Heading Home

Kage Baker really fought during that last bout of therapy.

She didn’t even do it for herself. She did it for Anne and her girls, for her readers, for the dozen ideas she still had in her head. She did it for all the people who were waiting for her, who needed something from her. She did it for me. But in her own heart, Kage came to terms with her dying days before anyone else.

We were staying in a hotel, on the flats of Pismo – so we could get her in and out of the bed and the car, and to her daily doctor appointments. We were right next to the sea, which was great. The weather was … odd. Torrential rain, then wind, then heat. More rain. She got weaker and weaker; I was lifting her into the wheelchair and the car, and the therapists came out to meet us every day to carry and wheel her into the office. She really, really tried – never gave up at all, never demurred or refused. She couldn’t sit up unassisted, but she cracked jokes while we moved her.

I was the one who lost it all, finally. She wasn’t getting better. I couldn’t tell how much was due to the rigours of therapy – which gets horribly debilitating after a while – and apparently neither could anyone else. There were a lot of blank looks and shrugs and spread hands … no one wanted to be the one to make the call.

Finally, after a day carrying Kage to therapies through a vertical flood of rain, I left a message for her oncologist  (Dr. Palchak, a wonderful man who resembled the operative Lewis) telling him I thought she was sinking, begging for something to help. When he called me to tell me he was one his way to our hotel – that he was making a house call – I just sat on the floor and wept. Doctors don’t make house calls … Kage tried to comfort me, but she fell asleep. The day’s perambulations had been too much for her.

When Dr. Palchak arrived, he was gentle and kind. But he didn’t offer us euphemisms or prevarications – he never had, through the whole horrible process. It was just that, before, there had always been some hope. But what he brought us that night were Kage’s latest imaging results.

The tumour in her brain was shrinking, again. But now there were masses in her lungs, in her gut, in her liver … Dr. Palchak said he had never seen a cancer move so fast, so inexorably, and I have never heard a real doctor in such despair. They had done everything they could, and Kage had responded well to everything – except that the cancer kept spreading, like a hydra. Knock it back in one place, and it sprang back in three others.

“So how do we handle this?” asked Kage, with really astonishing calm.

“Hospice care. It’s time to get peaceful and comfortable,” said Dr. Palchak, and I swear Kage’s face actually lit up.

“No more hospitals, though,” she said. And anyone who knew her also knew that tone of voice – she would not be dissuaded or denied.

So, no. No more hospitals. There wasn’t one, anyway. In San Luis Obispo County, they don’t have the facilities for actual hospices. Instead, there is a 24-hour system of nurses and physicians who make house calls; who are available on the phone at all hours; who will come and stay with the dying if they have no one else. And if they do have someone, they will make all these resources available to that care-giver, so the patient’s last days are as comfortable as possible.

For us, it was perfect. It meant I could take Kage home. It meant she could lie in her own bed, looking at her treasures, seeing the light on the sea from her own window. No strangers, no strangeness. No more tests and therapies; all comforts she could want, in a place she loved.

Good deal. The only drawback was, it meant she was dying.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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8 Responses to Heading Home

  1. Many years ago in the 70’s my uncle was dying of cancer. A fast moving, freaky kind back in the stone age when treatments were few and far between. He was a vet and was in the VA hospital. My Dad busted him out. Took him for a “visit” and never returned him. That way he could die in his bed, surrounded by his family, friends, his things and see the tress outside the window. It’s a much better way when you are getting ready to make your journey back home. How sad to lose her and how comforting you were there to make things better for her.

  2. Kate says:

    One of the things this year has taught me is that no one should die in a hospital if it can be avoided. People should die at home (or wherever it is that they want to be), doing as much of what they want as it’s possible to achieve.

    I’ve also learned that it is appallingly easy to break someone out of a hospital. But that is the story of another adventure …

  3. Tom says:

    Kage once told me, in an e-mail, that she most feared dying unknown and forgotten.

    Whatever it cost you, Kate, you didn’t let that happen.

  4. Kate says:

    Not me. Kage accomplished that herself. The letters just poured in, when it was known she was ill. And she got to know for certain sure that her life had been worthwhile. She worked hard at that!

  5. Carol Light says:

    Kathleen, I don’t know you (except through these wondeful postings of yours) and I never knew Kage (though she did acknowledge a fan email I sent her once).

    But I do know your life, too, has been and is worthwhile. You were the most wonderful sister anyone could wish for or imagine and your honesty and bravery in sharing these memories with us is deeply touching. Somehow, hearing how you and Kage faced those terrible days with love and hope is helpful to those of us who lost or came very near to losing our sisters of the heart, too.

    Thank you for sharing these memories with us. And, please, please, take some time and attention and give yourself the time, space, and caring you’ve shown Kage and are now showing us.


  6. Luisa Puig Duchaineau says:

    Kathleen, I know you are a strong and practical person. “Can do,” is as much a part of your DNA, as the color of your eyes, and your wonderful resourcefulness.

    These current blog entries are *terrific* – an honest story told in a fabulous way. Your knack for writing, the rhythm (sp) of the words, the clear imagery, and the clarity with which you describe people like Dr. P (I swear, I could *see* him!) is just wonderful.

    Thank you, again, for your courage in publicly publishing these painful days. From the comments above, you can see that you are not only relating *your* story, and Kage’s story; you are also relaying the story of life, the end of life, and the aftermath of the survivors. SargentSpeaks and Carol Light and myself, too: we recognize the truth as you experienced it, and as you relate it. It brings tears to my eyes, and yet there is an even bigger gift you are sharing here:

    Your are giving us ‘Catharsis.’ Hearing you tell the tale of last January brings to mind my journey with caring for my mom in her last days, SargentSpeaks for her uncle, and heaven only knows for how many unknown others who read but do not comment.

    Thank you for this service. Thank you for helping me heal from my loss. And thank you so much, for all you did for Kage.

  7. Medrith says:

    What they said!

  8. MCMC says:

    Amen to the above. We lost my mother last June, and we still grieve for ourselves; but we’re all overwhelmed with joy that, when it was finally clear that there were no more medical interventions that would do anything beyond just keeping her alive, she won the argument with my father and her doctors and said she was going home. And although she sadly died three days later, she did it on her terms – in the house where she’d live for the past 47 years, in her own room, looking out the window at her favorite mulberry tree, with her family in attendance. I think being able to die at home in peace, surrounded by loved ones and familiar treasures, is the epitomy of “a good death” – and that was what you made possible for Kage. How blessed both of you were to have each other as sisters and friends.

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