Warrior Mommy

When I look at the cherry tree they planted for her, I wonder if they knew it would always bloom near her birthday. The end of April is a majestic time when the last vestiges of winter are eclipsed by the beauty of spring. Watching the pink blossoms unfold, I smile, albeit wistfully. Our birthdays fall a day apart, so I can never celebrate without thinking about Mom. Much like the tree, she channeled the beauty and strength of nature.

It stands in the middle of the lawn just outside the eastern windows of the condo, a few yards from the bluff that gives way to the Sound. In 1998, they moved to Baiting Hollow, my father a retired CPA, my mother a practicing real estate attorney. After graduating from St. John’s Law School in 1980, already a mother of three children, she spent the next 18 years perfecting her craft in the public and private sectors. By the time they moved to the East End, she had her own practice, which she considered “portable,” in large part because no one knew where that precious (212) telephone number rung. She rarely ever revealed that her “base” was miles out of the city.

A love for politics drew her to the Democratic Party in Riverhead, the seed sown by her own father who served as a state assemblyman in Queens before being appointed to the New York State Supreme Court. Not surprisingly, she ran for Riverhead Town Justice …twice. Although her efforts did not win her a place on the bench, she became known in the community. Opinions varied.

Intelligent and aggressive, Mom either made stalwart friends or “acquaintances.” She was direct and blunt, characteristics many did not find charming. An equal opportunist, no one was spared her unreserved opinion. One evening, having just learned that the pittance of a raise I was offered by my law firm was retracted because they made a “mistake,” I went to my mother seeking some solace. Instead, I was told that ‘no child of mine would fail to make her yearly billing requirement.” I was instructed to get a “thicker skin” as the law firm culture would not be supportive or forgiving. Astonished at her response, I walked away, figuratively bleeding. Anger gave way to motivation, as she likely expected, and I grew a thicker skin and better billing habits.

She possessed an incredibly balanced brain, equal weight given to cognitive and creative ability. In addition to being an accomplished lawyer, evidenced by her selection as one of the top New York Women Lawyers by New York Magazine in 2008, she played the piano beautifully. Born with perfect pitch, she could play anything from Chopsticks to Rachmaninoff flawlessly. Unfortunately, she did not pass this talent along to me, although this did not deter her from trying to coax it out of me. In my pre-teen years, I took lessons from Sister Benedictus, and yes, the lessons were in a convent. While practicing a piece in preparation for my next lesson, I made a routine mistake. From the kitchen, where she could neither see the piano nor the music, she called out, “That should be a B flat.” Identifying a mistake is relatively routine; identifying the correct note without looking at music is rather rare, a fact I learned much later.

I remember her playing often, especially at parties and holidays. She would string songs together seamlessly, needing the music rarely, and then only as a guide. In the few moments when her talent was verbally cursed, the words rose from the lips of one, if not all of her children after she started playing her “Morning Medley.” This series of songs including “Morning Has Broken” and the like was used much like a sledgehammer to rouse her hungover children from their beds. And she played until we dragged ourselves downstairs for breakfast. Her devilish grin on those occasions was unmistakable.

After my father’s open-heart surgery in July 2006, their peaceful East End existence changed. Mom refocused most of her efforts on Dad. But this immersion into his life distracted her from her own. Sporadic panic attacks began to wake her at night. For a woman who was not prone to panic, I should never have accepted her answer when she attributed these attacks to stress.

Panic attacks eventually revealed themselves to be something altogether different. On the last Friday in March 2007, Mom went to the hospital emergently via ambulance. Blood tests revealed dangerously low blood cell counts. Clinicians diagnosed her with MDS – Myelodysplastic syndrome – a condition known to precede Leukemia. Although all known treatments were experimental, she found the most qualified physicians locally and nationally to advise and direct her care. Thankfully, she responded well to therapy. True to form, very few of her clients ever learned of her illness. Routinely, she would say, “If I told them I was sick, they would treat me as if I am sick.” So, she plugged along, coordinating treatments around her work schedule, all while still taking care of Dad.

In the fall, excessive bleeding prompted the performance of a colonoscopy, during which the clinicians found a colon tumor. Having just resumed a somewhat normal existence, the proverbial uppercut slammed her in the jaw, leaving her stunned. However, the lioness soon reappeared and Mom agreed to proceed with surgery. Thankfully, the tumor was removed in November 2007 without incident, but only after she stopped the experimental MDS treatments. When she resumed taking the medication, it no longer worked. And the only remaining therapy quickly proved ineffective.

She called me at work one afternoon in late July 2008, “I am having another bone marrow study.” Knowing this was her way to ask if I would drive her home, I left for the cancer treatment center immediately. What followed still reduces me to tears. I brought her back to Baiting Hollow where she crawled into bed and basically did not move for two days. She had no appetite, even though I offered every comfort food. When she had the energy, I crawled into bed next to her, much like I did when I was a child, and we talked. As a distraction, I asked where she wanted to travel when she felt better. Rome and Vienna topped the list; not a real surprise from the Irish Catholic girl who loved music.

Upon our return to the cancer center 48 hours later, Mom learned her MDS converted into Leukemia, a transition we all knew would occur, but not this quickly. Being too afraid to stay home over the weekend, Mom asked her attending physician to admit her to the hospital. Before that day, I never saw Mom display anything remotely close to fear. Although she would never have admitted it, I think she knew she had little time left, and she would be safest in the hospital. She did not want to die at home; she did not want Dad to be left with that memory.

No one knew how quickly she would decline. Being the only remaining therapy, physicians contemplated a bone marrow transplant, but all of her organs were quickly failing. Although she sat in a chair on Sunday, by Monday she could not get out of bed. On Tuesday, she could barely tolerate the necessary oxygen mask. After an episode of near unconsciousness, they moved her to intensive care and put her on a respirator. A friend of the family who is also an oncologist called through to the ICU to discuss Mom’s care with me. When I described to him how she looked and the results of her most recent blood tests, he told me “Her wheels have fallen off.” Nothing more could be done. I could not contain my grief. I fell apart as I hung up the telephone, dropping to a squat and putting my hands on the floor so I wouldn’t fall. She died the following day, Wednesday, July 30, 2008, at 3:00 p.m.

I don’t feel her spirit where she is buried; I am not moved when I visit her grave. But I do feel her strongly near the cherry tree, planted by the folks who live in the Knolls of Fox Hill to honor her involvement in the community. Sometimes I sit under the branches and just talk to her. I’ve wandered out once or twice at night in my pajamas to discuss some emotional issue with her privately. Other times I just sit, listening for her voice in the wind.

My 19 month-old son will never meet her, will never hear “Hello, sweet thing,” those loving words of welcome reserved only for her children and grandchildren. But when I see him dance, which he does with great rhythm, I think a part of her is already living on in him.

Rest in peace, Lois Farrell Phillips, my Warrior Mommy. You fought bravely and with great strength. I will miss you every day.

Until we meet again.