June and Elle

Love comes in many permutations. ❤️ This is part three of a six part series on love. I asked a few good friends for some love stories that took place in the context of the pandemic. Today we read about a daughter’s love for a mother whose love for her daughter was truly extraordinary.

Torn Between Two Loves
By Kaye Lopez Lukosz

How do you decide what’s more important – to be a good mom to an exclusively breastfed newborn, or to be a good daughter to an aging mother who’s battling cancer for the third time?

I was faced with this impossible question in the middle of a pandemic, starting in July of 2021 when I was still 7 months pregnant and my mom was officially diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome. I accompanied her to her first consultation with her hematologist who delivered the bad news. We had to go to the hospital so the risk of exposure to COVID-19 was there but we had the consultation in a somewhat isolated area so the risk was quite minimal. But when you’re pregnant for the first time after almost three years of trying and finally conceiving via IVF, every risk counts. But Mom needed me and I wanted to be there for her, so off we went, preggy belly in tow.

As we weighed treatment options with her doctor, she said that the only curative option for Mom’s latest blood cancer was an allogeneic stem cell transplant, which would require a donor – ideally the patient’s children, preferably a son, but a never-been- pregnant daughter could also be a possible good-enough match. Something about the stem cells not being exposed to other genetic material. So despite the convenience of me being the only child living here, I was automatically disqualified, apart from the fact that it would be unethical for me to go through the process of donating my stem cells while breastfeeding after I give birth. My brother based in the US and my sister based in the UK both got tested but Mom eventually decided against the transplant after she weighed the complications and long-term effects of Graft vs. Host Disease against the minimum quality of life that she wanted.

We saw her doctor on a Friday, Mom admitted herself in the hospital the following Monday, ready to get started with in-patient chemotherapy. That was the beginning of her not-so-long but lonely fight to survive, inspired by her much-awaited grandchild, Elle, who finally arrived on September 7. This was around the time that COVID-19 cases were surging once again due to the then-new Delta variant. Hospitals were back to strict protocols, which included a no-visitor policy.

Mom was in and out of the hospital either for chemo, transfusions, or when she developed a fever. Every time she got admitted, she only had her faithful yaya with her. It took three cycles before she finally become transfusion-independent and we celebrated each day that passed since her last RBC and platelet transfusions. Her numbers were so good that she finally got the green light from her doctor to go and visit her apo.

She came over to our place almost everyday to babysit Elle so I could take a shower, cook freezer meals, or take a nap. She even left a bottle of Coke Zero in our refrigerator during her last visit. That’s how confident she was that she’d be back for more snuggles and cuddles with her apo. We were all so hopeful leading up to her fourth cycle in October. Everything was going well, except for the fact that she was severely immuno-compromised, especially after her third cycle. She had to quarantine herself at home because of it but she kept reassuring us that it was to be expected because the chemo was meant to restart her bone marrow. She held Elle for the first time on October 13. By October 24, she was back in the hospital due to a fever and never left until she died almost a month later.

More than a decade ago, when she battled her second bout with cancer in Singapore, I was her primary caregiver. I was by her side when her health took a downturn and she was transferred to the ICU. But now, being a new mom to an exclusively breastfed-on-demand newborn during the time of COVID, her doctor discouraged me from visiting her until the last 2 nights when her condition turned critical and Mom asked for me to come. Her doctor felt that some morale boost would be good for her so she thought it was time to make an exception. I shared with Petr, my husband, that I was finding it hard to be a good daughter to Mom while also trying to be a good mom to Elle. I know it’s too late now but I can’t help but wish I could’ve done more for her. I also know she would never take that against me but I still feel sorry that I couldn’t be there as much as before.

The night before she died, Mom was tired and weak but still coherent. She was completely aware of what was going on and she told me she wanted to keep fighting even if it would take another 100 days in hospital, just like in Singapore. It was hard for me to see her that way but she was willing to go through all of that just to go home and see Elle again. But she did draw the line with intubation. We asked her more than once but she said “no” each time. If I had known that night would be the last time I’d see her alive, I would’ve stayed. But I couldn’t because Elle was fussing and Petr couldn’t pacify her anymore. Mom even said, “I’ll let you go na…” I don’t think she meant that as forever but she eventually did.

As I reflect on it now, her words felt like she was releasing me from my role as a daughter so I could focus on being a mom. She was brought to the ICU before midnight and she died just over four hours later. I was breastfeeding when her ICU doctor, my siblings, and Mom’s sister, Tita Carol, was calling to say that Mom’s heart had stopped twice already and they were asking for permission to intubate. Without it, they had no chance of reviving her and it would only be a matter of time. But Tita Carol knew that Mom refused to be intubated so she respected her wishes and told them not to intubate. When I checked my phone around 4am, I had 27 missed calls. When I finally spoke to her ICU doctor, she explained what happened just moments ago but that without intubation, there was nothing more they could do. They called her time of death at 341am. And just like that, Mom was gone.

It breaks my heart whenever I think of Mom dying all alone in her ICU bed. But I try to take comfort in knowing that she didn’t linger too long and her death was painless, just like falling into a deep sleep, except that she never woke up. I’m sad that we weren’t able to say our last goodbyes. We all held on to the hope that she would pull through just like in Singapore. Maybe she thought so too. But the stress on her body plus the loneliness she felt due to the limited in-person visits from friends and family, all took a toll on her poor heart. So maybe when her sister Tita Mô and cousin Tita Maribeck, along with all those who had gone before her, invited her to join them in the afterlife, it was an offer that was hard for her to refuse.

Mom left a hole my heart, and I will miss her everyday, remembering her babbling and singing Christmas carols to Elle to help her fall asleep. But I’d like to believe that Mom lives on through Elle. She believed in reincarnation so maybe her soul is reborn in her newborn grandchild. She fought as long as she could so she could finally be a lola, hold her apo in her arms and experience pure joy. Being able to do that, even if it was only for a couple of days, was her answered prayer. She tried to bargain for more time with her, fighting to live until her last breath, but alas, her spirit was willing but her body was not.

Mom’s life was a gift to so many, including mine, but I’d like to think that her death was also a gift to herself, as well as her gift to me. Death released her from all the pain and suffering that she was going through in her life, both physical and emotional. Her death also released me from the love triangle I was in with her and Elle. I know it’s just a mindset but if I believe that to be true, I can go on loving Mom as I focus on being a loving mom to Elle. Maybe I can continue loving her by remembering who she was to me and how much she loved and was loved by so many, and sharing that with Elle when she’s old enough to understand.

I may not be able to continue mom’s mental health and human rights advocacies but I can to do my best to follow her example by loving her granddaughter unconditionally, just as she loved us, her children. So in the end, her gift was that she decided for me. She wanted me to continue being a good daughter to her by being a good Mom to Elle, and loving them both as she lives on through her. Thank you, Mom. And I promise to love you through Elle forever.

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