Every morning I tell myself that today is the day to finally sit down and write about Laurel. Today is the day to wrap my head around and put into words what happened. But, it’s almost as if I don’t write about it here, then it maybe it didn’t happen. Then maybe it’s not real.
Except it did, and it is.
And I can’t avoid this space forever.
It’s been more than a month now since Roth’s mom, our sons’ beloved GrammaLo, passed away. She died as a result of colon cancer that she battled as long and hard as she could for the last year and a half. She left this earth in peace, at home and surrounded by her closest family and lifelong friends. Some of her last hours were spent with Roth and his brother Lane, who held her hands and reassured her that it was OK to let go. Roth showed her pictures of Rowan and Milo on his phone, pictures that I’d texted him from earlier that same day. She couldn’t talk anymore by then, but he said he saw a tear fall from the corner of her eye.
She was just 62.
Today she would’ve turned 63.
It’s still unimaginable that Laurel got sick, let alone that she’s now gone. She was one of the healthiest, most vibrant people on the planet. She did everything right, everything she was supposed to do in order to live well into her nineties, just like her mother and her grandmother before that. She never smoked, rarely drank. She exercised, incorporated a smart diet choice, took vitamins. She never even had a cavity in her life. And yet, none of that mattered because somehow she still got cancer.
The cancer was already stage 4 when she was diagnosed. It had spread to her liver, but it was too risky to do surgery. She managed to fight it for many months with chemo. “Stay positive!” she always said in her Caring Bridge updates. And so we did our best. I never Googled the odds. I never let my mind wander into a world without her in it. For a while, she seemed to be doing pretty well. The side effects of the chemo were minimal, manageable enough that she could travel a bit. She went to Tucson and Hawaii, and she came to Seattle to be with us for the birth of her second grandchild.
But things took a turn after the Seattle trip. She started experiencing a lot of pain, and the side effects of chemotherapy returned. She lost more weight, grew weaker by the week. In early July we got a call from Roth’s dad after a visit to her doctor at Stanford. He said it’d been determined that there wasn’t anything else her doctor could do for the cancer, and he recommended shifting from curative treatment to pain management. It was a short phone call, but Manny’s few words spoke volumes. We could read between the lines. We knew then that it wouldn’t be long, so we started planning a trip down to California.
On the drive down, we told Rowan that his GrammaLo was very sick, which was why we were going to see her, and he seemed to understand, but nothing could really prepare any of us for those next few days. She was in a lot of pain, and the first two days of our visit were, according to Roth’s dad, some of her worst days ever during her cancer fight. It wasn’t an easy decision, but Manny finally agreed to call hospice.
There is definitely a stigma attached to seeking help from hospice. It can feel like defeat, I’ve heard, like throwing in the towel, but just a day after receiving care from hospice nurses, Laurel was more comfortable and feeling less pain. Hospice couldn’t change the inevitable outcome, but I think we all felt relieved that her suffering had been lessened as she headed into her final chapter.
It was such a bittersweet visit, but I’m so glad we were able to see Laurel when we did. After she was set up with hospice, she had a couple of decent days, relatively speaking. She was able to eat a little, enjoy sitting next to Rowan while he played games on a tablet, and touch and feel Milo’s baby feet and hands. A few times, I was able to put him down for a nap right next to her while she napped. Roth and I both chatted with her about everyday things, just as we would have during any other visit before.
But this wasn’t like any other visit. We couldn’t stay forever, and soon it was time for us to head back to Seattle. Before that, Roth’s dad asked him if he’d come back “when things got really bad.” Of course, he said, but later we talked about how it seemed like things then were already really bad. How could they get worse? I managed to keep myself together until we had to say goodbye. When it was Ro’s turn to give her a hug, I lost it. She hadn’t been able to speak much above a hoarse whisper during our entire visit, but clear as day I heard her say to him, “I love you infinity.” Then Roth held Milo on her lap so she could look right into his face, and my heart broke into a thousand pieces. That was the last time Rowan, Milo and I would see her.
I’ve grappled with whether or not I want to write about the details of Laurel’s last two weeks, and I think the answer is no. Not here. It’s not my story to tell, I wasn’t there in the final moments, and out of respect for the family, I don’t want to make anyone relive that intense and emotional experience.
Roth did make it back down to see her one last time, and he was by her side — along with his dad and brother, her sister, and some very good friends — when she passed. I remember exactly what I was doing when I got the text from Roth. It’d been a very long and challenging day of solo parenting the boys. I was in the kitchen, frantically trying to get dinner on the table while Rowan complained from the dining room that it was taking too long for his noodles and Milo whined at me from the bouncer. I saw the text in the midst of making pesto, and my heart sank. Even though I knew that moment was coming, it was still a shock, and I instantly ached to see and hold Roth. As life chaotically swirled around me in the kitchen, a life had ended in a room just off another kitchen. It was all too much, and too soon.
Roth is doing OK. His brother seems to be doing OK, too. Roth’s dad is dealing, mostly focused on regrouping and reorganizing his own life after sharing it with someone for 43 years. He has plans to get away for a while, to go someplace warm, but now he’s reeling again after the death of his own mom, who passed away a month and a day after Laurel. She was 90. I think it’s high time the Universe give my father-in-law a break from all this sadness.
Life goes on because it has to, and it’s what she would want for her family, but this is the sort of loss we’ll feel in different and unexpected ways, for some time to come. Our day-to-day lives here in Seattle are the same, but it’s the bigger picture that’s still unclear. Grief sneaks up on me, in the quiet moments I share with Milo, or the conversations I have with Rowan. I reach for my phone, to send her a text or a pic of the kids, and then I remember. Roth said he listened to his dad make phone call after phone call to family and friends after she passed away, and he kept saying the same thing: her biggest regret is not being able to see her grandsons grow up.
That’s the lump in my throat, too.
There’s so much more to say about Laurel, more than the 330-word obituary I wrote for the local newspaper, more than the 1,300 or so words in this space. I’m thinking a lot about how I want to honor her legacy, how I want to ensure Rowan and Milo remember this amazing woman. There are photos and videos, of course, but there is the intangible, too. The way she loved her sons, and loved being a mother. I want my own sons to feel that same sort of love. I want to be the kind of mother to them that she was to Roth and Lane.
She was a daughter, a sister, a friend. She was a wife, a mother. She was a teacher, a mentor. She was a grandmother. She was GrammaLo.