A Mother’s Gift of Truth to Her Dying Son
At least once, everyone should see someone all the way through.
All the way home.
— John Hodgman
“You have to tell him,” Shannon said.
I shook my head. “I can’t.”
Jimmy’s latest MRI scan was horrifying. The cancer was everywhere, blanketing his brain and spine like a white carpet. The most recent treatment had failed, and we were out of options. Although I trusted Jimmy’s nurse practitioner, Shannon, completely, I couldn’t fathom telling my 21-year-old son that he was dying.
“Jimmy looks to you for hope, and he doesn’t understand the implications of the latest scan. If you don’t tell him the truth, you’ll rob him of the chance to decide how he wants to spend the time he has left,” she said.
A few days later, I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done and told my only son and oldest child he was dying. When I asked Jimmy how he wanted to spend the next few weeks, he gave me a list of the friends and family members he most wanted to see.
For the next two weeks, our house filled with the people Jimmy loved most. They came, two or three at a time, from across the country and as far away as New Zealand to see him. We laughed, cried, swapped stories, stayed up late, held each other close. At night, whoever was visiting would sit with Jimmy in the dark so he could tell each person how much they meant to him, how dearly he loved them.
Jimmy stayed with us until almost the very end. Sometimes, the conversations were about people, places or events only he could see. But most of them were about places we had gone, events and outings we had engaged in and the people and activities he loved.
He told us he went to bed every night thinking about how lucky he was to have such incredible friends and family. He re-lived his life and spent time having one-sided conversations with the people he cherished from each stage. He and his sister Molly had private talks and spent time laughing and joking until the wee hours of the morning. Jimmy was living until he drew his last breath.
Jimmy died in the wee hours of the night on February 16, 2014, surrounded by people who loved him fiercely.
Bearing witness to your dying child is a pain like no other. It feels as though the skin is being stripped from your body, piece by piece. To watch the decline, the loss of function, the pain you can only partially control, the unstoppable march towards an outcome that will end his life and shatter yours. The agony of that is with me still.
But I will never regret being present for every minute of those final months and weeks. To see my son’s courage, his willingness to enjoy whatever and whoever the day brought to the house, his determination to keep laughing and spend time with the people he loved best. It was an honor to be part of it, and I’m grateful I didn’t hold back or look away.
Margo Fowkes is the founder and president of OnTarget Consulting, a Sacramento-area firm specializing in helping organizations and individuals act strategically, improve their performance and achieve their business goals. After the death of her son Jimmy in 2014, Margo created Salt Water, an online community providing a safe harbor for those who are grieving the death of someone dear to them.