The Septembers of Lucille
On September 27, 2002, I was driving to Charleston, S.C., for a weekend trip from Orlando, Fla., when my cell phone rang. It was my Mom calling with some bad news. She had just been diagnosed with cancer and was letting her five kids know, one by one.
It was a form of bone-marrow cancer called “multiple myeloma”, and the prognosis was not good. A bunch of runaway cells were eating away at her 81-year-old skeleton from the inside out. During those first few scary days after the diagnosis, we kids all worried that she might not even make it until Christmas.
Instead, my Mom spent the next five years teaching us all the last lesson she had to offer: How to live while staring directly in the face of cancer. But where had she learned that lesson herself?
Lucille Holton had given birth to me, watched over me and helped me learn to walk, talk, read and write; she had tried to teach me how to play the piano; she had dressed me up in nice corduroy trousers that I hated and sent me off to a grade school where I wore those trousers thin. Later she had put up with my teenage shenanigans and watched me graduate from high school and college and eventually start a career in a field that she had once dreamed of pursuing — journalism.
Instead of doing that, she had married an aspiring medical-school student in 1946 and they had five kids.
She’d grown old with my Dad and they were both still living independently in my childhood home at the time of her diagnosis in 2002. But at that time, instead of him becoming her caregiver she’d become his caregiver because he had begun to slip into the downward spiral of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was almost as if her cancer had triggered an acceleration of his decline.
She responded well to the therapy for her cancer and fought through all the initial pain of it. Still, the burden of caring for him and the degradation to her body from her own disease took its toll. By 2004, it was clear that they could no longer live independently. They moved together into an apartment-style assisted living center where he lasted just three months before moving into a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients. By the time he died in 2006 they had been married for 60 years, spending only the last two of them living apart.
Lucille carried on alone in the apartment she loved, with all of the familiar furnishings and decorations we kids could manage to squeeze into the new place. She never once complained about her lot in life or about the progression of her disease. She made friends with new neighbors and the caregivers who eventually came to stay with her around the clock. We kids would rotate in and out for visits from all over the country, simply enjoying our times cooking meals for her or sitting and watching television, or just talking. As her cancer grew worse, she was eventually confined to a recliner and could only get around by way of a wheelchair. The painkillers prescribed to her grew stronger and stronger. By 2007 — approaching five years of living with her cancer — she was being dosed with powerful Fentanyl patches each day that left her groggy and sluggish. But still she managed to keep her smile and enjoy each day of her life. In a strange way, those last years ended up being some of the best, most quiet times she ever got to spend with her kids.
The last memory of Lucille that I choose to keep in my mind will always be of her looking over her left shoulder from her recliner to smile and wave goodbye to me as I headed to the airport after another weekend together in her apartment in late August of 2007. Her position and her smile at that moment were almost identical to what you see in the image captured by my younger sister Ellen in the photo below, which was taken earlier in the year Mom died. A few days after I left, death finally caught up to Lucille. She had a spell, followed by a weeklong deathbed vigil surrounded by all of her children and the hospice workers. She died in her own apartment on September 3, 2007 — two years ago today.
Her death came nearly five years after that other September day when I received news of her awful diagnosis.
But a couple months after the funeral, I found out about still another long-ago September of Lucille. This one was from way back in 1944. I was going through a trove of more than 450 old love letters that she had written to and received from my father during World War II. Lucille had saved the letters for more than six decades and I had found them in two small suitcases in our attic when they were moving out of the house in 2004. She made me swear not to read them until both she and my Dad were gone. In exchange for that promise, I made her promise not to destroy them or throw them out. We both kept our promises.
As I began to read the letters, I realized that I was looking at the complete record of the love affair that resulted in my parents’ eventual marriage. They had only gone on a couple of casual dates and barely knew each other when my Dad left for the Army in February 1941. But for whatever reason, they began writing to each other — and they kept on writing. Times were so different then. They fell in love entirely through their handwritten correspondence, by what we now call snail mail. During the first two years, they only were able to sneak a few days together in person when he came home to Kansas City on leave from stateside bases. Once she was able to arrange a vacation from her own job in a military ordnance plant so she could dash out by train to his post in Fort Ord., California, where they snared two or three days of passion touring nearby San Francisco and posing for snapshots on the campus of Stanford University. There were only one or two phone calls during those two years. I was able to count their every single day together, and count their every single phone call between 1941 and 1945, because each one was incredibly precious to them and their correspondence documented them all. When he shipped out to England in October 1942, the furloughs and phone calls were finished. Now there was no contact other than by mail. So from that point on, the letters capture the entire record of their communication until he returned after the war in late 1945. Five years — and mostly only written words passing between them. Yet between his departure and his return, they had gone from being just casual acquaintances to falling in love to deciding to be married. Pretty cool to have all of this in my hands, I thought. Like being present at my own creation a full 15 years before I was even born. So I began transcribing all the letters in order to create a book for my brothers and sisters. It ended up being more than 500 typset pages, capturing more than 300,000 words of correspondence back and forth.
Anyway, the reason I bring up the letters now is because in reading them two years ago I learned that cancer (or something very much like cancer) first entered my mother’s life in a serious, life-threatening way in September of 1944, when she was just 23 years old. But the victim was not Lucille, it was her own mother. That month, Lucille wrote one letter to my father explaining the diagnosis, a second documenting the frantic aftermath and disruption to her family’s household, and finally a third with the good news that all had turned out well. These letters, excerpted here, offer readers of today an intimate, real-time window into what cancer looked like in 1944:
September 4, 1944
I’ve not been feeling too cheerful lately. Mother is not very well, and I’m afraid it will mean an operation – a serious one. I’m praying that something will happen that might mean she won’t need it. However, according to the doctor that seems unlikely. Eddie, pray hard for her, will you please? If anything ever happened to Mother I think I would just about give up. That isn’t the way to talk, I know, but we are so close, well you know what I’m trying to say. Of course, I’m confident that the operation will be successful. You are the only one I’ve even mentioned my anxiety to. So please pray hard. She will probably go in about three weeks.
The war looks good now, doesn’t it? With the Yanks in Germany perhaps it won’t be long before Adolf gives up. And then you can come home. That day will probably be indescribable. After two years (and over) it will be quite an occasion to meet. Sometimes I worry a bit about us – how we’ll look to each other, if we will be changed, etc. We’ll have to start getting acquainted again, I suppose. But then we can think of that when the time comes.
I’ll close now but will write again soon and perhaps will have a more cheerful note to my letter.
So, goodnight, dear.
September 12, 1944
Mother was operated on Saturday September 9th. If you received my letter of Sept. 4th you will know that Mother has not been well and that this operation was pretty certain. However, we didn’t expect it to come so soon and in such a manner.
On Wednesday, Sept. 6th I came home from school about 9:30 p.m. and found Daddy frantically calling every doctor in town while mother was in bed. She had become very sick suddenly shortly before that. She started to hemorrhage and it frightened her. Our doctor finally was located and he told us the tumor had grown to the size of a teacup and it would have to come out. She went to the hospital on Thursday and as I said was operated on Sat. She has been awfully sick, Ed. I was very worried about her and still am. She has had two blood transfusions and might have another. I have stayed at the hospital two nights. I went home about 9:30 last night while a friend stayed with her and then I’m going back to stay tonight. We have been able to get only one special nurse instead of three as the doctor wanted. So that means that someone else has to stay the other sixteen hours each day. I stayed Sunday night until 7:00 a.m. and then came to work at 8:00 a.m. Monday. And that on top of staying Saturday night made me pretty tired. So last night I got about 7 hours sleep and am carrying on better today.
Everyone has been so wonderful to us – about offering blood, etc. Mr. & Mrs. Hargreaves (my boss) have been so nice. Mr. H solicited donors and Mrs. H came in to be with me during the operation. She stayed with Mother for awhile Sunday afternoon after the nurse left at 3:00. And Jim was with me during the ordeal too. He has been perfect. He stayed until about 2:00 in the afternoon of the day of the operation. Then he came out on Sunday to see mother. He sat with me until about 9:30 p.m. He is truly a friend. I’ll always be grateful to him.
Daddy is awfully upset and can’t do Mother much good so we keep him away as much as possible. He gets so excited when anything is wrong with Mother. She had a bad day yesterday, suffered a lot of pain and she didn’t say anything to Daddy. Of course, that worried him. He thought she was getting worse. So I try to keep up his morale.
After reading this you can readily understand how welcome your letters were. The bracelet came also and I was very happy with it. Thank you, darling. Things like that mean so much.
So keep praying, Eddie, and keep writing often. I need your letters.
September 28, 1944
This letter is quite tardy, but if you have received my two letters prior to this I’m sure you’ll forgive me.
Mother is improving satisfactorily. She is going to sit up in a chair tomorrow for the first time. She’s thrilled to death. The poor dear is so anxious to get out of bed. Needless to say, we are all relieved that the worst is over. I feel confident that she will be all right now.
In your last letter you mentioned not knowing my telephone number. Perhaps I should give it to you now just in case you might be able to call me sometime from N.Y. It is Indep 736 W. Of course you realize you don’t need my number to call me.
My great aunt is staying with us and taking care of Mother in addition to the cooking. She is priceless to us at this time as you can well imagine. We have well-balanced meals on schedule – something which was pretty difficult when I tried to work and keep house and stay at the hospital all at the same time.
* * *
It seems that my letters recently have been rather morbid. I’ll have to start changing my tune, won’t I? The newspaper today doesn’t help my mood – “Winter War Possible.” Gosh, won’t this damn thing ever end. And in your last letter you mentioned the possibility that it would be another year before you came home. That’s awful, darling! It really makes me feel low.
Oh well, I guess what we want isn’t so important anyway – except to us.
Goodnight, Eddie, please pray that it won’t be long.
My grandmother went on to live until 1983, dying at the nice, old age of 84. This harrowing episode in her life and my mother’s life came and went and was never mentioned in later years. I still don’t know exactly what type of cancer it was and where it was. I knew none of these details at all until I read the letters from long ago. Everything I know about it is right here in this post. The rest will forever be a mystery. But when I re-read those letters today, there is a resonance with my current situation that almost spooks me.
The technology for treating cancer is all different now: There have been many great leaps forward, certainly since 1944, and even since 2002. Still, everything else about cancer seems almost the same — the primal fear upon diagnosis, the medical scramble, the rallying of support from friends and loved ones, the not knowing, the struggle to maintain a daily routine. As I spend this entire month undergoing my first round of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, I have felt all of those factors at work.
Now I have something else to think about. My mother was an extremely religious person. And so if things turned out the way she always envisioned, maybe she is in heaven right now experiencing yet another September of Lucille. Only this time, she is not looking after her mother. She is not reeling from the shock of her own terminal diagnosis. And she is not gasping for her last breath.
She is just watching over her son, and hoping she taught him well.