Handed some tough cards at a young age, she learned to navigate life well, with the help of her mom. Read why she then turned her grief into opportunity and sorrow into support for other women battling the wiles of cancer…
It was early in 2012 when I found out I was expecting my 3rd son, due on Christmas day. My husband Keith and I were elated to find out we were going to be expanding our family, again! We were up for the challenge of adding another little man into our family of 5 (our 2 other boys were almost 2 and 4 at the time, and my step-daughter, Olivia, was 10 years old). A family of 6 sounded great to me; however, I would feel slightly panicked when I thought about space since we were really already a family of 6 living in a 4 bedroom/1bathroom house. See, I forgot to mention that my mom lived with us as well. My mom started living with us in 2009 when we bought our home in Strongsville. Initially, when she moved in, she was OUR helper…I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was the best thing ever. Having a parent you love dearly, live with you, when you have a newborn, is a lot like having a built-in babysitter. However, I’d be fibbing if I didn’t say that just as much as my mom helped us, we helped her in return. You see, her health had been failing for years, and she was single woman who didn’t have much…no job, no car, no healthcare (please know that she did have all of these things just a few years prior, but that’s the tricky part about life, things can change in an instant). However, in every area she lacked ‘things’; she had excess of ‘things’ that mattered more…love, laugher, knowledge, etc.
For my story to be relevant to you, I feel that I need to share a little more about how I got here. My mom was literally my hero. From the time I was a little girl, I remember idolizing her. She was strong, smart, funny, loving and dependable. Maybe the real reason she became my hero is because I watched her conquer what seemed like constant challenges in life, always with a positive attitude. She would always remind my brother and I, that as bad as things seemed, they could be worse. She would also tell us that God only passed out what you could handle, and that we would be just fine. Well, she was right. We were always just fine. We went to Catholic grade school, got good grades, stayed out of trouble and moved onto getting good jobs and going to college. All of these things made my mom so proud. See, my mom was not a woman who spent every Sunday in church, or spent her time at Bible studies or prayer groups. I remember her having very little free time and working a lot. She was a woman trying so hard to keep together a family of 4, as she watched her very unstable husband come and go as he pleased. For all intents and purposes of this story, she was a single mom who raised 2 children, with an emphasis on God, as the guiding light in their life. She was admired by friends and she was the kind of person you wanted to have in your corner. Now that I am older and a little wiser, I can easily look back and see that one of my mom’s gifts was that of a servant’s heart.
Ok, now that you have a little background on my mom and better insight into how close we were, we can fast-forward to September of 2012. My mom had been increasingly ill; she was coming down with frequent pneumonias, infections and unknown weight loss. It would be important to say that for about the year prior to this, she was relying on our help more and more and it was clear that somewhere along the way we became her caregivers. This was challenging, even on my best days, because caring for little people while trying to manage a sick adult, all in one home, gave me little time to decompress. My mom was aware of this and did everything in her power to minimize this for me. My husband Keith was always really good at helping me find a balance too. I guess I should also mention that not only was I a wife, mom and “care giving daughter”, I was also a part time Speech-Language Pathologist and small business owner. Yes, needless to say, life was (and still is) a little busy.
Suddenly, time started moving very quickly. I have the uncanny knack for remembering dates. Exact dates. Why? I have no idea. Sometimes it’s a blessing and other times it’s a curse. I can recall my mom being at several doctors in early September. She was being treated for a ‘recurrent pneumonia’ and she was only getting worse. At my core, I knew we were about to be entering a scary crossroad. I could just feel it. My suspicion was that her symptoms were of something way more serious, and unfortunately, I ended up being right.
On Wednesday September 12th, my mom got a phone call from her doctor that her lab work came back dangerously abnormal and she needed to go to the ER. She was not happy. She was used to hospitalizations and they typically didn’t shake her up too much, but this time was different. She was unsettled, uneasy, and even anxious. It was like she knew that a diagnosis was nearby, lurking, waiting to make its debut. We both knew it, but we had entrusted the care of her team of physicians to figure it all out. After all, she was at one of her many doctors for an appointment, what felt like, at least 1 time a week. I found it unfathomable with all of her surgeries and hospitalizations, that her team of medical professionals could have missed something more serious. However, my mom always had a deep seated fear that she was going to die from cancer, just like her mom had (her mom passed away when my mom was only 17 from breast cancer).
Okay, to speed along the story, Wednesday Sept. 12th, she is admitted. She goes through a ton of testing and we are left with no answers, other than the nurses concern that she looks ‘a little yellow’. Thursday, they take her for scans and decide she needs a liver biopsy. Being a medical professional myself, my worry radar immediately hit an all time high. Friday Sept. 14th, results come back that are ‘inconclusive’ and they need to repeat the biopsy, which was painful. They also remove a few liters of fluid from her lungs. All things are looking worse, day by day…with no answers. See, the ‘beauty/curse’ of having medical knowledge and a computer with the internet – yep, you can pretty much figure out true diagnoses before they are given. During the next week, my mom requires blood transfusions, has a few falls, and starts to have a cognitive decline. It was like living a nightmare in fast-forward. The following Friday on Sept. 21st an oncologist comes into her room, while she is alone, and tells her that she has stage IV metastatic cancer in her liver, and that nothing can be done for her. Yep. Alone. I will never forget calling her to see if anyone had come in to see her yet. It was about 11am. I was waiting for my son to get up from a nap and we were going to pick up my other son from pre-school. However, after I talked to her I managed to compose myself for a brief second to call my husband and let him know what was happening. This is the day I will never be able to forget. This is the day that my husband literally had to come home from work early, and pick me (and my very pregnant belly) up off the floor. My world as I knew it had just stopped spinning.
I will spare you the gritty details of the process from here on out and try to sum things up as best as I can. My mom was taken to a rehab facility against the will of her doctors (they wanted her to go to hospice care immediately). I knew she needed to focus on a goal to get a little stronger (at the time she couldn’t even walk) so she could come home and pass away in our house. IN her more lucid days prior, my brother and I had to have some very tough conversations with her about her wishes, and we knew this was important to her. On one hand, I couldn’t have agreed more, on the other hand, I was petrified. Most people thought I was crazy for even considering this. I was really pregnant, really tired from my other kiddos and still trying to work when I could. I knew it was a dangerous move, but I knew that it was what needed to be done. Keith fully supported whatever I decided. On the night before my mom came home from the rehab facility (she was there almost 2 weeks) – I literally prayed all night. I did not sleep at all. The Lord spoke so clearly to me and it was something I will never forget. Moments like that are engrained into your being. He had assured me that this was what needed to be done. I had made the right decisions and needed to continue moving forward. His work was planned and I was merely a player following out His will. It was my job to listen. My mom came home that next day with hospice care, on my birthday – October 11th. The beauty in the Lord’s plan of her arrival to my home on her birthday was indescribable. At the moments that I was weakest, she would find a way to comfort me. Yes, my mom, ridden with a horrific form of cancer (we found out after she passed that it was pancreatic cancer which is almost impossible to find before it’s too late) would reassure me that things were going to be just fine. Just like she had, all those years prior. I was reminded of all the times I heard her say, “The Lord only gives you what you can handle.” Again, the Lord was speaking to me and giving me all the courage I needed to continue on this journey. The next 3 days were filled with unbelievable highs and terrible lows. By this point, my mom was not communicating or eating much. The writing was on the wall and we knew the time would be soon for her to be with the Lord. The hospice team was very helpful and we were surrounded by an army of love via friends and family. My aunt never left my mom’s side. We all were able to pray with my mom and say our goodbyes as she passed from her Earthly home to her eternal resting place on October 15th, 2012. I wipe the tears streaming down my face as I type this, because I feel so blessed to have had her for my mom. Even when she couldn’t communicate at the end of her life, and even now in her absence, she continues to teach me so much as I reflect back on her life and my contribution to it.
A few months later I gave birth to a happy, healthy little man named Colin. He was born on December 8th and in many ways, I feel that he helped save me. After he was born, Keith went home to be with our other children and I was alone with Colin for a few hours before we had any visitors. After I was done feeding him, I started crying (loudly) and the nurse walked in to see what happened. In this perfect moment of unbelievable happenings, Colin looked up at me and put his hands on my face. Even the nurse was taken aback. I stopped crying and knew that in that moment, the Lord had sent me a message. Once again, things were going to be just fine. The lesson I learned was that whenever I had doubt, I needed to flush it out and continue to believe strongly and fiercely in plans beyond my current understanding.
Our lives have continued to move forward and we all continue to grieve the loss of a mother, grandmother, aunt, sister and friend. However, the legacy she left behind to most that knew her was too good to be forgotten. I quickly decided I needed to funnel my sadness and grief into purpose. I prayed long and hard about what that would look like. Finally, I had a plan. In 2013 and 2014 we completed the Parma Area Relay for Life in my mom’s honor – as a team called Carol’s Cancer Crusaders. I am happy to say that this year we are joining the Strongsville area Relay for Life and gathering a team to help support this very important cause in May. In addition, my pride and joy has been creating a project I call “Hope for Hospice” bags. I have run 2 donation rounds and have had 48 bags sponsored and sent to the Cleveland Clinic Hospice. The concept is that you sponsor a bag for $20 (from my Thirty-One Gifts business), which my family then fills with some basic items such as a folder, notepad, pens, crossword puzzle, hard candy, hand sanitizer, lotion – along with a flyer explaining the random act of kindness associated with the bag. The bag is then given to the caregiver of a newly enrolled Hospice patient. My hope is that the bag finds them at a time when they most need encouraging and can feel the love and random act of kindness from a complete stranger; to help us all feel a little more connected in this busy life. I am currently in the process of getting the donations together for this year’s Hope for Hospice drive. If you would like more information you can go to: Carol’s Cancer Crusaders and like the page on Facebook. You can also order a ‘cinch sac’ at www.mythirtyone.com/nikkisizler – go to My Scheduled Parties & Select “Hope for Hospice” – type in Cinch Sac and choose to have it delivered to me, the hostess. You can also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or more information on how to make a monetary donation of $22 to sponsor a bag. I am hoping that this will be the best year yet. I hope and pray that we can share more encouragement and love with strangers during such a challenging time and that they too, can feel the presence and guidance of the Lord in their life.
Thank you so much for reading a little part of my life story,