In 2012, things were going great for Life Blasters. We were experiencing rapid growth, set to become a Formula D media partner, and had just gotten credentialed to cover Rally America. In late September of that year, one day of the Olympus Rally was going to land on my mom’s birthday. My parents lived only a few hours from where the rally takes place, so I thought it would be a cool birthday present for me to bring her along. She had recently bought an Impreza and read the Subaru magazine when it came each month, so she was keeping up with David Higgins and his success in Rally America. She was excited to go watch.
The plan was for me to drop her off at various spectator areas while I headed out to media-only areas. Unfortunately, there was extreme fire danger that year and so spectators would not be allowed on the stages. I contacted Rally America and arranged for her to have a volunteer position on stage, where she could still watch the racing. I know, putting your mom to work on her birthday might sound mean, but she was nevertheless excited to do it. If that was the only way to watch, so be it.
I flew up to Washington a week early to hang out with the family before the rally started. A few days before it was time to go, my mom felt sick. She would get bad heartburn occasionally, but this was a little different. Maybe it was food poisoning. She had diarrhea a few times the first day, even more times the next day, and by the third day she couldn’t go more than an hour without a trip to the restroom. I had to go to the rally by myself. I had to tell Rally America that after the favor they’d done for me by getting my mom a volunteer position that she couldn’t make it.
When I came back three days later, she was well again, so we didn’t think anything of it. I flew back to California as my next gig was Formula D Irwindale in the first half of October.
As I was driving back home from Los Angeles after the event, my mom called me to see if I was home. She asked me to call her back whenever I did get home. When I finally was home and unpacking, she called me again. I wondered what was so urgent. She told me her symptoms had returned and she had some tests done to find out what it was. It was Stage 4 squamous-cell carcinoma of the rectum. In other words, she had cancer.
The day was October 14, 2012. My wife Chet was five months pregnant. Daigo Saito had just become the first rookie to win the Formula D championship. The Giants were playing the Cardinals and on their way to the World Series. Obama and Romney were on the homestretch of their election campaigns. My mom had cancer.
My first thought was that it had something to do with the gastric bypass surgery she’d had the previous winter, or the fact that she was a smoker for 40 years and had only quit five or ten before this. She’d brought those points up too, but the doctors were certain this was unrelated. They also assured her that even though her cancer was Stage 4, this particular kind was easy to treat. With some chemo, some radiation, and some drugs, she’d have a 90% chance of kicking it within a few months. We were naturally worried, but had to believe the doctors had some idea what they were doing. Over the next few months, my mom went through her treatments, which she described as one of the worst experiences she’d ever had, particularly the radiation. The radiation left burns on her skin, so I can only imagine what it did to her insides. Chemo is well known to affect a cancer patient’s brain functions for a little while after treatment, and she was no exception. She was on drugs that made her feel both better and worse. Lorazepam made her crazy. She had wild dreams and could barely function when she was awake. It made her confused and apathetic and totally unable to take care of herself. Somehow in the confusion of getting discharged from the hospital, neither of my parents got the message that my mom would be severely dehydrated from the treatment. That, coupled with continued diarrhea her first night home, almost killed her. Luckily my dad recognized the signs and made her drink as much water as she could handle. He likely saved her life that day.
Chet is an elementary school teacher, so during her Christmas break we would always visit my parents, who would either be at their own house or in Hawaii every other year. We went to Hawaii with them in 2008 and 2010 and were planning to go again in 2012. My mom needed her treatments done though, so we had to cancel that trip and went up to Washington to visit instead. This was the first time we’d seen my mom since we got the news. She was mostly bald from the chemo and a little goofy from the chemo and drugs. She was sorry for her condition, but we insisted that it didn’t matter and what was important was that we were together. Some family friends came to visit. Some were unsure how to act or what to say around her. I suppose that’s normal.
My daughter was born on February 19, 2013 and we named her Katharine Antonia, after my mom, Antonia Katharine, and her mom, Katharine Mae. My mom was recovering from her final round of chemo and radiation at the time, and she and my dad flew down to see their first granddaughter two weeks later. My mom was pretty weak and on a few of her medications, but decided to forgo the Lorazepam so she could be coherent during the visit. She got tired easily and needed a lot of sleep so we couldn’t hang out as much as we would have liked and we couldn’t go do any fun tourist activities. Despite all of this, we considered ourselves a happy family and she was thrilled that Chet and I were able to give her a grandchild. It was very important to her.
In April, my mom went to the clinic for a PET scan so the doctors could know the results of the treatments. I was at the post-qualifying driver’s meeting at Formula D Long Beach when she called to tell me the news. Since she told me she had cancer on my way back from the last round of the 2012 season, I thought it would be fitting for her to tell me she was cancer free at the first round of the 2013 season. That wasn’t the case though. They had found a spot on her liver that was likely another tumor. She said that 80% of someone’s liver could be removed before it impacted its functionality too much. This was also a common and routine operation and the doctors had full confidence in its success. My mom wasn’t so sure. In fact, she was convinced she was going to die on the operating table, so she scheduled the surgery to take place in a few weeks so she could take my dad on a vacation to Hawaii in the meantime. They’d had their honeymoon in Hawaii and had gone back several times since then and had been planning to move there before she got sick. It was a special place for them.
The surgery went flawlessly and they followed up with more chemo and more drugs just in case. A few months later they did another scan and it was clean. Could it be that she’d finally beaten it? This was definitely good news. The doctors had her continue chemotherapy just to make sure the cancer stayed away.
I went to visit that July with Chet and Katharine. We’d been visiting my parents every July anyway since I had to be in Washington for Formula D Seattle. It was Katharine’s first time in Washington and first time staying an extended time away from home, but she did well. My mom was happy we were there and seemed healthy enough. She even wanted to show me her surgery scar.
When Katharine turned six months old in August, we started having her FaceTime with my mom during lunch. She would sit in her high chair and eat pureed vegetables as my mom would sing songs to her and ask her questions, encouraging her to talk more. It was important to my mom that Katharine and she had the best relationship they could in hopes that Katharine would remember her if she didn’t make it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these FaceTime sessions were important to me too since we lived nearly 900 miles apart and only got to see each other a few times a year.
In early September my mom had a follow-up scan and it was still clean. It looked like whatever the doctors were doing was working. They still wanted to continue chemo, but finally my mom’s life started to get back to normal. It had been almost a year since she first showed symptoms of the cancer. She had retired in the summer of 2011 and my dad had retired in the fall of 2012, so this was the first time they got a chance to be a normal retired couple. They went on a camping trip. They spent days doing nothing. They gave each other kayaks for their birthdays (my dad’s birthday is in September as well) and had days on the lake.
In October my parents flew down for my birthday. I think my mom just wanted an excuse to see Katharine though, which was fine by me. She even sewed Katharine’s first Halloween costume. I was thankful to have any time to spend with her in person. By all observations, there was nothing wrong with my mom. She wore a wig because chemo was keeping her bald, but it was a good quality wig. She even fooled herself half the time.
That Christmas, Chet, Katharine, and I flew up to Washington. This was Katharine’s first Christmas and the five of us were together as a family. My mom was healthy and in good spirits, in stark contrast to the previous Christmas. She only had a few symptoms of chemo brain, and after we watched the Lone Ranger we jokingly started calling her Chemosabe.
We had our fingers crossed but knew she wasn’t completely cured yet. The key was living five years. If she made it that far she was not likely to have the cancer reappear. I’m convinced our FaceTime sessions kept Katharine familiar with my parents, as whenever they came down or we went up, she never protested them holding her and she actually enjoyed seeing them. Say what you will about kids and technology, but I think it was wise to have been doing that.
In January of 2014 my mom did another round of Chemo. She was recovering at home in February when the Seattle Seahawks won their first Superbowl. I’m glad she got to see that. As a life long Washingtonian, sports championships are few and far between. The last team to have won a championship was the Sonics in 1979 and the Mariners have never done it. She brought me a Seahawks shirt when she flew down for Katharine’s first birthday a few weeks later, as Seahawks stuff is not common anywhere in 49ers country, their rival team. We had a great time, even though she was on her meds and not quite recovered from her last chemo sessions. She was just happy she’d lived to see Katharine’s first birthday.
In April, my mom had another scan done and this time they found more spots on her liver. The doctors were beginning to notice that my mom kept getting beaten by the odds that were supposed to be in her favor. Squamous-cell carcinoma was an unlikely cancer to get, and easy to fix if one did get it. Liver surgery was routine with a very high probability of success. And each time, her cancer came back. Since half of her liver was already gone and her tissue hadn’t yet completely healed, the doctors decided they’d take care of these tumors with a less intrusive and more precise kind of operation. The name escapes me. She also needed another full round of chemo.
While my mom was still recovering, my parents went to Hawaii again, for what my dad thought might be the last time. They were there for about six weeks and spent time on both the Big Island and Kauai. We continued the FaceTime sessions and my mom sent gifts to Katharine, including an Easter basket.
In early June my mom had another scan done. Her liver was clean but they discovered spots on her lymph nodes. We were really getting tired of squashing the cancer in one place only to have it show up somewhere else. The doctors were clueless about what was happening, calling her a unique case they’d never seen before. I kept thinking back to the gastric bypass. The doctors had literally no data on people who’d gotten squamous-cell carcinoma and had also had gastric bypass. Maybe it really was unrelated, but it was frustrating not knowing why these supposedly easy and virtually guaranteed operations weren’t working.
She started chemo again on June 24, the day I left for Pikes Peak. I didn’t bother with getting the daily report. I was used to how chemo goes by then. I knew someone would call me if there was important news. I got back from Colorado on the 30th, and on July 1st I was back on the routine. At Katharine’s lunch, we started a FaceTime call. My mom informed me that her legs were paralyzed and she couldn’t walk. A few days before that, she’d started up the stairs to go to bed, and her legs had given out. Luckily she was only on the first step, and she fell down into the kitchen with no feeling below her abdomen. My dad carried her to bed in the downstairs guest room, and that’s where she’d been sleeping since then. She called her doctors to see what they had to say about it, but being doctors they were busy with other things. During our FaceTime call, my dad was talking about going to rent a wheelchair and building some temporary wheelchair ramps around the house when their phone rang. It was one of the doctors, telling her to call 911 and get to the Emergency Room as soon as possible. I ended the call and let them focus on that.
I called my dad later that day to see what the story was. The doctors had determined that there were a few small tumors in her brain and a large tumor in her spinal column, keeping her from using her lower body. The doctors said the cancer moving through the blood-brain barrier was nearly impossible and that’s why they’d never checked for it before. But as we’d seen with everything else, my mom’s cancer was doing the most improbable thing every time. The doctors said there was nothing that could be done about these tumors and gave her four weeks to live. The tumors would continue to grow and either her brain would lose control of her organs and she’d die or it would cease to function altogether and she’d die. Plus her lymph nodes hadn’t been completely treated, so that could play into it too.
That was pretty bad news and it hit us all pretty hard. Suddenly I understood why my mom had been making such an effort to FaceTime with Katharine every day and fly down to see us as often as she could. In her own way, she was Life Blasting. If this was the end, I had no regrets about not spending enough time with her, even if it was only over an iPad. I checked my schedule. I was supposed to be writing my Pikes Peak story and editing photos that week, then going to Gatebil in Norway the week after. When I got back from Norway the following week, it would be time for our regular July trip to Washington. Out of the four weeks she had left, I could be with my mom during her final two. I would be working three of those days but the remainder was wide open for family time. It would have to do.
As I was packing for Norway on July 7th, my mom called with an update from the doctors. They did a more in-depth scan and found that there were many more tumors than they’d originally thought. They were now saying that she could die any day. I wondered how accurate that timeline was. Was that the short estimate or the long estimate? What was possible wasn’t always what was probable. She wanted us to come up immediately, but I was supposed to go to Norway the next day. I’d obviously have to skip that trip if I went to Washington. I’d lose the money I’d spent on the ticket, forfeit the money I was going to make by going there, and lose some of my credibility, which would without a doubt be completely worth it if she only had days to live. I spent a few hours on the phone with my mom discussing the pros and cons of us going up there, and we decided we should go. I would eventually be able to recover from a financial setback, but I’d never forgive myself if she died while I was on the other side of the world. I also realized I had gone through several stages of the grieving process.
Even when she was first diagnosed, I think that’s when the grieving began. It started with denial: “The doctors can fix it; it’s easy. It will be okay. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to us.” We were frustrated with the doctors who let the cancer keep coming back. That was anger. Bargaining was next. “Maybe she’d get better if we made her get on the anti-cancer diet. Maybe it was okay if she died now because she’d had a good life and got to see me grow up, graduate from college, get married, and give her a granddaughter.” I’m not sure if I went through depression. That could be because I’m always so busy or because we were in constant communication, always discussing the details of her illness or my work or what was going on in the news.
My bag was already packed but instead of getting a ride to the airport I was loading my stuff in my Pathfinder. Earlier that day Chet and Katharine had gone up to Chet’s family’s house in Redding to spend the week I was supposed to be in Norway, so I’d have to pick them up on the way to Washington. Chet already had all of Katharine’s travel stuff with her so I didn’t have to pack that. When I was ready to go, I found myself stalling. I was checking to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I was calling my dad to update him on my time of departure. Finally I understood. Once I started the engine and rolled out of the driveway, that meant I would be at the acceptance stage. I would be accepting the fact that my mom was going to die, and I didn’t want to do that.
I did it anyway.
Up to this point I hadn’t told anyone my mom had gotten cancer. It’s not so much that it was a secret, but it was just something they didn’t need to know. I also didn’t want or need the pity I would inevitably get, or have to talk about it with anyone, especially while I was trying to work. I had all the support I needed coming from within the family. However, now that I was missing a work trip, I had to explain why. I had to tell Geoff, who was my ride to the airport, that I wasn’t going anymore. I had to tell Joe and Justin, whom I’d be meeting up with in Norway, that I wouldn’t be coming. Egil and Magnus, who live in Norway, had to know that I wouldn’t be coming. While on my drive up to Washington, Lars from Team Yellow asked if I could bring a box of T shirts with me. Even Fredric Aasbø himself was excited that I would be there, but I had to let everyone down. I had to tell everyone involved with all of those things that my mom was dying of brain cancer.
It’s a 15 hour drive from my house to the hospital where my mom was, plus stopping to pick up Chet and Katharine. Since I was leaving at 9 P.M. I’d probably need to pull over for a nap too, so I estimated that it would take 17 hours, putting us there at 2 P.M. the next day. At 2:10, the three of us showed up at the hospital. Katharine was excited to see her grammy. My job was to gather all of my mom’s financial account user names and passwords so I could pay off and cancel her credit cards and stop automatic payments for things when it was time. I would also be able to monitor her bank accounts. This had to be done quickly while she could still remember what all of her accounts were.
We expected her to die in the hospital, but her condition stabilized and she was sent home on July 10th. I was really happy about that. She loved the house and its fantastic view of Saratoga Passage and incredible sunsets almost every night. From her room in the hospital, there were no sunsets at all. We had a home medical equipment company bring a hospital bed to the house so she could stay in the living room and a caregiver lady would come out every night to help with cleaning her up, administering her 2 A.M. meds, and making her breakfast in the morning. My dad was very stressed out by the whole ordeal and the nightly caregiver relieved some of that stress by taking over enough duties for him to get some sleep.
We settled into a routine. Chet and Katharine played while I worked on finishing my Pikes Peak story, which had been getting delayed. My dad took care of the house, and my mom laid in the hospital bed in the living room, taking a constant stream of visitors. Family and friends who hadn’t been to the house in years were coming by for one last chat. Chet cooked dinner every night after Katharine went to bed, sometimes just for us, and sometimes for guests too. The atmosphere was happy and sad at the same time. Katharine learned to walk while we were there.
The medical equipment company also provided a wheelchair, and while it was difficult for my dad to get her out of the bed and into the chair, I think it was good for my mom to be able to get outside once in a while. She had loved to sit on the deck during the warm months and read a book while enjoying the view and a cold drink, so she didn’t want to miss out on one of her favorite ways to relax just because she couldn’t walk.
The wheelchair also enabled us to pose for one last family portrait. It’s really hard to take a good self family portrait when you have a baby and are using a remote shutter release, but we had fun.
The next week, it was time for Formula D Seattle, so I spent three days doing that and then it was back to the routine. Then we were faced with a dilemma: Chet and I had planned on spending two weeks in Washington, and we’d already passed that mark. We’d also planned on being in Washington until the end of the month, which was more than a week away. We were paying a cat sitter while we were gone so the longer we stayed the more that cost. We were also short on cash because I’d missed the Norway trip. Was it important to actually be there when my mom died? Since she was in a stable condition, would it be better if we went back to California sooner so I could fly back up to Washington by myself? We decided we’d leave the next day. It was a terribly sad good-bye, as it might have been the last time I ever saw my mom.
Back in California we were on FaceTime every day and Katharine loved it. I got to shoot the first ever drift event on Thunderhill West, Chet and I had our seventh anniversary, and then I flew back up to Washington. My mom was still stable and I got to see her again. Since her legs were still paralyzed, she gave me her Impreza.
The Impreza is a special car in this story, as it’s tied up in why she’d wanted to go to the Olympus Rally in the first place. If she’d never gotten that car, she wouldn’t have wanted to go, and she wouldn’t have had to cancel because she was sick. I had put a big Life Blasters sticker on the back window and drove that car to the rally and on the stages. It was parked at the finish of Nahwatzel on the second day, and David Higgins couldn’t have missed seeing it there as he exited the stage. My mom thought that was too cool. I brought the car back to her completely covered in legitimate rally dirt. My dad didn’t think that was very responsible of me, but my mom thought it was awesome. The only condition for her giving me the Impreza was that I sell my Pathfinder and put the money into a college fund for Katharine. I couldn’t say no to that.
A nurse had been coming to check on my mom once a week and take her vital signs and answer questions. I overheard my mom ask the nurse what would happen if she stopped taking her meds. She sounded like she wanted to hurry the process along and get it over with. She was bored and in pain and it would only get worse. The nurse assured her that the meds were not prolonging her life, but only making the life she had more comfortable. My mom sounded disappointed to hear that.
My parents’ money was dwindling fast. The caregivers weren’t covered by insurance and they were costing $3700 every two weeks, and we’d only expected to need them for one of those two week blocks. By the time we got to four weeks, my mom’s condition was still stable but there wasn’t enough money to keep the workers coming, so I started a GoFundMe. I didn’t think my dad would approve of asking for money, so I did it without telling him. I was hesitant to start it, because I would be telling every single one of my Facebook friends that my mom was dying. But if that’s what it took to keep the caregivers, then that’s what I needed to do. I don’t know how much money I honestly expected to raise, but I set a goal of $10,000. Within minutes, Ken Stouffer donated $100. His own mom died of cancer fairly recently so he knew what I was going through. Within an hour the total was up to $1000. I had friends calling me and sending me messages left and right and the money kept pouring in. The donations were coming in too fast for me to see all the names. I’m sorry if I didn’t thank everyone, but believe me, your contributions were appreciated. We hit $3000 the next day. My dad was amazed that anyone would donate money, let alone that many people donating that much. Of course the donating eventually slowed down. I drove the Impreza back down to California and the total for the GoFundMe got to around $7500. With $1500 in contributions through other channels, we were only $1000 shy of the goal. The money paid for another month of the caregivers and then it was gone again. We didn’t want to ask for more, and my dad was confident that he could take over, so he cancelled the service.
I’ve often thought about the fact that we had to resort to asking for donations after they had taken two trips to Hawaii. The trips seemed a little irresponsible in retrospect, but at the time we weren’t aware that this kind of expense existed. Besides, even if they’d saved that Hawaii money it wouldn’t have covered all of the bills.
It was lonely at the house without Chet, Katharine, and myself there and without the caregivers there every night. It was lonely, but peaceful. Finally.
It was September, and my mom wasn’t supposed to have even made it to August. What was going on? Her condition continued to be stable. I could have easily done the Norway trip and still spent plenty of time with her. But, based on the knowledge we had at the time, I think it was still the right decision to skip it. I went to a weird place psychologically. I had already completed the grieving process but she hadn’t even died yet. Because of the timeline set by the doctors, I finished way too early and found myself just waiting for the inevitable to happen. Whenever I heard of someone dying in an accident or getting murdered I thought about how their lives had ended in an instant. It seemed weird to me that my mom’s death was a process spanning years. When the doctors declared her to be terminal, we all felt a whirlwind of emotions, but when she continued to be stable week after week, long after her projected death date had passed, I suppose we became complacent. We went about our business. Chet went back to work, my dad painted the living room, I continued traveling for work and working on my motorcycle whenever I had time, and Katharine started swimming lessons. All the little things in life that get put on hold during a crisis were returning to their normal states.
Practical concerns were also coming up. What if my mom made it to Thanksgiving? What if she made it to Christmas? What if she didn’t? Would Chet and Katharine and I fly to Washington or would my dad fly to California by himself? It’s impossible to make those plans with that kind of variable in the way. Or course I was extremely grateful she was still with us, but it was frustrating not knowing how long she still had. The complacency made us think she’d be exactly the same forever, but in the backs of our minds we knew she’d die sooner rather than later. I felt like I couldn’t take any new gigs, in case I suddenly had to go to her funeral. I made sure my dad knew when the next two rounds of Formula D were. The doctors were no help. They’d basically given up trying to figure her out.
My mom’s birthday came again. She had made it to 64 years old, two years since her first symptoms. But then things finally started to change. She was sleeping longer and she was less sharp when she was awake. Some signs were subtle. She and I used to be pretty evenly matched at Words with Friends, but then I started beating her every time. Eventually it became more obvious. There was going to be a Seahawks game one Sunday and she wondered what kind of game they were going to play. Football, Mom. The Seahawks play football.
By October it was impossible to have a conversation with her. She still recognized Katharine and was happy to see her during our daily FaceTime sessions, but it was so hard listening to the nonsense she was saying. One day I bought Katharine one of those tiny pumpkins. She was playing with it, saying, “punki! punki!” and my mom replied, “Yea, that’s Punky the Rainbow. You better catch him before he gets away!” I knew the end was near. My dad said she was barely eating. He had to start cutting fruit into small slivers and putting them in her mouth when she lost control of her arms. He had to dissolve her meds in water and squirt the fluid into her mouth. I remember thinking that this was the time we should have had the caregivers. The doctors really, really missed the mark on her life expectancy, causing us to make our sacrifices and use up our resources at the beginning of this stage, leaving us depleted when we needed them the most.
I bought a new black suit on a day that was convenient to me, and that was the day she died. My dad called to tell me at 9 P.M. on Wednesday, October 22, 2014. Katharine was 20 months old. The Giants were in the World Series again. People everywhere were scared of Ebola. My mom was dead.
My dad was by her side, as were her sisters Teri and Margaret.
With death finally happening, I find myself starting the grieving process over again, though I think it’s easier since it had been two years in the making. For me anyway, it’s softened the blow. I knew it was coming. I’d already accepted that it was going to happen, and that makes it easier to accept that it did happen. I look back at the last two years and I can honestly say I have no regrets. I’m happy with the way I handled my end of things even as I’m still frustrated with the doctors and their seeming indifference. I am a little worried that Katharine will eventually forget my mom. I guess my mission now is to keep telling her stories and showing her photos and videos of my mom often enough until the memory sticks permanently on its own. That’s the least I can do.