Five days ago, after a two and a half year battle with Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, Diane Ryan got her angel wings and flew to heaven. I am certain that she is in heaven because while she lived here on earth for 69 years, she touched so many people in the most amazing and profound ways. She wasn’t a therapist. She wasn’t a preacher. She wasn’t a public figure or an author. She was the woman you met at the market who smiled as she passed by you. She was the woman who rarely went to church, but who raised money for the poor and the sick. She was the quiet patient at the doctor’s office who thanked the nurses and never complained about her pain, but rather focused on how you were. She had simple conversations that left you thinking about life for hours afterward. She lived her life with grace. She lived every moment as she wanted. She made her life count. She was my mom and I am so proud and grateful for that.
On the day she died, she was feeling tired and her throat had been burning from a horrible infection. She couldn’t speak because her throat was so dry and it was painful to drink. She had blood in her throat from what she thought was a blister that had popped from coughing. Her cough was persistent for over 3 years and she would wince from the pain each time she took a breath that day. But she never complained.
On this day, I noticed that her smile didn’t come as easily as it once had. I sat down on the bed next to her and put my hand on her leg, noticing how soft her skin was, but how cold she felt. I checked her temperature and her oxygen level often and would check to see if she needed any water, medication or cough drops to ease the pain. She would shake her head and point to her medicine bottles on the night stand, telling me that she had already taken care of it. However, the pain was finally at a point where she could no longer pretend it didn’t exist.
I laid down beside her, put my hand on her hand and looked at her tired eyes, “Mom, I have never asked you this before, but how does your body feel?”
It was at this moment that I realized things had changed.
We all had an instinct that the end was near, but we only spoke of the hope that we had that she would beat this thing and that this was just another hurdle that Diane would tackle with the courage, grace and patience that had carried her through the past few years. “I am just tired of being in pain.” she finally replied. Holding back the tears, I responded, “I know…I’m sorry. I love you, mom.”
The only time she ever cried during the past 2 years was when she was in excruciating pain from leg cramps that the doctors speculated was from the cancer traveling to somewhere in her bones that they couldn’t detect. My mom wasn’t ever one to cry over anything other than a sad movie. She was a warrior. A peaceful warrior, who wasn’t always as peaceful but she had come to terms with who she was and what mattered in life. It seemed as if the cancer brought her to terms with so much. She was always beautiful, but when she was fighting this battle, she was radiant. People couldn’t help but notice her and love her.
We sat together in silence.
That moment when she finally admitted to the pain was the moment I knew that this day was different.
Throughout the rest of the day, my mom would be joined in small but meaningful conversations with my daughters, my dad, my husband… her cat never left her side. Her arm surrounded him the entire day. It was as if she wanted him to know that he would always be loved and protected by her. It was as if she wanted us all to know this.
At six o’clock that evening, she decided that she had had enough of her bed for the day. She needed to get out of the house. Most other people in her situation would never even think of getting out of bed, much less leaving the house, but her nickname was the “Terminator”. She got dressed. Her face gray, her eyes with red bags beneath them, she asked my father to drive her to the market to get dinner. She dragged my dad up and down every single aisle, getting dinner for her and my dad, food for the cat, popsicles for her grandkids… she was stocking the house to make sure everyone was taken care of. Always. She didn’t just want to make sure everyone was taken care of, she wanted us all to be happy because that was how she lived life.
When she returned from the store, she was exhausted. Her cough still taking her aside every few minutes. She went up to bed and my dad brought her some soup. She hadn’t eaten for days because her throat had been so sore, but on this night, she ate every drop of soup. My eldest daughter, sat next to her eating a grilled cheese (which NEVER would have been allowed any other day, but for some reason on this day, it was ok) and they just sat together. Being. Loving.
A few minutes later, my two younger daughters decided that Grandma needed some ice cream… a sundae to be exact. They picked beautiful flowers and placed them on a tray with a napkin and place mat. They wanted to make it “extra fancy” to make Grandma feel better. They were so excited to bring this tray up to her, to see her smile. My dad sprayed whipped cream on top. Again, it was all about making Grandma feel special, loved… happy.
To our shock, she ate the entire sundae and she loved every bite. She didn’t struggle through swallowing each bite as she had done with water just a few hours before. This amazing woman who hadn’t eaten in days not only ate her entire dinner, but she ate dessert too! We were thrilled. Grandma was getting better.
Then, it was bedtime. Everyone went to sleep with the comfort of knowing that Grandma had eaten and she was feeling a little better. The fog of this storm was starting to lift. She had weathered so many storms before this with the fight of the most decorated officer. She had earned her medals of honor and courage. She had won another battle and now it was time to rest.
As soon as my head hit the pillow, there was a knock on my door. It was my dad. Mom was coughing up blood…
I will spare you the details because this warrior was not one to go down without a fight. And fight she did.
Some might say that she lost the battle because her body did not survive.
But I held her as she fought and I can tell you that she won that battle. She is no longer in pain. She is no longer struggling. She is at peace. She is happy. She is loved. She won.
In the months before her death, my mom went to Israel, Alaska, Washington DC, San Francisco, Idaho. She visited friends. She played bridge every week. She was in an investment club. She spent time with her grandchildren and her family. She went to the gym several times a week. She went to the market, got her hair and nails done, made amazing meals for the family. She did everything she wanted to do. She made her life count and she never once made an excuse for why she couldn’t. She just did it.
And that was her message. That was why so many people admired and loved my mom, because she kept moving forward no matter what she had to face.
Even in the moment of her passing, she kept moving forward.
So, if there is one thing that you can take from this post and share with anyone who has cancer or who feels overwhelmed with circumstance… don’t give up!
Make every moment count. No one can take that away from you and everyone will remember and be inspired by your strength. We are here to lift one another up, not always by telling others how to do it, but by showing them the way.