I’ve known her since the day I was born, I call her Mom. I’ve gotten to know her favorite foods, colors, songs, and hobbies. I know that my mother loves taking pictures of our family and keeping perfectly chronicled photo albums of every year of our lives. I know that she loves when the vacuum leaves perfect lines in the living room carpet. I know that she loves to host holiday dinners. I know that she loves collecting shells, sand, and sea glass. I’d known all of these facts about my mother, but it wasn’t until years later when I really met her, that I would understand her real feelings, thoughts, fears, and hopes.
There are few words in life that are so cringe-inducing, we must whisper them. Cancer is one of these words. It is a filthy, scary, and angry word.
When I was 16 years old, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. I could not understand how something this horrible could happen to our perfect little nuclear family. My mother, father, brother, and I were kind and caring people. This kind of thing does not happen to “people like us,” or so I thought.
I was too young to drive, so a friend dropped me off at my house at the end of the school day, like she did every day. That day would be different. I am not happy with the way I found out that my mother had cancer, and I am not proud of the way I decided to handle the news. With no warning signs that my mother was even sick, I walked into an empty house. My family had always left notes on our kitchen counter, our way of communicating prior to cell phones and text messages. Usually our notes would read “went to the grocery store, be back soon,” or more times than I’d like, they would contain a bulleted list from my father of chores I had to accomplish by the end of the day.
The note I would find on the counter that day was something I never expected. For years I saved the note, hidden at the bottom of my sock drawer, and I would read it over and over again to be reminded that it actually happened. The note began “The doctors found a tumor in my brain…” I think that’s when I blacked out because I don’t remember much more of that afternoon. I sat by myself in my living room, waiting for my younger brother to get home from school. I’m not sure who told him the news, but he knew when he got home. I never asked.
When my mother and father got home from the doctor, we didn’t talk about the note, or the cancer. My mother asked if I had any questions, and I said no, and ignored her for the rest of the night. I can only imagine this was my coping mechanism. If I ignored the issue, then it didn’t exist. But it did.
My mother was almost immediately admitted into the hospital. She was about to undergo brain surgery, and the outcome of survival was slim, at best. The doctors told us they would need to cut a large portion of her skull off and try to remove as much of the tumor as possible, while attempting not to affect her brain function. I don’t think anyone that has not been in this situation can really understand what it’s like to say goodbye to your mom not knowing if this will be the last time you will ever talk to her. I remember leaving her in that hospital room like it was yesterday. I remember what she smelled like, looked like, even what color her hospital gown was. I remember it all.
I went to school that day. She made me. She wanted my brother and I to have a normal day. This was her motherly instinct, she was protecting us. School would be a distraction for two kids who were just thrown a lot of emotions to deal with. I watched the clock the entire time I knew her surgery was to take place. I was sitting in an Art class, just staring at the clock.
The moment my father called my cell phone to tell me she was alive, was and will forever be, the best moment I will ever experience in my entire life.
My mother’s recovery was something that taught my family the importance of patience. My mother could not be left alone, so we took turns staying with her through her recovery. Some of her memory needed to be rebuilt, so we would quiz her; asking her to name friends of ours, actors, movies, shapes, colors, foods, you name it.
She would undergo radiation and chemotherapy. She told us that all food tasted like topsoil because of her treatment. She lost a tremendous amount of weight, and getting to know my mom with half of her head shaved became the new normal. She had to be rushed to the hospital for blood transfusions on several occasions because her blood cell count was too low.
My mother would later share with me how she knew that something was wrong before her official diagnosis. One night over the summer she had finished making dinner and asked my father to call me to the kitchen to wash up, but she could not remember my name.
I could talk for hours about the hardships and struggles that came along with my mother’s diagnosis. How sick she felt, how painful this was for her, and how much she struggled, but I won’t. Because through everything, through all of the garbage that cancer drags through the mud and walks all over you with, she never stopped smiling. Not once. Friends and relatives would talk to her about her treatment, offering their condolences, and she would just say “…but I’m alive!” and smile. With zero hesitation, I am proud to say that my mother is the most optimistic person I have ever met. In my mother’s world, there is no such thing as a glass half empty, and as her mother would tell us many, many times, “when your mom was a little girl, she would always ask to have her glass filled up ‘to the waist.’” To this day, my mother lives well above a ‘to the waist’ world…she lives in a ‘to the top’ world. She has taken a disease that could have torn her down, and instead used it to build her up. The type of person she has grown into in the years following her diagnosis is nothing short of inspiring.
Cancer has made each member of our family stronger. It has made our small, average, four person unit a solid, grateful, and forever connected family. I no longer take things for granted and have a newfound respect for life. I know it sounds strange, but this has been a blessing, to say the least. When I have a stressful day, I take a moment and realize that things could be so much worse. I may not have a lot of money, and I may be so completely exhausted by the end of each day, but I am so incredibly grateful that I get the chance to wake up every morning alive and healthy. I am undyingly grateful for my family, friends, and opportunities I’ve been given. When I have a bad day, I sit back, take a moment, and think “if my mother can get through brain cancer, you can get through today”. And because of cancer, a word so horrible and painful, I got to finally meet my mother.
Sara lives and works in New York City. She loves lobster rolls and Law and Order SVU marathons. Her life goals include: maintaining a savings account, living in an apartment with a washer and dryer, and never having to pay more than $45 for blonde highlights. She has one child; a pug named Roxy.