The only thing I could say was "Sorry," and the only thing I could feel was guilt. All I really thought I should do was get married and have babies before she died.Those were my first reactions, aside from the numbing sensation in my body, when the doctor said he was sorry to tell us that my mother, 49, had breast cancer. I'll never forget her first words after being told she'd have to undergo chemotherapy: "My hair," she said. She'd just started to grow it long for the first time in 30 years.
For the most part I have kept my tears locked away for fear that if I start to cry I won't be able to stop, but on this day I cried for my mother. I cried hard. I cried because my hair was long. I cut off my hair, but sometimes I still want to cry, even though my mother has a beautiful head -- round, with no scars or birthmarks.
People tell her, "You have a beautiful head." And my mother says, "I know." She's a funny lady, my mother, equipped with spontaneity and a European-bred spunk some people don't understand, so they call it a "temper."
When I was seven, I told her about a boy at school who made fun of me. Looking back now, I think he liked me, but my mother didn't like it that he made me cry. One day she came to school and yelled at him. She told him that if he ever made me upset again she'd come back for him.
I think that's against the law or something, but my mother didn't care. She loved me and protected me, and even though we laugh about it now, sometimes I can't help but think about a time when her spunk won't be around. That's where my anger comes from -- thinking about a time when she may not be here. It's just enough reality to make you crazy.
Cancer spreads into your life as it does through the body, seeping into the most vital areas of your existence, leaving you thinking about it for days and nights on end. It can cripple your ability, your need, to feel good about living at all.
I used to live there, inside my mother, and I used to drink from her breasts, the very ones that may take her away from me now. Watching her body change and break down is like seeing the place you came from under attack. Suddenly, your whole life is cruelly and abruptly put into cold perspective.
I can only guess how my mother must feel while it feeds on her tissue, devouring her health, completely disregarding the fact that my sister and I still need her. But cancer has no feelings. It doesn't care about the time you wasted fighting and not loving your mother at all.
Before cancer, I didn't like my mother. She knows this, and it hurts her.
It hurts me even more to regret the time we've spent on senseless arguing. It hurts to think that maybe, if only we'd gotten along before, she wouldn't have had to become sick in order to bring our small family closer together. I try not to let the thought consume me, but sometimes my mind wanders, and that's OK, too, because I've also learned that I can't be "strong" all the time.
I've learned a few things I wish I'd been told when this all started eight months ago. I want to share them, because this may be your mother someday. If I don't tell you what I know, then this has truly happened to my family for no reason, and I refuse to believe that.
Mothers are human. They're emotional, sexual, beautiful. They, too, were young once. This occurred to me as I lay one night in my mother's bed watching her sleep because she doesn't like to be alone any more. That night she lay in a fetal position, her head bald, dark circles under her eyes, unconsciously revealing her vulnerability to me. That was hard to learn.
I've also had to accept that this disease is a necessary part of my mother's journey in this lifetime. I've had to learn, too, that life with cancer becomes a battle in which you're constantly distinguishing between what's worth spending time on and what's not. "Fuck it" becomes a daily motto when you're sifting through excess garbage that people around you can't seem to let go of. Some people aren't ready for this lesson. Don't try to throw it at them before they are. I did, and forfeited some relationships because of it.
From the moment my mother was diagnosed, a very large, loud and scary clock has been ticking in my head and in my thoughts. I've become accustomed to having this clock with me wherever I go. It reminds me that time is running out. Through all this, though, there is hope. All I know is that eight months ago I would never have watched my mother sleep or even have lain beside her long enough to care.
Today I understand that in its own cruel way, cancer has also been a blessing. And, if you're willing to notice, it can bring so much more than it can take away. I love you, Mom.