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The Final Days of Lung Cancer and Good Son Syndrome

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 09/05/2012

Note: This article is a “heavy” and if at any time, it gets too depressing, go look at pictures of my delightful daughter Adiella Levin taken by me and my wife @jewyorican who is also @elBloombito.

Okay, so here’s the type of writing I’ve been holding back for years. Life is full of chapters, phases and trials. This is one such time for me. On the one hand, I have a beautiful family and nearly 2-year old daughter who fills every one of my days with delight. On the other hand, I have a mother who is imminently dying of lung cancer. Against this backdrop, I was fighting adult bullying, and my volatile profession of search engine optimization is in flux again and I have to break out my best game. This article is about dealing with the death of a parent and the internal conflict that can arise when the extreme circumstances of cancer, harrowing mental health histories and the hellbent determination to keep a life on-track collide.

Carousel of Happiness

At such times in the past, I have stumbled and allowed the giant “reset button” of life to be pressed. First when my dad died as I was coming out of college and foolishly took over his check cashing operation to protect the estate at the expense of my career and safety. I ended up having to shoot an attacker—maybe the subject of a future article.

Later, my mother became schizophrenic and lost in Mexico—from where I personally extracted her. After that, I uprooted my life to move close enough to her to help in emergencies—fruitless, as it turns out, you can’t help someone going off their meds because they want to. I may not be a Navy Seal or anything, but after experiences like those, I feel like there’s pretty much nothing I can’t handle—either physically or emotionally.

I’ve been hesitant to write on these topics over the years, as they feel too personal and may embarrass my mother when she’s in her sensible medicated state. In fact when the news of the lung cancer came to me from her Colorado case-worker (let me tell you, thank God for Colorado), my first thought was that I was getting jerked around yet again just as things were starting to go my way. But no. It’s really lung cancer, and she has really now gone unresponsive, and I have really had my last conversation with her.

So here I am in New York City with my mother slowly dying in a Hospice in Colorado. The moment I got word of her lung cancer, my amazing wife was booking tickets and making arrangements to be out there ASAP so my mother could meet her granddaughter Adiella. Up to that point, we had been elusive with her concerning Adi’s whereabouts and even appearence pursuant to several life-threatening incidents caused by my mother in her Mr. Hyde persona. But with the impending loss-of-mobility, there was also no longer a threat, and it was time for her to meet Adi.

And meet Adi, she did. We only planned for one full day with my mother—idea being to have a great meeting and day that my mom could carry with her. It was our first time flying with Adi, and the unknowns were so numerous I figured we had a 1-in-3 chance of actually pulling off a trip like this successfully. My wife was profoundly valuable support during this time dealing with all the logistics, allowing me to focus on reading SciFi escapism for the first time in a decade in order to protect my sanity—Verner Vinge’s Peace War, for the curious.

My mother was mobile but thin when we arrived, and clearly at the end of being able to take care of herself. She was on the second-floor of a walk-up! I knew I wasn’t staying long. I knew I wasn’t coming back while she was mobile—if at all. I knew I wasn’t going to be the one picking up the pieces after this was over, handling the burial and the funeral. I knew I was there for her to have one amazing day with Adi, and that was more important than everything else put together.

And so it began, the four of us driving out in my rented red Jeep Wrangler—symbolic in that this is the exact car she once bought as a raving lunatic from a scruple-less slime-ball used car dealership in New Mexico and drove away from me in one of her schizo-disappearances. So to put it succinctly, I “rescued her” from Mexico only to be ditched back in the USA—making it dawn on me in no uncertain terms the anguishing and cyclical process that was to define my relationship with my mother for the rest of her life. Better living through chemistry is a reality… but only if you take your meds.

But this final last time, it was the four of us in the red Jeep Wrangler, driving through Boulder—me, my mother, my wife and my daughter. First, we went to her favorite local deli, and I made sure she had lox with cream-cheese, capers and onions—a treat she loves as much as I do and suspect she hadn’t been treating herself to much. Next was the tough part. How to kill the better part of a day with a woman you had been (unintentionally or not) jerked-around-by and estranged-from for the better part of fifteen years, who is now dying and needed to spend some quality time with a granddaughter she just met?

My mother had the solution! We drove straight out Canyon Drive—the very road my hotel was on—to the tiny town of Nederland where resides the Carousel of Happiness—a century-old hand-carved and restored magical toddler-friendly amusement-ride nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. As much as I want to hate my mother for all the seemingly avoidable misery and jerking-around she thrust upon me over the years by knowingly going off her meds for her bi-polar roller-coaster rides, this merry-go-round destination for this once-in-a-lifetime visit was brilliant… absolutely brilliant. I don’t know if it was genius or intuition or luck. But my mother colored these final memories with bright, bold strokes and merry music. It was a real treat for Adi—and I think I enjoyed it just as much.

We got pictures. It brought tears to my eyes. Right from how the place was named to the history behind this very special merry-go-round, to the actual experience of riding the thing, seeing my mother and my wife standing outside the railing surrounding the carrousel watching each time as Adi and I went around, arm-in-arm with a giant 800-pound gorilla on a bench. The parallels to life and parables here are just so numerous and powerful that when I’m not crying, I’m laughing. So suffice to say, The Carousel of Happiness: I recommend it. It’s also interesting to know that Nederland, CO is place where Marijuana is legal in the United States.

I don’t know how to describe it. This was the trip of a lifetime—designed to create the best possible final memories for one person, and to cast the best possible light on the story we will have to tell many years from now to another person. Adi is an absolute delight, and the “life sometimes sucks no matter what you do” aspect of my relationship with my mother is precisely the kind of thing I want to shield my daughter from for as many years as possible. She’s too young to have to be exposed-to—or even pick up the vibes of such difficult times—which these are, as my mother lies in her deathbed even as I write this. Read about the final stages of lung cancer. I saw it with my grandparents. I’m ready to be kicked in the head, but not to have my mental state ground into mush when so much is at stake—I’m also under an eviction threat by the board of Park Terrace Gardens in New York City.

So, I call Hospice every day for updates. I talked to my mother on the last day she was responsive. I spent one wonderful Carousel of Happiness filled day in her last weeks of mobility, and had her meet Adi before those horrible final days of decline began that I became so familiar with from my grandparents. The right memories were made. I said my peace with her. I’ve had the “no regrets” talk both in person while she was totally there mentally and on the phone at the last moment possible. I told her I love her about a hundred times during these visits and calls.

I even filled her room with the picture-postcards of Adi that I was so reluctant to send in the days before her cancer diagnosis, and thanks to the miraculous people at Hospice, I know she saw and appreciated them. I got back in touch with my estranged sister, who as it turns out has a one-year-old and made the same decision as me to shield the existence from my mother for safety reasons—which I doubt anyone will ever understand who hasn’t spent time with dangerous schizophrenics. My sister got in on the postcard action, and my mother will be moving on now knowing she has a grandchild now from each of her children.

The updates I get from Hospice now are that she is resting peacefully, which brings me to tears almost every time I think about it. Maybe it’s too soon to really try to distill my experiences of late into wisdom, but if I have to, the take-away I’d give to the far-flung and disparate crowd that an article like this on the Internet could attract is this:

  1. Some mental health problems (schizophrenia, for example) are larger than any individual can be expected to handle—especially in the USA where individual freedoms trump all. In the United States, it is the rare state like Colorado that is capable of recognizing and treating the worst cases before they become among the ranks of the homeless. Thank you Colorado state health system, and thank you Chinook Clubhouse. Thank you Lisa, George, Erin and Tara and all of Hospice.
  2. It’s okay to give a portion of your life over to loved-one’s, but not your entire life. In the end, you come first, and the family that you make for yourself comes first. No one has the right, no matter what, to continuously “derail” your life. Don’t sacrifice yourself on the alter of “good son syndrome”. Drawing lines in the sand is okay—no matter how much of a asshole it makes you feel. Sorry to any relatives who were casualties of this process. For may years it was painful to see or be around things that reminded me of my mother.
  3. Even when successfully drawing the line in the sand, you may still be tested. In this case, it was to what extent I would be there for my mother when the situation was the last big one: terminal-stage lung cancer—as opposed to the more “manufactured” crises of going off her meds. Life can effectively maneuver you into positions where there is no right answer. You just got to pick which shit you’re going to walk through, and live with the consequences.

4. And the final big learning and the onus of this article: when such an impossible situation transitions into a terminal one, such as cancer, but you have finally just set your life straight, you must protect what you’ve built and your mental state and your ability to function as you would a fragile flower. Maybe I’ve built something more resilient than that, as many people tell me, but I’m now wired to treat everything special to me like gossamer threads in the wind. I am sure my mother would prefer me to look out for what I’ve finally built for myself, rather than going down into that depressing place from which it can take years to come out of—a luxury I cannot now afford.

Is my situation wholly unique? I doubt it. I’m reaching out to the world with an article like this. The number of people who have my exact overlapping situations is probably quite small, but I hope this helps those like me who are facing a similar situation and googling up how other people handled it.

Basically, I’ve been calling what I’ve been feeling “good son syndrome”. How far should a good son go in an impossible situation? Does it extend to deathbed vigil at the expense of something you spent your soul building and consider as fragile as a flower? How far will you let good son syndrome take you?

Finding and extracting a dissapeared crazy person from a foreign country? Certainly. Flying out after another disappearance/reappearance cycle to help her drive cross-country to resettle closer where I might help? Yeah, okay. Chasing her down on a third and totally avoidable disappearance? Nope. Letting her have anything to do with my life after her eventual resurfacing? Fuck that. Being there for cancer and letting her see the fruits of my setting my life straight and wash away any regrets…

Ugh… yes! Sitting deathbed vigil and risking all that I have built because I can’t shake this fucking good son syndrome—at the expense of my wife, child and potentially even job? I think not. Letting my emotional state weaken under the onslaught of bullies? Fuck no. I wish my response was so certain in real life as it was in the writing of this article, but it wasn’t. I was on the verge of flying out there a second time and putting myself and everyone I love unnecessarily through the wringer.

I drew the line in the sand circa 2005 when I moved to New York City, taking a vice president position at a public relations firm that no longer exists—but what I built there does: HitTail. I moved from the 5-block radius from where I worked determined to get to know NYC and take the subway, where I met my soon-to-be wife on the One Train. I navigated out of a dying company to one of the best digital marketing firms on the planet, and am carrying out my second act after HitTail: 360iTiger which plants the seeds to thrive profesionally in a post-traditional-SEO world.

Basically, my theories always pan out when given the chance to take root, be nurtured and blossom. And I have this theory I can do a family right. And so, I brought a child into this world with my wife—and am somehow managing to be a big part of her daily life, despite my professional ambitions. And finally, I took out a mortgage on a “property” (a NYC co-op) for the first time in my life (bullying complications aside). I’ve built my life up a lot in a very accelerated time-frame after finally drawing the line in the sand, and I have a lot at stake. The circumstances of my life make me view what I’ve built as very fragile and to be vehemently defended against countless bugaboo’s—of which my mother was, until recently, at the top of the list.

And despite all that, I have done everything reasonably possible to knit the final positive memories into the heads of four people. No, I will not be at her side at the end. And yes, this will probably bother me for the rest of my life—but not as bad as taking even just these days or weeks away from my family… damnit. Mom, I love you, and I know you are proud.