During those years, Mom watched my brother get married, ate cheese and chocolate with me in Europe, started volunteering at a no-kill animal shelter, read to children with my dad at an inner city school, and planted about a thousand flowers (literally and metaphorically) in her garden and in mine. Many of the things Mom did in those years between diagnosis and death were done with the unspoken knowledge that her time with us, and our time with her, was likely limited.
It is unfortunate but true that it often takes a tragedy to help you clarify what your life is really about. To start looking at the type of person you are, and the type of person you wish to be.
Mom was amazing, but had always been a bit of a nervous person, and spent a lot of time worrying about bad things that might happen, and bad things people might be thinking. She was kind but quiet, loving but low profile.
And then, she got cancer. The bad, fourth-stage, “you only have three months to live,” type of cancer. And that’s when my timid little mommy became a bad-*** cancer fighter.
She had a stem-cell transplant, took round after round of chemo, and endured seemingly endless radiation. She lost her hair, her appetite, and her short term memory. She emerged skinny, bald, and weak, but cancer free. Take that, cancer.
This post-cancer mom was still my mom, but more like Mom3000. All of the tiny wonderful things she always thought, she started saying out loud. And all of the things she had been afraid of seemed to sink into the background.
She complimented rough-looking teenagers on their pink hair and pretty flower tattoos. She lent a hand to single moms who were struggling to get groceries in the car while three wiggly kids were trying to get out. She gave money and time to causes that she supported, and told others to find causes they could support too. She told every single person in her life exactly what they meant to her. And one by one, everyone she touched started to do the same.
We all started to be a little more kind to ourselves and the people around us. We stood up for the disenfranchised people and animals in our communities. We spoke openly about our love and concern for the people in our lives. We started saying “no” to things that took time away from our families and our true selves. We all started to grow into the people my mom knew we were all along.
Cancer does not destroy the spark in our loved ones – it just challenges them (and us) to make it burn more brightly in the time they have left.
Do I wish my mom never had cancer, never got sick, and never died? Absolutely. But I can’t help but wonder if she and the people around her (myself included) would ever have grown in such countless ways without the Cancer Deadline that was always looming in our thoughts.
I have always hated the euphemism that someone “lost their battle with cancer.” My mom touched and changed more lives than I could ever count, in more ways than I will ever know. Cancer only took one of those lives. So, from where I’m standing, it pretty much looks like my mom was stronger than cancer. In the difficult journey we had to travel, Mom gave us each so much more than cancer could ever take away.
My mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, and went through phases of “having cancer” and “not having cancer” in the five years that followed. Technically, she beat cancer quite a few times, and it only beat her once – so I still think she’s the winner in that battle.