Ten Years Gone
Today marks the 10th anniversary of my mother's death. Technically, she passed away around 1 am on March 5, 2007, but today it has been ten years since her last full day with us after succumbing to a five-month battle with lung cancer.
Josephine Delores Marranco was born on August 31, 1948 in Buffalo, NY. She graduated from Grover Cleveland High School where she was a sorority member and made life-long friends. She worked for National Fuel immediately after high school, until she got married and became a stay-at-home mom. She was beloved by all who knew her- a devoted wife, a strict, but loving mother and an excellent cook. My favorite dishes of hers included sloppy joes, meatloaf, corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day and of course, her sauce (which was sweeter and tastier than her mother's) and pasta. But she was an even better baker. She made mouth-watering chocolate pie, sour cream chocolate chip cookies and Texas sheet cake- for a number of years she even made professional-quality decorative cakes for various holidays and special occasions.
Besides her big Italian family and her prowess in the kitchen, the aspect that truly sets her apart was her love of children. In the late 1970s, a teacher who lived down the street adopted a young girl from El Salvador and asked my mom if she could watch her. My mom said yes, and little did she know at the time that it would be the start of her life's vocation. During the 1980s and '90s, her informal day care center grew by word of mouth as teachers, lawyers and health care workers all dropped off their kids at my parents' house during the work day. Then when my father retired after 37 years as a psychiatric nurse, they decided to expand the business by converting the upstairs apartment into "Josie and Pete's Playhouse." Over the course of nearly 30 years my mom did not just care for, but helped raise dozens of children, and she loved every minute of it (well maybe not quite- dealing with bed wetting, particularly messy diapers, and sick or screaming babies is not fun- but certainly the lion's share, and I know she would not have changed a thing).
Then came the October Surprise. One week after the historic snow storm of Oct. 12-13, 2007 that destroyed or damaged thousands of trees in the Buffalo area when two feet of heavy, wet snow fell onto the still-full canopy of leaves, my mother received word that she had lung cancer. My family was shocked by the diagnosis because though she had smoked cigarettes for about ten years starting in high school, she had successfully quit and been smoke-free for 30 years, which greatly reduces the odds of lung cancer. I was so surprised, I asked the doctor whether there could be another diagnosis, in particular tuberculosis can have many of the same symptoms and have a similar presentation as lung cancer. But no, all the tests performed indicated malignancy.
My mom fought hard to try to beat the disease. She received chemotherapy at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. By Thanksgiving, she lost her hair and wore a wig. She gradually became weaker and required constant oxygen. Eventually she could not walk up stairs and my father had to watch the kids to keep the day care center going. I was working in Baltimore at the time, though I never wanted to leave my hometown, especially while my mom was so ill. When she informed me that the cancer had spread to her spine, I knew there was nothing doctors could do for her. I resigned from my job and scrambled to move back to Buffalo for what I thought would be the last month or two of her life. But when I returned home, I was shocked to see how rapid her condition had declined. She was laboring with every breath and had lost a significant amount of weight. It was obvious she did not have much time left. Even so I am grateful at least that I was able to be there for her final day on Earth, to tell her I loved her and she was the most important person in my life. That night, barely 30 hours after I drove back from Baltimore, she took her last breath and passed away in the hospice bed installed the previous afternoon, in the living room of the house she called home for 37 years surrounded by her husband and two sisters (I was actually asleep on her bed at the time- awaken suddenly by the sound of my father weeping as he clung to her expired body). She was taken from us at age 58- much too young, and my father in particular, was never the same.
So why did she die so young? I want to avoid a drawn-out philosophical or theological discussion about the unfairness of life or why good people often pass away seemingly before their time is up. I am not going to argue with God or cry over the injustice of premature deaths. As a scientist/medical school graduate, however, I blame second-hand smoke. You see, my mother was an avid bingo player- she often played two or three times a week going back to the 1970s. Before 2003 when New York State implemented its public indoor smoking ban, bingo halls were notoriously clouded with cigarette smoke. She spent decades breathing in toxic, carcinogenic fumes while enjoying her favorite pastime. While there is no way to prove or definitively link any single case of cancer with second-hand smoke, the more one inhales, the greater the odds, and in my heart and mind I'll always believe that was the cause of her passing.
Indeed it boggles my well-educated mind that anybody these days, after all that is now known about the many harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke and the various diseases linked to this destructive habit, starts smoking. Thanks to public smoking bans and reduced rates of smoking following years of educational programs and advances in smoking cessation aids, the exposure to both primary and secondary cigarette smoke has decreased dramatically, which will eventually result in significant declines in smoking-related cancers, emphysema, asthma, heart disease and other maladies. If you currently smoke and want to quit, I encourage you to do whatever you can- cold turkey, nicotine gum or patch, pharmaceutical suppressants or even hypnotherapy- to stop partaking in the leading cause of preventable death before it is too late. My mom would whole-heartedly agree and second that endorsement.