My mom became my best friend as I became an adult. When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010, I was so scared for her and, honestly, for me. Shortly after her diagnosis, she had surgery to remove a football-sized tumor, and during surgery she suffered several strokes. That meant that not only did she have to battle the angry monster of cancer, she had to fight to regain mental and physical abilities because of the strokes.
We learned that the human body is a miraculous instrument, and it’s ability to heal and repair is a work of wonder. My mom recovered from major surgery, strokes, and setbacks like pneumonia. With the help of chemotherapy and the care of her doctors, she was able to spend a pretty good bit of time with the people who were her world–us. She loved us so much that she fought tooth and nail for every extra day, extra minute she could spend with us.
Going back to that time for me is a challenge. As I write this, I am sitting outside my son’s basketball practice, looking like a fool with tears dripping down my face. I have to tell you, I am so grateful for these tears because they mean that I loved and I was loved. There is no greater blessing than to appreciate the gift of love and life.
One year after my mom’s initial diagnosis, surgery, and chemo, the cancer returned. Her doctor came up with a new cocktail of medication and she bravely started another round of chemotherapy. This round allowed her hair to grow back, and she was very thankful for that. My sister, my mom, my dad and I went to her doctor to learn the results of the CAT scan that would show us if the chemotherapy worked. My mom was feeling very sick with flu-like symptoms and she had little energy. When the doctor pronounced that the treatment had worked and the cancer was gone, she looked at us with despair instead of celebration.
Little did we know in that moment that everything was about to change. The next day my mom was on life support because her organs were shutting down. It was like an episode of the television show House–the doctors could not determine the exact cause, and treated the symptoms as best as they could. Finally, after about a week in ICU on a ventilator and a wondrous contraption called a RotaBed, the doctors figured out that her intestine had burst and was leaking into her abdomen. This was a possible side effect of one of the medications she took during her second round of chemotherapy.
We said good-bye to mom about five times before she was finally taken into surgery–she had been bumped several times due to gunshot and stabbing victims coming into the emergency room. We were not sure if she would come out of surgery, but she was not about to give in that easily. She survived the surgery and came out with two colostomy bags, one on each side. They were supposed to be temporary, but that ended up not being the case.
After five weeks in the hospital, my mom was able to go home and spend the holidays with our family. Another blessing. I have a beautiful picture of my youngest son next to my mom on Christmas Day. You can easily see how sick she was, but the smile on their faces and the love they share is so evident. My mom tried another round of chemo, but after one dose, we all realized that her body could not take any more strong medicine. You see, the medicine doesn’t necessarily discriminate, sometimes the good cells are killed right along with the cancer cells. However, being the fighter that she was, she had to give it another try.
Without the medicine to combat that nasty cancer, it started growing again. I actually saw the cancer as it grew out of her colostomy during those weeks. I had the privilege to care for her frequently as I drove the two hours between my house and her house at least weekly. During those drives I was able to practice being thankful. I remember one drive when it was raining very hard the whole way, and it was near the end of my mom’s life. I was trying to be with her as much as possible, to help my dad, sister and brother as much as possible, while trying to be a mom and wife to my family, and trying to be a principal of a school. That was hard. On this drive, instead of drowning in my sorrows, I was thinking about how lucky I was to be alive during a period of time when we have cars. I pictured how much harder the drive would have been with a horse and wagon. Then I settled into my drive, all nice and cozy with my heated seat and modern conveniences like a windshield to block out the rain.
During the last week of my mom’s life, as the cancer was taking over, I would hold her hand and ask her questions, hoping that she would share some of her wisdom with me so I would have those pearls to hold on to as I faced a world without her. After the strokes, she was never quite herself again, and those pearls of wisdom were more like, “I am surprised that your marriage has made it.” Not exactly what I was looking for, but my dad, brother, sister and I laughed and appreciated whatever we got.
My mom passed away on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, and it was about eighty degrees that day, which is so strange for March in Michigan. The windows were open, and she was laying in her hospital bed in the living room, bathed in sunlight. Her wind chime, a gift from her brother and sister-in-law during her illness, was twinkling outside the window. Two nights before, she had asked me, “Do I really have to go?” I responded with a tearful yes, because we needed to let her go. The day she died, I was with her, as was my dad, sister, and brother. My mom’s dad and siblings were also there. We carried on as my mom taught us–we cried, we were angry, we were scared and sad, but those were moments. Our story was and is one of laughter, love, and gratitude.
I am wiping my tears as my son’s basketball practice comes to an end. I pray that my two sons and my husband feel my love and my presence in their lives as much my dad, my siblings and I felt my mom’s. Her passing left a huge hole in my life that I have slowly filled with the love of others. She is a piece of me that I am so proud of and she is always with me, in my heart and a voice in my head.
The lessons I learned through my mom’s illness and death are a gift beyond compare, it taught me empathy, gratitude, and what love really is–a blessing that transcends this life. Revisiting the journey is a reminder of those lessons. It taught me that nothing is so bad that we cannot face it with gratitude and dignity, keeping the needs of others at the forefront of all we do. It also taught me that there are always things to celebrate, even if you have to stretch a bit to search for them. I would be remiss if I did not mention what a wonderful job my dad did caring for my mom during those two years of ups and downs. He modeled a dedication that I had never seen before.
Everyone has their own story, everyone has experienced their own sorrows and difficult times. I share my story to challenge us all, including me, to empathize and understand each other and to search for things to celebrate, even when it seems nearly impossible.