Gary Carter died today, and it’s hit me harder than I ever thought possible.
If you don’t remember him, Carter was an all-star catcher with the Montreal Expos in the early 1980s. He went into the baseball Hall of Fame wearing an Expo uniform.
As a boy, I idolized Carter. I was a huge Expos fan, and Carter was the reason I became a catcher. Of course, growing up in Edmonton in the 70s, softball was realistically the only option. Baseball was a sport for the select few. So be it; the positions are basically the same.
Watching him have so much fun playing a game, with that big wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth (if memory serves, you could even spot it through his mask), was the epitome of effort and the joy team sports could bring. It’s how I wanted to be.
Carter was diagnosed back in May with a malignant brain tumour called glioblastoma. Haven’t heard of it? I’m not surprised.
It also happens to be the same cancer that killed my mother October 4, 2010.
First a bit of background about the disease: it’s extremely rare. Only two or three people in 100,000 will be diagnosed this year.
Virtually none will survive more than a few months.
Carter’s death has brought back a flood of memories.
The first sign most people will have that something is wrong is perhaps a persistent headache, or in my mom’s case, a severe personality change.
I remember being on the phone with her a few months before she was diagnosed. In one conversation in particular in September or October 2004, I remember my mom rambling on. She who always made so much sense, was a clear thinker and speaker, suddenly was talking – if not nonsense, then certainly random thoughts.
I hung up the phone thinking to myself that mom had become an alcoholic.
After that, it was hard to get through to her. She’d answer the phone, and be pleasant, but she wouldn’t respond to my questions. Or when I called to brag because something had gone particularly well that day, she no longer responded with the same enthusiasm.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the tumour was robbing my mom of her personality.
At Christmas, I was due to fly home from Vancouver to Edmonton, and my mom was supposed to come pick me up at the airport, as she had done so often before. But my flight was delayed, so I called home to tell her.
My brother answered the phone and was very cryptic when I asked him why he was at her house.
It wasn’t until several hours later I found out the real reason for all the secrecy. My mom had spent several hours the previous night stuck in a snow bank, right outside her home. This was December in Edmonton, and overnight temperatures dipped below -20C.
She had got in her car at 11 p.m. to head downtown to a doctor’s appointment. Of course, the office was closed, but it took a while to sink in for my mom. She drove back home, parked in front of her house, and walked up the driveway to go back inside.
But she didn’t make it inside. Her left leg gave out just as she was about climb the step to the front door. She fell into the snow bank, and that’s where the paper boy found her the next morning, got her inside, and saved her life. Thank God she subscribed to the Edmonton Journal.
It was hard to get my mom properly diagnosed. Being the good daughter of a Scot, she hated wasting money or public resources, and refused treatment. But my brother and I could see her mental and physical condition getting worse by the day.
My mom would fall, we’d have to call an ambulance to help her get up, they’d take her to hospital, and she’d be discharged a few hours later. My brother and I suspected something was going on in her head (perhaps something psychiatric), but we couldn’t convince a doctor to take a look.
And still her condition got worse.
Mom would spend countless hours just sitting in her chair, smoking the odd cigarette. I’d force her to get up and walk about, but within a few days, even that became impossible. It wasn’t long before she stopped responding to me altogether.
I would sit on the couch across from her and look over every now and then just to make sure mom was still breathing.
It wasn’t until a sympathetic home care nurse looked at her condition and told me what words to use when calling 9-1-1. The nurse thought she was having mini-strokes. The reality turned out to be much worse.
It was just after Christmas when mom finally went to hospital for a CT scan and we got the bad news: she had a brain tumour.
Mom was admitted to hospital and scheduled for an operation just after the New Year. But on New Year’s Eve, I got a call to say “Come into the hospital, your mom will be operated on in about two hours.” Her condition was now life-threatening.
But the operation was just the beginning of mom’s ordeal.
I still remember the day we were told my mom had this condition called glioblastoma. I certainly had never heard of it. But the message from the oncologist could not have been more clear: the vast majority of people die within a year, and only a handful survive beyond two years.
The clock was ticking.
To her credit, my mom decided to fight. She was 65 years old, and felt she still had some good years left in her. I still remember the day outside the hospital when mom looked at me and said “I don’t want to die.”
She handled the radiation and chemo rather well. My brother, Stuart, most often had to take mom for radiation at the Cross Cancer Institute. He got used to mom’s need to pop an Ativan pill or two before going into the confined space of the radiation machine.
Her chemo was administered at the same time. Bubble-wrappers full of toxic pills that mom had to take every morning. More often than not, mom would go straight back to bed.
Still, her condition improved. She regained the ability to walk – albeit with a walker – and hold a decent conversation. Mom wasn’t the same person she was, but she started on such a firm footing, most of her personality and beliefs were intact.
The cancer actually brought my mom and me closer. I took her on a couple of cruises, and to Phoenix. The trips were holidays for my mom and for my brother – as the child who still lived in Edmonton, he was the one who had to assume most of my mom’s care. And trust me, even though my mom lived in an assisted living facility, she still needed care.
Mom survived one year, then two. Years three and four seemed like she had put the disease behind her for good.
If only it were so.
Just before her 70th birthday, mom went to one of her semi-annual oncology checkups. The doctor found that the tumour was slightly larger than it had been six months earlier. The disease was re-asserting itself.
My bother and I decided to throw mom the biggest birthday party of her life. Normally, these were small family affairs, but this time, we invited everyone we could think of – family, nieghbours, friends – even her accountant. Dozens showed up, and mom was beaming.
Mom had been given one last-ditch hope: tamoxifen. Apparently in high enough doses it can inhibit a brain tumour.
Not in my mom’s case.
She took a dose or two, but it made her dizzy, and that was that. It was December 2009, and mom decided she had had enough.
It was a long, slow decline from there. First, to the hospital, then to a transitional hospital, and finally to the nursing home.
By the time I brought my girlfriend Cari home to meet her, mom was confined to a bed, and only occasionally lifted out and put into a wheelchair. Walking was out the question – the tumour had robbed mom of the function of her left side.
But mom hadn’t lost her spark. When I introduced her to Cari, the first thing mom said was, “Jesus Christ Brett, you didn’t tell me she was beautiful.”
That engaging personality, that sense of humour, would last until her final days.
The next thing the cancer took was mom’s sight. This was perhaps the most cruel. Mom loved to read and watch tv, but with her left eye going blind and unable to lift her arm, reading was no longer an option.
It wasn’t long before the sight in her other eye started to go too.
Then mom’s speech started to slur. Her once crystal-clear thoughts could no longer be expressed.
By this time, I was spending as much time at her bedside as I could. Each day, it was getting harder and harder to hear mom’s words. Harder to understand her meaning.
Then came the day I knew mom’s fight was over.
Stuart was taking a rare holiday for a few days, and I was visiting mom in the hospice. Her supper tray came, and I adjusted mom’s bed so she could sit up to eat what little she could.
I tried to feed her the beef that was on the menu that night, but mom couldn’t open her teeth wide enough to get food in. I tried to give her some water or juice, hoping that if mom could just have a bit of nutrition, she might live a bit longer. What a ridiculously selfish thought.
Mom’s lips tried to grasp at the straw, but she couldn’t close them tightly enough to establish a seal. I tried to pour a little water into her mouth, but it all ended up going down her front.
I set mom’s bed back down so she was lying flat. My finger slipped off the button, and she stopped abruptly before I could finish the job.
I said to her, “Sorry mom, I’m not very good at this, I guess.”
“Nobody does it better,” she replied.
Her last words to me were a joke. How fitting.