I am drinking cups of coffee this morning brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. She died last week. In the months before she died, coffee had become very important. She faced cancer bravely, but I can see now that her fight was always a war of attrition. We had good months after her diagnosis in July. We got her out of the house to eat and shop and just drive around and look at pretty things. Still, looking back through it, I can see how her cancer made her world progressively smaller.
She was tethered to oxygen. The initial diagnosis prevented her from being able to work. It was a kind of spontaneous retirement. Her work friends were her closest friends. Not seeing them everyday made her sad. They were kind and visited as often as they could. They brought her food. They mowed her yard. They texted and called. They brought her news from the outside world to keep her connected with the places and people they shared in common. Her friends had become ranger scouts reporting back to home base.
Wearing oxygen makes every excursion into the world a pain in the ass. There are devices and straps and tubes and things that want to tangle in the spokes of the wheelchair. When you wear oxygen and use a wheelchair, you calculate your trips carefully. You do a kind of math each time. You need to commit yourself to the idea of going out. The trips became fewer — mostly doctor visits and occasional restaurants for dinner.
She handled chemotherapy like a champ but, when the cancer moved into her bones, the radiation was a much harder hit. The pains and embarrassments of cancer began to mount. Each treatment took a greater toll. Pain set in to stay.
Eventually, her house became her universe. And then her living room.
After a month or so, the pain kept her moored in her recliner. She needed a walker to get to the bathroom. It became a struggle for her to get into the kitchen. When she could get there, she couldn’t carry anything back with her.
Cups of coffee became very important. She had to plan each one. She hated asking for help but, in her last week, asked if I might come over when I woke up just to carry a cup of coffee. Of course.
And when I carried what would be my last cup of coffee for her, I realized just how small her world had become. This was a woman born in Paris, who had grown up all over Europe and then settled in Tennessee. She treasured her childhood memories of Germany and Greece. And now, her world had become the size of a cup of coffee.
It was, for all that, I think, the best cup of coffee. As her world became smaller, my mom-in-law, my wife and my family began to appreciate smaller and smaller things. Standing where I stood in early July 2013, before our struggles began, I would have thought the shrinking of her world would be a source of inevitable pain and despair. Those were always there, but, more than anything else, we saw in her a growing appreciation for the smallest things. The smaller her world became the bigger her appreciation.
She suffered a brain hemorrhage and lasted almost two days before passing. In those last hours after the hemorrhage, she could not move or speak. She was just breathing and that was a difficult chore. I would not have thought it possible, but her world had become smaller still. Her world had become her body. Less than her body. A portion, some unseen pocket of her body where the spirit still propelled the heart and lungs to function. For most of those hours, it was impossible for us to know if she was even there with us or if her breath was just the trick of a body that hadn’t yet learned how to stop breathing.
In those moments and the moments that have come since her passing, I like to think that when her world became so incredibly, impossibly small, her appreciation and gratitude for the world grew incredibly, impossibly large. I like to imagine that, in those final, isolated moments when she was locked into herself that she felt herself swallowed by gratitude and that her capacity for amazement and wonder had become infinite.
In the very last hours of her life, we had small signs that she was still there and that she knew we were there with her. This was a mercy for us. It was a comfort for my wife. In that moment, we were her world. And we were bathed in that wash of gratitude and appreciation.
We miss her. The funeral is over. Friends and family are returning to their homes and their lives. We will develop new routines. Learn to call a new kind of life normal.
There are difficult days ahead. I am drinking coffee brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. I want, every day, to appreciate each cup in the way my mom-in-law had learned to do. Having tasted that particular blend of joy, appreciation and sorrow, I don’t want to lose the richness of that kind of gratitude.