I’ll just say it. I was a bitch to my mother growing up. I was as stubborn as her; and we fought with each other every step of the way. From what clothes to wear, to whether or not I should go to college, there was a never ending battle. But I think that’s what made our adult relationship much stronger. I spent many years doubting her, and as an adult, I had come to the realization that my mother was always right, and would never steer me in the wrong direction.
After I had my dream wedding on January 6, 2007 at just 21 years old, I just knew my life would be completely different. I turned into a true grown up. There was the upkeep on the house, the dinners I cooked for my husband, and knowing that I truly made my own decisions.
My mother and I were on the phone one June evening that year. “My back hurts so bad,” my mom confessed, “I can hardly move my arm because of it.” I was confused. This is a woman who never complained about being sick or hurt in her life that I knew her. I suggested she go to Dr. Baker, and to get to the bottom of this pain. She agreed, but right before my eyes, my mother was changing.
In July I had a funny feeling. Being with the kids at my work was feeling so right. My boss walked up to me on this certain day and proclaimed that she had finished her period. I was thrown off. We usually have the same cycle. Was I pregnant? My husband and I weren’t trying at the time, yet we definitely weren’t doing much to avoid it either. After my work shift, I dove to my grocery store, bought a pregnancy test and went home. I quickly read through the directions, opened the package and prepared to pee on the stick. I counted to 5 in my head as instructed, and looked at the test. Woah! Two lines already?! Wait a minute, I’M PREGNANT! What an amazing feeling, knowing there was a little baby growing inside me. I told anyone who would listen. I was going to have a March baby.
After about a week since my news, my mom shared with me that her doctor diagnosed her pain as a pinched nerve in her back. Never doubting doctors before, we all accepted this and tried to move on. She was prescribed pain killers for her back in the hope that she would get some relief.
But the pain did not go away. Stronger the medications got, and still my mother was struggling sleeping, stepping into the shower, and moving around. At this time, I realized how humbling this experience was for our relationship. This woman took care of me my entire life, and now I got to return the favor. I’d lay in bed next to my older mother, softly touching her arm until she drifted off to sleep.
“Maria, Mom’s face doesn’t look right,” Dad explained to me on a September evening over the phone, “Her entire right side is puffy. What do you think is wrong?” Why did Dad ask me? Was it because I took a human anatomy course? Because I lived the closest? Regardless, I had to answer. “Sounds like it might be a stroke, I’ll be right over.”
I walked into my parent’s house and they were arguing, like they always did. Mom tried to convince Dad that she didn’t need to go to the doctor; that she would be better. I slowly poked my head into the kitchen where they were and made myself known. Mom sat at the kitchen table and all I saw was her face. Dad was right, her right side was very swollen…the eye, the cheek, it was remarkable. It was as though my mother’s face was melting on one side. “Ria, what do you think?” I couldn’t answer to my mother; I just looked at my dad. “Dad, why don’t you call the ER down the street and tell them what is happening with her face, and whether we should be concerned?” At this point, my father dialed the phone and went in another room to talk. I heated up some chicken noodle soup for my mom and placed it in two bowls and I sat down with her to eat. Obviously depressed, she struggled to eat and make conversation as dad was still on the phone.
After a few minutes, she broke the silence. She took one more spoonful of soup, put the spoon in the bowl, sighed, and said with tears in her eyes, “I think I’m dying!”
I said the only thing I could think of as I jumped up to give her a hug, “No you’re not! We’re just going to take you to the hospital to make sure everything is okay! You’ll be fine!”
She spent a few hours at the hospital. She went through triage, had chest x-rays, and answered questions. “You better do a good job, because my daughter is having my first grandchild in your hospital in March,” she joked with the ER nurses.
She was sent home being told she is just stressed and that she needed rest, and she agreed.
On October 15, my mother decided it was time to quit smoking for the sake of her soon to arrive grandchild. On October 16, she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
There is no screening process for lung cancer. They have found that any type of regular screening was more of a burden than a benefit. So usually, when someone is diagnosed with lung cancer, it has probably been in them for a while. For my mother, according to her oncologist, she probably had the cancer since December 2006.
After I got news of my mother’s diagnosis, my head had never pounded so much. As I was sprawled out on my couch, my mother-in-law, who had rushed over to my house to be with me, comes over and rewets the cloth and placed it back on my head. “Are you sure you want to go?” I had never felt so compelled to be at work than today; after all, my mother was just diagnosed with lung cancer.
My mother-in-law drove me the 22 minutes to work. I walked into my work, The Little Gym, and I am greeted by sad faces and hugs. My boss, who has always been a mentor to me, asked, “Are you sure you want to teach?” “Yes, Holly, I really need this right now. I need something normal in my life.” She nodded in agreement and let me prepare.
For over three years at that time, The Little Gym had been my second family so much that I just drifted there on my saddest day. I called my class, which consisted of 19 months to 2 ½ year olds which we call “Beasts” and their parents into the gym at 6:30 that Tuesday evening with my eyes so foggy from crying all day.
If there is anything that The Little Gym teaches the children who attend, it’s the confidence to do anything, and their instructors also reap the benefits sometimes too. I had dug deep down to be confident enough to walk in the gym that day and teach a parent/child interactive class.
The kids in the class didn’t care if I had a bad day, they were just happy to see me. As I continued for the next 45 minutes sharing with the parents how to spot their children on the beam and bars, letting them in on the emotional, social and other benefits of doing these activities, and singing a mouthful of jingles, I noticed I wasn’t thinking about Mom as much. I smiled for the first time that day.
The next day, before we headed to the hospital, Adam and I stopped by Mom’s house to grab a few things: Mom’s pajamas, her IPod, and her Tickle-me-Elmo…check, check and check.
Once we arrived at the Chandler Hospital, I stepped out of our car and into the crisp October morning. We walked into the main entrance, and get our visitor passes. The nice woman at the front directed us how to get to Mom’s room. Adam pointed out the coffee vendor and mentioned that we should stop there on our way out.
We walked towards the elevator in front of us and my hands trembled as I pushed the “up” button. After we went up 3 floors we stepped out and walked down the curved, beige hall and approached room 302. On her door, was a red sign that said “Fall Risk”.
There I saw mom, in her bed, obviously a little delusional. Dad sat in the chair next to her, watching TV. There was a whiteboard with the names of Mom’s doctor and nurses for the morning shift right next to the door. I tried my best to hold back the tears and to not think about how weak my once strong mother was.
I put her Tickle-me-Elmo on her bed tray and pressed his right foot. Elmo proceeded to start giggling, slapping his knee, and rolling on the table. Mom smiled.
We chit-chatted and she pointed out the sink by the door at let me know how all the nurses and doctors are supposed to wash their hands there before they treat her. It was nice to know she was well taken care of. A nurse walked in and started adjusting her medication machine. My mom, in her morphine induced state, introduced me to her. “This is my daughter…she’s due in March.” And then Mom cried.
She had a non small cell Adenocarcinoma and it was at Stage IV. As this was all happening, I rushed onto the American Cancer Society’s website and found out that patients with this type of cancer have a 1% 5 year survival rate. It was in her right lung. They started her on daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy. I worked very hard to lift my mother's spirits by reminding her about being a grandmother soon.
Unbelievably, the tumor in her lung was 6 centimeters in diameter. Her doctors worked very hard to ensure that the cancer wouldn’t spread. I knew we were finally in good hands when my mother’s oncologist, known as the “murderer of cancers”, proclaimed that he didn’t see an expiration date on the bottom of her foot, and that statistics are not what he solely considered.
Unfortunately, it was already in her spine and her hip. When a cancer does metastasize, or spreads throughout the body, survival rate drops much lower. (How much lower can 1% go?)
My mother’s life changed dramatically after that diagnosis. Her body was slowly being taken over by the cancer. She acquired a soft and squeaky Minnie Mouse voice. She was on so many pills to counteract the chemotherapy. Anti-nausea pills, pain pills (she had two different types of morphine medications), and even Melatonin, a pharmaceutical type of THC (something found in pot) to increase her hunger. She laughed and cried out, “I’m gonna be a pot head!” It was nice to see that she even found the humor in her cancer.
About a week since my mother’s diagnosis, I received a call from my OB/GYN in regards to my recent blood work I just had done. Even then, I knew there was something wrong. He explained to me on the phone that my AFP level was low, and they couldn’t rule out Down’s syndrome in my baby. He suggested a Level 2 ultra sound. The next day, his nurse from the office called me and said that if I was available, they had an appointment for me at a genetics office today. I confirmed and Adam and I drove into Tempe.
After an intense interview with the geneticist, I was still a little unsure of what to expect at the ultrasound. I climbed into the lonely chair, laid back, and exposed my stomach. The technician asked us the typical protocol questions and we answered. No, we didn’t want to know the sex of the baby, yes we brought a blank DVD to record the ultrasound, yes I did drink and smoke at the beginning when I didn’t know I was pregnant.
She squirted the gel on my stomach and it is magically transformed into the gateway that connected us to our baby. I looked into the tell-all monitor. Why wasn’t he moving? The technician’s smile escaped her face. “I can’t see a bladder or kidney…” After carrying this baby for 20 weeks, my mother’s intuition kicked in. I knew there wasn’t a happy ending for this.
She grabbed the tissue box and handed it off to me as if to give me a hug in some other way. “You’re drinking and smoking had NOTHING to do with this.” She answered the question that I asked in my mind only. She emotionally excused herself, and shut the door. All I could do was hold Adam’s hand and tried to burn a hole through the stubborn door with my eyes as to see through it. The doctor, who had such a serious face, walked in and explained why my baby was going to die. I couldn’t even look at him. Instead, I was distracted by the sink. There was nothing special about the sink. It was just there in the corner, like an eraser for these doctors and technicians to wash away all the pain they had bestowed upon me. But this sink for a minute kept me from looking at my husband and crying. He finished and it was final. My baby would die of a heart attack…and soon.
Driving home from the ultrasound was a hectic ride. We were busy calling our parents, our bosses; anyone that we felt needed to know that our little baby would not be one of this world. Adam asked me where I want to go, and I can only think of one place. Mom and Dad’s.
My heart was beating in the pit of my stomach as we pulled up to the place my parents called home for the last ten years. Before we even put the car in park I looked towards the door and my frail, cancer ridden mother briskly stepped out towards her eldest daughter. Only 5’2’’, like me, she had seemed to have lost a little weight from the chemo.
Her feet were in the old flip flops she’s worn a bit too long, scooting along the concrete as she tried to keep them on. Her arms, as soft as my bed’s bamboo sheets, were extended out awaiting my body’s arrival to sooth me into comfort. And then there was her face; oh my God, her face. With the gold hoop earrings she’d worn since I remembered. And that scar on her face that she still refused to tell me how she got. As I approached her, I looked into those big bifocals which made her sad eyes and tears look even more depressed. This proud, petite Italian woman had let her guard down for me. She pulled me quickly into the house and grabbed a statue of Mary from the kitchen table. “She says it’s okay, you’ll have more later on.” And even though Mom was trying to make me feel better, I was offended. Why not now? At this point I had started an online blog to let everyone know what was going on instead of answering the same questions over and over.
We had two choices about what to do about our baby: we could have a medical abortion or wait for him to pass, be induced and deliver. As a part of a strong Catholic family, we chose the latter. We scheduled weekly visits with my OB/GYN to check the heart beat. It didn’t take long.
Friday, November 2, 2007; 4:55pm
I knew the answer. I told him it was ok to let go. We listened for the heartbeat, there was none. Checked for heart activity on the ultrasound, there was none. I will be induced and deliver on Monday.
I checked into the hospital on Monday, and got settled in my room. Much to my surprise, as I obviously had no expertise in this area, it was taking longer than just a day. All our family visited throughout the next two days. I pushed my mother around the maternity ward in the hospital’s wheelchair to try to get some contractions. (They knew she had cancer and was a fall risk, so they made her use a wheel chair).
The first night, the nurses insisted I take an Ambien, which is a pill that would help me sleep. I hesitantly agreed. Now, with this medication, it made me a little… different. Through my vague memory and my family’s experience from that night, the Ambien made me very silly. After winning a hand of the card game 500, I sang the theme song to the musical Oklahoma! and passed out.
On Tuesday night, my OB/GYN switched me to a much stronger medication to induce labor. The side effects, which are flu-like symptoms, were so horrendous that I didn’t sleep all night. There were chills, a fever, throwing up, instant diarrhea, and the confusion.
Wednesday morning I felt the need to push. Right away everything fell in place. My OB/GYN was already at the hospital, visiting another woman. My mother and mother-in-law were both at my side. And my husband, I felt his strength in him holding my hand the entire time.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007; 9:36pm
These last 3 days have felt like a blur. Probably due to everything emotionally, and the medicine. It was a lot of work. First, we used something to get me to get contractions. By evening of the 2nd night, I started getting little ones. Around 1am today I was switched to a more aggressive medicine. I contracted for the next 9 hours. At 10:08, I delivered Aryn. 9 1/2 inches tall 290 grams. So beautiful. 10 fingers, 10 toes. Aryn had Adam's lips. The hospital was wonderful. They were very caring, and thoughtful, and went out of their way to make me and my family comfortable. They put this picture of the leaf and tear drop on my door so all doctors and nurses knew what was going on. Our parents contacted the Queen of Heaven mortuary for us.
Delivering Aryn was so hard. I chose to not do an epidural, (I have this horrible fear of needles anywhere near my spine) and used other medications to ease the pain. My body hurts all over, and to top it off, my heart aches. I begged to be released that day. I did not want to stay where other moms were enjoying the delivery of their babies. Maybe I was jealous, or angry, or just too sad. Either way, I'm glad to be home.
"The distance between joy and sorrow can be measured by a heartbeat."
It was over, and we were moving forward. We scheduled a funeral for Aryn on Wednesday, November 14th.
I woke up from the obnoxious ring tone of my husband’s cell phone at 4 am early Monday morning, November 12th. I pushed Adam and he grudgingly got out of bed and stumbled to his phone. He was muttering. The phone call only took about a minute. My brain was on this disillusioned high of melatonin in my body. Half awake…half asleep. Adam closed his phone and took in a huge breath.
“Your mom is not doing well and there is an ambulance at the house that will take her to the hospital.”
Without knowing how I got there, I was standing next to my bed looking at the blurred image of my husband. Finding my glasses was not top priority at the time.
“What do you mean, not doing well?”
At this point, I heard the ambulance siren getting farther away. It’s times like these that you regret you and your husband living only 2 minutes from your parents.
“Oh my God! That’s the ambulance taking Mommy away! I can’t do this! That’s my mommy! Where's Rebecca and Michael?”
“Well, we gotta go there!”
We arrived at my parent’s house, reluctantly greeted by my younger brother and sister. It was at this moment I realized Adam and I are in our pajamas still. My hair is in the sloppiest of pony tails. I wiped a crust from my eye and I asked them what happened. Rebecca starts explaining.
“Dad went to check on Mom a little bit ago. She was really gargling in her sleep. Daddy called the ambulance and told Mom she was going to the hospital.”
“What did Mom say?”
“She said, ‘Okay, Sweetie, where are my glasses?’”
I decided that the hospital is where we should all be. We piled into my Hyundai and drove the ten agonizing minutes to the hospital.
Hours go by. As the morning horizon is covered in sunlight, my head begins to feel dizzy. The doctor finally allowed us to see our mother. As we opened the cold curtain I tell myself that Michael and Rebecca needed me to be strong and I walked in.
I couldn’t believe it. There she was, connected to tubes and monitors, and still it didn’t feel like her. At that point, I couldn’t feel my legs and I collapsed into a chair.
They explained that she had gotten pneumonia in her good lung and was going on a breathing machine. They were going to move her up to the ICU. Suddenly, this became our norm in our family.
It was a hectic day. Adam and I didn’t waste any time going to the ICU to visit Mom. Just a quick shower, a stop at a gas station for coffee, and we were on our way. Without looking at me, Adam asks, “Did you call the church for the funeral for Aryn?” I hadn’t. I look at him, sigh, and flip open my Motorola Razor. “Hi, this is Maria Hanson and I needed to talk to someone about the music for my baby Aryn’s funeral on Wednesday. If you could call me back that’d be great.”
We’re in the parking lot now, greeting our family that traveled from Connecticut to visit Mom. As we walk towards the entrance of the hospital, my phone rings with an unknown number. “Hello?”
“Hi Maria, this is Aaron. I wanted to call and let you know I’ll be doing the music for the funeral tomorrow. Once I saw it was for you, I didn’t even hesitate.”
“Oh, hi! Thanks so much for doing this!” Aaron was the musician that not only did my wedding earlier that January, but also my brother’s wedding that June. I stepped into the elevator. We spent the remainder of the phone call discussing songs that I would want played.
“Yes, so I’d love ‘Ave Maria’ since you played it at the wedding when we prayed for a fertile marriage, and ‘You Raise Me Up’ because it’s just so beautiful.”
“No problem. And I want you to know that you are in my prayers.” I smile and I close my phone and look at my husband.
“Aaron will be doing the music for the funeral.” He looks back at me, raises an eyebrow and clearly states, “Well that’ll be a trick.”
I shoot back, “No I mean Aaron! Not our Aryn!” Adam smiles. And I laughed with my husband.
Adam and I had just returned to the hospital after going to the funeral home to pick up Aryn once we received a phone call saying his cremation was complete. I was greeted by the somber faces of my family in the familiar waiting room. There weren’t any changes, and Mom was still just as sedated as before. She was a lifeless body with tubes and monitors all over her to indicate otherwise.
Adam and my aching body got out of the chair and walked down the hall with the velvet box in hand. I picked up the ICU phone and the nurse answered. I muttered…something…and the doors opened. We walked to Mom’s room. Mom’s favorite show, House was playing in the background on the TV. I looked down at her hand which has swollen to more than twice its normal size by now. How can this be happening to her? Her long fingernails that had once had the frosty white nail polish I had painted only a week before are bare. The nurse mentioned that they removed it to gage the modeling in her hands.
“Mommy, we brought Aryn in the urn we had picked out last week. It’s pretty and blue with the doves.” I touched her cold hand and turned it around and placed my son’s salt shaker sized urn in her palm. She began to squeeze and her thumb began exploring the intricate grooves on her grandchild that no one had met.
By this time, my sister and brothers joined us in the room. My mother’s face began to express. As we talked and soothed her, we were caught off guard by her beautiful brown eyes opening for the first time in 3 days. My older brother, Billy, took a breath and so purely proclaimed, “There you are, Mom. You’re eyes look so pretty.”
I leaned over and kissed her cheek. As I pulled away, there were beeps and flashing lights on her monitors. As we’re all freaking out, Billy sees the problem. One of her breathing tube connections was disconnected. He quickly sprung into action and put everything back together. Oh my God! I pulled apart her breathing tube! Mom always said I’d be the death of her! We laughed, I apologized, and we moved on.
The next day was Aryn’s funeral. We had an Irish Catholic priest do the service, but he had never met any of us before that day. I felt it was distant, or routine. Until half way through, when he made mention of family and turn to me. He started speaking in Italian. My eyes welled up. “Tua madre (Your mother),” he said. I nodded. My mother never taught me her Italian language growing up, but for some reason, I felt so connected with what the priest was saying. He said a prayer for my sick mother in Italian and I never felt so vulnerable.
The next few days had their ups and downs. My mother opened her eyes a few times, and I connected with my out-of-town family once again. The doctors explained how things had been turning for the worse. That Mom was basically drowning in her own body from the pneumonia. By Saturday morning, we knew what we had to do.
“Maria, are you ready?” Who could ever be ready for this? I sigh and drink the last of my Lord-knows-how-many-this-is-now-coffee. My head was so swollen. The air conditioning in the waiting room had turned my fingers to just the right amount of cold where if I were to hit them on the chair, the pain would be inexplicable.
We all made the last walk to her ICU room. I walked past the staff break room which had that heart wrenching poster that explained what to look for in immediate death. Could this all really be happening?
We got closer to the room and I’m greeted by the familiar sound of the exhausted breathing machine and heart monitor. I started to float away to a time when this wasn’t the reality in my life. A time when I was happy and pregnant and my mother was excited to be a grandmother for the first time. And then I’m interrupted by none other than myself clearing my throat, holding back the tears. “Hi Mom. We’re all here.” Each of her four children grabbed a part of her hands. My father stood by her side, just as he always did. My mother’s last tear rolled hesitantly down her cheek.
That smell of a sterile environment continued to bloat my head. I got up and leaned right into my mother’s left ear, “Mommy, I am so proud of you. Don’t worry about the family. I will take care of them. Dio la benedice.” The doctor who had been trying not to watch this entire time walked in to the machine, looked at my father; who nodded at her, and she turned down the medicine. Mom’s heart went from 80, 20, 120, 4, gone. I let out a scream I thought I abandoned when I was a toddler. My mother died.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007, 12:05 pm
Amelia MacDonald, 60, of Gilbert AZ passed away on November 17, 2007 surrounded by her loving family. She is survived by her husband, William John MacDonald and her four children, William MacDonald Jr. and his wife Ashlee, Maria Hanson and her husband Adam, Rebecca MacDonald and Michael MacDonald, her sister Angela Eager of Connecticut, niece Laura Newman, and nephews Joseph Altman and Daniel Rouleau, also from Connecticut, and several cousins and aunts from New York.
Amelia was born on December 22, 1946 in Potenza, Italy to the late Attilio and Teresa Saltarelli. She moved to the United States in October 1954 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York where she attended Eastern District High School. She moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1977 and attended Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT, earning her Associates Degree in Accounting. In 1979 she met her husband William and married in 1981. Shortly after, they moved to Huntington, CT where they began their family, and moved to Gilbert, AZ in 1997.
Known to her friends as Amy, she was actively involved in and dedicated to all of her children’s activities, and followed their pursuits with passion. She was the principal of religious education for St. Lawrence Church in Huntington, CT for several years, and was active in the Hamilton High Band Booster and Shumway Elementary School PTO. She loved to knit and crochet afghans, doilies, and crafts for her children. She cherished Italian family traditions, cooking her “mean” sauce every Sunday, and maintained Italian customs for herself and her family.
She was a strong believer in family, education, the Catholic religion and standing up for what you believe in, even if you’re standing alone. She follows her first grandchild, Aryn Hanson into heaven who pre-deceased her on November 7, 2007. An inspiration to her children and pillar to her family, she will be remembered and missed dearly.
A memorial service and viewing will be held on Friday, November 23, from 6-9pm at Allen Funeral Home, 1130 S. Horne, Mesa. The funeral service will be held on Saturday, 11am November 24, at St. Anne Catholic Church, 440 E. Elliot Road, Gilbert. Interment will follow the service at Queen of Heaven cemetery, 1500 E. Baseline Road, Mesa.