In early July, when most people were preparing for Independence Day celebrations, my mother was coming out of surgery with one less physical piece of her womanhood. I remember wondering how she would she feel without the small cavity that held me for nine months. It’s a bit strange to think of that part of her—the bowl from which life plucked three girls—being gone, given it’s the place in which I began.
It was all very fast and surreal. In the span of five weeks, she became symptomatic, went to a doctor, endured a few procedures, learned she had cancer, underwent a hysterectomy, hobbled home with stitches across her stomach, and only days later, on a Monday afternoon, answered a phone call from her surgeon saying they got it all, pathology came back clear, caught it nice and early, no need for follow up treatment, have a great evening. I watched my mother receive this news in the brightly sunlit back room of Stoneyway and then cry softly, for the first time, in all those weeks.
I couldn’t hug her because of the stitches and bruising, so I sat on the hardwood floor beside her legs, holding her cold hand, thanking a god I don’t usually believe in.
The afternoon my mother came home from the hospital, I had just driven in from Massachusetts, with my cat and my niece in tow, because my sister and brother in law were traveling across Italy for 10 days. My mother arrived wearing red lipstick—she “can’t think without it”—and her short grey hair spiked, and if it weren’t for the extra heaviness around her middle and the purpling beneath her eyes, she looked the same. We cushioned a rod-iron chair with pillows and placed her in the late-day sun. My nephews chased each other across the lawn, screeching and laughing. My father disappeared into the house. Grace and I painted my mother’s nails, none of us commenting on the bandages from the IVs.
Later, it took my father and me 15 minutes to help my mother get up the staircase, and later still, I had to pull the shirt over her head and draw her pants down and hold her hand as she stepped into the shower. I tucked the covers around her swollen belly, apologizing profusely each time she flinched in discomfort. I worried at her pain. That first night I stared for hours at the beams in the ceiling, terrified, and confused as to why I, the youngest, the childless, the baby of the family, was charged with this massive responsibility of caring for a four year old and a cancer survivor and a withdrawn father and a heart-tattered self. How could I do it?
The next day, I tried to make my mother’s morning protein shake just as she liked it, with all the right measurements. I shuffled nervously around the kitchen, burning Grace’s toast and spilling my cup of coffee. All I could think was how clumsy and out of place I was in the one place I have always felt safest and closest to my mother. At lunchtime, I couldn’t figure out how to light the new stove; I fretted at over-cooking the broccoli. I berated myself silently for not knowing how to make a simple soup that my mother could get down and digest easily.
The days passed slowly, each one spent organizing activities and outings for Grace, helping my mother up and down the stairs and in and out of chairs. I made meals, ran errands, tidied, drew baths and rubbed my mother’s back, ignored the rest of the world by receding into the deep trenches of Pennsylvania, of my family, and drove here, there, and everywhere across the Cumberland Valley in search of distraction, of anything to fill even just a few empty minutes of the day so that I didn’t have a moment to process how bizarre and alone I felt.
Cancer is a strange thing—in all its scariness, it brings out the greatest hope, too. Because you don’t survive on pessimism, on giving up; you get through the days by leaning on a rock-solid belief in the good and in what’s present. Because you know that’s ultimately all you have, regardless of the outcomes.
Each night, with Grace star-fished across most of the narrow bed and my 20-pound cat sprawled along the other half, I laid like a corpse between their warmth and deep breaths and waited for dawn. I promised myself, during those sleepless stretches, that I would keep starting the days full of love, energy, compassion, and care for my parents, Grace, my far-away sisters. No matter how I felt, I would play my mother: brave, relentless, focused, strong. I would give, and give more—I would give all of my self if I had to, to keep us moving along together.
Practicing selflessness teaches you a thing or two. When you stop focusing so much on the “me” and extend energies to others, the most incredible result happens: the “me” in you feels better, fuller, happier.
It’s a balance, of course, but I’ve learned that it becomes a lot easier to see how much you actually have, how deep your reserves truly are, when you’re actively giving to the people and world around you—even when, perhaps especially when, you think you’re incapable, when you think you’re empty.
We made it through the eight days, the whole motley crew of us, and I drove back to Massachusetts with a raging fever, a weary toddler, and an overflowing inbox at work.
After Grace and I picked my sister and brother in law up at the airport, and after they dropped me off at home, I left my bags sitting by my front door, filled up my cat’s food and water bowls, crawled beneath my covers, and literally did not come out for two days.
My mother was okay. Grace was okay. My family was all accounted for and alright.
I had spent every last ounce of my self. And right then, there was nothing left.
I have thought of that week in Pennsylvania and the dozens of emotions tied to it many, many times this year. When I’ve reflected, I’ve felt pride and relief. I’ve felt rage, fear. I’ve even felt silly, because what I did was not some great feat in the grand scheme of things. I’ve felt a soul-shuddering sadness, coupled with a quiet joy. I have thought a lot about my dear friends who have lost or are losing their parents to this terrible disease.
Mostly, though, I have thought about my mother.
Since her surgery—really, since March of 2014—my mother has lost more than 100 pounds. “A whole person,” she jokingly says.
When people hear this, they want to know how or what’s her magic trick, and I want to laugh, because my mother’s weight loss is the result of, well, my mother. When she chooses to devote herself to something, there is no stopping her. She throws in all of her focus, hard work, diligence, and insatiable need to master what’s at hand. I have watched it many times now, with knitting, painting, cooking, refinishing an entire 1780s farmhouse, sewing, landscaping, gardening, child-rearing, friendship.
My mother has always demonstrated that if you truly want and believe in something, you must buckle down, bite down, learn everything you can, try your damnedest, and—here’s the important part—don’t give up, regardless of any stumbles along the way. She is one of the most loyal and steadfast women I know. She is achingly, astonishingly true to who she is. And she tries—she might be scared, but she always tries anyway.
During Thanksgiving, we got to talking about her cancer one morning. It was hard but good to talk about, because it’s real. That happened. My mother had a piece of her cut out and won’t ever be the same as she was before. And in the days that followed, I became what my mother has always been for me: solid, unflappable, reassuring, patient but persistent, loving, supportive, and above all, strong for everyone around me. I gathered them, my family, into my arms, and I carried us forward in the way my mother taught her girls—with humor, good sense, determination, and an endless supply of hugs, kisses, and laughter. And I won’t ever be the same because of that either.
When my grandmother died, I remember my mother saying how she’d lost her greatest cheerleader. But she didn’t. Because now, my sisters and I are like an entire bandstand section sitting on the bleachers lining my mother’s life. We can’t stop complimenting her, praising her, helping her buy new clothes (rather, a whole new wardrobe), posting pictures, telling our friends, clapping at how beautiful she looks when she walks down the stairs, marveling at her thinning frame, her high cheekbones, her small shoulders, her narrowing hips.
During the Christmas holiday, I watched her practice vinyasa yoga beside me and listened to her strong, even breath more than to the teachers instructions.
When I hug her, she fits entirely within my tight embrace.
My mother, in her mid-60s, is happy, glowing, proud of herself, present, aware.
And all I can think is how, now, I can be her loudest cheerleader, her greatest fan.
At this turn of the year, how fitting, how right it is, that my mother is beginning 2015 as both a survivor and a woman who is embracing each day as a new opportunity to try, to practice healthy habits physically and emotionally, and to honor the distance covered but to keep making fresh goals to achieve. She’s still giving herself to us, her family, but in entirely new ways. She’s reminding me, her youngest daughter, how blessed I am.
Mostly, though, my mother is teaching me one, invaluable lesson:
The only thing that’s real and that matters is what’s happening right now, right here.
The love inside of me? Spend it, all of it, daily, on whoever needs it most. The energy inside of me? Put it to good and productive use morning, noon, and night, at work or in friendships or on my yoga mat or in the saddle. The hope inside of me? Spread it; share it. The broken, bankrupt heart I dragged into 2014? She’s fully rebuilt, with freshly stocked reserves, because it’s not the cracks from back then that matter at all—it’s what I filled and continue to refill myself with that counts, that enables me to love completely again.
Because at day’s end, what and who you hold close and dear isn’t your past or your future, neither of which you have any control over anyway.
It’s your right now. Here. This.
And that’s better than surviving. That’s living.
“And we can’t take back what is done, what is past / So fellers, lay down your fears / ‘Cause we can’t take back what is done, what is past / So let us start from here.” — Damien Rice, “Trusty and True”