“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
I think everyone here feels a connection with that statement. For me, when I read it I immediately thought of my mother.
I was eight years old when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, from the day of diagnosis she was in an aggressive, full on battle with the disease, until August of 2004 when it took her life.
She was sick for what equals now half of my life, the majority of my brother’s. I struggle to remember a time before her diagnosis. What’s even more difficult is to reflect, now that I’m an adult, on what pain, what sickness, what stress and anxiety she and my dad must have felt that I didn’t see. Realizing the magnitude of the situations I lived through as a child has been some of the toughest parts.
It wasn’t that my parents kept the diagnosis or prognosis from us. It’s that we were children. When you’re trying to wrap your brain around multiplication tables, how in the world do you begin to understand a disease such as cancer? How can a parent explain?
Mine chose a seemingly unorthodox way of doing so. They let my brother and I pick the route that was best for us. They didn’t want to use a “One size fits all” type of method for a message so large, so they sat us down, and explained the basics. From there, it was up to us. They would answer any question we had, (separately of course, so the other wasn’t subject to information they weren’t ready for) they told us “Tell us when your brain is full” and as they’d predicted, we were opposite, my brother wanted everything spread on the table right then, whereas I preferred small bits and pieces of information over time. Their method worked. It removed the fear of the unknown, yet gave us a wall should we want to hide. We weren’t forced into anything.
On the day of diagnosis my parents decided that my brother and I would have the most normal childhoods we could possibly have. That’s why it’s difficult for me to answer the question “What was it like living with a mother who had cancer?” I lived with my Mom. She was a wife, a sister, a mother, a friend, a school board president, a medical technologist , a Sunday school teacher, an avid reader, a traveler….she was all these things, and so much more wrapped into one tiny barely over five foot tall package…who just happened to have cancer.
To our family, Cancer made us different, but it never defined us. Why would it? Why would we let an ugly, depressing word be our legacy? Cancer was a fact of life, no more no less.
The disease and treatment quickly became part of our lives. Maybe it was easy to adjust the schedules of my brother and I because we were so young, without social lives or an onslaught of activities; maybe it wasn’t…But I don’t remember a large transitional phase. Treatments were almost like a job. Some days are long and tedious; some days take a whole lot out of you. It was the same with my mom.
I don’t know how much of a struggle it was to ensure that we had a normal childhood, but I can tell you my parents nailed it. I took dance and piano lessons; my brother was active in sports. Despite what was going on in our lives we had dinner together as a family almost every night. We were in church every Sunday.
We celebrated life. When I reflect on that time, it’s the good memories that stand out. When my mom had her bone marrow transplant, my brother and I stayed with our aunt for a while. We thought this was So cool, because she was in charge of summer camps in the area, and since she didn’t have kids, we got a lot more candy and toys than we would at home. During that time each of us had a giant box, which was filled with all sorts of small items, candies, toys, stickers, and each one had a number. Every day our mom was in the hospital we drew an item out; we were counting down the days until she returned home. But rather than longing or waiting, there was a good spin.
In the fall of 1991, I distinctively remember balloons and a banner draped across our front door that read ‘No Mo Chemo!’ There are plenty of photographs with my mom without her wig on during Christmas morning celebrations. That was normal to us. Besides who looks picture perfect in their PJ’s on Christmas Morning anyway?
Things weren’t always easy or upbeat. I still don’t have any recollection of the moment we were told she would die. My memory blocked it out. Towards the end of her life I would get angry she was so weak. Of course I was never angry at Her. I was scared, and so angry at the unfairness of the situation. Why her? When there was so much evil and wrong in the world…why my mother?
She never scolded us for moments like that. She recognized where the emotions stemmed from, and with a combination of wisdom and unconditional love, she let them be. She let us be angry or upset. Because we were right, it wasn’t fair.
But life isn’t fair, is it? You’re dealt a certain set of cards and it’s up to you to play the very best you can.
In this world time isn’t guaranteed to anyone. My parents begrudgingly stared that cold hard fact of life down, and decided that while they couldn’t make or extend time, they could fill it. They lived full, and loved hard in the time that they had. Cancer wasn’t going to be a restriction.
My parents traveled to Germany, Italy, France, England, and Hawaii…all trips were made after a liver oblation in the late 90s.
As a family we traveled together, we watched plays and went to museums.
My parents made sure my brother and I knew important life lessons. We were instructed on how to dine at fancy restaurants, social graces like writing thank-you notes, and the importance of giving back to charity.
Maybe my parents tried to pack our young lives as rich and filled as it possibly could be, because the future was undetermined. If that’s the case I didn’t notice, I just knew my life was full.
And when you live in a home where (even unbeknownst to you) minutes, and days count…there was never a single second my brother and I didn’t feel loved or supported.
I am so flattered, and honored to be here today, but truth be told I wish I were sitting in another seat.
I wish I were among the audience, and that my mother were here, to share her own story of survival…to personally relay her message of strength, and courage, and embracing life.
I know in my case….being a survivor means I have had to learn to live without my mother.
There have been times where words cannot even begin to describe the pain and difficulty, but we move forward.
And instead of survive, I choose the word Flourish.
My family and I…haven’t just gotten by. We have grown, we have embraced life, and rejoiced in the world we knew…and that is all thanks to the example we saw first hand.
Cancer is a rotten, terrible, scary disease. It can dictate how much time is spent in the hospital, or away from one’s family, it can make a person feel horrible, it can even claim a person’s life. I know this firsthand.
But I also know….how limited it is. Cancer cannot keep you from laughing. Cancer cannot dictate how to raise your children, or block love, it cannot destroy friendships, it cannot steal your joy.
No matter what cancer does to you – you can flourish.