As she started explaining the details of the chemo, my mind wandered, because that was my defense mechanism. Anytime she talked as if she had limited time left, I pretended she and the doctors and everybody else was wrong, because it was the only way the world made sense. I didn't want to live in a world without my mom, and I tried to will it so.
But I wasn't listening in another sense. As she explained the possible side effects, what chemo could and couldn't do, she was also expressing her own ambivalence about the whole thing. The cancer was fatal. There was no doubt about that--it had spread too far, and her body was too old and weak to fight it. All the chemo could do was slow it down, give her another few months or weeks or days.
Well, you have to do it, I said. You have to live as long as you can.
So she did. The first round went okay, but the second round was much worse. She was violently ill and physically weak, and since she lived alone, she took a nasty fall. Her medical team had somehow neglected to take her off her blood pressure meds, and they combined with the chemo to limit the flow of blood to her brain. She started hallucinating giant scarecrows and fissures in the earth. Her body weakened. Her heart stopped. She died, and the chemo hadn't extended her time on earth, and in fact only made her final days miserable.
And I realize now that she never wanted any of it in the first place. Living with cancer was uncomfortable, but she was still herself, still eating and going out to movies (and complaining about them), and she probably saw the end coming and just wanted to be done with it. To make a comparison I'm sure Mom would have appreciated, she wanted to end like Season Five of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, at the top of her game and like she'd always been, but the chemo made her more like Season Seven, muddled and weird and somewhat out of character.
How dangerous it is to play the "what if?" game. What if she hadn't had chemo? Would her final days have been less painful? Would her mind have been clearer, her body more steady? Would she have not fallen, and fallen again, with welts and lumps on her face? Would she have seemed less small and sad when the time came? Could she have spent her final hours at home, surrounded by her beloved cats and dog, instead of an anonymous hospital room?
No. Or, put another way, maybe, but so what? She died, and she would have died either way, and it wouldn't have been pretty because death never is. And none of that means anything, because the important thing is that she laughed and cried and sang to her cats and marveled at rainbows and loved her children with the intensity of a thousand suns.