A Mother’s Lesson
Finding Hope in the Deepest Despair
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 16:10
Unless you are color blind, you have probably noticed the sea of pink that paints everything from merchandise on store shelves, to KFC buckets of chicken, to NFL players’ jerseys. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is upon us. For better or for worse, this is the time of year we are inundated with pink ribbon fever.
I could write about my opinion about how pink ribbon fever often benefits companies more than breast cancer prevention and research. I could write about how the awareness approach is reductionist and risks oversimplification of a very complex disease.
But this article is not about that. This is not that time, nor that place. Instead, this is article is about my mom, whose thick hair was beginning to fall out in clumps from chemotherapy as breast cancer awareness commercials flooded the TV three years ago. This is about my mom, who has shoulder length hair now and remains cancer free.
My mom is amazing, resilient and courageous. Three years ago, breast cancer tried to strip her vibrancy away. My memories of this are hazy, faded in the rearview of my memory. Yet, in still meditative mornings like this when I watch the sun illuminate the horizon, the blurry past sharpens into focus.
August 2009. My dad was 8,000 miles away on a deployment in Djibouti, Africa. My mom called to explain a routine biopsy she needed to do and asked me to come home to Bismarck for it. Doctors said the chances of cancer were slim.
The day of the biopsy, I gripped my mother’s fragile, tiny hand as she faded away under anesthesia. My sisters and I sprawled across the drab waiting room. Our spirits sagged with the chairs we sat on. The room was heavy with the weight of worrying, wondering, anxious, jagged anticipation and raw emotion. Finally, we were called back to the operating room for results.
The door opened slowly and I swear I could tell by the hesitant cadence of the doctor’s feet and the way the med student averted her eyes that he had bad news. The doctor has probably seen oceans of tears but I can’t imagine it gets any easier to tell families their loved one has cancer.
The facts: My mom was diagnosed with an invasive type of ductal and lobular breast cancer that spread to her lymph nodes. She needed a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy.
The reality: I did not yet grasp the magnitude of the pain my mom and my family would experience. You simply cannot understand cancer until you have grasped your loved one’s hand while the doctor utters the dreaded words, until you have seen the strongest woman in your life fade underneath the weight of the disease. The reality was that my dad heard the news nine time zones, three continents and two boxes of Kleenex away. Luckily, the army was able to give him medical leave and my dad returned home to be by my mom’s side.
If you have experienced these emotions of having a loved one with cancer, I feel for you. I write for you. You understand how it consumes you. You understand the anger, the grief, the hopelessness, the sadness. We wanted to take away my mom’s pain and we could not. Those emotions can gnaw at you, but in those times I realized more than ever we could brood not and feel sorry for ourselves. Not an option.
Instead, my family and I wiped her tears, listened to her, supported her and teased her about what a stubborn patient she was because of her fierce independence. For example, the first day home after her mastectomy, we had to play tug of war with her dishes so she would let us help her.
Though we teased her about being a difficult patient, my mom taught us lessons in courage, strength and humor. After losing her hair, she joked about how she was happy to not have to shave her legs anymore. She refused to stop living life. The day of a chemotherapy treatment, she still drove three hours to see my graduation. Years later when I think of unconditional love, I remember that day.
I also remember the small victories along her path towards healing. I think of the first baby soft, curly tufts of hair that emerged from her scalp and walking around the block a few times and seeing her face begin to flush again. Large victories were there too, like bidding good riddance to cancer and seeing her inspirational key note speech at the breast cancer walk in Bismarck.
Cling to those victories. Let them guide you. This is dedicated to my mom and the other brave women, mothers, daughters, sisters, sons, husbands and friends impacted by breast cancer.
Tessa is a senior majoring in English.