A mother's love, a living legacy
We had a great life. I remember the moment that it all changed. It was Monday evening, January 19, 2004, when the MRI technicians prevented us from leaving the hospital. We had been waiting far too long after my wife's test, and I told them enough was enough. As I started to walk out, they actually moved between us and the door. That was the moment. I knew it was bad. I didn't know yet how bad.
Our primary doctor had sent us there for a stet MRI of the brain after examining my wife that afternoon. She had started having headaches and other symptoms about 10 days earlier. We thought there must be a problem with her pregnancy. She was about three months. By the time we got to the MRI, I had begun to suspect a brain tumor, but I was counting on being wrong. As I found out that evening, I wasn't. It was the worst night of our lives.
After surgery in South Florida, where we lived, a biopsy confirmed it was a malignant Glioblastoma Multiforme. We hadn't even told anyone we were expecting our first child yet, and suddenly my wife was handed a virtual death sentence. She was 39.
Marie-Pierre had wanted to see the world. When she was in her teens, she set out to see it. Against the conventions of her rural French home, she left the security of her big family, and, in the next 20 years, she saw a lot of it. Her passion became her career. She became a tourism professional and traveled extensively, even taking a group to China in '93.
She evolved into the prototypical career woman -- dedicated, organized, exacting. Never married. Never wanted children. But she was fun-loving, too, with a great smile and big, bright eyes that lit up an expressive face. In the late '90s, she began working in the U.S., where we met, eventually fell for each other and embarked on a 10-year voyage of love that could not have been more beautiful or less predictable. In each other we had found the love of our life -- and we lived like it. We had a great life.
I remember the exact moment it all changed again. It was the moment Marie-Pierre made the decision about her pregnancy. Following her surgery, that decision was staring us in the face. She could not do chemo while pregnant. Some doctors urged her to terminate so she could begin treatment immediately. It made sense. After all, I was already 56. We talked to a priest. But even in our dire situation, he said, abortion was not condoned. We were lost. We had worked hard to accept the change parenthood would bring to our idyllic life. Now we had to confront that decision again, and this time, it was not only the child's life that was at stake.
The road to that decision began on a February afternoon as we drove back from meeting a woman who had been enduring treatment for a GBM for several months. She was doing well, we were told, but it didn't seem so to us. She was weak, incapacitated, disoriented and puffy-faced. We were shaken. For the first time, we had looked our future in the eye, and it didn't look like much. We talked about how almost nobody gets out alive with this cancer, and usually it doesn't take long. And how an abortion might disconnect us from God at the very time our only hope seemed to be that connection.
Two days later, Marie-Pierre decided to keep her baby. That was the moment everything changed again ... for the better. She said it then for the first of many times, "This baby means life for me." Her pregnancy wasn't planned, but it was destined.
The next few months were miraculous. Marie-Pierre was about to begin radiation of the brain, which doctors assured us would only pose limited risks to the fetus. We weren't convinced, but we felt we had to do something. Then a friend in Phoenix told us of a spiritual healer there who seemed to be the real thing. We made a leap of faith and flew to Phoenix. After the healer's session, he told us that God had given us a miracle, that the cancer was gone or deactivated, and that the baby was fine. He urged us to have this verified by medical tests. My wife was immediately at peace. Overnight, her condition improved visibly. She regained her energy and looked and sounded like herself for the first time since she got sick. We were not sure what had happened, but it was clear that something had. A seed of hope had sprouted.
The cancer center's chief of radio-oncology, who was treating Marie-Pierre, was understandably skeptical when we told him what we'd done and asked him for another MRI before starting radiation. He said we should start treatment immediately but reluctantly agreed. Two days later he gave us the good news: The MRI showed that the residual tumor now appeared about 25% smaller. Apparently what happened in Phoenix helped, he said. Our neuro-oncologist was not persuaded, however, saying the MRI merely reflected normal post-surgical healing. But, after several follow-up MRIs, the radio-oncologist who only weeks earlier had urged us to start radiation immediately, finally said the tests showed it was no longer necessary. He continued to monitor her with MRIs, and ultimately, she was able to go full term without treatment. Seeing the physical toll that radiation would take on her months later, we couldn't help but believe that, in some way, our child had been spared.
During pregnancy, a transformation began to take shape in Marie-Pierre that would eventually flower into a new woman. She took holistic approaches. She changed her lifestyle and diet, starving the tumor of fat and sugar, and she really slimmed down -- even while pregnant. She was vibrant, blissful. Despite the various medical concerns, her pregnancy was healthier than anyone expected. She chose to give birth naturally and was blessed with a relatively easy labor and a peaceful, uneventful delivery. Uneventful except for the fact that her little boy was born two weeks early on -- of all days -- the French holiday, Bastille Day. We named him Pierre.
In retelling our story, I often heard that you get the child you deserve. That certainly proved to be true for Marie-Pierre. And, he was the child we needed. His only problem was a two-week-long case of jaundice. After three months, he began sleeping through the night, usually for about 12 hours (not to mention a two-hour nap), which continued until he was 3. It's hard to overestimate how important this was for a mother fighting a malignant brain tumor. But even more than being easy, he was a happy baby, and his happiness kept us happy. He was our angel.
Sure, there were a lot of terrible times. The first was when her tumor recurred six weeks after his birth and we had to leave him for 10 days to travel to a brain tumor center for her second surgery. Over the next four years, she had to endure those six weeks of radiation, cycle after cycle of different chemotherapies and clinical trials, a third brain surgery that left her temporarily and partially paralyzed, various other complications, dozens of MRIs and PET scans, countless alternative treatments and supplements and what seems like hundreds of doctor and hospital visits, many of which required traveling hundreds of miles from home. And, of course, her weakened condition forced her to share her little boy with a succession of nannies -- though she struggled through the fatigue, pain and nausea to care for and enjoy Pierre as much as she could.
But despite these difficulties, there were always good times, and thankfully there were more than not. Whether just a few moments of a bad day or a six-month stretch of mostly good days, they gave Marie-Pierre (and us) that precious gift: normalcy -- the kind of abnormally happy normalcy that a child can bring. And Marie-Pierre, the lifelong career woman who never wanted a child, remade herself into the kind of natural mother that I'm sure surprised even her: constantly baby-talking to her little boy in a lilting French-English sing-song; beaming as she cradled him, admired him or showed him off, especially to her family; trying to learn about anything that would make her a good mommy. And so she got to do just about all the things that come with raising a child and introducing him to the wonder of life -- and she got to experience all the love, happiness and fulfillment that come with it. Being a mother who couldn't afford to take life for granted, she experienced its simple pleasures more intensely. That's reflected in the photo accompanying this story, and in this email she sent to her family in France:
"Today it's been 3 years since my first surgery... January 26, 2004! If we had listened to the well-meaning doctors at that time, Pierre would not be here, and they gave me 2 years of survival... To celebrate our lives, Pierre and I spend the morning in the park. The weather was fantastic and we had a lot of fun. Back at home, before his nap, Pierre played with his hats."
To say Pierre was her pride and joy would not be using the phrase casually -- rather, it truly defined him. The coos, the cuddling, the kisses, the smiles, the feeding, the babbling, the laughter, the shrieks, the crawling, the steps, the spinning, the falling down -- just the sight of her little boy sitting in a big jet plane seat on a trip to France -- all of it brought her laughter. I'm sure she never laughed so much in her life -- even before she became terminally ill.
Oh, yes, there it is again -- the terminally ill part. There was so much good, normal time that you could almost forget that part. But it was always there, and yet she was able to live under that cloud with true joyfulness. Her faith gave her the inspiration to give her little boy life, but it was her little boy who gave her the inspiration to fight for and enjoy her own. As it turned out, it wasn't a long life, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to make sense of that, or if the path we took was the right one. But what I do know is that in those nearly five years, she did the best with her life that anyone can do -- she passed it on. And, for a precious time, her little boy gave it all back to her, the best life that she could have ever had.