My Mother's Options: Photographing Symbols
Photogrief : Eleanor Haley/
by Jolene Thibedeau Boyd
Going through one of my many files, I came across these notes...notes that I recall taking during an appointment with my mom's oncologist shortly after he shared with us the scans that showed metastatic breast cancer in Mom's liver, on her bones, and embedded within her brain.
I remember how surreal it was looking at those brain scans...brightly colored rings that seemed to be more fitting for a child's classroom or finger painting easel than overshadowing that doctor's office where we were finally given what would have to suffice as a prognosis. I remember how frustrating it was to have all these doctors tell us "the facts" without being able (or willing, perhaps) to answer the questions I really wanted to have answered:
"Should we continue treatment?"
"How long do you think she has left?"
"How do we know what SHE wants when the tumors are clearly affecting her personality and judgment?"
My mom had resisted--I mean physically FOUGHT--me when I was trying to get her to her first radiation treatment for the brain tumors. It was physically strenuous--I was so worried I was actually going to hurt her--emotionally exhausting, and quite frankly, it just felt wrong to fight her, but how could I give up on her? I wasn't at all sure she understood the implications of her latest scans. This was my MOM. My ONLY mom. And I was not ready for her to die, not even close. But I didn't think I could go through that kind of experience with her a second time.
So I scheduled an appointment with her primary oncologist for myself (like the "good girl" I always was, I called to make sure they'd see me without her). During that appointment, I finally found the tenderness and mercy that I so needed to hear. After discussing all the facts that are represented in my notes in the photos, the doctor listened to me tell my story of the struggle I had had with my mom getting her to the first radiation treatment.
I was in tears, telling him I just wasn't sure I could do that again. He was so gentle and understanding when he said to me,
"I can't give you any guarantees, only guesses. I can't tell you what you should do or even what's best to do. But I will tell you this...if it were MY mom, I think I would wonder if there wasn't some part of her true self, still aware in there, trying to tell me what she really wants at this point."
It was just so much what I needed to hear at that point.
I went home and sat with my mom on the couch and explained that I didn't think I could go through trying to get her to her upcoming appointments if she was going to fight it, that I didn't WANT to do that to her or to me. And I said,
"If you don't want to keep doing this, it's ok. You don't have to. I just need you to tell me that." And she said "I don't want to keep doing this."
So hard to hear those words...and at the same time, such an incredible relief. We hugged each other for a while after I told her I would cancel the scheduled treatments. And I called my four older brothers to tell them about the appointment with the oncologist and what Mom had said...they were so supportive and understanding, each in their own way. And so we turned a corner in our journey with Mom that day.
How powerful it was to read through those notes again recently. And to reflect on the supportive tenderness her oncologist allowed himself to share with me...such a gift, really. The matter-of-fact, concrete words remain as symbols, yet only the memories truly reflect the emotional struggle that so many of us must go through when supporting someone on their final journey.
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