This piece originally was published March 6, 2015, the day before the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death to breast cancer. The Healthline Contributors site has now gone dark, but Healthline graciously has given me permission to reprint this piece on my own website.
By David Heitz
Twenty years ago Saturday I lost my beautiful mother to breast cancer. She was only 53 years old – my brother’s age now. I was 24.
Now I’m losing my dad to a rare brain disease, although he has lived to a very ripe old age of 76. Entering his 14th month of hospice, I have been so caught up in the emotional rollercoaster of losing him that I haven’t had a lot of time to reflect on this major anniversary of Mom’s death. But it is a perpetual state of reflection, as I am living now in the very house she died in March 7, 1995.
So instead of going on and on, I’d like to repost this column that was published March 9, 1995, in the Orange, Calif. Independent. I was working as city editor of the Independent, owned by California Community News, which was a division of Times Mirror. The newspaper was inserted weekly into the Los Angeles Times in Orange, Villa Park and Anaheim Hills.
The column was published again a year later in the Glendale News Press, when I was managing editor of that daily, also owned by and delivered with the Times. The column received an Award of Excellence in 1996 by the Greater Los Angeles Press Club at the Southern California Journalism Awards.
While so many advances have been made in cancer research, it remains a frightening disease that touches so many lives on such a personal level, people I know and love, all the time.
This is in memory of my mother, Barbara Fordham Heitz.
“Until her last breath, mom will keep laughing”
I’m convinced my mom is going to die laughing.
I sat with her the past two weeks and watched her body slowly give up to cancer. We witnessed a painfully unthinkable dying process, something even the darkest minds in Hollywood probably could never dream up. And they certainly would leave out the laughter.
For better or worse, her mind is unaffected by the disease, and she hasn’t lost her sense of humor.
To the astonishment of doctors, nurses and family members, mom is still alive as I write this column. The menacing cancer tumors have strangled her colon, liver and apparently her kidneys, too. She literally is filling with fluids like a balloon attached to a garden hose.
When she began to hemorrhage through her G tube (a hose that drains the stomach), she watched nonchalantly as my brother tried to siphon out the blood clots with a device that resembles a turkey baster. “Get out of there, you little hussies,” she called to the clots.
When some of my younger cousins questioned her coloration, baldness and frail body, she let them believe she was in labor.
When I presented her with a helium-filled smiley face balloon, she declared with her own smile: “It is more jaundiced than I am.”
When she had what can only be described as a near-death experience, and the room became dark to her in the middle of a sunny afternoon, she began to laugh uncontrollably. Her significant other guessed she must have been playing a joke on God.
If you don’t believe laughter is the best medicine, you’re wrong. Dead wrong.
When death comes for a terminally ill cancer patient like my mother, there’s no room for tears. Those were shed 15 years ago, when a doctor interrupted her contagious giggle with three horrifying words: “You have cancer.”