The news that stopped my world

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

As a resident of Black Mountain and staff reporter for the local newspaper, what happens around the Swannanoa Valley matters a great deal to me. On any given day I may receive an email, message or phone call containing information that can determine what I’ll focus on in the coming hours or days.

Fred McCormick

On Dec. 12, I received a phone call that caused my life, including my normally relentless efforts to cover newsworthy events of local interest, to come to a screeching halt.

I was working on a story about the impacts of a massive snow storm the second weekend of December when my mom called. She had been experiencing painful gastrointestinal issues for much of 2018 and finally asked to be admitted to the hospital in McDowell County that day. A scan revealed a mass near her bile duct, which empties into the pancreas.

My mom, who is herself a registered nurse with a professional background in mental health and addiction counseling, has a strong understanding of medicine.

She told me in the same matter-of-fact way she’s communicated with me my entire life, that it was “probably cancer.”

The mind is a complex thing. I, like my mother, spent years working in mental health. I have just enough understanding of human psychology to know I’ll never understand it.

As mom prepared me to deal with the possibility that she was facing a legitimate worst-case scenario, my brain began to shift to covering a presentation about the proposed Blue Ridge Road interchange. That was a weird thought to have, no doubt, but I knew I needed to cover it.

I started to question my ability to focus on news and adequately support my mother during this difficult time. I worked nonstop that first weekend to finish the following week’s issue so I could help my sister process the deluge of information in the coming days.

The hospital transferred my mom to Mission in Asheville, where they could perform a procedure to find out for sure if it was cancer and provide her with some relief.

I remember thinking Dec. 13 was a tough day because I interviewed NCDOT staff about the interchange and filed a story for the issue of The Black Mountain News that would publish on Dec. 20. It was hard to focus on anything that wasn’t related to my mom.

I choked back tears throughout the day because, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep the scariest possibilities from invading my mind. Later that night, I drove through Biltmore Village for the first of 19 straight days of hospital visits.

As more and more doctors began using the word “cancer,” the focus of my world shifted as my family came up from Florida and we spent the next few weeks with my mom.

Things got tougher each day.

On Dec. 18 we learned that my mother was suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Time stood still in that little room and I cried harder than I’ve ever cried before. It felt like my heart was being pulled out of my chest.

I realized quickly that for the first time in five years I couldn’t focus on The Black Mountain News.

Perhaps nobody knows better than my wife, daughter and mom how important my job is to me. Every single event that the community enjoys collectively, I spend split between my family and the news. I go with them to parades, fireworks displays and everything else, but once there I’m taking pictures, notes and interviewing people. I almost feel lost without work.

Suddenly, I found myself unable to pry myself away from difficult conversations with doctors, nurses and case managers about my mother’s treatment and future long enough to even think about what was going on at home, let alone work. It was as if my previous life had ceased to exist and I was thrust into some new, scary world.

I turned 40 on Dec. 20. I sat in my car and cried uncontrollably as I thought about how much life was about to change and contemplated how unprepared I was for it all. I came home from the hospital that night and opened a new set of darts my wife and daughter got me for my birthday and took a few moments to appreciate everything I had.

I woke up on Dec. 21 determined to make the best of the day by finishing the Christmas shopping that had been interrupted a week earlier. That afternoon, as I was in the hospital visiting my mom and talking to doctors, my wife called me barely able to speak; it was time to put down our beloved 13-year-old yellow lab, Dozer.

Within three days I learned that my mother had a terminal illness, turned 40 and said a tearful goodbye to one of my best friends.

A few days later, my family spent Christmas at the St. Joseph’s campus of Mission Hospital gathered around a small tree that my sister and her husband brought to mom’s room. Although we smiled through the pain, I learned that there is no sadder place than a hospital hallway on Christmas.

Procedure after procedure and complication after complication kept my mother in the hospital until New Year’s Eve, when she was discharged to the care of hospice. On Jan. 1, I started trying to pick up the pieces of my old life.

The holidays may never be the same for me again, and I’m ready to throw birthdays in the trash altogether. Those 19 days, in which I spent all of my time going back and forth between listening intently to medical professionals and wishing to no avail that my life would return to the days before my mother delivered that awful news, proved to be the most difficult time of my life so far. There’s no denying tougher days will be here sooner than I’d like to think about.

Perhaps you’re one of the readers that noticed my byline missing from The Black Mountain News recently. If so, I felt obligated to tell you why, for the first time in five years, I disappeared for weeks.

If you didn’t notice, then thank you for not contributing to the enormous guilt I’ve carried for not being here to help keep my community informed about what’s happening around the Valley.

But no matter who you are, I feel compelled to share with you a thought that I haven’t been able to shake for weeks: In the blink of an eye everything can change whether you’re ready or not. Take right now to think about everything you have and be thankful for it because you never know what kind of news is on the other end of that next phone call.