus mother-daughter time that most mothers and daughters never get due to real life getting in the way. I hoped beyond all hope that these distractions and the power of our bond would see her through.

For the next year and a half our routine consisted of chemo Tuesdays, crappy day Thursdays (the day the side effects hit most), a day a week spent with my grandma and the rest of the time was saved for our list or other things we enjoyed doing together. We took in a movie sites bus tour in the city, visited the zoo on a day when babies had just been born, saw the Chagall stained glass windows in Union Church, a Munch exhibit at MoMA and snacked our way through Chelsea Market. We took a great number of three-night girls-only trips to Philadelphia for shopping and Atlantis in the Bahamas. We always left on a Friday and got home in time for Tuesday treatments. Mom even got on a plane to London directly after a treatment to be there in time to watch my future husband graduate from university.

I stood in awe of my mother’s strength and will to not only just live, but live well. Her bones and muscles ached, her breath was often shallow, but she kept a smile on her face and an incomparable level of enthusiasm about what she was going to do next. Almost every night, I sat up relatively sleepless wishing I could take her pain away. I’d cry when she looked thinner or if she had been visibly ill that day. The sun would rise as I lost track of time reading about results from trials she was on or the side effects of all the drugs I had to pick up for her. I would have given up anything if it meant she never had to sit in the dreaded chemo chair again. But by mid-morning, I would be back in her service with a master plan on how to get her through the day.

A new to-do list got in the way of us completing our adventures. My wedding was on the horizon and it seemed to be all she could think about. Leave it to Mom to spend over a decade battling cancer and only care about other people. We planned a destination wedding in Rhode Island—as Newport had been on our list and we accidentally found the perfect place while checking it off during a girls’ weekend.

The months were filled with food tastings, seating arrangements, dress fittings, and of course lists of the guest and registry variety. I could have gotten married in a decrepit barn filled with spiders and it still would have been great to me as long as my mom made it there. During this period her scans and blood work were not her best. She had done everything right for all this time—treatments, diet, exercise, vitamins and certainly getting out there and living. A few months had turned into nearly two years and she claimed the only reason she was still enduring it was sheer will to not miss my wedding. She got her way.

To me, my mother was the star of our wedding. She looked more glorious than ever in a gold and black lace ball gown, with a long curly wig that she had made just for this occasion. Watching my parents laugh their way through a memorable foxtrot was the highlight of my evening. Every person in that room knew what she had been through to be there that day and they applauded anytime they saw her and I walking together. She glowed with the light of a thousand angels as she danced the night away with almost everyone she ever loved.

As soon as my husband and I returned from our honeymoon, my mother’s health took a turn for the worse. Her veins were getting too weak to take treatments, she was rapidly losing weight, and a metastasized tumor in her throat was making it hard for her to swallow. All of this bad news, yet I felt so desperately determined to get her through it. This was my job and I felt like I was failing her. I had been by her side every moment as she had been in my own darkest hours. How could there not be a light on the other side? For the first time in her long illness, she couldn’t get off the couch some days and had to visit the hospital a few times. I would take her to multiple specialists, discuss tough issues with her oncologist, deal with visiting nurses, relay information to concerned family members and continued acting my Academy Award-worthy role as the upbeat laidback entertainer. Though I tried so hard to convince myself this was just another rough storm for the weathering, my husband had to see me through nightly maelstroms of tears.

Then came a day when she became tragically weak and urgently needed hydration. I took her to the hospital believing it would be a quick visit. We ended up living there for the next two months. Many days we were supposed to be going home, but then a new infection would pop up or there would be a change on an X-ray. I would come every morning at 6 a.m. and keep her company until 7 or 8 p.m. when my dad would take over for the night. We would play games, watch movies and talk about the items on the list that we hoped to get to someday. She would ask me to take care of my father, my grandma, and the dog, and I’d tell her, “No, you have to get through this to do it yourself.” She told me how tired she was of experimental treatment after treatment and made me promise, against my instincts, that should the most recent last-ditch effort not cure her, I was to fight my father on future regimens and let her go in peace. Though she had been a nurse for much of her life, she hated being in the hospital and just wanted to be at home in bed with her dog. I just wanted to get her there.

Mom was set to be released on Valentine’s Day to be treated by home nurses. She unexpectedly died hours before she was to go home.

You never expect the people who define your life could ever leave you. You can never prepare for the gaping holes left in your own being once they are gone. For a long time, I felt like I failed her and everyone who trusted me to pull her through. In her last days my mom had told me that though my father has always been her Superman, in the last few years, I was her real hero that made each and every hard day worth fighting for. She said it was hard to give up when I always gave her something to look forward to. I guess I didn’t understand this for a long while.

The doctor’s treatments gave her 12 years of life, my father’s endless doting and research landed her on these miracle trials and all I did was hold her hand through the worst and pester her to get out of the house every day. We didn’t make it to Machu Picchu and I couldn’t even get her home to her dog. I wasn’t anyone’s hero. As I began to heal, it started to make a lot more sense to me. My mom didn’t want another doctor—she needed a friend and constant companion, something simple we all hope to have in our lives.

We spend so much time tied up in our own responsibilities that there are too many dreams and to-do lists that end up left behind. The earning potential of our jobs, all the broken things that need fixing, and the trivial obsessions we each take on can stand in the way of the connections we all starve for as human beings. We never have as much time as we want with the people we love so how you utilize the time you are given can make all the difference in the world. Maybe I reopened doors she thought had been closed, or maybe I just did my duty as daughter and best friend, but something about the time we spent together turned part of the worst period of her life into some of her favorite days.

With Mom gone, my responsibilities began to grow by the day. My husband and I gave up our home to move in with my father, another great person who should never have to be alone. I started up a home-based travel business so I can continue to have the freedom to be with the ones I love. I still take my grandma out once a week and I did take care of my mom’s elderly rescue dog with every ounce of love I had to give. When our treasured pit bull, Sweet Pea, had to be put to sleep, I made sure it was done while she rested warmly in my mother’s bed, the way she had wanted it for herself and never had. Every day I try to do at least one thing Mom would have done. I leave new socks on my father’s desk, help friends out of binds, sort out family affairs, perform random acts of kindness, and make charity donations, always in her name and honor. The capacity of her heart was tremendous, and though I doubt I could ever quite live up to it, a daily effort is a good starting point.

And about that list we made… there are still a few things left unchecked but sometimes on weekends I round up my father and husband and we’ll cross something off in her honor. Outings such as Dinosaur State Park and the covered bridges of New Hampshire are spent talking about the better times, as we know she is somehow there to share them with us. Every year on the anniversary of her death, I run away from here, but not in the traditional sense. To mourn the anniversary, I choose to celebrate her life and dreams by going somewhere she would have wanted to see. The first year, it was Machu Picchu, the next, the pyramids of Egypt. I stare upon the wonders and I can feel her warmth encompassing me. I feel her smiling as Dad and I carry out the dreams she never had time for. I hope she knows I never would have done any of these things if she hadn’t encouraged me to follow my heart. At the time we made our list, I did not know what a Bucket List was. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have classified it as one because I didn’t think she was going to die. Had we known that was our own bucket list, maybe I would have pushed to do the grander things with her that were left unchecked, but I have a feeling she wouldn’t have changed anything about those days we spent conquering the world by each other’s side.

~Robyn Pring

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