My mom lived life to the fullest. Even when she was dying

I learned that I’m capable of a lot more than I thought. My mom taught me that.

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The Pettersen girls: Kate, Lee, and Ali. Photo, John Knox.

Eight years ago, my mom, Lee Pettersen, was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer. She’d gone in for a routine checkup and her doctor found a tumour the size of a DVD. My dad, her husband, had died less than a year earlier of a sudden heart attack. At 61 years old, newly widowed, my mom was told to get her affairs in order.

I was in Kingston, Ont., in my final year at Queen’s University. I remember my mom calling me and saying, “They found a tumour. It’s going to be OK, but I need to have surgery, so you need to come home.” I emailed all my professors and moved up my exams and wrote them right away, but I don’t think I really understood what was going on. It wasn’t until I got home and saw how devastated she was that I realized it was real: my mom had cancer.

Despite being given a prognosis of two months, she kept living. She was on every possible clinical trial and she had an incredible team at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. She never slowed down because, as she always said, “Hope fuels the drive to survive.” Following her diagnosis, she set out on a mission to dip into her bucket list and live three days for every one. Over the past several years, in between rounds of treatment, she did a two-and-a-half week trip to Africa, travelled to China, rode horses through the mountains in Spain, and cycled through Vietnam to train for the Ride to Conquer Cancer, which she participated in annually and, more often than not, while undergoing chemotherapy.

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Lee and Kate at a pit stop during the Ride to Conquer Cancer, in 2015.

She was always like that, really. My dad was a professional football player so they decided to wait to have kids. She had me at 39 and my sister, Ali, at 42. Recently she told us that her mandate was not to limit our lives in any way on account of her being an older mom. She forced herself to pretend she was 20 years younger. It was an extremely loving household, full of activity and adventure. Even if we were pitching a tent in our backyard just for the sake of camping, there was always something fun going on.

My mom defied the odds for eight years, but in January 2017, she had run out of treatment options. While it was news no one could’ve been ready for, I think we almost expected it. The previous 18 months had been riddled with scares and complications. She was hospitalized about a dozen times, often admitted through the emergency room at Toronto General Hospital, where we’d sit for hours waiting with her, thinking “This is the end.”

On December 30, she was admitted for one full month. I stayed with her for the final week of that month, sleeping on a stretcher next to her bed because she was so terrified. She’d wake up in the night with anxiety, and I would hold her hand or rub her back while she was throwing up. It was equally awful as it was special. I was so sad, but I kept telling her it was OK, even though I knew it wasn’t, and she did too. Being able to tell her I love her over and over and over… that was a gift. And there were lots of “I’m proud of you” moments, for both of us.

At the end of January, I moved up to Collingwood, where my mom lived with my stepdad, Gord. This was my choice but, to be honest, it wasn’t much of a choice at all — she was my mom and she needed my help. Still, I worried about being “out of sight, out of mind” at work. I’m a freelance sports reporter, and many opportunities come from being in the right place at the right time and networking. It was hard because I knew that at some point, life was going to resume. I just didn’t know when.

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My sister took a leave of absence from work and came up to stay in Collingwood at the end of March. We’re so thankful for the extra time with our mom, for being able to sit on the couch together and talk and laugh. My mom’s big thing was that we’re not fully “cooked,” so she had to stick around long enough to make sure we were close to being “done.” She was busily trying to teach us life lessons, about some of the difficult realities of relationships, for example, and about preparing for death. Having lost our dad suddenly and without warning, we were all aware of the fact that loving and being loved is so incredibly special, as is the opportunity to say goodbye.

We all went together to the funeral home. My mom walked in and said, “I want the plywood box, I want to be cremated, you can put it in a bag, and I want to pay the fee to do all the paperwork, so my family doesn’t have to worry about it when the time comes.” Before she died, we transferred cars, houses and money. She had a few donations she wanted to make — to the Humane Society and to Princess Margaret — and we arranged all of this while she was still here. She picked the menu for the funeral — or, as we call it, a celebration of life — and we helped her organize the slide show and pick the music. If anyone has a complaint about the teriyaki beef skewers or the asparagus tips wrapped in salmon, you’ll have to take that up with her.

I’d be lying if I said these past few months had been all “sunshine and lollipops,” but it turns out I’m a better nurse than I thought I’d be. I’ve never been able to handle needles, and I get squeamish with blood. With her, I didn’t even think about it. After she was released from hospital in January, my sister, stepdad and I had to administer most of her medications. One every four hours, another every six, IV feeding at night — there were quite a few. She had a PICC line that went right into her heart. When we put medication in it, we used a syringe and drew back blood. We had to check that there were no air bubbles. It’s a bit like becoming a parent — you just figure it out. I think I’m good under pressure, and I’ve learned I’m capable of a lot more than I thought. She taught me that.

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Leif and Lee with new baby, Kate, September 18, 1986.

Two weeks before she died, I flew to Phoenix to visit my boyfriend for the weekend. I was only there 24 hours when I got the call from my sister to come home. There were no flights. I wound up travelling for about 12 hours, not knowing if she’d still be alive when I got home. I landed in Toronto and turned on my phone to find a text message that read: “Still hanging on for you.” My aunt picked me up at the airport and we drove the two hours to Collingwood. The whole way there, I wasn’t sure if I’d get there in time to see her.

What had happened was that her morphine pump had been leaking, and she was in agony. The doctors were able to fix it, but by then she’d been taken off her IV feeding, as it was causing extreme nausea and swelling in her arms and legs. This meant that she was not eating anything at all. We were told it could be five hours or five days before she died. On the second day, she called us into the room six times to say goodbye. There was a funny moment when my stepdad said, “Did she stop breathing?” and she sat up and said “No!” We should’ve known she wasn’t going to go quietly.

For eight days, my sister and I slept outside her room. Often we would wake up and go in to check if she was breathing. I liked it when she was snoring, because then I knew she was alive. But I also knew that one day she wouldn’t be breathing. Would it be during the day? At night? My mind was spinning like a hamster wheel. My mom was going 100 miles an hour on morphine, and there were times when I felt like I couldn’t keep up with her. I would go to yoga and just want to stay lying on the floor at the end of the class. I can one hundred percent confirm that emotional exhaustion is a thing.

What was impossible to imagine, in spite of all the time we had to get used to the idea, was the reality of losing our mom, the reality of not having parents after this. My mom tried to help us with this reality as much as possible, sometimes without even realizing she was doing it. For example, on the Saturday after I’d come home from Phoenix, she made me write an email to her entire address book:

“I’m sorry to have to write this, but it’s time for me to say goodbye. It’s important to me that you know how much I valued your friendship and that I love you dearly. We’ve had so many fabulous adventures together and I hope you’ll always remember me for the fun times we shared. When I’m up in heaven, assuming I go there, I’ll try to have some adventures with Leif [our dad], Hayes, Andy, Gary and all of our other friends who have gone before me and we will keep a close eye on what you’re doing. No bad behaviour!”

The responses poured in, and we read them to her. She was proud of the impact she’d had on her friends, and felt love radiating through the words in each reply. It was beautiful. But then a few days later we ran out of toilet paper. So she wrote an email to the same group, asking if anyone was going to Costco because we needed some supplies, including toilet paper and a big brick of Parmesan cheese.

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That’s the kind of person she was. That’s what kept her alive: She never stopped. And that’s why she hung on for 10 days without food, and two without water (she’d become unable to take in fluids), before closing her eyes for the last time on May 2. Her obituary, the one she wrote herself, says: “Although her death was peaceful, we’re sure that in her mind, she kept her promise to hold on to the doorframe while yelling ‘not yet.’ ” She taught others to live large and make every day a 10, because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anyone. She inspired other patients to live by her three magic words: attitude, gratitude and hope.

The world has lost an absolutely incredible woman, mom, and friend. Nothing will ever be able to fill that void, but for today, I continue to cherish the memories I have of her, while I try to find my new normal.

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