Opening Words from Sun. May 13 by Michelle Simkins

Good morning. When I was asked to do opening words today I didn’t quite realize what I was agreeing to at the time . May’s theme is grief and sorrow and today is Mother’s day, and unfortunately for me those topics are intertwined. 7 years ago this month my mom passed away after losing the battle against pancreatic cancer. I wasn’t sure if I should even talk about this since my mom’s passing is still a tough topic for me to talk about even 7 years after, but given the day and circumstances I decided it was something I wanted to do.

I’m an only child and my mom and I were very close; her passing is something I consider to be one of the defining moments in my young adult life. My mom was a pharmacist as well as an artist and my father is a neurologist. I grew up with a respect for medicine and science and my parents instilled in me a desire to help people through these avenues. I currently work as an epidemiologist, but prior to this I worked as a nurse, first caring for transplant patients before moving on to pediatrics, including pediatric oncology, so dealing with cancer is something I was used to…at least as a clinician.

I can still remember the phone call from my dad like it was yesterday; I almost couldn’t believe it as her diagnosis seemed to come out of nowhere, which tends to be the case with this kind of cancer.

Given all of our clinical backgrounds we dived into formulating a treatment plan and getting multiple opinions. We all knew the reality of this diagnosis but were optimistic at first given the size and location of her tumor…….. Reality quickly took over. This included the reality of being on the other side….there was definitely an expectation of how things were supposed to go and most of the time expectations were not met….most of the time it felt like things were out of our control. This new reality also included months of failed chemo and radiation and the accompanying side effects, which slowly stole away my mom’s energy and strength.

Despite all of this my mom continued to fight month after month even after it became clear that the radiation and chemo weren’t enough. And I kept holding out hope that somehow the treatments would magically start working, despite my logical brain telling me otherwise. But after 5 months in, her oncologist told us she had run out of options, and about 2 months after that she passed away.

After this we had an outpouring of support and a lot of well-meaning people offering their prayers and saying things like “everything happens for a reason.” These kinds of statements really upset me at the time, because I don’t believe in a higher power or some grand plan that says your mom has to die….but it’s for a good reason… To us it was a case of really really bad luck.

When I think about it now, I’m still not sure if it was better to know the end was coming but to not really know how much time was left. If anything, it made the time I had with her at the end that much more meaningful. So, while today is definitely a sad day for me, I am grateful for having a role model like my mom, one of the most generous, smart, and independent women I’ve known. When I was younger I used to be afraid of turning into my mom, but now I hope I do. Thank you.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.