Editor’s Note: In a heartwarming tribute, former model now TV/radio host, Melyssa Ford details the final days she shared with her beloved mother, Oksana Barbara Raisa Ford (10/12/1950 – 5/19/2020). Understanding that we have all been connected to COVID-19’s tragic reach, this essay explains the plight of one person’s experience that represents the pain so many are dealing with in these times around the world.
COVID-effing-19. This pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for a great many of us. How many of you have been confronted with the hard truth that we took EVERYTHING about our lives and freedoms for granted? The freedom to call up a few friends and go for Happy Hour drinks after a long day at work? The freedom to start our day by going to the gym; the freedom to temporarily vacate our lives by getting on a plane and heading off to some tropical destination? Or the freedom to gather at a burial or memorial service to pay love and respect to a loved one who has passed, as a means of helping to process our own grief?
My mother died last week. Not from COVID-19, but from colon cancer. But COVID-19 and its endless complications directly affected my family’s lives and, ultimately, my mother’s death.
It was less than a year from diagnosis to her last days. She lived in Toronto (my hometown) and I currently live in Los Angeles. Traveling during this pandemic presented some incredible challenges. Quarantine and shelter in place rules. Closed international borders. Fear and uncertainty. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get to her side in time, since Canada mandates that anyone getting off a plane has to self-quarantine for 14 days (threats of fines and jail time were there to incentivize you to adhere to the new rules). And I knew my mother had very little precious time.
Months before, when there was still some hope that surgery and chemo would prolong her life, she decided to sell the house I grew up in. I was furious. I looked at this as her giving up; resigning herself to the control of this insidious disease called cancer. But my mother, the truest form of a pragmatist, was preparing for the inevitable and getting her affairs in order. She wanted to leave me with nothing to do except mourn her without the burden of packing up a home with all of her belongings in it after her death. She knows me so well, she knew I’d NEVER pack it up, that I’d have left everything the way it was as a shrine to her and, therefore, never really moving through my grief in a purposeful and healthy manner.
Cancer ravaged my mother’s body but left her brain fully intact. And it was with full cognition, pragmatism and a whole lot of gumption, that she decided to end things on her terms by scheduling her passing with a doctor’s assistance via MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) — a legal policy in Canada that allows a terminally ill patient in palliative care to choose the days or weeks remaining in their lives.
She didn’t want to spend her last months laying confined to a bed, immobile, unable to even take herself to the bathroom. The most basic form of human dignity had been stolen from her and replaced with a catheter and a colostomy bag that my aunt had to drain several times a day. I watched as her skin turned yellow from jaundice, signaling her liver was failing. I watched as her urine went from a dark yellow to crimson, a signal that her kidneys were no longer functional. My mother, the strongest person I had ever known, both physically and mentally, was now frail and seemingly melting into the bed, her skin sagging from her skeletal arms and legs. Her face was gaunt, her head bald, her breastplate visible and bony…in her last days, she was an empty shell of the 5’10” beautiful Viking she had been. With her long blond hair, green eyes, and imposing physical stature, I used to joke that if you gave her a hat with horns, a shield, and a sword, you could send her out to battle.
The day I arrived in Toronto from L.A., I approached my mother’s bedside after going through a rigorous disinfectant routine. My mother had been discharged from the hospital as there was nothing left to do for her medically except keep her as comfortable as possible. She was sent home to my aunt’s house for the remainder of her days. My aunt’s home was a place of comfort and joy for me, as I’ve spent a great many holidays and family occasions here; this was the best place for my mother to be. With a mask and gloves on, I sat down next to her bedside and tried with all my might not to cry. My Mom had passed on that British “stiff upper lip” mentality to me; it’s rare you will see me expose my emotions. But as of late, I’ve been pretty transparent about it, in an attempt to sort through my competing feelings of grief and guilt. Guilt of not having been the perfect daughter. Grief of being her only child with no one to share the burden of immeasurable sadness with. Guilt of not working on our relationship or attempting to understand her as a person until it was close to the end. Guilt and grief kept coming in waves, threatening to drown me.
On that first evening, I sat with her for a few hours and we talked more frankly than we ever had about things I had always been scared to ask. Topics such as her tumultuous marriage to my father and why she stayed in such misery. What was HER mother like, who died when my mother was only 15 years old? Was she proud of me and the choices I had made in my life, one of them being never having children?
Eventually, I had to let her sleep. I went upstairs to her bedroom (she was now in a bedroom on the main floor of my aunt’s house since she could no longer walk). Once in her room, I found a journal titled 2019 and began to read. What I read, in between all of the activities she enjoyed such as Aquafit and her book club, was her documenting her disease before she even knew she had it, describing the symptoms that began as uncomfortable that would soon become excruciatingly painful.
It broke my heart to read this, being on the other side of understanding where this story would end. I found myself wanting to move through the dimension of time and yell, “Go to the hospital!” Reading this only made me wonder if she had caught it during the early days of symptoms, would the outcome be different? Excuse me as I add more guilt and more grief to the already unbearable weight upon my shoulders.
Our final day was spent much like the last six days I had with my mother, laying beside each other in bed, massaging her, and either watching movies or talking. We would go from walking down memory lane as I showed her old pictures to discussing last-minute details about the Business of Death: the transfer of everything into my name, where certain sentimental pieces of jewelry could be found, who she wanted to receive small tokens of remembrance of her. As sad as I was for myself, my heart broke for my mother. She’s losing EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE. She expressed to me that she was shocked at how quickly her cancer spread throughout her body. It didn’t give her a chance. No amount of holistic remedies or prayers would have changed this (thanks to all my friends who suggested a plant-based diet with sea moss, soursop, and bladderwrack but her colon, GI tract, and bowels had been decimated).
The few days leading up to her doctor-assisted euthanasia, I found my heart racing in a panic as the end was creeping closer and closer. I don’t know what’s worse, a loved one’s death being a surprise or knowing when it’s going to happen with the hours counting down. I know both intimately. My father went the first way, my mother the second. I still can’t tell you the answer.
With plans in place for the funeral home to come and take my mother’s body in order to cremate her, I’m left with a feeling of such remorse and sadness. Because of COVID-19, my mother’s friends and I are being robbed of the opportunity to congregate at a memorial service to properly mourn and pay homage and respect to the woman we all loved and admired. My mother deserved that.
I’m so angry. I’m angry at cancer. I’m angry at, as a society, our collective circumstances. I’m angry at the thought that this pandemic could have been controlled if our government officials had reacted swiftly. I’m angry that there are so many people who are experiencing the same thing I am—the death of loved ones, and the inability to gather together for a ceremony that celebrates their lives and sends them off properly.
Trauma changes you. Less than two years ago, I almost died when a truck hit my jeep on a California highway. I spent almost a year recovering. I’m a different person than I was moments before the impact of that crash. And now I’ve got to sort out who I am without my mother on this earth. People report a feeling of disconnectedness after the death of their parent(s); like what kept you tethered to the earth is gone and you are now hurtling through time and space, searching for something to grab onto.
I lost my father many years ago and now my mom is gone. I’m praying that I find something soon to ground me; but for the time being, the search to make sense and meaning of my mother’s life and, ultimately her death, shall continue for me, like a room with endless doors or a road that disappears into the horizon.
A native of Toronto, Canada and now residing in Beverly Hills, California, Melyssa Ford is a syndicated radio show host on Hollywood Unlocked via iHeart Media’s stations nationwide and also hosts her own podcast, I’m Here For The Food (available on all streaming platforms).